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Joe Lake: Neighborhood 'Gadfly, Agitator, Crusader'

By Alisa Hauser | March 18, 2013 11:41am

BUCKTOWN —  A politician who "blocked" a gadfly from his Facebook page once introduced the agitator with, "This is Joe Lake. You never want to make him mad."

The year was 2005 and the introduction was made at a zoning meeting in a Bucktown community group in which Lake was a board member.

Today, the 76-year-old who says he's been called a "gadfly, agitator, crusader," resides in a studio apartment in Ravenswood where he uses a donated Mac computer to interact with 4,923 Facebook friends and manage 50 open groups.

A one-man-aggregation machine, Lake posts hundreds of links weekly to Facebook groups such as the Chicago's 50 Ward Connection, Wicker Park Committee and 32nd Ward Connection.

"Things in Chicago are done in secret. I hate secrecy. There's a lack of of transparency and I love transparency," Lake said.

Lake's stream of information from dozens of big and small media outlets can be overwhelming to some, beneficial to others.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he checks in on Lake's postings "as much as possible" throughout the day.

"Some people think that a flood of information is annoying... But I see it as a technology advancement. In my job it's very relevant and helpful to have," Waguespack said.

Though Lake moved from Bucktown two years ago when his landlord passed away, he returns to the area about once monthly, usually to dine at his favorite restaurant, Club Lucky at 1824 W. Wabansia St.

During a recent interview at Club Lucky, Lake claimed to spend just two hours daily on Facebook.

Waguespack, joining Lake for lunch, interjected, "I see you start... at 7 a.m."

Waguespack said he talks with Lake by phone on a weekly basis, sometimes multiple times daily, and credits Lake for engaging a lot of people. 

The alderman says he's learned a lot from Lake, though Lake said of Waguespack: "He's king of the ward, I am a nobody."

Lake, who has backed Waguespack in the past two aldermanic elections and committeeman race, claims to be "running out of corruption" in the 32nd ward and has been focusing on other wards, "as hobbies."

A staffer for Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) declined to comment on Lake, as did the current president of the Bucktown Community Organization and Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey. Lake claims Fritchey and Moreno have "blocked" him on Facebook.

Long before becoming active in neighborhood groups, Lake previously worked as a city planner in Fairfax County, Md., he said. He helped expose a pay-to-play zoning bribery scandal in the 1960s in Maryland, he said, that resulted in the conviction of 15 developers and county officials.

Craig Norris, treasurer of the Wicker Park Committee, said he recruited Lake to join the neighborhood group in 2005 because he was looking for knowledgeable and independent people. 

Norris said Lake helped spur a new policy for the organization when Lake complained that an architect on a subcommittee of the neighborhood group had a conflict of interest.

Both Norris and Lake were instrumental in helping Waguespack to get elected as alderman in 2006, beating out incumbent Ted Matlak who'd accepted money from developers in a pay-to-play corruption that sparked a Tribune investigative series, Norris said.

Getting the word out was harder back then, too, according to Norris.

"Before Facebook era it was tedious. We would get articles and scan them and Joe [Lake] would e-mail around. But the Internet and the new forums opened it up 100 times," Norris said.

Jim Higgins, owner of Club Lucky, remember when Lake's email account was hacked about five years ago by an individual posing as Lake who said he was in Great Britain and needed money.

Higgins, one of over 1,200 local residents and business owners on Lake's email list, said he marched over to Lake's apartment to see if he was okay and was going to offer to give him money.

"I was worried," Higgins said.