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Activist Tom Tresser Opens CivicLab, A Street-Level Think Tank in West Loop

By Paul Biasco | July 12, 2013 7:10am
 Tom Tresser, who lead the fight against the 2016 Chicago Olympics and most recently ran for Cook County Board President, just opened The Civic Lab, a hub for social change and civic tool making.
The Civic Lab
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WEST LOOP — A newly opened West Loop storefront named the CivicLab hopes to be as revolutionary for social change as 3-D printers have been for manufacturing.

"Our raw materials, instead of plastics, are the people that are here," said Benjamin Sugar, a 33-year-old co-owner of the CivicLab space, a pet project of longtime activist Tom Tresser.

The idea of opening a place for a civic-minded, street-level think tank has been on Lincoln Park resident Tresser's mind for 15 years.

On July 1, he realized that dream when he opened the CivicLab at 114 N. Aberdeen St.

"Consider this like a discovery center for civics," said Tresser.

The "lab" is a sort of open forum for thinkers and doers, Tresser said, and by the end of the summer it will begin hosting classes to empower citizens.

 This map, created by The Civic Lab, depicts red dots showing schools that are being closed and green dots indicating entities that receieved money from TIF funds.
This map, created by The Civic Lab, depicts red dots showing schools that are being closed and green dots indicating entities that receieved money from TIF funds.
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The Civic Lab

Think "TIF 101," "How to read a budget," "Using technology for social change," "How to get on the ballot" and even "How to start a community garden."

Tresser might even bring in the CivicLab's next-door-neighbor Dan Salls, owner of The Salsa Truck and The Garage, to teach a class on how to get a food truck license from the city.

"I've always thought that in the world of social change people are running around and often do these projects by themselves and we tend to reinvent the wheel over and over again," Tresser said. "We tend to be a little root-less without a place to be."

The space, which was originally built as a fire station in the 1870s and was most recently a plant shop, is airy. Tresser hopes ideas flow.

Monthly desk space in the CivicLab is available for $200 a month, similar to the setup at Chicago's tech incubator 1871. A "floating space" at a temporary desk can be rented for $100 a month.

The group Chicago Votes is already renting desk space for a political training program for college students.

"We want people who know how to use DIY technology, people who are community organizers, people who know how to use sewing machines, scholars, researchers, all those people," Sugar said.

Tresser, a 61-year-old activist who teaches as a number of Chicago universities, has assembled a team of data scientists, designers and programmers to help the public win the fight for the common good.

The CivicLab is their new home base, but the group has already spent a year poring over hard-to-obtain data on Chicago's tax increment financing and has gone ward-to-ward explaining how tax dollars are spent in individual neighborhoods.

The TIF Illumination Project launched its crusade at the perfect time, according to Tresser — amid turmoil surround Chicago Public Schools' announcement that it needed to close 50 schools.

Parent groups rallying against CPS budget cuts such as Raise Your Hand have also taken aim at the city's TIF Funding, and the CivicLab is now supplying them with ammo in the form of maps and datasheets combining TIF information with school closing data.

"People are trying to get smart on civic finance in response to the closings," Tresser said. "How as a parent are you going to argue against your alderman and your mayor when he says we’ve got no money? You as a parent have to get smart and learn where do they get the money around here."

Tresser is a veteran in the fight against the Chicago machine.

He was the founder of "No Games Chicago," notably leading the charge all the way to Switzerland against the 2016 Chicago Olympic bid.

He took the city to court in 2008 over a deal that would have essentially given Latin School dibs on a $2 million turf field in Lincoln Park.

And, before launching the CivicLab, Tresser unsuccessfully ran for Cook County Board president in 2010.

"I call myself a public defender," he said. "Democracy is not a spectator sport. You need to get up off your couch and participate fully and to do that you need some good information."