SOUTH SHORE — Chicago’s lakefront harbors in the ‘80s were littered with bribes, kickbacks and special favors, and it was a Hyde Parker who left that money on the table when he tried to clean up the harbors.
Robert Nelson was the Chicago Park District’s “harbor boss” from 1987-93, and he’s now revealed the absurd lengths people went to in an effort to secure a spot for their boat on Chicago’s lakefront in his book “Dirty Waters: Confessions of Chicago’s Last Harbor Boss.”
He will be at the Seminary Cooperative Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., at 6 p.m. Wednesday to confess what he saw in what he described as one of the city’s most corrupt departments.
When Nelson took over the job in 1987, the lakefront was not the shining jewel it is today.
“The lakefront was totally different,” Nelson said in an interview this week at his home in the Jackson Park Highlands. “There was barbed wire around every harbor.”
He said the Shedd Aquarium would run its sprinklers all night to keep people from tagging the marble facade, and gangs had colonized the parking lots around the Adler Planetarium.
When Nelson first walked into his new office in ’87, the door was still smashed in from a raid by FBI agents trying to file charges against his predecessor, Gerald Pfeiffer, the fifth consecutive director of harbors to be indicted.
“Pfeiffer had used his clout to get appointed a deputy sheriff — a common perk for pols, one that allowed them to carry a gun and make arrests,” Nelson writes in his book. “With a .357 magnum on his hip, he often made surprise visits to the harbors looking for harbor rule violators to intimidate and punish.”
Nelson had sold boats into Montrose and Belmont harbors for 12 years before becoming harbor boss. He said he knew going in that the rule for boaters had been that payments started with the fee to the Chicago Park District for a slip.
“Once you got the slip, it didn’t mean you got it renewed,” Nelson said. “It meant the harbor master was making monthly rounds with a paper bag.”
He said he estimated that under his predecessor, a slip cost $1,000 a year on the books with an additional $10,000 paid out in bribes, which he described as a pittance for the high-level politicians, businessmen and organized crime figures who used the harbors.
“They didn’t care, they had the money — they were movers and shakers,” Nelson said.
The former chaplain is hardly the person one would expect to take on those entrenched interests. He carried the air of a seminarian with large glasses perched over a well-trimmed graying beard. His size is the kind that intimidates those who don’t like being hugged more than those looking for a fight.
He fit in well in Hyde Park, but seemed out of place as a bureaucrat, particularly because he lacked even the South Side political pedigree that was then in power under Mayor Harold Washington.
“I didn’t have any clout. I didn’t even meet Harold Washington until after I got the job,” Nelson said.
Nelson was hired — bizarrely for Chicago at the time — because he knew he could do it and he pestered Chicago Park District Executive Vice President Jesse Madison until he got an interview.
He said Madison was not won over by his stories of cleaning up Court Theater at the University of Chicago, which was mired in scandal after the director was caught skimming money from ticket sales. Instead, Nelson said Madison liked that he had the right civil rights credentials from working with famed Chicago labor organizer Saul Alinsky while in seminary in Rochester, N.Y.
When Madison let Nelson in through that busted door to become harbor boss, Nelson started rewriting the rules, literally. He rewrote the harbor rules to ban bribes, which had never been explicitly outlawed before.
He said that didn’t stop boaters from trying to play by the old rules.
“Boaters are liars, they’ll do anything to get what they want — they’re successful people,” Nelson said. “First, they call their elected officials, and they called me.”
He said U.S. Rep. Charles Hayes called him trying to get a slip for a supporter and aides from Gov. Jim Thompson’s office also tried.
Nelson writes that Ald. George Hagopian went ballistic after being told a supporter would have to wait two years for a slip.
“You goddamned son of a b----,” Nelson writes Hagopian said on the phone. “I know how you got your job, and I’m telling you now I won’t rest until you’re out of there, mother------.”
He was offered jobs for family members, cars, piles of cash and a couple weeks in a penthouse condominium in Acapulco, Mexico, including a companion.
“The guys who would put $100 on the counter were the wise guys — not mob, just not very smart,” Nelson said.
He said he rejected all of them and would casually mention the FBI was still snooping around whenever things got too tense.
Nelson said he went with transparency to win over the boaters. He posted the list of when slips would be available on the front counter and put the master file in the treasurer’s office so neither he nor anyone else could tamper with it.
He both literally cleaned up the filthy harbors and metaphorically. He said he had nothing to do with it, but police shut down a boat the mob was using as a brothel early in his tenure.
After his first year, he was promoted to special services superintendent and put in charge of pretty much everything on the lakefront that wasn't the museums or Soldier Field.
And then as suddenly as he was in, he was out.
Nelson said in 1993, late in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first term, he got a letter saying he was done at the Park District. Shortly after, the city started discussions to privatize the operation of the harbors.
Nelson moved on. He worked in harbors in Hammond, Ind., and elsewhere before retiring to South Shore.
He said it’s a different political world now in Chicago and patronage means a lot less.
“That doesn’t happen now. People are all swayed by the media and all the jobs are gone,” Nelson said.
He credits Washington with changing the culture of Chicago and allowing the city to finally clean up its act.
For bureaucrats today, he advised they enshrine transparency and keep an eye out for the lifers in every department who have weathered enough political storms to have some immunity from political struggles and have the luxury to focus on doing the job right.
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