BUCKTOWN — There was no instance of corruption too small to bother Joe Lake.
One time, before a public meeting, Lake learned a community group’s treasurer had moved out of the neighborhood, thus making him ineligible for his board position. Lake asked the man — in a room full of people — where he lived.
The man told Lake he had a post office box in the neighborhood, longtime Wicker Parker and OurUrbanTimes reporter Elaine Coorens recalled in an email.
To which Lake replied, “Do you live in the post office box?”
The room erupted in laughter, Coorens said.
“Joe’s passion for truth and justice is a great example of being involved in the community,” she said. “He will be missed.”
Lake died April 9 at The Pearl, a nursing home in suburban Rolling Meadows. He was 84. Melissa Gallagher, Lake’s daughter, said she’s enjoyed hearing of all the ways in which her father shaped the culture of the Bucktown neighborhood.
“It’s funny; I laugh because I see my dad as my dad, but I forget that he had this whole different world of friends,” she said.
A beloved neighbor, Lake lived in Bucktown 1998-2014. During these years he frequented neighborhood association meetings, opposed Chicago corruption large and small, cheered local news reporters and shaped aldermanic policy.
Several neighbors shared stories with Block Club about how Lake influenced their lives and their outlook on community issues. An avid news consumer and social media user, Lake had 5,000 Facebook friends — a fact that still amazes his daughter.
“He did a lot of things for the community. In a short amount of time, too,” Gallagher said. “Living down there and getting so involved in the neighborhood and making so many friends so quickly.”
A ‘Second Life’ In Bucktown
Lake grew up in Midland, Michigan. After studying civil engineering at Michigan State University, he earned his graduate degree in city planning from the University of Michigan. He married his wife, Jacqueline Worthley, at The Drake Hotel in Chicago in 1961.
A civil engineer with a passion for justice, Lake worked on anti-corruption cases in Maryland during the 1960s. In 1973, the Lake family relocated to Chicago to be closer to Lake’s mother-in-law.
The Lakes initially lived in an apartment near Water Tower Place in Streeterville. Joe Lake loved Chicago, Gallagher said.
“He loved the people, the hard-working nature to Chicagoans,” she said. “How every neighborhood has its own feel, has its own challenge. My dad was always thinking of those things, too: ‘Why aren’t they improving this community?’”
The family eventually moved to the suburbs, where Gallagher spent the majority of her childhood. At the end of 1997, the family’s world was rocked when Jacqueline died suddenly after a brief illness.
Her father was 60 at the time, Gallagher said.
“We didn’t know exactly what the plan was, after losing my mom,” Gallagher said. “I knew at some point I was probably gonna be moving out. … The city was always cool. We thought, ‘Well, we’ll just move down there.’”
So, Lake and Gallagher moved to Bucktown. Their apartment was on Wood Street, right around the corner from neighborhood restaurant Club Lucky.
At the time of the move, Gallagher’s brother, Chris Lake, was living in a Chicago care facility for adults with disabilities. Chris moved in with his father in Bucktown, where Joe Lake helped his son live independently. Chris Lake died in 2008.
Lake continued living in Bucktown until 2014, enjoying frequent visits from his daughter; son-in-law, Brian; and grandson, Jackson.
“He just loved the area, loved the neighborhood, loved the people,” Gallagher said. “He kind of started a second life.”
Lake planted sunflowers and tomatoes in his backyard garden. A lover of “all things flowering,” Lake was instrumental in launching the Bucktown Garden Walk, an annual event that now includes more than 90 neighborhood gardens.
Giving The Community A Voice
Eva Bergant met Lake in the early 2000s. Within a short time, Lake convinced Bergant to join the Bucktown Community Organization, a group she later led as president.
“Joe was this person who wandered the neighborhood and talked to everyone,” she said.
Lake frequented neighborhood meetings and always made sure to voice his opinion, Bergant said.
“Whatever came up, he was intense about it,” she said. “He probably effected change, or at least effected thought. He was good at making people think.”
A news junkie, Lake religiously read the work of Chicago journalists, including Wicker Park reporter Alisa Hauser. Before Hauser covered the community for news websites like DNAInfo Chicago, she penned The Pipeline, a hyperlocal e-newsletter.
Lake often sent Hauser tips, comments and questions.
“Joe liked having a juicy bit of info that he was always happy to pass on, especially if it was involving politicians and wrongdoings that he wanted the public to know about,” Hauser said in an email. “He knew dozens of reporters personally at big and small outlets, and I think he liked contributing and sharing news tips with them, or just amplifying their stories.”
DNAInfo closed in 2017. In early 2018 — four years after Lake left Chicago — nonprofit, journalist-run outlet Block Club Chicago was born.
Though he had left the city, Lake was a Block Club subscriber. His Facebook bio prominently proclaimed he was a “Block Club Chicago Top Fan.”
“My dad was always making sure there was a community voice,” Gallagher said. “That was a big deal for him. He would make sure people would know what was going on. People should know before something changes in their lives.”
‘Cleaning Up Chicago’
Whether in his garden or over cocktails at Club Lucky, Lake was often discussing whatever he felt were the issues of the day, neighbors said. An official polling precinct, Club Lucky probably attracted Lake because it was a place where he could reliably strike up meaningful conversation, owner Jimmy Higgins said.
“He was very opinionated, and even if you didn’t agree with some of his politics or his positions on things, the one thing that was very consistent about Joe was the love for this community,” Higgins said. “The best interests of the community were always served by Joe.”
An expert on all things zoning, one of Lake’s retirement hobbies was keeping tabs on relationships between developers and aldermen. He was instrumental in helping Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) get elected in 2006, beating incumbent Ted Matlak, who’d accepted money from developers in a pay-to-play corruption that sparked the Tribune investigative series, “Neighborhoods for Sale.”
Waguespack and Lake remained close friends after the alderman’s win. Sometimes Waguespack would bring Lake to meetings with developers. Lake helped design the 32nd Ward’s community-centered zoning and development policies, which are still in use.
Lake’s ideas laid a foundation for “breaking up the system,” Waguespack said.
“I could have got in and just sort of done my thing,” he said. “With Joe, it was all about the transparency and openness, and how something should be reviewed. He wasn’t political in that sense, more, ‘Here’s how to do things the right way.’”
Lake never took a paycheck from the ward, Waguespack added.
“His whole effort over the last couple of decades was to really clean up Chicago,” Waguespack said. “A lot of people don’t realize how corrupt and difficult it was when he moved here.”
In Lake’s death, Waguespack said Chicago has lost a “straight-talking person” who had the experience and passion to fix issues he saw in life.
“Having somebody who had no fear tackling the machine, and the power that it had … I put a lot of trust in him,” Waguespack said. “He just had a compass.”
Lake moved to Des Plaines in 2014 and into The Pearl last year after a surgery.
Gallagher plans to host a celebration of life event for her father at Club Lucky later this year. She asked neighbors to stay tuned for more details.
Those who wish to honor Lake’s legacy can do so by donating to the Bucktown Garden Walk, Gallagher said. The Bucktown Community Organization created a special site for these donations.
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