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Evanston officials grant children’s choir a reprieve from Noyes eviction

Gary Geiger founder director EvanstChildren's Choir leads rehearsal their room Noyes Cultural Center. Officials have backed off notice evict group.

Gary Geiger, founder and director of the Evanston Children's Choir, leads a rehearsal in their room at the Noyes Cultural Center. Officials have backed off a notice to evict the group. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 28, 2013 6:42PM

EVANSTON — City Council members withdrew a notice of eviction aimed at the Evanston Children’s Choir, which had been told they would have to vacate the city-owned Noyes Cultural Center effective next year.

On Monday, April 22 the council directed the city manager to draw up new criteria under which tenants will be considered for occupancy amid future expansion of the building.

Last week City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz released details of a proposed agreement with the Piven Theatre Workshop for its long-term renovation of a portion of the center, located at 927 Noyes.

The theatre group, with a national reputation, has proposed an ambitious expansion at Noyes, a onetime school building in disrepair. The city has pledged loan assistance, ranging in estimates from $2-5 million, in combination with a major fundraising campaign by Piven.

On April 12, city officials notified Gary Geiger, the choir’s director, that the choir would have to leave the building as early as January of 2014 for the Piven expansion plan to move forward.

In a statement delivered at the start of Monday night’s City Council meeting, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said she remained in support of the opportunity for Piven to expand.

However, she said she was “concerned about the final process that brings this agreement to conclusion.”

Tisdahl said Bobkiewicz – in the absence of any council-approved criteria – used seniority to notify the choir, as well as textile artist Maggie Weiss, that they would have to relocate.

Tisdahl said she and the council have asked the Bobkiewicz to consider developing different criteria for determining the relocation of artists and arts groups impacted by the Piven proposal.

She suggested the highest criteria should first consider whether an artist or arts organization is Evanston-based, as well as the number of residents they serve. Noyes hosts 26 tenants in total.

She said the Bobkiewicz has agreed and will report to the city’s Human Services Committee on May 6 with the revised criteria.

In the meantime, the Bobkiewicz has notified Weiss and the Evanston Children’s Choir that new tenant criteria is being developed, and that the notice of their relocation has been withdrawn.

Choir members reacted strongly when informed of the initial relocation notice.

Geiger wrote a letter to choir supporters urging them to contact aldermen before the May 6 meeting, asking them to rescind the decision.

The 100-member choir has been sought after for collaborations by the likes of the Evanston Symphony, the North Shore Choral Society, the Apollo Chorus of Chicago and singer/composer Barry Manilow.

Tisdahl recognized the group two years ago, awarding it her top arts award.

Geiger said the choir also brings much-needed racial and ethnic diversity to Noyes, both in the its membership, which averages 40 percent of children of color, as well as the organization’s programming.

“I’m not arguing to throw somebody else out instead of us,” he said. “I think they should expand the building rather than kicking us out. If they’re going to do it right, let’s do it whole hog; accommodate everybody.”

Weiss, who also teaches a print making class, said she was bolstered by the mayor’s announcement. She would have been moved within the building to basement space.

“I thought it was encouraging,” Weiss said. “I think there has to be a lot of discussion to find a middle ground.

“If I were to stay in the basement, there’s no room for teaching,’’ she said.

Criteria making a distinction on the basis of residents and non-residents are “not so straightforward,” Weiss said.

For instance, one of the artists, Sheila Oettinger, a key player in the Evanston Skokie Sculpture Park, has been a tenant at Noyes for some 30 years.

“It’s not so clear,” she said.

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