My First Lesson in Intellectual Activism

How Eminent Domain on Sheridan Road Taught me to Fight for My Rights

By Scott Holleran

As a proud activist, I’ve marched against domestic abuse, written speeches, letters and op-eds for property rights and rallied for individual rights. Once, in Chicago, police detained me and a band of fellow protesters for obstructing a union rally for Vice-President Mondale. I think I was 14 years old. But my lifelong commitment to political activism had begun years earlier in a house on Sheridan Road.

That was where I’d learned to wage my first campaign for justice. The address was 1330 Sheridan Road in Wilmette—where my best friend, Paul, lived with his parents, who both worked for Chicago public schools—and the cause, long before I’d discovered and read Ayn Rand, was property rights. I think the year was 1973.

One day while walking to Paul’s house after school, he told me that the government was seizing their home to build a park. He explained that his mother and father were fighting the village but that there was a law called “eminent domain” and he might not be able to live there much longer. We were in the third grade.

I went to Paul’s mother, an artist who would tell tales of living in New York City while making sandwiches for us after school before we bounded out of the house, down the bluff and raced to Lake Michigan’s shore, and I asked her how I could help stop the seizure of their home. She stopped what she was doing in the kitchen and asked if I was serious.

I think I was the most serious child in Wilmette. I’d been growing up in the midst of what was being called the counterculture, which I knew I didn’t like, so I’d seen antiwar protests, multiple acts of liberation and assorted hippies doing their thing on TV. I told Paul and his mother that of course they could count on me to help try and stop the government’s plan to seize what was theirs. I pledged to put my eight-year-old soul into saving their home. Looking back, I can’t be sure, but I remember that she sort of smiled—Paul’s mother had a twinkle in her eye and was constantly amused by the world—and she said, “alright, boys. Let’s get to work.”

Ours was an uphill battle and we knew it. Paul and I made posters and flyers and we fanned out across Wilmette, canvassing along Chestnut near Plaza del Lago to Linden and toward the train tracks, into Lyman Sargent’s and every shop we could find, past downtown toward Edens Plaza and west Wilmette. Paul’s mom or dad drove us to blocks of houses, which we crossed off on maps, and we walked door to door, passing out printed materials pleading for property rights against this wicked eminent domain law, which I’d learned granted the government power to seize private property at its arbitrary discretion. I was determined to warn everyone in Wilmette that what was happening to my friend Paul was wrong—morally wrong. By what right did Wilmette aim to seize my friend’s home? I wanted to know.

I never did get a satisfactory answer, which led me to canvass for all sorts of other issues, causes and rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. I learned a crucial lesson—that exercising intellectual activism feels good and has the capacity to change the world, a fact which still guides my life—and I’d gained knowledge and experience in applications of law and philosophy.

Watching Paul’s family, especially his mother, tirelessly speak out at meetings and argue against eminent domain, I learned that the one can oppose the many—and take on city hall—and win and that one can do so on principle. All our canvassing, letter writing and speaking out worked. The village of Wilmette quickly abandoned its plan to seize their home and property. We hadn’t lied, cheated and bribed our way to victory. We’d made arguments and sought to persuade Wilmette residents. Our cause prevailed.

Wilmette’s government built a park there anyway—they had seized others’ properties from those who did not resist—and for decades I watched the park sit empty season after season. It’s still there, three and a half acres known as Langdon Park, where someone’s home used to be. Paul and his family continued to live in their home for years—the house and its residents are long gone—and Paul’s mother, Marilyn Malles, moved with her husband James to Arizona, after living an active life in Wilmette theater, arts, civic, church and community affairs. The white house at 1330 Sheridan Road is gone. The fact that its owner owned it, fought Wilmette’s government for her right to own it and won—living happily ever after on their property—can never be taken away.

A version of this article was published in the March 15, 2013 edition of The North Shore Weekend.