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Charlotte Newfeld, a veteran North Side activist, dies at 91

Charlotte Newfeld was a highly visible activist on Chicago’s North Side whose diminutive size belied her dogged, determined efforts to effect changes in social policy and land use in her neighborhood.

An artist by training and an unsuccessful candidate for Chicago alderman in 1983, Newfeld was a forceful advocate for — and an ally to — Chicago’s LGBT community during years when there were few openly gay politicians. She fought for a human rights ordinance barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and lobbied for a domestic partnership ordinance.

Later, Newfeld was equally visible in her opposition to night baseball at Wrigley Field as president of Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine (CUBS). While she was not successful in preventing the lights from being installed at the ballpark, she held the team accountable in her efforts to protect her neighborhood.

“She was a ferocious defender on the issues she was concerned with. She never stopped,” said former 46th Ward Ald. Helen Shiller. “She was like the Energizer Bunny.”

Newfeld, 91, died of natural causes Nov. 17 at the Dobson Plaza memory care facility in Evanston, said her daughter, Julie. She had been a Lakeview resident for more than 60 years.

Born Charlotte Aronson in Chicago, Newfeld grew up in the Northwest Side Albany Park neighborhood and graduated from Von Steuben High School. She received a bachelor of science degree in art education from University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1952 and a master’s in applied art from the university in 1953.

Back in Chicago, Newfeld got married and began work as an artist, first at an Old Town studio and a few years later at Studio 23 on North Lincoln Avenue, where she was known for painting watercolors and creating ceramics, her daughter said. Through her work, Newfeld soon came to know numerous members of the LGBT community.

Those friendships sparked several decades of advocacy on behalf of that community, including lobbying for a human rights ordinance that would prevent discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identity at the city and county levels, demanding a mayoral liaison to the LGBT community and seeking the creation of a city committee on LGBT issues.

“She was a fierce, fierce advocate for what was best for the neighborhood and the city of Chicago,” said Rick Garcia, who along with Newfeld pushed for the eventual passage in 1988 of the city’s ordinance against discrimination based on sexual orientation. “I met her when she was working on the city of Chicago human rights ordinance, and she supported gay candidates long before others of us in the gay community did. And she was a powerful woman because people listened to her.”

In the late 1960s, Newfeld was a member of the Lakeview Citizens’ Council, and she used her platform to urge officials to better accommodate Spanish-speaking public school students. Her commitment to independent politics included working with Mary Ann Smith, who went on to become a longtime North Side alderman.

“Our volunteerism provided demanding adventures working shoulder to shoulder with brilliant lawyers, courageous organizers and with genuine diversity,” Smith recalled.

Newfeld’s interest in politics culminated in her 1983 run for alderman in the 46th Ward. She lost by 66 votes to lawyer Jerry Orbach.

“She was one of the hardest-charging people I’ve ever seen. She was just a ton of energy,” said Paul Waterhouse, who managed Newfeld’s aldermanic run. “She always understood how important it was to be involved.”

In 1982, Newfeld, who at that time lived about five blocks east of Wrigley Field on North Pine Grove Avenue, helped form Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine, a community group and committee of the Lakeview Citizens Council devoted to preventing the installation of lights at Wrigley Field. CUBS’ belief was that night games would prove detrimental to the neighborhood.

The group notched some early victories, including city and state legislation initially barring night games from being played at Wrigley. Ultimately, however, the team’s desire for night games prevailed, and the Cubs played their first home night game in 1988. Even so, Newfeld continued holding the Cubs’ feet to the fire each time the team asked for more from the city, such as attempting to increase the number of night games or other events at the ballpark.

“She never wanted the neighborhood to be defined by a ballclub or a ballpark,” said Lori Cannon, a friend and fellow activist.

In 2014, Newfeld reflected on the fight against night baseball, noting that she saw honor and not failure in CUBS’ battle.

“One of the reasons Wrigley Field has remained, and is as popular as it is, is that we made it a worldwide icon based on sunshine and green,” she told the Tribune. “It was that campaign on ‘No Lights’ that did it.”

Newfeld later applied her energies to advocating for the protection and restoration of the Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary at Montrose Harbor.

“We manage almost 11 acres (at the sanctuary), and when she was younger, Charlotte was very hands-on and would go out there and physically do things,” said Vera Rast, a longtime friend and fellow volunteer at the bird-watching area. “She inspired people around her to really get involved.”

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Newfeld also was vice chair of Chicago’s Commission on Women, a panel formed by the late Mayor Harold Washington. Former state Sen. Carol Ronen recalled meeting Newfeld when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Ronen to head the Commission on Women.

“Charlotte was driven by issues and by principles,” Ronen said. “She cared more about gaining real progress for women than about politics. I was in awe of her energy and drive and commitment.”

In 1996, Newfeld was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame as a “Friend of the Community” inductee.

Newfeld’s husband, Bernard, died in 2005. Aside from her daughter, there are no immediate survivors.

A celebration of life service will take place in January.

Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.

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