During the coldest days of winter Chicago West Siders would often stream by the dozens into Nancy Jefferson's Midwest Community Council office. They came with little red slips clenched in their hands, slips that warned of an imminent shutoff in gas or electric service. Mrs. Jefferson and other staff members would often plead with the utilities to delay the action. Sometimes they held bake sales or other fund-raising efforts to help low-income residents pay their bills.
But now, Mrs. Jefferson and leaders of other Chicago neighborhood organizations are eager to tackle the problem of rising utility bills from another vantage point: cutting energy demand by stepping up conservation. They are pushing for strong city involvement - and so far getting it - in a program that would reach into virtually every neighborhood with insulation, caulking, furnace adjustments, and other moves aimed at trimming energy use. Their hope is to spur neighborhood development by creating new jobs in everything from energy audits to construction work.
The galvanizing force in Chicago's case was a recent blockbuster report by an independent 22-member group of business and neighborhood leaders called the Chicago Energy Commission (CEC). The commission forecast a combined gas and electric bill of $7,500 a year for the average Chicagoan within 10 years (currently it's about $1,400) if no action to conserve energy is taken. Conservation efforts could shave $1 billion off rising energy bills by 1993 and create up to 30,000 new jobs, the commission estimates.
The commission says a $3 billion investment during the next decade would be required to get such benefits. The money would be used for low-interest loans to landlords and for training neighborhood groups to make audits and monitor the work. Commission codirector Douglass W. Cassel Jr. insists the goal is reachable: ''There's a lot of capital out there, including insurance and pension funds. It's largely a question of mobilizing it.''
Within the next week the People's Gas, Light, and Coke Company, which supplies natural gas to millions of Chicagoans, is expected to make available $ 10 million in low-interest loans and other help for the program.
And Chicago Mayor Harold Washington is expected to announce a $5 million set-aside of Community Development Block Grant funds and some portion of the city's flat 8 percent utility tax as sources for low-interest loans. The hope is that these will serve as catalysts for more grants and loans from the private sector.
It is often assumed that the widely publicized energy crunch of the 1970s spurred vast urban conservation efforts. But much of what little action there was here in the Windy City occurred in isolated portions of scattered neighborhoods. Joe Cicero, executive director of Chicago's North River Commission, heads up one of a handful of Chicago neighborhood groups trying to form its own energy contract company. He says he would be surprised if even 1 percent of the homes in his Albany Park neighborhood had been weatherized. One problem, he says, is that many landlords have been shutting down large boilers in favor of what they see as cheaper individual tenant heating. ''It usually turns out to be electric and we're trying to convince landlords not to convert to it,'' he says.
Indeed, in checking out what other cities were doing in energy conservation, the commission found that the nation's second city is currently on an action par with Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia, according to Mr. Cassel.
''We're late in terms of the problem - and years behind such cities as Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. - but much of what's been going on so far in larger cities has been more in report writing and planning than in actual programs,'' he says.
Neighborhood leaders hope that success stories here so far will help persuade landlords and homeowners that conservation investments pay off. Under a $4.7 million Amoco Foundation grant, the five-year-old Center for Neighborhood Technology has been conducting energy audits and providing technical assistance in retrofitting 150 buildings around the city owned by nonprofit community organizations. Rev. Daniel Alvarez of Casa Central, one of the organizations helped, says his agency saved an immediate 40 percent in energy costs after its first building was weatherized.
Community organizations view their role in the Chicago conservation effort as honest middlemen, ready to help with technical assistance and expertise.
''One of the big problems in this whole field was that nobody was sure who to trust on what they should do,'' explains Warren Friedman, co-chairman of the Organization of the Northeast and a member of the CEC. ''People haven't felt they could trust utilities or hardware stores.''