Remembering Lew Kreinberg

Thom Clark, Lew Kreinberg, Kathy Tholin & Scott Bernstein posing with newspaper showing world's fair canceled in front of Chicago skyline. Photo courtesy Kathy Tholin


Please join us as we gather to celebrate the life of Lew Kreinberg, leader, mentor, friend, and inspiration to generations of Chicagoans working to make this city a better place for all. Come share your memories of Lew’s life full of energy, commitment, imagination, and joy.

3 to 5 pm, Saturday May 11 at Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago

Program includes speakers, music and refreshments. Parking is available at the church. Please RSVP here


One of CNT’s founders, longtime board member, author and activist Lew Kreinberg died in late January at his home in New Orleans. He was 87.

Bringing together community organizations and nonprofit partners, Kreinberg led efforts to challenge big projects, including the proposed 1992 Chicago World’s Fair and a planned airport in the Lake Calumet region, arguing that the projects would hurt low-income neighborhoods and waste resources better spent on community-led development.


Above, a clip of Lew introducing Studs Terkel at a 1991 gala "Toast to Studs Terkel" fundraiser for CNT. Video courtesy Media Burn Archive


“Lew was fearless,” said CNT founder Scott Bernstein. “He was an innovator in finding ways to daylight things that are normally hidden. Early on, board members recognized that we needed to identify, research and publish information about big projects and systems. Lew figured out how to access insider data, break it down to the community level, and get it into the hands of local residents so they could understand the potential impact and take action to improve the outcome for their community.”

A Chicago native, Kreinberg worked as a teenager in his family’s store on Maxwell Street, the famous market in the heart of Chicago’s Jewish ghetto. He studied history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, Bernstein notes, Lew took courses in accounting, which gave him a comfort with numbers that informed his lifelong work as an organizer.

Back in Chicago in the 1960s, Kreinberg got involved in the Civil Rights movement on Chicago’s West Side and cofounded the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) with Rabbi Robert Marx in 1964. He marched at Selma, Alabama, in 1965 and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when Dr. King came to Lawndale in 1966.

Through JCUA, “Lew worked in partnership with grassroots organizations organizing to fight racism and inequities affecting Chicago’s predominately Black and Latinx communities,” says his longtime JCUA colleague Jane Ramsey. Examples included the 1992 Committee, which successfully challenged the proposed World’s Fair, and blocking a proposed golf course that would have displaced hundreds of West Side families.

Lew Kreinberg with longtime colleague and friend Jane Ramsey shortly before he passed away at age 87. Photo courtesy Jane Ramsey

Beginning in 1978, Kreinberg served as one of CNT’s first board members, a position he held for decades. Among other efforts, he helped put together the Chicago Electric Options Campaign, organized to challenge Com Ed’s franchise to provide electricity for Chicago. Kreinberg led an effort to document electricity services by ward to show the local costs and impacts.

The results brought significant change, says Bernstein: “In the 1980s Chicago and Illinois lagged behind other areas on energy efficiency and clean energy. Today independent scoring ranks Chicago in the top 10 cities nationally and Illinois among states with large commitments to such options. Lew's and CNT’s work made this change possible, by promoting community-based programming and equity, and helping make these the core of regional commitments to climate change prevention.” 

Kreinberg’s impact went well beyond his direct work, adds his former CNT colleague Frankie Knibb. “Lew mentored so many community activists, giving them the wisdom and tools, not to mention the courage, for questioning the status quo. He was always providing historical context for new challenges confronting neighborhoods and the environment. These activists are still out there, asking questions, probing the numbers touted as gospel, and doing good deeds. And he was always finding joy in life!”

Kreinberg worked for a time on the staff of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, and was the author, with Charles Bowden, of Street Signs Chicago: Neighborhoods and Other Illusions of Big City Life.

Kreinberg and his wife, Penny Tyler, a leader of the Jazz institute of Chicago and the Chicago Jazz Festival, retired to New Orleans in 2001. Tyler died in 2021. 

Read the Chicago Tribune obituary here.


Share this page