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Tuesday, April 16

Gapers Block

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"You don't have to be Latino to take up Latino interests. But we as a community ... need to make sure that whoever seeks to represent us actually has our best interests in mind."
--Ald. Ricard Munoz (22nd)

The diminutive Ald. Thomas Murphy (18th) is perhaps the most beloved Alderman in the City of Chicago. The tiny Murphy was first elected in 1991 when the Southwest Side ward's composition was generally white. However, population shifts significantly increased the ward's black population and by 1995 it was 55 percent. A few years later, after redistricting, that number had risen to over 85 percent. Yet the very white Murphy did not grumble, he did not seek to divide his constituency. Quite to the contrary: like a true public servant, Ald. Murphy ingratiated himself with his ward's black community. A one-time school teacher, Ald. Murphy went to the community's schools to find out what concerned the teachers, the parents and the students. He went to the churches, to the block clubs and to the parks. Unlike many of the aldermen in this city, he did not seek to serve his geographic area: he sought to serve the people that occupied it.

As a result, his constituents have reelected him time and time again, always against black candidates. In 2001 Ald. Murphy tried to enter the City Council's Black Caucus, arguing that he was a de-facto black legislator and in order to best serve his constituents, he needed to be aware of trends and concerns of Chicago's Black community as a whole. Much to his consternation and surprise, his request to be admitted to the caucus was rejected. Besides causing fits of condemnation from the nation's conservative political observers (Reverse Racism! they shouted), the move was also decried by several prominent black Aldermen, including Carrie Austin (34th) and Shirley Coleman (16th), who after the most recent elections put in another bid for admittance on Murphy's behalf; to avoid being contentious, Ald. Murphy removed himself from the debate.

There are about 20 black-majority wards in the City of Chicago and 23 white-majority wards. The remaining seven are either Latino-majority or non-majority. Of the 50 wards, only two (2) are represented by an Alderman who are not members of the racial majority: Ald. Murphy in the 18th and Ald. Ed Burke in the 14th -- and the 14th has only a slight Latino majority, and a very powerful white contingent. The 33rd Ward, run by political heavy and Governor Blagojevich's father-in-law Richard Mell, is predominately, but not majority, Latino. Ald. John Pope's Southeast Side 10th Ward, which is predominately Latino, also has large contingents of white and black residents. All of the city's 23 white-majority wards are represented by white Aldermen.

The implication, of course, is that minority voters such as blacks and Latinos are less likely to vote on race; but this is not necessarily fair reasoning, since many white-majority wards have overwhelmingly white majorities and therefore the odds of a minority individual even choosing to run is slight. The reality is that, generally, all of Chicago's residents will vote more or less on race. Now this will not be the case in the Lakefront Liberal (East 40s) Wards, but these are notable exceptions because the populations are so highly in flux, the residents have little ties to the neighborhood, and although predominately white they are not "ethnically" white, in the sense that there is not a strong, or any, ethnic identification of "whiteness" among the residents.

Whatever the case, this is a remarkably unhealthy trend for Chicago's future. Eventually, Mayor Daley will leave -- let's be honest, that'll come when he decides it will -- and the political establishments of the traditional Democratic organization, the independent Hispanic community, and the large though splintered Black community will smell blood. At present the only thing keeping Chicago running smoothly is the presence of Mayor Richard M. Daley at the top. His power in the city is immense and extends far outside of the city limits, down to Springfield and to Washington, D.C. He is undoubtedly one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, much less the state, and as such he has the power to deliver vast amounts of services, funds, and consideration from the greater governmental units. Chicago is the "City that Works" not because we the residents work but because our services are excellent -- of course this is not uniformly true, but it is certainly generally true; visit any other major municipality and you'll see what I mean -- and our services are excellent because all of the city's Alderman, black, white, Latino, whatever, know that any degradation of services is political suicide, and a weak alderman is of no use to the Regular Democratic Machine.

So what does Alderman Thomas Murphy have to teach us? Certainly not that whites should elect blacks or that blacks should elect whites, but that there is a need to break down the power bases of all these groups and make our elected officials feel the need to identify with their communities. The city's white Aldermen are generally RDO regulars with enormous power bases and long histories -- Mell, Burke, William Banks, Burt Natarus, Berny Stone, Pat O'Connor, etc. -- but this is not necessarily the case with the city's Black and Latino Aldermen. Residents of these areas are often disenchanted with their leaders, but they hold on almost out of convenience. The list of truly independent and effective black aldermen you could count on one hand: Toni Preckwinkle, Carrie Austin, to some extent Madeline Haithcock, occasionally Emma Mitts, and perhaps a few others. This is not only a race issue, of course: it has to do with the power the Mayor and his organization have throughout the city, keeping aldermen of all races under his thumb. However, it would be harder for the organization to coordinate this control if there were not ethnic-specific organizations for the organization to turn to for support; a mixed ward would require a bright, dedicated, and imaginative politician. For Murphy, necessity was the mother of invention: his demographics changed and he had to adapt or die. He adapted and is now one of the most effective and well-liked Aldermen in the city.

It really is a beautiful thing, isn't it? A politician in this city who cannot risk taking his constituents for granted. One who isn't worried about forging alliances, seeking help from entrenched political organizations, or banking on ethnic divisions to maintain power. Ald. Murphy went the other way: he became the best Alderman he could be, and now his black colleagues want him to join them in forming policy that will effect black Chicagoans.

If the city doesn't take serious steps towards integration and improvement of transit fluidity, racial politics in this city will become very volatile and could wreck the years of progress we have made since the Council Wars. If the city's black residents are continually forced to pick from a tepid list of ineffective candidates and whites can choose only from Machine regulars or faux-reformers, the divisions in the city's political culture will become entrenched and ready for battle as soon as the unifying force -- Richard M. Daley, Mayor -- departs.

So, as Chernyshevsky said, What Is To Be Done?

Because of the economic divide that coincides with the racial/ethnic divides, it is a contentious issue. Creating mixed communities is often interpreted as "gentrification." Gentrification is bad insofar as it drives out and uproots homeowners and neighborhood residents whose entire identities are often tied up with their neighborhood, their block, their neighbors. But controlled "creeping gentrification," can be less harmful, if a citywide plan for it is instituted. A white couple from, say, Michigan can buy a relatively inexpensive but valuable and attractive home in west South Shore with little worry about crime or danger. So why don't they? I tracked crime statistics for two week periods over the last few months, and they indicate that the 1-mile radius around 75th Street and Stony Island generally had the same number of crimes as the 1-mile radius around North Avenue and Damen Avenue. It had a comparable number of crimes to the area around Belmont and Kimball, yet those areas are packed with people moving back to the city or to the city for the first time from other states. In reality, property values in areas such as South Shore, East and West Garfield Park, and Hamilton Park are artificially low. (Though assuredly high when compared to median incomes in those areas). So why can't the city institute a policy similar to that of California, which locks in property values with a built-in inflation adjustment while also investing in infrastructure improvements and encouraging non-displacing developments? The city's intractable position on police beat reallocation should also be reevaluated to put more police on the beat in more dangerous neighborhoods. This is not a crazy, radical idea, nor is it original in any way; it is certainly feasible and would go a long way towards diffusing the racial divide both geographically and politically.

Of course, one might say that these neighborhoods don't want newcomers, that they want to hold on to their identity. That may be a viable protestation: but it is also what people in Pullman, Gage Park, and Back Of The Yards said 60 years ago.

Similarly, developers should be forced to incorporate mixed-income housing into their developments, and given long-term tax credits to do so. The city's Service Connector should be re-structured to encourage those leaving housing projects to relocate to predominately white areas. The city should also crack down on red-lining practices only for real, to be supervised by an independent agency, providing for severe penalties and loss of licenses if any cases are reported.

Although there are high concentrations of Latinos and "Latino wards" such as the 1st, 30th, 22nd, and 26th (among others), the divide is not as stark; these large pockets of Latino neighborhoods are dispersed throughout the city, and so provide for mixed wards that can have white, Latino, or black representatives.

Historically, both white and black Democrats have benefited from the racial concentrations in this city. Take away the black wards, and how do you marshall "the Black vote?" The sense of a divided Chicago is so strong that any candidate for an inter-ward, county-wide or greater representative office (excluding, of course, that of Mayor) has the luxury of neglecting the black community and still relying on it to support them simply based on race -- simply because white politicians have refused to make inroads to the black community, and so any white candidate is often viewed as useless to the community. The result is that there are no real options for the black community or white ethnics. The Latino political establishment still seems to be moving towards an established identity, and several independents have had great success over the years (Munoz, Rey Colon, originally Luis Gutierrez, etc.)

The seeds of great solutions are not difficult to obtain, they are right before us. We must grasp whatever we can now, before they slip away into the ugly morass of bitter racial feuds.

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chicago / March 3, 2004 4:09 PM

So Ramsin, when are you running for political office? Seriously, you've got some good ideas- why not go for it?

Ramsin / March 4, 2004 3:01 AM

I'm assuming that was a zinger, so ouch. But I'd be a pretty terrible politician--as I said, those were not my ideas but rather pretty common ones that have been floating around for a while.

Ramsin / March 4, 2004 3:49 AM

Oh, and also I have a tendency to swear. That would hurt.

Chicago / March 4, 2004 9:01 AM

it wasn't a zinger, i meant it nicely

Seth / March 9, 2004 4:14 PM

Interesting piece. Wondering why Hairston doesn't count as an independent and effective alderman, and whether there aren't factors above and beyond crime rates that set 75th and Stony apart from North and Damen (access to shopping, dining; architecture; proximity to the rest of the city).

Ramsin / March 9, 2004 9:47 PM

Seth- The architecture of South Shore is stately, and nice looking--it is an old middle-class neighborhood, with a blighted blocks scattered.

Wicker Park didn't have nice restaurants and shopping until young professionals started moving there, not vice versa. There are restaurants, banquet halls, bars, and strip malls in South Shore. And, of course, the proxmity to the "rest of the city" is nonsensical, unless you mean proximity to "the white part of the city," or "proximity to the hip parts of the city." It is 0.0 miles from the "rest of the city." It is basically as close to the Loop as Rogers Park, Albany Park, Jeff Park. Closer than Edison Park or Beverly. It is closer to train line than Humboldt Park, Ukranian Village, West Rogers Park.

As for Hairston, it was simply an ommission--thus the phrase, "and a few others."

PolWatcher / March 9, 2004 10:28 PM

Nice piece. I think the swearing is a requirement for ward committeeman.


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