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Aldermen Mon Feb 21 2011

Changes in the 50th Ward: From Devon to the Alderman's Office

This feature was submitted by Alizah Salario

Last summer, Chicago's 50th Ward alderman and Vice Mayor Bernard Stone was contemplating retirement -- until Mayor Richard Daley announced his own.

"I feel it's my duty to come back," said Stone, noting that no matter who is elected, Chicago's next mayor will be a "neophyte."

At 83, Stone is Chicago's oldest and second longest-serving alderman. The days when he chugged throughout the ward in a motor home to speak with voters may be long gone, but Stone's sense of obligation to his constituents hasn't changed in nearly four decades.

Yet the four challengers vying for Stone's City Council seat -- attorney Michael Moses, architect and community activist Greg Brewer, CPA Debra Silverstein, and 26-year-old community organizer Ahmed Khan -- insist he hasn't answered the call of duty during his past term, and that's why they're angling to change the ward's future. Though the candidates up against the 10-term incumbent diverge on the issues, they agree on one thing: the 50th Ward needs change.

The West Rogers Park-centered ward has been hard hit by the economic downturn. Many car dealerships on Western Avenue's "automobile alley" have shuttered their doors. The bustling retail corridor along Devon Avenue, known for its ethnic diversity and independently owned businesses, has been in decline since its heyday over a decade ago. Candidates say that crumbling infrastructure, vacancy signs, and streets in desperate need of a makeover compound the ward's woes, and suggest the alderman is partially to blame.

"It's losing its luster. So many stores have closed," said Ashish Sen, Chairman of the West Rogers Park Community Organization.

Stone is quick to point out that the roots of the Ward's economic problems run deeper than City Hall.

"All of these people who cry about parking meters, who cry about empty stores, forgot that aldermen do not create recessions," he said.

The walls of Stone's office are papered with photos, certificates and awards earned over the years. A crystal snow globe of the Chicago skyline rests on a nearby table, and one wonders if Stone uses it to divine the ward's future. Stone says he loves being alderman because he enjoys listening to people, but detractors say that not all voices in the ward are heard.

A 2008 report by the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute about development along Devon cited the lack of unity and leadership as the top concern among area business owners. The lack of adequate parking and declining businesses were also among the primary issues.

"I think the idea of 'I know best what it needs to be' is not a good place to start," said Brewer, who founded Citizens for Responsible Development, a community organization that provides information about zoning changes and commercial planning.

Brewer said he created the organization in response to the lack of transparency about development decisions in the ward.

Brewer pointed to an empty lot near his campaign headquarters at 6917 N. Western Ave. He alleges that when developer Dr. Mohammed Ghani applied to put a seven-story building intended for senior housing on the property, community members never received proper notice about the potential zoning change from B3-3 to B2-5 that would allow for a commercial establishment of up to eight stories with 98 units. Although Ghani's proposal was for senior housing, this particular zoning change didn't limit him to that particular usage.

He then initiated a public meeting, and despite an outcry against it, the zoning change was approved. The developers later defaulted on the mortgage, and the rezoned property remains empty.

Both Khan and Silverman are in favor of creating a zoning advisory board to increase community involvement with the development process.

"The decisions here are not made with input," Moses agreed.

Currently, Stone has an appointed advisory board of 20 people who deal with development on Devon and Western, and since elected, he has kept the door to his ward office open two nights a week.

For Khan, however, waiting for people to solicit information isn't enough.

"I think the next alderman needs to take a more grassroots approach and make sure citizens know what types of resources are out there," he said.

Khan recently held a Chicago Driver Survival Seminar (created by Mike "The Parking Ticket Geek" Brockway) to help concerned drivers deal with tickets, Denver boots and limited parking.

Stone's vote to privatize the parking meters -- a decision he says he regrets -- has many in the middle class neighborhood upset about paying $1.25 an hour just to grab a loaf of bread.

Candidates contend that meters are driving customers away from local businesses, but the Chicago Department of Revenue doesn't provide any data and the evidence is purely anecdotal. All candidates posed suggestions for parking alternatives: opening up zoned side streets, removing residential permits for customers shopping during the day, or adding diagonal parking spots on side streets to maximize space.

Stone points out that adding the meters actually created more spots, and the reasons why businesses are leaving Devon are varied and can't be reduced to the price of parking.

"I've been told that I should've been the Secretary of the United nations."

Executive Director of The West Ridge Chamber of Commerce Amie Zander agrees that the reasons for the decline in the ward's business districts are complex.

During the area's commercial peak in the late '80s and early '90s, nearly 1300 businesses were members of the West Ridge commercial alliance (which extends beyond the 50th ward). Today, approximately 1000 businesses are registered, according to Zander, and the decrease has much to do with economic changes stretching past the 50th Ward.

Khan, who has spent nearly his entire life near Devon, explains that many Southeast Asian business owners disperse to the suburbs when they've "made it" financially. Southeast Asian communities outside the city can now be served locally rather than shop exclusively on Devon.

Furthermore, many of the storefronts catering to the ward's Orthodox Jewish population have suffered since the nearby Jewel on Howard Street started offering an extensive selection of kosher products.

Based on 2010 census data, a decrease in business is likely also linked to Chicago's overall population drain. The Rogers Park neighborhood, which comprises a large portion of the 50th Ward, had a 13.7 percent decline in population from 2000-2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Despite these factors, the area still boasts some of the highest tax revenues in the city, according to Zander, and in December, a handful of Small Business Improvement Funds of up to $150,000 were granted to nine small businesses on Devon for improvements or expansions. Yet Stone says the ward's biggest asset is something you can't put a price tag on: its diversity.

"I've been told that I should've been the secretary of the United Nations because I'm able to bring all these ethnic groups together. I've been a binding force for years," said Stone. "The Muslims and Hindus were killing each other in Pakistan, but not on Devon Avenue."

While many of the candidates' platforms include talk of creating a "global village" -- for example, Silverman wants to plan cultural festivals celebrating the myriad ethnicities in the area to draw visitors from across the city -- Stone scoffs at the idea that this is an original notion.

"It's been an international shopping center since the '70s," he said. "I gave it that name."

Whether or not Stone is re-elected, there's certainly one thing you'll never find the octogenarian doing.

"I will not sit home and wait for the mail. I have to keep myself busy."

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R.A. Stewart / February 21, 2011 11:53 PM

If I could offer a couple of corrections, that's Debra Silverstein, a CPA and wife of State Senator Ira Silverstein. Michael Moses is also a candidate in the race, though it seems to me that he's been less heard from than the others.

And, I'm sure this seems picky, but in paragraph 13 it should be "... a commercial establishment of up to eight stories with 98 units," no hyphen. An eight-story building; a building eight stories high. Sorry--it's just something that drives me nuts. (Though in my case it's less a drive than a short walk.)

John Reynolds / February 22, 2011 12:06 PM

Another correction: the 50th Ward is mostly in the West Ridge community area, which lost only 1.7% of its population from 2000 to 2010. The Rogers Park neighborhood is mainly in the 49th Ward.

Andrew Huff / February 22, 2011 12:07 PM

Ouch, the Silverstein error was egregious -- thanks for pointing that out. I've fixed both errors.

Shazad / February 22, 2011 2:45 PM

For true reform and CHANGE in the 50th Ward, for true independent community unifying leadership...Vote KHAN for Alderman of the 50th Ward!

Jewish Business Chicago / February 22, 2011 5:54 PM

I, for one, hate parking on Devon and paying the outrageous parking fees. Why does it seem that the Honorable Alderman only seems to get active six months before elections?

Choi / February 27, 2011 10:30 AM

Stone is ACTIVE 365 days a year and is available to his constituents every Monday and Thursday evenings.
Berny Stone,unlike others in the City Council is a FULL-TIME Alderman,Vice-Mayor,Building Committee CHAIRMAN and a SENIOR member of the Budget,Finance,Zoning Committees,and other committees as well.
The ONLY "change" the Silversteins are interested in is "change" that puts every bit of Political and Governmental Power they can GRAB into their version of "All in the Family",all under the malevolent aegis of Mrs. Robert Creamer,aka,Jan Schakowsky.

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