In the nearly 30 years that Ald. Pat O’Connor has represented the 40th Ward, he’s been through two previous ward remaps. “It’s not a really well-defined process,” he said. But he and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) were clear on one matter while speaking to a gathering of 50 area residents Tuesday night at Amundsen High School (5110 N. Damen Ave): They’re united in providing a seamless transition for neighbors being shifted from the 47th to the 40th Ward.
“From the get-go, Ald. O’Connor has been nothing but a friend,” said Pawar. The two councilmen share a TIF district and have common interests along major arteries including Lawrence, Western and Lincoln Avenues. “On housekeeping issues like zoning, conversations are already taking place,” he said.
The remap is the result of Chicago losing a significant number of citizens as reported in the most recent census. For wards to maintain equal population and to comply with the Voting Rights Act, boundaries were moved. “The North Side was remarkably collegial,” O’Connor said of the negotiations. “Nobody wanted to get rid of anything or pick up a grand prize.” He ceded territory needed by Ald. Joe Moore to boost numbers in the 49th Ward, which created a domino effect: O’Connor picked up residents in Lincoln Square as compensation, just as Pawar gained population in Lakeview.
“In some instances, I’m coming home,” said O’Connor, whose ward once stretched as far south as Irving Park Road.
Prior remaps took effect once precincts and garbage routes were redrawn. With the city recently converting to a grid-based garbage collection system, that leaves the precinct maps as the lone hurdle. “I just had my meeting with the Board of Elections today,” O’Connor said. He expects residents to receive notice of their new precinct sometime around the end of July, at which point the new ward boundaries will largely take effect, barring a legal challenge. “Ninety percent of the citizenry will be happy where they’re at,” he said.
Among the unhappy folks: Those who championed the candidacy and surprise election of Pawar as a fresh alternative to machine politics. O’Connor, by contrast, is no “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”; he’s been an alderman since the age of 28 and is a power player within City Council, often referred to as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s right-hand man. At least one Pawar supporter explicitly expressed his disappointment regarding the change in representation during Tuesday night’s meeting, though Pawar quickly leapt to his colleague’s defense, noting that a number of his ideas as a freshman alderman, including a weekly email newsletter and the establishment of a zoning advisory committee, were actually suggested by O’Connor.
The forum at Amundsen, organized by the Lincoln Square North Neighbors and the Winnemac Park Neighbors — both affected by the remap — had the vague feel of a campaign event, though perhaps another analogy would be more apt as O’Connor wasn’t stumping for votes. It was like the first meeting between the parties in an arranged marriage, not sure if they’re signing on for better or for worse but stuck with each other regardless.
“I would like to think my longevity would speak to my ability to communicate,” O’Connor said, responding to a query regarding accessibility. He then listed various points of constituent contact: He maintains a frequently updated website, an online newsletter and can even be found on Twitter. He conducts two rounds of town hall meetings each year and keeps regular office hours.
So what can residents expect from their new alderman?
All that experience means the man knows his way around the council chambers. For 20 years, he chaired the education committee and also served on the Local School Council of Hawthorne Elementary, which his children attended. “I understand school funding and construction very well,” he said, pointing to the $35 million he secured for Mather High School, the alderman’s alma mater.
Now that he’s inherited Chappell Elementary, along with Amundsen, residents were keen to hear O’Connor’s position on education and neighborhood schools.
“First and foremost, I believe in the vehicle of the LSC, but a school does not improve unless it has a dynamic principal,” he said. Pointing to Budlong Elementary, where the recently retired principal had been in place for 40 years, O’Connor noted the school has made “negligible progress in 20 years.”
His role, as O’Connor sees it, is not to meddle with a school’s internal operations but rather to provide funds for the physical plant, to ensure safety around the school and to help the community access resources to achieve their goals. But the daily running of the school and its educational directives are left in the hands of the LSC and the school’s administration. “At the local level, you are the primary mover for change. The Board of Education is not always your friend when you’re working for school improvement. Principals and LSCs have to advocate for their schools.”
Economic development was another major theme of the meeting. The man who brought Target to Peterson Avenue has been a proponent of streetscapes (which bodes well for extending the Lawrence Avenue makeover to the River), but was realistic about the prospects of filling empty storefronts on the stretch of Lincoln Avenue between Lawrence and Foster.
“A lot of the stock is not real attractive,” he stated frankly. To spur growth, he anticipates recruiting the Lincoln Bend Chamber of Commerce (successful in ousting certain nefarious motels on Lincoln north of Foster) to extend its influence further south to the rather woebegone commercial district.
More than anything he said at the meeting, it’s what O’Connor did afterwards that captured the imagination of the handful who witnessed it. He hopped on his scooter, parked out front on Damen, and motored away as his new constituents snapped photos on their iPhones. You could hear the thought turning over in their heads: “My alderman rides a scooter. Cool.”
Relationships have been built on less.