Ward Remap Field Hearings: Residents Tell Aldermen ‘Time to Go Back to the Drawing Board’

By Patty Wetli | Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hundreds of residents faced off with aldermen over proposed ward remaps at the DePaul Student Center. Credit: Sarah Tilotta

Last night, 500 Chicagoans packed an auditorium to fire-marshal capacity at the DePaul Student Center, 2250 N. Sheffield Ave., in protest against City Council’s ward remap proposals. One thing was clear: There are some angry people in Lincoln Park. And Lakeview. And Logan Square, Back of the Yards, River North and Montclare. For more than three hours, residents aimed their outrage at the approximately 20 aldermen in attendance, offering countless variations on the theme of “we’re mad as hell.” Local alderman feeling the heat included Scott Waguespack (32nd), Dick Mell (33rd, chair of the hearing) and Tom Tunney (44th). Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) and Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) had prior commitments.

At issue: a pair of maps, one presented by City Council’s Hispanic caucus, commonly referred to as the Taxpayers Protection Map, and another by the African-American caucus, known as the Map for a Better Chicago. A third “Equity Map,” introduced by MALDEF, was a non-starter. More intriguing, a computer-drawn grid-based “pro bono” map so newly-filed that Ald. Dick Mell, chair of council’s rules committee, had yet to set eyes on it.

While there was much talk from the aldermen about “one man, one vote,” references to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and which map deviated more from the target population per ward, residents were more concerned with their neighborhoods, crying foul at the way both proposals summarily drew boundaries that tear apart longstanding communities in the name of political expediency. Even Mell was forced to concede, “I don’t think anybody likes either of these maps.”

Ald. Michelle Smith (43rd) led the chorus of protesters, having mustered an army of Lincoln Parkers, including several of her aldermanic predecessors, to her side. (Indeed, several attendees referred to the hearing as a “Lincoln Park pep rally.”) Under either of the maps being seriously considered, Smith would see sections of her existing ward parceled out to four or five other wards. “What does Old Town have to do with the United Center?” she questioned of Lincoln Parkers who would be shifted to the 27th Ward.

Arguably the most popular testimony of the evening was delivered by Bob Gilbert, a long-time resident of Park West, who would see his community, which currently sits in the 43rd Ward, split between the 44th Ward and a new 2nd Ward (now located in the South Loop with Ald. Bob Fioretti at the helm). “And that new 2nd Ward, well Clark Street is at one end. It goes down to Old Town, then up to Lakeview, over to Roscoe Village, around and down to Logan Square, and then finally a corn field in Iowa.”

The move would not only disenfranchise Lincoln Parkers who had no say in electing Fioretti, but the South Loopers who did, according to Gilbert. “Said by every mayor since the first Daley, ‘Chicago’s neighborhoods are the city’s greatest strength.’ That’s a lot of wisdom to ignore. Please keep Lincoln Park intact.” His wife, Sue Leibowitz, then delivered the knock-out punch: “Democratic government is supposed to be the voters choosing the aldermen, not the aldermen choosing the voters.”

Though Lincoln Parkers, stunned to find themselves gerrymandered despite their economic importance to the city, dominated the discussion, Lakeview residents rallied as well. Terie Kata, who currently resides in Ald. Tunney’s 44th Ward, would be moved into the 46th by a single block. “We get thrown into the Uptown gang shit,” she said. More troublesome, while she and her neighbors live in close proximity to Wrigley Field, they would no longer have a say in matters relating to the ballpark, a move she thinks may be purposeful. They’re cutting out the “people who hold the Cubs feet to the fire,” Kata surmised.

Will DeMille, president West Lakeview Neighbors, argues against dividing Southport corridor between wards. Credit Sarah Tilotta

Will DeMille, president of West Lakeview Neighbors, was on hand to argue against the maps on behalf of constituents in the 32nd and 44th Wards. “I’m personally confused,” he said of plans to move the 2nd or 20th Ward to the North Side (“How do you move a ward?”), and then to shift some of Lakeview’s residents into the transplant. “The Taxpayers Protection Map cuts Southport down the middle. It makes it that much more difficult to have a solid approach for Southport,” said DeMille of the area’s vital commercial corridor.

“Mr. Tunney, did you really say any of these maps is OK with you?” one particularly irate attendee pointedly asked of the alderman. Awaiting a response, she was told by Ald. Mell, “We’re here to listen,” a comment that met with jeers.

Jose Alonso, representing the Committee for a Unified Back of the Yards, provided perspective from a neighborhood carved up during previous remaps, describing the difficulties of coordinating city services, schools, parks and police in a single community divided among several wards. He poignantly exhorted alderman: “Let’s be an example of what Chicago could be and stay away from what Chicago has been.”

Expressing surprise that some of the city’s most prosperous citizens could be as easily disenfranchised as its least influential, Alonso noted, “What they want to do to Lincoln Park, they did to us 10 years ago. We feel for those communities.” While Back of the Yards was blindsided the last go-round with remapping, this time the neighborhood is organized and hoping for a better outcome. “This is why I’m here at nine o’clock at night,” he said.  Alonso, for one, was cheered to see so many residents fighting to retain their community’s unique identity. “An injustice is waking people up.”

Several attendees, including DeMille, felt confident their opinions would be taken into account by City Council. “Neither one of these maps has the support of enough aldermen,” said DeMille. “I’d like to see a map that does its best to mitigate the splitting of neighborhoods.” Theoretically, there’s plenty of time to work out a map that might not please everybody, but at least wouldn’t be unanimously despised. As Ald. Smith noted, new ward maps would have no bearing on elections until 2015. “What’s the rush?” she asked. “We should take the time to get this right.”

Yet even as she uttered those words, news outlets were reporting that a compromise may have been reached between the Latino and African-American coalitions. “Is this an exercise in futility?” a Lincoln Parker asked the gathered aldermen. Or just Chicago politics as usual.

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