Leon Despres was a lifelong Hyde Parker and an independent-minded alderman from 1955 to 1975. A progressive who fought for civil rights and open housing, he was known for riding his bicycle to City Hall and angering Mayor Richard Daley enough to cut off his microphone mid-speech.
Despres is a favorite reference point for a group of Fourth Ward residents hoping to present a reform-oriented candidate in next February’s aldermanic election.
On Monday, this group met for the third time to discuss the policies and principles they hope their future aldermen will take into consideration. The meetings, organized by Gabriel Piemonte, former editor of the Hyde Park Herald, began after alderman Will Burns resigned in February.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Kenwood resident Sophia King interim alderman in mid-April; she will serve until 2017, at which point the city will hold a special election for the ward, which includes the northern edge of Hyde Park and parts of Bronzeville, Kenwood, and the South Loop. The community members involved in the meetings hope to compile their concerns by August and, potentially, to support King’s opponent in February should the candidate commit to working on these issues.
Forty to 50 people have attended each of the meetings, which are held at an event space in North Kenwood. At the first two meetings, attendees split into groups and brainstormed a list of local issues that most concerned them, including education, policing, neighborhood development, mental health services, and increasing communication and transparency between residents and their alderman.
At the third meeting, attendees began drafting statements in small groups about the role they hope residents will play in the election. “We need to talk about how we can hold someone accountable,” meeting attendee Ebony Lucas said.
All the groups agreed that an ideal alderman would be independent: beholden to the residents who elected them rather than to a mayor who appointed them. Several expressed frustration that the mayor-appointed King, an alderman they say is friends with the Obamas (former Kenwood residents) but is not familiar with most of her ward. “She says she cares about local education, but her kids go to the Lab School,” one attendee said. “How do you reconcile that?”
Piemonte agreed: “The wealthiest, most influential people who have access to decision-makers like the mayor are able to make a stronger case in terms of what the mayor appreciates, which is money and power,” he said when King was appointed.
He also pointed out that current Hyde Park Herald editor Daschell Phillips attempted to organize a forum with King in May but that King has not responded to the requests. Piemonte urged attendees to press King to attend by signing a petition online.
Residents who attended the meetings were disappointed by Burns, a University of Chicago alumnus, during his time as alderman. “Burns is a U of C creature, not a Hyde Park creature,” said Michael Scott, another organizer of the meeting and longtime Hyde Park resident. Multiple attendees agreed that their priority was avoiding an alderman similar to Burns.
Some residents attribute frustrations with Burns to the University. “Sometimes the alderman will not know what the University is doing before the neighborhood does, so they end up in a weird position compared to other aldermen,” Piemonte said. “The University can go to City Hall without the alderman, so I think even when [the aldermen] make an effort to be cooperative and informative it creates a different kind of culture.”
Because the Fourth Ward has changed significantly in recent years, the meetings include a diverse range of concerns. Prior to redistricting in 2012 it included more of Hyde Park. Redistricting shifted the district north, incorporating more of Bronzeville and South Loop. Scott argued that the differences in neighborhoods are reconcilable. “I think there’s a broad consensus that people want independence and transparency and a large group of people who think policies from the mayor’s office are problematic,” he said.
Ultimately, Piemonte envisions a civic convention in August or September in which 1,000 or more people ratify a document developed over the course of several meetings. He believes that this is enough people to sway an aldermanic election.
Piemonte made clear that whether or not the group grows as much as he hopes, continuing the discussion represented by the group’s meeting is his priority. “We have this unique opportunity that’s a campaign with no politicians,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing, a beautiful moment in the civitas.”