Longtime West Town resident Steve Johnson has a detailed list of problems he’d like his alderman to fix.
There’s the stretch of West Ohio Street that he said “looks like mortar fire hit it.” There are the storm sewers that don’t drain. And there aren’t enough places where dogs like his mini-goldendoodle Hank can roam unleashed.
So Johnson was enthusiastic about the prospect of landing in a different ward in Chicago’s new map — that is, until he learned what it looks like.
Most of the other proposed new wards are relatively compact in shape — or at least stay mainly within the same or adjacent parts of town.
But the 36th stretches more than 8 miles along Grand Avenue, from the Montclare neighborhood on the Far Northwest Side, from which you could easily walk to suburban Elmwood Park, all the way to West Town, a short jaunt from the West Loop. The ward is so long and narrow that in one spot it’s barely the width of a city block.
“It’s insane, and we’re making crap up,” Johnson said. “When I see maps are drawn like what you just showed me, it isn’t for me.”
Chicago’s ward boundaries are reset just once a decade. So the stakes are high, and the process has been acrimonious, with the City Council’s Black and Latino caucuses at odds for months over how many majority wards each group should get after the 2020 census showed the city’s Black population fell as the number of Latino residents grew.
The Latino Caucus fought for a map with 15 majority-Latino wards, and joined forces with good-government groups in an effort to bring the decision to voters in a June 28 primary ballot referendum.
But with a May 19 deadline looming to avoid a referendum, Latino aldermen who had been holding out have in recent days started making deals to join the 35 aldermen who backed a map constructed by the council Rules Committee and favored by most of the council’s Black Caucus. That map has 16 majority-Black wards and 14 majority-Latino wards, and has been decried as a loss for the Latino community.
The new map could get a City Council vote on Monday.
It is perhaps not coincidental that the current holder of the 36th Ward aldermanic seat is Latino Caucus Chair Gilbert Villegas. He implied that the odd shape of the future 36th Ward was retribution for him leading opposition against the Rules Committee map, adding a “punished for speaking out” hashtag to a sarcastic tweet about the new ward shape.
In the days after the design was unveiled, Villegas said he heard widespread disappointment from residents worried their neighborhoods are getting disconnected and it will be extraordinarily hard to get things done in a ward that for long stretches is only about two blocks wide.
“It’s going to be challenging, because city services are generally delivered in grids and it’s going to take way more coordination to address things at the ward level,” Villegas said. “Plus, there’s the added difficulty of people who live near one end of the ward getting to the ward office. So there will be consideration of trying to set up the office in the middle, but it’s so narrow through there, the challenge will be whether there’s office space available that falls within the boundaries.”
Villegas also wondered whether the design of the 36th Ward will trigger a legal challenge to the map.
“I suspect there will be people looking at it,” he said. “And the lack of compactness of the 36th Ward is a real red flag.”
Johnson, the West Town resident, worries such a stretched-out ward that covers a seemingly random assortment of communities could dilute each area’s ability to have their priorities addressed and add to existing chaos with getting constituent services.
“I talk to my neighbors. I know what my neighbors are interested in,” Johnson said. “When it stretches that far, it’s not your neighbors anymore. Right? The whole idea of the ward has kind of been flushed.”
At the other end of the proposed 36th, on the bleachers of a baseball diamond on the Far Northwest Side, Saul Santiago said his first thought upon seeing the new boundaries was that it “just looked obviously wrong.”
The 42-year-old Montclare resident, who lives in the current 36th Ward, has priorities not too distant from Johnson’s. He also wants streets repaved and thinks the local park needs lights so that his sons can play evening baseball games.
But he doesn’t recall stepping foot in West Town, the southeast corner of the potential new 36th Ward, and doubts it would be effective to combine the far-flung neighborhoods in one ward.
“People on one end may not have the same concerns as somebody all the way on the other side of that ward,” Santiago said. “It isn’t community anymore.”
In the Humboldt Park neighborhood, Antonio Spells’ mouth dropped when he saw his block would be absorbed into the middle of the snakelike shape of the pending future 36th Ward.
“What? … That’s crazy if they going to redraw it like that,” Spells, 28, said.
Spells predicts that, ultimately, residents will get used to any map but said this one is “not a good thing.”
However, Spells said that having fellow ward residents in distant areas isn’t odd to him, with his current alderman, the 27th Ward’s Walter Burnett, representing swaths of the Near North and Near West sides.
As a Northwest Sider who’s a White Sox fan, Spells finds the friendly team rivalries part of his neighborhood’s charm. He wants to remain similarly tolerant about sharing a ward with Montclare and West Town residents.
“I’m not opposed to anything, but I just want to know what are we going to lose?” Spells said. “I’m definitely open to it. We’re all neighbors. We’re all Chicagoans.”