Uniting Back of the Yards: One Neighborhood, One Ward!
For the past few months, residents of the Back of the Yards community have been relentlessly working on an issue that is usually unfamiliar and unappealing for the general public –redistricting. However, for Back of the Yards residents, redistricting is of supreme importance, especially during this year as new districts at congressional, state and municipal level are being redrawn. For the past decades, the community has faced numerous challenges that hinder progress in the area. The instability of employment, lack of access to quality education, foreclosure crisis, and perpetuating violence that haunts the community are only a few of the many issues the Back of the Yards residents must face as they strive to better the neighborhood. However, even as residents and institutions meet to discuss and implement strategies to improve the community; they encounter the overwhelming reality that besides their valuable time and spirit, resources are also needed to make the changes the community desires. It is then, that the issue of redistricting arises.
When residents ask who they should turn for help, a list of five aldermen/alderwoman, two state senators, two state representatives, and three congressmen is recited. With some many elective bodies, one must wonder why is it that this community is struggling as much. The answer is not simple, for one, the division of the community into many districts and wards dilutes the power of their political voice. In addition, the fact that residents form a minute portion of the districts and wards they are drawn into means fewer resources for different parts of the community. This results in an uneven allocation of resources for the community as a whole. Therefore, this year residents of Back of the Yards have looked closely at the various lines drawn by legislative districts to understand their struggle. They have realized that while they seek to unite as a community in order to improve the neighborhood, politically they are fragmented, and often lumped with areas of few commonalities where they formed such a small part of the district/ward that their concerns can never be priorities for elected officials; particularly at the municipal level.
The city of Chicago has 50 aldermen; five of them are aldermen/alderwomen of Back of the Yards. That is ten percent of all city council. No other community in the entire city has as many aldermen /alderwomen as this neighborhood. Yet, not one of the five aldermen/alderwomen has an office in the neighborhood. In fact, on average, all offices are about 3 miles away from the neighborhood and in the case of those without a car – which is often the case in Back of the Yards; residents will need to take two buses to reach any aldermanic office. For instance, to access the 20th ward, the ward with some of the more densely populated areas in the neighborhood, that office is 5 miles away which is almost the same distance to Downtown Chicago from Back of the Yards. That is like having people an aldermanic office for residents of Lincoln Park in the downtown area. If the accessibility of aldermen/alderwomen is minimal, one could only imagine the lack of access to resources and city services in the area. In addition, communities with one alderman / woman have the sheer benefit of having that elected official accountable to their constituents; Back of the Yards does not have that benefit. While some aldermen/alderwomen are responsive to community concerns, their attention ebbs and flows since it is easy to ignore a population who a) is such a small portion of a ward b) is perceived as powerless since many do not vote (The 12th and 16th ward are amongst the lowest voter-turnout wards in the city). This is perhaps one of most angering details of the unfair split of Back of the Yards – the inability to make someone accountable.
Most recently, the community saw the permanent closure of the public library, one of the most valuable resources in the neighborhood. The library was used by many families in the community; they are extremely upset that it is no longer available. Considering the low test-scores of children in the neighborhood (the neighborhood’s high school ACT average is a 14) and the few resources available for youth in the area, the library was a safe haven and a needed resource if we hope to improve education in the community. However, it is no longer there due to damaged facilities of the store front leased to house the library. In part, the permanent closure of the library is also a result of the failure to secure funding for an expansion. Since Sept of 2009, CPL recommended the Back of the Yards branch for a capital improvement. CPL even surveyed the area and suggested some parcels of land to be purchased with Tax-Increment Funding (TIF) for the expansion of the Library. This has been on the agenda of CPL board meetings since Sept of 2009 but to this day there is no expansion and now no library. This issue is extremely frustrating for residents in the community since residents cannot turn to only one alderman to help them re-open the library, they must turn to five since TIF districts in the community are dispersed in all five wards. As a community, it is hard to obtain the attention of one alderman, let alone five. Even more infuriating, as a community it is hard to hold anyone accountable.
The issue of the library has helped shed light on the injustice and absurdity of the five ward system in Back of the Yards. As a result, residents have launched in a campaign to advocate for one ward in the Back of the Yards. To do so, a committee for a unified Back of the Yards (CUBY), composed of residents and organizations in the neighborhood, has organized residents to demand the end of the five ward system. CUBY members have arduously fought for Back of the Yards to be considered as a community of interest. They have proposed the historical boundaries of Back of the Yards, Western to Halsted and 39th street to 55th street, as the basis for a new ward. According to the last Census, the area proposed by CUBY has 38,589 residents - which is 15,322 residents short of the 53,911 people needed to form a ward according to the 2010 Census. CUBY is cognizant that the community does not have the population needed to form a new ward but instead it asks for Back of the Yards to be kept together in the new redistricting process.
To show the need and support of residents for a united community, CUBY has collected over 1,300 signatures from residents in the area who demand a fair redistricting process from City Council where communities like Back of the Yards will be taken into account. Residents have hosted rallies, press conferences and clean-ups in the community to gather support and make people aware of the disparity that being divided in five wards has brought upon Back of the Yards. Members of CUBY and community residents have testified in front of the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics, in charge of drawing the next ward map, in order to illustrate the necessity of the community to be united in one ward. Residents have also made trips to City Hall to advocate for a united Back of the Yards and requested meetings with different alderman / alderwoman to ask for support in unifying the community. If this was not enough, as a response to the lack of attention some alderman/alderwoman give the area, community folk began to form block clubs and organize block clean-ups to improve their streets and to show they care about Back of the Yards and want to see it become a safer and better neighborhood. Many say that even if at the end the community does not become one in one ward at the very least they fought to get their voice heard and pledge to continue to do so regardless of the community being in one ward or five.
It is also important to note that although many people see 51st street as the southern boundary of Back of the Yards, CUBY recognizes that their community is not only Latino, it is also Black. Many people south of 51st consider that part of Englewood, but the reality is that it is still Back of the Yards. Residents rallying for a unified Back of the Yards desire a community that is inclusive and recognizes the racial diversity within its boundaries. Historically, Back of the Yards has been home to workers at the Stockyards. It has been a port of entry for various immigrant groups, most from Eastern Europe. Demographics shifted to Black and Latino when labor was needed to break the strikes of the early 1900’s. With time, the area became a major port of entry for Mexicans in Chicago but it also became home to many Black families during the second Great Migration, particularly around the southeast corner of the neighborhood east of Ashland.
While many Black aldermen in City Council have framed the idea of a united Back of the Yards neighborhood as a race issue - CUBY does not. The needs and issues that Back of the Yards faces are struggles felt by residents regardless of race. The lack of quality education in the area affects both Black and Latino children in Back of the Yards. The violence felt in the community takes the lives of Latino and Black youth in the community. The issue of the neighborhood library is something that affects Latino and Black children in the area. The foreclosure crisis that the community faces has forced Black and Latino families out of their homes. All of these issues are problems that need attention and action from the various alderman/alderwoman in the area who are Black, Latino and White. Thus, to suggest that to advocate for a united Back of the Yards is an issue concerning racial politics and to even name it “racial gerrymandering “is not only absurd and insulting; it is also ironic considering it is coming from a group that fights to maintain all 19 Black wards when they lost 180,000 residents in the last decade, while other minorities increased. It is also a convenient way to dismiss the fact that gerrymandering Back of the Yards into five wards has caused much harm to families in this community for the past 10 years. Alderman/alderwoman should refrain from using Back of the Yards as an excuse to unleash an unnecessary division between Black and Latino communities - CUBY has been an effort to unite a community based on shared life experiences, shared struggles and hopes for a better neighborhood in a given geographic location and not an issue of race.
Posted in Chicago Global, Community Organizations, Politics and Legislation