Chicago Needs Neighborhood Councils

Old Chicago neighborhood map

We need neighborhood councils in Chicago. I’ve been pretty outspoken about what’s wrong with Chicago in recent weeks. That shouldn’t be taken to mean I don’t like Chicago. I love Chicago. I massively love Chicago. I think the reason we eat our young in this city is because we don’t have an officially mandated political forum for focusing the voice of the people to balance the inherent corruption and cronyism that permeates elected offices here.

It makes sense that Chicagoans keep their heads down in public discourse and in the workplace–or eventually leave Chicago behind–and that creativity and innovation are not valued the way they are in other cities. We have no official political forum or framework to give people a guaranteed and safe place to speak up. Nothing here tells us that it’s safe to express ourselves publicly, or that expressing ourselves matters.

Instead, in Chicago public input is channeled through the office of your local alderman–who may or may not listen, might be too corrupt to care, and might seek retribution against you for voicing an opposing opinions. Once you’ve spoken your peace there, you’re essentially done. It’s out of your hands and the local political machine takes over.

If your local Alderman shuts you out–which is incredibly common here–your only real alternative is to hope your issue or your ward (aldermanic district) are covered by a powerful neighborhood nonprofit. They exist in all cities, but in Chicago, they’re often the only entities that represent the voice of the people in speaking truth to power. They’re also frequently the target of retributive acts by aldermen and other local politicians.

Here’s how neighborhood councils work where I’m from and where I may be headed.

In my New York City hometown, the city charter legislatively mandates the existence of a system of Community Boards across the city. They’re publicly elected advisory bodies whose membership is restricted to residents of the local neighborhoods they represent. Local law grants them advisory review of land-use and development decisions within their boundaries. Local law also protects them from reprisal if they oppose projects that are supported by the local city council member or other public officials. They sometimes end up in court battles against city council and local developers. They often win those battles, too.

In my potential new home, Los Angeles, a similar system of official Neighborhood Councils (also herehere, and the original plan here in PDF) was written into the city charter in 1999. Membership in L.A.’s councils is restricted to neighborhood residents and property owners, and the councils are granted advisory review of local land-use, development, and policy decisions. They were created specifically to give voice to neighborhood residents in development decisions so that they would no longer feel shut out of local government. They’ve been well received and very successful.

Back in Chicago, it’s true we have a disjointed collection of groups called “neighorhood councils” and “ward advisory councils”. But they’re one-offs, they don’t represent all neighborhoods, and they’re not legislatively mandated. And that means they’re not guaranteed advisory review or protected from political reprisal, or even guaranteed to be independent at all.

In reality, the closest thing Chicago has to a citywide network of neighborhood councils is our historic system of Community Areas. Except that our Community Areas solely exist on paper for purely statistical purposes, and include no actual human beings or locally representative apparatus.

Yet we’re also a charter city, and that means that, just like New York City or Los Angeles, the city can change that fact if it wanted to. If City Hall desired, the existing Community Area framework could be used as a basis for creating a Chicago neighborhood council system–or a totally new system could be created. We’d argue over neighborhood boundaries, but we already do that any. (Just like they did and do in Los Angeles.)

It would just take political will. Lots of it. That’s always the rub in Chicago, especially with ideas like neighborhood councils. How do you build the popular will in Chicago and focus it on City Hall with enough heat to make something like this happen? Without terrifying every elected official in the city? Or making existing neighborhood organizations fear for their existing influence?

Not to mention making the same people who would be critically necessary for making something like this happen–this city’s unique collection of social-justice oriented strategy and PR consultants–fear for the viability of their businesses in a world where rank-and-file Chicagoans were finally guaranteed at least the possibility of fighting City Hall and winning?

I have no idea how that happens yet. But it would be awesome, wouldn’t it?

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What do you think?