“One City, 50 Wards: Does the City That Works Really Work?“, a joint series from Crain’s Chicago Business and the University of Chicago Center for Effective Government, explores the connections between how Chicago’s city government is designed, how it functions, and how it performs. You can learn more and read other articles from the series here.
By: Steve Hendershot
Then factor in a major transition in city government, with Chicago breaking in a new mayor, police superintendent and City Hall administration — not to mention 13 new members of the City Council. Add a collection of new police oversight bodies that are still finding their footing, and you get a city that’s not optimally prepared to meet a fraught moment.
“We’re in an unfortunate place this summer” because of the turnover, says 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety.
Yet the uncertainty and change present an opportunity for Taliaferro and his colleagues to move beyond their traditionally ward-centric concerns and work together to steer Chicago to a better place.
The council is tasked with ensuring operational continuity amid the upheaval while also working with Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson to chart the city’s legislative path forward. Part of its challenge, with a city on edge and a new mayor who seems inclined to pull the city sharply to the left, is to figure out which of Chicago’s current economic development initiatives and public safety reforms deserve more time to play out.
For example, major community development projects are underway in Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Back of the Yards as part of outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative, and a cadre of community-focused small businesses and nonprofits also are benefiting from city support such as millions of dollars in grants from Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund.
“Chicago really is the city with its hand on the rudder as much as anybody in the sense that they know the neighborhoods, they care, and there's the institutional structure with the City Council” to ensure that each community gets the attention it needs, says Brett Theodos, senior fellow and director of the Community Economic Development Hub at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
Still, it’s really hard to attract large amounts of private capital to communities that are stuck in the economic doldrums. And Theodos says it generally takes sustained investment — often totaling at least $1 billion — over many years to spur revitalization of a single neighborhood. Invest South/West targets 10 different areas of the city with projects estimated to cost from about $10 million to about $50 million.
“Neighborhood change costs half a billion to a billion dollars,” says Theodos — and to be clear, that’s the per-neighborhood price tag, not an all-in, citywide number. “That's just what it costs. And it takes two decades.”
Theodos points to projects in Cincinnati, Baltimore and Atlanta as promising examples, as well an effort as that’s already well underway in Chicago: the 15-year revitalization project in the Far South Side Pullman neighborhood, spearheaded by nonprofit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives.
That suggests that Invest South/West could work — provided it’s sustained over time.
But Johnson indicated during the campaign that he would scrap the Invest South/West program; more recently, Johnson has signaled that it could continue. Regardless of where Johnson lands on the issue, the debate points to another key role for Chicago’s City Council: to use its legislative authority to maintain the consistency needed to derive value from long-term projects that it deems worthwhile.
Overseeing the overseers
With its new constellation of civilian police oversight bodies, Chicago joins cities such as Boston, Oakland and Seattle at the forefront of a burgeoning movement toward giving communities more authority over police practices and policies.
The newest players are Chicago’s Community Commission for Public Safety & Accountability, which will recommend three candidates for the city’s next police superintendent to the mayor, and 66 neighborhood police district councilors elected in February.
"The reality of it is, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” says Tobara Richardson, who in October became the deputy inspector general for public safety — a post that represents another of the recent police reforms.
There’s a sense among aldermen and city leaders that perhaps the right structures and mechanisms are finally in place and just need time to take effect. Yet the call for patience is hard to square with the exigencies of a historically high homicide rate, surging downtown crime and ongoing population losses on the South and West sides, where the effects of violence and disinvestment are felt most keenly. Those areas lost 215,390 residents between 1990 and 2020, according to a report from the University of Illinois’ Institute for Research on Race & Public Policy, while the rest of the city gained 178,361 residents.
“Usually once you set the table, you kind of let things play out. But there's a sense of urgency here that we can't ignore,” says 5th Ward Ald.-elect Desmon Yancy, who previously advocated for the creation of a community public safety board while working as a community organizer.
The council’s direction will be needed to ensure that the new mix of voices sounds like a choir, not a cacophony, lest the city fail both to facilitate reforms and to heal the fractured relationship between Chicagoans and the Police Department.
There’s plenty of potential for discord.
For example, many of the newly elected district commissioners previously worked as activists opposing police practices, according to Sharon Fairley, a law professor at the University of Chicago who in 2016 helped create the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of police misconduct.
“The question is, can both of those groups overcome their skepticism about each other to be able to collaborate and work cooperatively to make things happen for the community in a positive way?” Fairley asks.
The early results from civilian-oversight efforts in other cities indicate there’s hardly a guarantee that local governments will find the right balance.
In Boston, for example, a news report in March found that a new board meant to serve as a conduit for civilian complaints against police had not sustained a single such complaint or made any disciplinary recommendations. And in Oakland, a new civilian oversight board fired the city’s police superintendent without cause. The superintendent alleged that her firing was in retaliation for refusing to perform a favor for one of the board members; the city agreed to pay her $1.5 million after a federal jury found she was wrongfully terminated.
On the other hand, Seattle’s experience has been sufficiently positive that the city and federal government have asked for an end to the consent decree governing reforms there — an outcome that Chicago’s leaders would love to emulate.
But to strike that ideal balance, Chicago’s aldermen will likely need to help steer the ship and adjudicate between competing policy recommendations.
In the past, “the City Council really was not terribly engaged in policymaking when it comes to policing. That responsibility was by and large left to the mayor to work out with the police superintendent,” says Fairley. “With the way this is structured, there will be times when they are going to have to be engaged in this process to resolve these differences of opinion, and that just is going to require them to be educated on these issues so that they can make informed decisions.”
The council’s work begins with integrating the new oversight bodies into a cohesive oversight regime whose functions are complementary rather than duplicative or competitive. For example, Taliaferro, chair of the council’s public safety committee, says he plans to find ways to incorporate input from the Community Commission for Public Safety & Accountability into his committee’s work.
Aldermen also have the community-specific touch points needed to bridge the gap between neighborhood input and high-level policy.
If an initiative “begins and ends on the fifth floor (in the mayor’s office), it's not community-driven,” says Kanu Iheukumere, chief policy officer at Metropolitan Peace Initiatives, a division of Metropolitan Family Services that focuses on community violence intervention.
The council also has the legislative authority to ensure that the Police Department follows through on the operational recommendations of the deputy inspector general for public safety. That’s something the council hasn’t done very often, outside of an inquiry into an OIG report about CPD officers who were also members of a far-right group.
Taliaferro says that, to date, his committee has mostly left it to the Police Department to implement the recommendations in OIG reports on topics ranging from officer overwork and the department’s mental health resources to the way the city handles lawsuits regarding officer conduct, and the city’s response to the mass protests and looting that followed George Floyd’s killing.
“Some of these recommendations should be mandated,” says Taliaferro, “and that's a possibility we may be looking into.”
Beyond spurring operational improvements, Ald.-elect Yancy says a council that’s more responsive to policing issues — including lawsuits related to misconduct — could improve civic trust in Chicago’s public safety system. Additionally, the council is uniquely positioned to zoom out from police-specific strategies so it can incorporate a broader approach to public safety that also includes an increased emphasis on mental-health services — an approach favored by Johnson. For example, Taliaferro expects his public safety committee to work more closely with the council’s Committee on Health & Human Relations.
The work is important and delicate enough that, despite the urgency of the moment, Yancy cautions that the council would be wise to take its time to ensure that the new system is implemented the right way.
“It’s going to be incumbent upon this council to slow down a bit, work the apparatuses that are in place — particularly the new ones — and make sure we're creating real connections between all the pieces so that the work is far less siloed and more driven towards outcomes,” Yancy says.
Boots on the ground
Chicago’s aldermen have one other tool that can be used both to address public safety issues and to spur community economic development: their sheer number. This series began by observing that each of Chicago’s aldermen represents far fewer citizens than their big-city peers, and while that may or may not be an ideal structure, it does give members of Chicago’s City Council a uniquely detailed understanding of the issues and opportunities within their wards.
For example, when West Town resident Liz Abunaw decided she wanted to open an independent grocery store in the Austin neighborhood, it would have been easy to dismiss her. She didn’t live in the community, and while she had worked for a decade at General Mills, she had never run a grocery store, and her most recent work experience was at Microsoft.
Liz Abunaw is working to open a full-service grocery store in Austin, 40 Acres Fresh Market.
But Abunaw contacted each of the aldermen whose wards include parts of Austin and received help from two of them, Emma Mitts and Taliaferro. Mitts invited Abunaw to speak at her community meetings to promote Abunaw’s pop-up markets, and both she and Taliaferro wrote letters of support as Abunaw applied for grants — she’s received several, including a $2.5 million commitment from Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund.
When Abunaw finally closed on a Chicago Avenue location for her store, Forty Acres Fresh Market, Taliaferro helped her navigate the city’s approval processes until they agreed on a workable design — and then shepherded a needed zoning change through the council.
“Liz is bringing a great opportunity to my ward, because most of my residents have to go to Oak Park or a neighboring community to go to a full-service, quality grocery store,” says Taliaferro.
Still, Abunaw realizes that backing her, even in a low-stakes capacity, wasn’t an obvious home run.
“The city is not stupid for going after Walmart or Whole Foods. Those are the companies with the money to do this, and who can wait out the months for permits, redesigns, site remediations or any of the numerous other things that can go wrong with commercial real-estate development,” says Abunaw, who continues to operate pop-up markets while waiting for construction to begin. Given that, she says Taliaferro “has been awesome. He’s acted like he really wants to see this happen."
The challenge for Chicago’s City Council is to harness the best of that community-level insight and advocacy, and pair it with an expanded focus on smart, citywide solutions. Pulling it off will require a substantial reimagining of the council’s historical paradigm, but it’s something that incoming Ald. Yancy believes is possible.
“There's a great opportunity for us to work together to revitalize neighborhoods,” he says. “It’s not a conversation about if we can; it's a conversation about if we want to and if we will — and with this council, I think that there's a lot of will and interest in making sure that we're building a city that is a world-class city for everyone.”