Aldermen

January 9th, 2012

Digital illustration by Craighton Berman for The Alderman Project

Dear Alderman Colón,

I am a resident of your ward, and am interested in meeting you. I have a blog on which I write about topics that I don’t know about by interacting with others who are more knowledgeable. This is the blog: www.thefundamentalist.org

One of the topics I’m curious about is aldermen. I am not exactly sure what is involved in your job, and I’d like to find out from you since you are my alderman. Would you be able to meet for a short while (I can imagine how busy you must be) to tell me about your work? I have heard from several sources that you enjoy [omitted] bar, and would be happy to treat you to a beverage there, or we can meet at the place of your choice.

Please let me know if this would be possible.

All the best,
Katie Schneider

***

Dear Katie,

Alderman Colon will be available for meetings during Ward Night.  The next Ward Night will take place on Monday, January 9, 2011 beginning at 5:30pm and ending at 7:45pm.  Our office is located at 2710 N. Sawyer Avenue.

Respectfully,
[Name omitted]

***

At the 35th Ward office, I was warmly welcomed to write down the reason for my visit, and offered an apple from a bowl on the receiving desk. I waited for about half an hour, chatting with the others who were in line to meet with Alderman Colón. There was a married couple wanting to present a petition protesting a pawnshop; they had collected three pages worth of signatures by going door to door. There was a group of Occupy Chicago protesters concerned about the mayor’s proposed amendments to the municipal code in preparation for the NATO/G8 summit, which would increase regulations of demonstrations and fines for acts of civil disobedience. There was a handful of other concerned citizens, some seemingly “regulars”, with a variety of issues on their minds.

“You don’t have a problem?” Alderman Colón asked as he ushered me into his office, referencing my sign-in paperwork.

“Not really. I’m a happy citizen… just… curious.”

And after some informal chatting about the merits of my block, near which he used to live, and how difficult it is to “keep up with the Joneses” on the superior parallel block, our interview began.

***

INTERVIEW WITH ALDERMAN REY COLÓN

ME:
What is an alderman responsible for?

COLÓN:
The alderman is your first point of contact with the government. The alderman is the liaison between the average resident and different city departments, the voice that relates to city ordinances, the person for day to day issues related to public safety, cleanliness, facilities, economic development. I work to attract new businesses, create jobs, work through issues of licensing. When it comes to development, an alderman (at least in Chicago) has a lot of say in zoning and development. We decide on local projects. Those are our main functions.

 ME:
What made you want to be an alderman?

COLÓN:
I’ve spent my entire career in this neighborhood. I ran the Boys and Girls Club, supervised over 40 parks with the Chicago Park District, raised money for the YMCA. Now I can take all of those experiences and work on a different scale; instead of managing parks I’m managing a ward, instead of dealing with youth and family I’m dealing with humans of every kind. I grew up in Logan Square, and I like being able to help elevate the neighborhood to a certain potential, to change its image from a place known for gangs to a place known for restaurants and venues. I like being able to expand our parks and recreational facilities.

ME:
Do you ever worry about gentrification pushing people out?

COLÓN:
People bring that up a lot, and, how do I say this? When I first moved in [in 1968], people were concerned about Hispanics moving in. I tend not to overreact to those types of concerns. The great thing about this area is that it’s always been ethnically diverse, different people have always moved in and out, and the character of Logan Square is never lost. I don’t see that as threat; I embrace different people moving into the neighborhood.

In fact, if I could leave my fingerprint on the neighborhood, it would be my work around different events and festivals, the farmer’s market, arts events. I work to make the neigborhood artist-friendly, for example there’s the I AM LOGAN SQUARE arts organization, the restoration of the Hairpin arts center. I’m also big on environmental issues, making the neighborhood a safe passage for pedestrians, serving pedestrians first and cars last.

ME:
That leads me to some questions about a few controversial topics. What is your stance on the farmer’s market?

COLÓN:
The farmer’s market? I started it.

ME:
But you got a bad rap for wanting to stop it.

COLÓN:
I shouldn’t have. There was conflict with the chamber of commerce, but it was well resolved. I took issue with some things the activities director was doing with regard to the market. I feel that the farmer’s market is only going to grow and continue to be an addition to the neighborhood.

I don’t worry too much about controversy. If there’s controversy, that means there’s action, we’re doing something. If there’s no controversy, there’s no movement, so I don’t get overly concerned with the hype of the day.

ME:
So you never wanted to stop it?

COLÓN:
No, I never wanted to stop it. That doesn’t make sense- why would I? And if I wanted to, I would have. They have to get permits.

I took offense with some of the activities the executive director was doing, and felt he was using his position inappropriately. The message got heard, the chamber was proactive, and it’s resolved, so we’re moving on.

ME:
OK, I’ll move on too. What about parking on the boulevard? What is your stance on that?

COLÓN:
It’s been happening since before I moved in in 1968. The way it’s been is that during church hours there is parking, when it’s not church hours, there’s no parking.  This is a case where it got heated when churches were given permission to allow parking as they always had been. Before, it was more of a handshake permission, an understanding with the police. With the privitization of meters has come the privatization of traffic enforcement, and people who are not City of Chicago employees are writing tickets, so people in church are getting tickets. The only way to ensure that people in church don’t get ticketed is to change the signs. Some people are against people parking there. Those people are upset that we’re allowing churches to do what they’ve always done. I legalized what’s been happening, but people think it’s new. It’s a misunderstanding. It kicked in six months ago- the signs just capture the church hours. You won’t see many people parked there even though they can. Nobody really wants to park there.

ME:
What about the EZ Pawn?

COLÓN:
There’s going to be a pawn shop on Fullerton.

ME:
Some citizens of the ward don’t like that idea. Why?

COLÓN:
Pawn shops have a negative connotation- the perception is that, while it hasn’t been proven, pawn shops bring crime, and the type of people that go there are undesirables. I’m not a pawn shop customer myself, but I have in a pinch taken jewelry and things to a pawn shop because financially that’s where I was. I didn’t find enough reason not to have a pawn shop, so I didn’t stop it. We had a Cash America and they’ve been really good neighbors; when somebody graffitis they paint over it, they don’t create night traffic, I haven’t had any issues of crime. I find that the pawn shops are very heavily regulated. I’m more concerned with those “we buy gold” places. Those are the real problem because those folks don’t have the same kind of regulations; they can melt down gold and sell it without the oversight required of a registered pawn shop. It’s like the difference between a registered gun owner versus someone with an illegal firearm.

ME:
What is the best thing about being an alderman? And next I’m going to ask you about the worst thing.

COLÓN:
Hmmm, it’s probably the same answer. I’m able to work on a grassroots level to resolve local issues. I have the power of City Hall to resolve things locally, and a grassroots voice in the community to take to City Hall. I’m in the unique position of listening to the community and working with politics downtown. I get to work toward the best situation, to work for the neighborhood, and be involved in projects like restoring Logan Theatre, projects that bring economic development. I can leverage things, working with police to make crime go down to the level it has, making it a much more inviting community than when I started.

ME:
What is an aspect of our neighborhood that needs to be improved? How do you plan to take steps toward improving it?

COLÓN:
In Logan Square and in Chicago there is a challenge of getting neighbors to work together. I get concerned with losing a sense of community. People are either too busy working, or on the Internet, to know their neighbors, to know the names of the kids on their block, to organize and get me to put a speed hump on their block. We’re big on pushing block parties in summer, forming block clubs. Anything I can do to bring that sense of community back, something I benefited from growing up, that’s been lost. We have increased our ability to work with great technology, but now it’s become “Goodmorning Facebook, Goodnight Facebook,” and we don’t know who our neighbors are.

ME:
How should citizens of your ward get more involved in community improvement?

COLÓN:
I would like to see people taking responsibility of what they see. I often get a call about a fallen branch, an area that needs to be swept, a suspicion of neighbors with an illegal basement… there are many people with time on their hands to call and report these things, but I’d like to see people getting more involved. They could organize a trash clean-up day, or turn a vacant lot into a community garden. They should accept the responsibility of trying to organize people, starting activities that are going to help the neighborhood, taking leadership.

***

One way to get involved in your community is to meet with your local official. It’s really easy. You just send a slightly inappropriate email offering to take him out for a drink, get cordially redirected to his office, show up, sign in, take an apple (or don’t), eavesdrop on or chat with other citizens as they air out their issues, and then sit down in his office and talk. I found our conversation to be very open and genuine. I have a better sense of the person who is in charge of my neighborhood. I feel more motivated to get involved.

I will admit that when the S.O.B. (Save Our Boulevards) crew solicited me as I approached the farmer’s market one Sunday morning, I was incensed by the idea that Colón would allow parking along the boulevard. I didn’t do any investigating before I signed the petition and slapped an S.O.B. sign on my window. I was already irritated with Colón for what I thought was an attempted shut-down of my beloved market. I’m glad that I met with him in person, asked him direct questions, and heard his side.

I’m pleased to be able to use the Internet to suggest that we all find out the names of the kids next door, and that we meet our local officials. Just skip the part about the beverage.

 

7 comments to “Aldermen”

  1. that was an honest open interview that not only taught me a few things but encouraged me to explore the possibililities of the human side of political people….just kidding bur seriously he did indeed open up in what appeared to be a very relaxed and helpful way to al your questions. loved the reference to you being slightly inappropriate in your invitation in where to meet….HA!! (true but he redeemed you IMHO!)

  2. You should be an alderwoman.

  3. Alder(people) do get a bad rap, and seem to be insignificant in some ways. I like this interview bc he sounds like a regular ol’ citizen who became an alder(person). It’s difficult to be in charge. This interview showed that – and how (despite any of his “faults”) he’s willing to reach out. And your ease in reaching out shows how easily we can be in touch with the people who are making decisions for Chicago neighborhoods.

  4. Nice job Katie. I hope you share this one with your students. It’s great to know how government works.

  5. 16mixingbowls says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 8:15 am

    may all of your future attempts to speak freely with elected officials be as forthright…..

  6. Very cool, Katie!

  7. That was an interesting read, I follow the aldermen of my residence & my work site, and started doing so only earlier this year after the budget business. I can see that for $100K/yr, they have a lot on their plate, but I think some aldermen have it better than others, working in more economically viable neighborhoods. That is neither here nor there of course, but I would like to see ALL neighborhoods develop & thrive.

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