An Open Letter to the Chicago Maroon Editorial Board

To whom it may concern:

As Americans head to the polls today to vote in the midterm elections, many University of Chicago students have either voted absentee in their home states or are not voting at all. And it’s hard to blame them: Illinois politicians (with one notable exception) are much better known for landing in prison than for inspirational leadership. But on February 24, many members of the University of Chicago community will have a rare opportunity to effect real, positive change on their community by voting for Anne Marie Miles for 5th Ward Alderman.

Hyde Park has seen a lot of positive development in the last few years: new restaurants such as the 24-hour Clarke’s Diner, Harper Theater and the new Harper Court, the upcoming City Hyde Park (with Whole Foods), and more. Students who have only been in the neighborhood for one or two years might not appreciate just how much things have improved, but they might have picked up on a funny coincidence: all of this new development has happened on or north of 53rd Street, a good distance from the heart of the University (which itself has been slowly creeping southward). The blame for the lack of any meaningful off-campus development closer to the University can be placed largely on the shoulders of one person: Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward Alderman since 1999.

Chicago wards are their own tiny fiefdoms. A Chicago Alderman has an enormous amount of control over what does or doesn’t get built or opened in his or her ward. Former 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (now Cook County Commissioner) and her hand-picked successor, Will Burns, have been judicious in their exercise of this power over their ward, which contains the north half of Hyde Park. But in Alderman Hairston’s 5th Ward, which encompasses the south half of our neighborhood, the game has been played a bit differently. When not actively wielding her powers to stifle development, such as when she spot-zoned the (still-abandoned) Vivekananada Vedanta Society temple to prevent the cash-strapped Yogis from selling to a developer, she stands idly by as self-proclaimed community leaders torpedo any possible positive changes to the neighborhood.

Perhaps the most salient example of the latter occurred in 2008, when in the middle of the global financial meltdown, the University, against all odds, managed to procure a developer to build two Marriott hotels at the site of the abandoned Doctors Hospital at 58th and Stony Island. Before last year’s opening of the Park Hyatt in Harper Court, the closest option for parents, conference-goers, and other visitors to the University was the seedy Ramada Inn on 49th Street by the lake. The new hotels, which would have provided 650 rooms mere blocks from campus, would have been an enormous game-changer for the entire Hyde Park community. In the absence of strong leadership from Alderman Hairston, the activists stepped in. On Election Day, 2008, while the rest of the nation was voting for Hope and Change, a few hundred residents of the 5th Ward’s tiny 39th Precinct, most of whom lived in the mid-rise apartment building adjacent to the Doctors Hospital site, narrowly voted the precinct dry, thus preventing the development from going forward. This caricature of democracy, which Alderman Hairston permitted to occur under her nose, robbed the University community and broader Hyde Park community of a desperately needed resource. We’ve only just now received our smaller, more distant consolation prize.

I could go on, but the now-defunct blog Hyde Park Progress has already done a marvelous job documenting Alderman Hairston’s many disturbing actions and inactions. What’s important is that this February, we have a great opportunity to make a change. In 2012, Chicago approved its decennial redistricting, which takes effect next year. Since Wards are apportioned based on population, the Aldermen of failing wards that are losing population, like our own 5th Ward, are ironically given a larger area over which to rule. The 5th Ward, which, west of the Metra tracks, mostly extended only to 55th Street, will now stretch all the way to 53rd. Allowing Alderman Hairston control of yet more Hyde Park development would be a disaster. On the other hand, the new ward boundaries give more Hyde Parkers the opportunity to vote for positive change in their community. Anne Marie Miles, who also ran against Alderman Hairston in 2011, stands for progress and against the corruption and incompetence of the Hairston regime.

It’s difficult to get college students to take an interest in the long-term health of their neighborhood. They expect to be gone in a few years (although I know from experience that they’re often wrong about that!), so local politics doesn’t seem terribly relevant to them. But as an institution, the Chicago Maroon has a responsibility to past, present, and future University students, and I believe it should strive to engender involvement in local affairs among the student body. While I would be thrilled if the Editorial Board were to give their endorsement to Ms. Miles, what is much more crucial is for you to encourage students to register to vote at their school addresses for February’s election and to feature coverage of the election prominently. Educate students on the history and present state of neighborhood development, and make sure they know what ward they will be voting in (which might be different from the ward they are currently living in!). Interview the candidates so that they can speak directly to the concerns of the student body. The University community can only thrive if students are willing to take an active role, and they can only do that on a meaningful scale if they are kept informed.

Sincerely,
Evan Jenkins, SB/AB 2006, SM 2009, PhD 2013

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About Evan Jenkins

I am an algorithmic trader and occasional writer living in Hyde Park, Chicago. I recently received my PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago.
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