Chicago’s 46th Ward Alderman Helen Shiller believes twenty-four years is enough
Chicago’s esteemed Alderman of the 46th Ward Helen Shiller will be retiring after what her constituents would consider as 24 carat gold years of social justice advocacy and democratic machine opposition. The following is a candid interview with the long time out-spoken Uptown Alderman Helen Shiller.
Q. How long have you been alderman of the 46th ward?
A. I was elected in April 1987, so that will be twenty-four years.
Q. What inspired you to embark upon the field of politics?
A. I was involved in the Uptown community in the early seventies, and if one had any concern about anything that was going on, it was hard to do anything without being on a collision course with the regular democratic machine. Therefore, it was futile for me to avoid politics.
It was imperative to challenge their attempts to control people’s lives. In 1978, there was a special election up here which was ultimately extended to the 1979 regular election. I ran and almost won, except that the election ended up in a run-off, which I narrowly lost. As a result of that election, I vowed not to run again. However, I actively participated in Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral election. Harold was one of the people for whom I had a great deal of respect. I voted with him in many city wide issues. I was proud to be one of the people who encouraged him to run for mayor. In 1985, he urged me to run again for alderman in the 46th ward against one of his opposition in the city council. During this time, there was a divided council that resulted in twenty-nine against his policies and twenty-one in favor. Hence, it was difficult for him to accomplish his objectives. A 1985 special election was initiated in response to a flawed remapping effort in 1980. So, there were many special elections during that period of time. In 1986, following the special elections, the mayor had a split number of twenty-five supporters and twenty-five oppositions. He was able to get some things done by persuading the support of a tie breaker. The standing support of twenty-six votes was really essential for the success of his initiatives. He argued to me that I could be that twenty- sixth vote. I was initially abstinent, but when I evaluated the playing field, I concluded that the incumbent was vulnerable for defeat.
In light of my new perspective, coupled with the fact that I convinced him to run for mayor, I was compelled to comply to his request. There were some urgent issues which had to be addressed. The ward was comprised of Uptown and Lakeview , but the Uptown portion was void of many city services. For many years, I was involved in advocating for Uptown community services such as health care, housing, and employment. Hence, I welcomed the privilege to work in unison with the Mayor and the city council as the twenty-sixth vote in order to make a real impact in providing access to city services for all of the city’s citizens. He always said that if he could get twenty-six votes, then forty votes were inevitable since the people who were on the fence were seeking to be included among the company of victors. The Mayor was absolutely right.
Q. Exactly what is your function as an alderman?
There are fifty wards in Chicago, and each alderman represents his or her respective ward. Each ward has a population of approximately sixty thousand people. Each ward has different needs that reflect its diverse demographics. The 46th ward is in an area of the city where housing is very dense. It is vertical rather than horizontal. Space for parks, parking, and development is more scarce in the 46th ward than in other wards
Generally speaking, people expect the alderman to make sure that they have access to city services based on their individual needs . The required services may include the following: police and fire services, wire and sewer services, street lights and traffic signals, collection of waste, street cleaning. In the City of Chicago, the Department of Streets and Sanitation picks up garbage from households that are four units or less. Anything that’s five units or more is required to have private waste disposal services. This rule is applied to rental housing, condominiums, or co-operatives. The responsibility of Street and Sanitation is to make sure that the waste from the private dumpsters isn’t overflowing into the alleys or the public ways. In summary, the responsibilities of an alderman are to make sure that the city is fulfilling its service obligation to its residents. The job of an alderman is to prioritize the needs of the community and efficiently distribute the meager resources among competing factions.
The alderman is the access point that helps anyone who walks into his or her office to navigate the bureaucracy for the purpose of obtaining the necessary city services. To that end, my staff and I have worked diligently. For example, every other month we had some people from the Secretary of State’s office come to our office in order to provide applications for licenses and state identification cards. We have established a relationship with food depositories which allow us to bring in a crew of volunteers to distribute food to the needy once a month in one of the local churches. We work hard to identify opportunities for affordable housing , so we can connect those resources with those who seek them.
We also have some legislative responsibilities in the city council. Chief among those responsibilities is the annual city budget. I spent a lot of time in order to understand what is available and what is possible. Also, I have to make sure that what we are doing down town will not adversely impact my constituents.
Q. In regard to waste disposal, do you have a recycling plan in place in your ward?
A. The Department of Street and Sanitation had designated our ward as one of the original recycling pilot wards. We continue to encourage recycling. We have an ordinance in the city that requires everybody who has commercial pick up to recycle. Most people don’t know about it, so it’s not done across the board. A few years ago, the 46th Ward did a pilot program with our multi unit buildings. We tried to identify what kept people from recycling. We learned that many people wanted to recycle, but didn’t know how . We worked with them and showed them how to do it. We connected them with the appropriate waste haulers, and we began to see a significant increase in recycling. We discontinued the pilot in favor of an on-line tool kit that we created which explained the details of how to recycle. Everyone who took advantage of our pilot program, as well as using our on-line tool kit, has saved money on recycling, and isolated their waste from our land fills. If a building is designed in a manner that lends itself to recycling there would be much more recycling. I crafted a building code which would facilitate the factors that promote recycling. I’m happy to say that it has passed out of committee although I had to lower my expectations. Now, I just hope it will pass the city counsel.
Q. How many people do you have on your staff?
A. We have three staff members who are salaried and full time. They are paid out of the aldermanic account and we have two staff members whom I pay out of the contractual account. Then, I recently became a committee chair, and there are two people who work for that committee; one is full time and the other is only part time. That makes a total of seven people on my staff.
Q. Out of your many accomplishments, will you mention a few of which you are most proud?
A. I am very proud of the antiapartheid legislation and campaign in which I was engaged. During 1990, those activities resulted in closing the loopholes that allowed banks to avoid the requirements to divest their investments in South Africa. Despite the releasing of Nelson Mandela, the city ordinance basically gave any bank that was doing business with the city a mandate to divest in South Africa by the end of the year unless the South African government (SAFG)was committed to ending apartheid. Other municipalities followed suit, and closed their loopholes, adding to a flood gate that caused the SAFG to loose many millions of dollars. The global economic boycott ultimately forced SAFG to the bargaining table in order to negotiate the end of apartheid.
Q. How did you manage to attract a big box store like Target in your ward in such a challenging economic environment?
That’s the second achievement of which I’m most proud. It is the whole ability to develop without displacement. Target was part of an overall development that consumed a decade, and much community processing and putting together. Target was a very big deal. I went three or four consecutive years frequenting the Las Vegas shopping conferences which were held there every May. I met and became well acquainted with the representative from Target who was over the national person who made the decision of where the new Targets would be located. She had lived in Uptown in the 1970s. Therefore, she was able to relate to some of my arguments, since she was familiar with the Uptown landscape. Our biggest obstacle was that most retailers look at Uptown and its demographic construction, and concluded that the level of income was not sufficient to merit their interest. I made it a priority to persuade them that there is a breadth of income up here. People with varying incomes would be shopping at Target. Hence, they were not properly estimating the amount of money that would be spent in their store.
The situation required them to look across the board in order to ascertain the magnitude of the true purchasing power. There was also the added incentive from the combination of red line commuters, and the traffic that was emerging from Broadway and Montrose which could easily result in over ten thousand people that would patronize Target on a daily basis. The density of the Uptown population is yet another attractive asset that shouldn’t be over looked. The potential was huge, and once I convinced them to evaluate the details in an unconventional manner, the perception of the community was transformed to a legitimate prospect. It was a real benefit to negotiate with someone who was familiar with the community. While I was persuading my Target connection that Uptown would be an ideal location for her retail company to invest in, the developer was busy cultivating his own relationship to enhance our objective with another influential Target official. Together we made a successful team. We were able to complete the economic development project, which included Target and affordable housing. It required moving Aldi, and at one time, we thought that we could have a movie theater deal, but it didn’t materialize. We had a really effective transit oriented development that created over three hundred jobs. Eighty percent went to those who live within two miles of the location. One hundred and eighty units of affordable housing were created. I’m pretty proud of that. Finally, I contributed to keeping affordable housing on the front burner of city policy and established new tools to combat this terrible problem.
Q. Did you vote for the privatization of the parking meters?
A. I didn’t have a chance to vote, since I was out of town, but I will tell you what I think about it. The arrangement consisted of selling the parking meters. We had many parking meters in this city, most of which didn’t work. There were many aldermen who were calling not only to replace them, but to use our street pay and display boxes which is what we currently have. They also wanted to raise the charge which hasn’t happened in over twenty years. During the time of the deal we had sixty pay and display meter on the streets; they were very expensive and hard to get. During the briefings, my concerns were how much we were going to get for this, and how much the price of parking would be. I wanted to have some flexibility about where the meters went, about the hours on the meters, and then what we were going to charge. Therein was the problem because we basically sold a bunch of equipment that didn’t work for $1.3 billion to an entity. Then we required that they replace it with much more high level modern equipment that did work.
The problem is that we agreed to let them accelerate the price of parking too quickly. We still get the money from the ticket that people get for not putting money in the meters. The other problem is that for seventy-five years the parking meter company will be able to collect the money from the parking meters directly. However, they will be responsible for maintaining and replacing the meters for the duration of the contract. Finally, they have too much control over where the meters are placed. We had four or five briefings about the details. I thought that they would vote on the meters when I came back from out of town. If I had been here, I probably would have voted for the parking meter deal because of our budget constraints. But, I would first have made certain that my issues were resolved. For example, as alderman I would have made sure that we secured the authority to have the option to decide where standing zones were placed, and on which blocks the meters were installed.
Q. Do you have any political allies?
A. The alderman with whom I like to work most in city council is Alderman Lyles of the 6th Ward. We are partners in constructing the budget. I respect her because she’s smart, committed. She has a breadth of knowledge and a depth of understanding in regards to problem solving. I generally work well with all of my colleagues.
Q. Are you endorsing a candidate for your aldermanic seat and for the mayoral race?
A. At this point I’m not endorsing any aldermanic candidate. I may support a mayoral candidate; I’ll just have to wait and see if I’m going to endorse anybody.
Q. Why are you retiring?
A. Twenty-four years is a long time to be doing the same stuff, and I’m ready to try something new.
Q. Do you have any plans for higher office?
Q Do you think that Chicago should have a park to honor its founder Jean Baptist Point DuSable?
A. I think that it’s a great idea.
Q. How do you think that such a venture should be funded?
A. I think that we should take an existing park, preferably where his post was by Navy Pier, and simply rename it after him.