What’s so special about the number 50?

By Sally Duros, Real Estate Editor
Chicago Sun-Times

Why do we have so many aldermen? New York City has one City Council member for every 159,000 residents and Los Angeles has 1 for every 226,000. But here in Chicago, we have one City Council member for every 56,000 residents. That’s a lot of politics per square inch of neighborhood.

So why is that?

“It’s a legacy from when Chicago was an aspiring immigrant city,” said Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University. “It’s from when people couldn’t speak English, and neighborhoods had their own ethnic everything — from grocery stores to restaurants to political leaders.”
Green says the immigrant population at the turn of the 20th century put an indelible stamp on our form of government and the way we get things done.

“In 1890, almost 80 percent of the people living in Chicago were foreign born,” Green said. Up until the 1920s, Chicago had 35 wards with two alderman per ward, each alderman serving a two-year term.
The way things were organized, Chicago politics ran around the clock, with an election continually on the horizon.

Neighborhoods were ethnic enclaves that wanted their own alderman, police, firemen and community leadership, Green said.

In this city of little villages, we were full of diversity, but also ethnic segregation, Green said. The advantage of having so many wards was that everyone was ensured some representation, some jobs and their own piece of the action of a growing, vibrant city.

Chicago’s alderman are famous for their antics — legal and otherwise, according to Green.

It could be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth or, viewed from another perspective, many players making a more flavorful stew.

In some ways, having all these alderman might help us fulfill our municipal self-talk of being “The City that Works.”

Green said that it’s important to remember that by law, Chicago City Council has tremendous power.

Left to their own devices, all of these alderman could run the city into the ground, Green said.

So “what you wind up with, what you need is a politically strong mayor to keep the alderman in line.”
So if we had fewer alderman would we have less corruption?

“If you reduce the City Council by half, would that reduce the chance for corruption?” Green asks. It’s more likely we would “give alderman a chance to double their fun,” Green said.

Copyright (c) 2007 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.