A Former Gang Member, A Gay Bar, And Trump: A Look At Honorary Street Signs

Honorary Signs
Two honorary street signs on Sedgwick Street in Chicago. John Picken / Flickr
Honorary Signs
Two honorary street signs on Sedgwick Street in Chicago. John Picken / Flickr

A Former Gang Member, A Gay Bar, And Trump: A Look At Honorary Street Signs

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Honorary street signs for President-elect Donald Trump were taken down this week by city crews, a sign of how the relationship between the city and the Republican businessman has soured since the election.

But the calls for removing the Trump Plaza signs are just the latest example of how honorary street signs can create a bumpy ride at City Hall. Some debates over street signs have even been more heated than talks over the mayor’s budget proposals.

Aldermen this year have introduced 95 honorary street sign ordinances, and 80 signs have received the final green light, according to city data. The signs are sometimes used by aldermen to reward political allies or curry favor with influential people in their wards.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st Ward, introduced the most honorary sign ordinances this year with nine.

Of the 95 proposals, 78 were for people and 17 were for businesses, churches, community groups or sports teams, among others. They included “Honorary Big Chicks Way,” “Papa Chris’ Place,” “WGN Flag & Decorating Co. Avenue” and “CR Senior League World Champions 2016 Way.”

Businessmen, musicians, religious leaders, teachers and veterans were common honorees. Some of the most recognizable names to receive the honor this year include musicians Willie Buck and Terrance Callier, former NFL coach Marv Levy, and former Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele. Musician Gene Duke Chandler and Chicago Cub Javy Baez were nominated last month and have not yet had their signs approved by the City Council.

Julian D. King, the nephew of Grammy Award-winning singer Jennifer Hudson, had a street named after him more than seven years after he was murdered in October 2008. Another murder victim, Shavon L. Dean, had an honorary street sign unveiled for him in August. Dean, 14, was shot dead in 1994. The suspect, 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, was found dead later that year. The high-profile case landed on the cover of Time magazine.

The deluge of honorary signs has become a burden, according to influential Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th Ward. Beale unsuccessfully tried to create a speedbump on street signs Wednesday by imposing restrictions that would:

  • Limit the number of proposals to two per year for each alderman.

  • Prohibit living people from being honored.

  • Prevent names that “could be considered derogatory, pejorative, obscene or blasphemous.”

  • Put a five-year expiration on signs. If the sign isn’t renewed, it will be removed by city crews.

  • Pay the $1,000 installation cost for the signs through the $1.32 million “menu money” fund set aside for each alderman. The Chicago Department of Transportation currently covers the costs.

Beale said the signs have become so much of a problem that he would like to get rid of them altogether. As chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, which oversees honorary street signs, Beale said he is well aware of the headaches the signs can sometimes cause.

“I challenge anybody to drive through the city and name who these people are on these signs,” Beale said. “I guarantee you, 99 percent, the vast majority of them, you won’t recognize who these people are.”

Earlier this year, he was not happy when Ald. Toni Foulkes, 16th Ward, wanted to honor former gang member and community activist Hal Baskin with a sign along a portion of 65th Street in the Englewood neighborhood.

Beale’s aspirations to abolish honorary street signs are not shared by Linda Zabors, a local sign aficionado who runs Honorary Chicago and wrote a guide to local street signs.

“Most of the people on the signs are very obscure, very local,” Zabors said. “They will never be in Wikipedia. But they did something for Chicago, for the community, that people wanted to acknowledge.”

Zabors said one of her favorite honorary signs is near the Art Institute of Chicago. The sign is for Swami Vivekananda, who served as the delegate for India at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893 that coincided with the World’s Fair. Vivekananda, who played a large role in introducing Hinduism to the West, gave a speech outside the Art Institute during his visit to Chicago.

“The signs aren’t just placed anywhere,” Zabors said. “There’s a connection to Chicago.”

Claire Donnelly contributed to this report.