Asiaha Butler stands on the southwest corner of 63rd and Halsted on a recent weekday, and scans her surroundings. From here, she can point to three different wards of Chicago, all within shouting distance: the 16th, the 20th and the 6th wards.
“This is 20,” Butler, CEO of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood said. “Actually that might be 20,” she corrects herself, pointing across the street. “But this is 16. And then if you walk, like, a block or two up, you’re in [Ward] 6.”
Those are just three of the six wards that snake and weave through Englewood and West Englewood, which Butler refers to as Greater Englewood, in the heart of Chicago’s South Side. Butler says the dissection of her community into so many wards has made it difficult to lobby for change in a neighborhood suffering from high rates of violence and economic despair due to decades of disinvestment.
Butler and others want the area to be consolidated into one or two city wards. They thought this decade would be their shot, as city council members undergo the decennial process to remap the city’s wards based on 2020 census data.
This has become a common refrain from residents across the city during public hearings on the remap process: keep our communities together. Residents from West Town, Logan Square, Chinatown, Lincoln Park, and more, have testified. A draft map released by the city earlier this month shows that the Asian American community may emerge a winner – with its first majority ward – but that some community efforts to consolidate Englewood have once again failed.
But one expert says that’s in part because of the competing issues map makers may be trying to solve.
“It is just not possible to keep all communities that have some form of integrity together when you’re trying to solve these other remap problems,” said Jim Lewis, a researcher at the Great Cities Institute within the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Lewis explains that while aldermen are tasked with creating wards that are roughly the same population – about 55,000 people in Chicago – many are attempting to draw a map that creates as many majority-Black or majority-Latino wards as possible, to maximize the chances of sending minority candidates to council.
“The problem so often comes back to the issue that we’re trying to get some form of racial equity in the City Council and that means in drawing of Latino-majority and African American-majority wards, you’re going to have irregular shapes because the map drawers are trying to use the population efficiently and that just doesn’t come out in squares.”
Greater Englewood’s population is carved up
In Englewood and West Englewood, under a proposal supported by the Black Caucus, blocks of the neighborhoods are once again carved into multiple wards, where the strong contingent of Black population would be used to create more majority-Black wards.
“That’s what happened in the last remap appears to be happening again in this one,” Lewis said.
A proposal from the council’s Rules Committee, which leads the remap process, would keep Greater Englewood split into five different wards, using blocks of the neighborhood to bolster the 16th and 17th wards that span west into more Latino areas of the city.
That’s even as Greater Englewood, an area of about 54,000 residents, potentially has enough people for a single Chicago ward, even despite a waning population.
But Alderman Stephanie Coleman, who represents the 16th ward, supports splitting up Greater Englewood, saying it’s essential to maintain the number of majority-Black wards in the city, and, in hand, the power of the Black Caucus.
“In order for representation, fair representation within our members of the Black Caucus … historically 16th ward, 20th ward, 15th ward, 6th ward, 17th ward has always been a part of the Englewood community,” she said.
It’s a strategy that doesn’t sit well with Butler, of R.A.G.E., who said she’s had to visit multiple aldermen representing her area every time she’s looking for help for her community.
“I think, one day, I had three meetings at three different offices about different initiatives that they were doing,” she said. “And they were all different. It’s hard to have a cohesive plan for the community.”
“At the end of the day, is it about you guys having Black wards?” she asked. “Or is it about a community having some synergy?”
“I would hate to let go of a seat, but I know one thing: if we have five and a quarter or six [aldermen], and our community still looks the way that it did 10 years ago, apparently that is not in our best interest.”
A map from the council’s Latino Caucus would decrease the number of wards in Greater Englewood, drawing three wards around the area, with around 70% of the area in just one ward, according to the caucus. Butler says R.A.G.E. has not decided whether it supports that map, or if it will endorse a specific map proposal at all.
There’s disagreement on how to best achieve racial equity, with the Black and Latino Caucuses at a standstill over how many seats each caucus should draw. Some say achieving racial equity in Chicago through a remap should look differently – focusing on keeping communities in need of investment and resources intact.
Instead, many council members focus on how many seats Black and Latino aldermen can maintain and draw, said Robert Vargas, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, whose research focuses on how remapping shapes the conditions of cities.
“Those are the questions that the city council wants you to be asking,” Vargas said. “Because those are the parameters of the debate that they want to have.”
“This is the problem with redistricting,” Vargas continued. “When it’s not done in a transparent way, there are very few checks and balances for community groups to go in and check whether the map makers are drawing the districts in these creative, crazy shapes for reasons of population equity, or for other reasons like drawing up an enemy or a particular council member wanting a development.”
Vargas points to a map drawn through a citizen-led, independent process that focused on keeping communities together and achieving racial equity in council. That map, referred to as “The People’s Map,” would create a majority-Asian ward, 14 majority-Latino wards and 15 majority-Black wards.
Asian American community eyes potential majority ward
To an extent, greater Chinatown community members can sympathize with Englewood residents’ redistricting concerns. Chinatown has historically been split up into three different wards, making it hard for the neighborhood’s largely immigrant community to lobby for resources.
But this year, residents are cautiously optimistic about their chances for a historic Asian American-majority ward.
“We’ve been chopped up and divided for many decades,” said David Wu, a Chinatown resident and executive director of Pui Tak Center, a church-based community center. “I’m really excited that for the first time we could have a majority Asian American ward.”
Wu said he’s been watching the area’s population shifts closely for the past three decades. After a challenging census last year — in which the pandemic curtailed door-knocking and community events, limiting census outreach to social media and chat platforms — he was relieved when the numbers showed what he and other longtime residents had known anecdotally: the Asian population in Armour Square, Bridgeport, and McKinley Park grew.
“This time there’s facts, there’s data, and the reality that we are a protected group in the Voting Rights Act,” said Wu, who is also board president of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC).
He said he is buoyed by the fact that most groups — including both the Latino and Black caucuses — have been in favor of a new majority Asian ward, and that most map proposals so far have reflected that.
The Rules Committee map features a 50.03%, “barely there” majority in the 11th ward; however, Wu said the community would still consider a ward of their own a win.
“One of our calls is to go from zero Asian American [wards] to one, and so if [the majority] is 50.01, we’ll take it,” Wu said. “In some ways, it’s just symbolic, but symbolism is really important.”
Ten years ago, during the Illinois state legislative remap, groups like CBCAC successfully advocated to consolidate Chinatown residents into one district, Wu said. A few years later, that district helped Theresa Mah become the first Asian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly.
“There’s five now in the [Asian American] caucus” in Springfield, Wu said. “You always have to start with one.”
Lewis, with UIC, said drawing the ward boundaries to up the majority in that new ward would begin to encroach on other neighborhoods and racial groups, which could prove a bigger fight.
“It may be that 50% is all you can get,” Lewis said.
Still, Lewis said 50.03% may be enough to ensure a future Asian American alderman in City Council.
“[It] comes down to the politics,” Lewis said. “I think if they are organized… and get out the vote and have a good candidate, then I think, absolutely, they can win.”
For now, Wu says the community is laser-focused on getting the ward.
“Our efforts are just to get the majority Asian American ward, so that whoever is our alderman just represents us well,” he said. “We do want an Asian American alderman eventually, so we are hopeful that this might be the place to start.”
The Chinatown community’s plan is not without resistance, including from Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson, who currently represents the 11th ward. He recently sent a letter to his constituents saying that while he would like to keep Chinatown together, he does not favor proposals that split up Canaryville or bring in McKinley Park into the fold.
“Dividing areas or neighborhoods based on race is indeed racism,” Thompson wrote in the letter, which he posted to Twitter.
Last Friday, Canaryville residents turned out in large numbers to a public hearing, asking for their neighborhood to be kept intact in the remap, instead of being split into three different wards: the 11th, 20th and 15th, the latter of which is represented by Alderman Raymond Lopez.
A WBEZ analysis of election results from the 2019 aldermanic race shows that just six of the current 11th ward’s 38 precincts would be completely cut out in the proposed Rules Committee map. Overall, Thompson performed better in the parts of the 11th ward that would remain a part of the new 11th ward compared to his margins in the six precincts that would be entirely cut out.
However, Canaryville as a neighborhood delivered Thompson some of his highest margins of victory in 2019 among all the precincts in the 11th ward. This would mean that losing part of Canaryville to another ward removes stronghold precincts for the current alderman.
But some argue that protecting the geography of a historically white neighborhood isn’t what needs to be done.
“The Voting Rights Act protects minority communities; it doesn’t protect geographic boundaries that may have been set up at some point,” Wu said.
Lewis echoed that sentiment, adding, in general, “more disadvantaged communities — communities that have suffered more poverty — would benefit from more coherent representation” than communities that can advocate for themselves in other ways. Thus, it may be more crucial for a neighborhood like Englewood to be kept together than a predominantly white, middle-class community.
Until the final vote is cast on the new map — be it in City Council or in a citywide referendum — Wu said the Chinatown community will remain watchful.
“There’s gonna be a lot of political maneuvering,” he said. “So we have to be watchful to make sure that 50.03 doesn’t become 49.8 or something like that, which, [with] the horse trading at the very end, that could happen.”
Once the new map is passed, he and other residents are eager to make their voices heard on a number of issues: security, language access, a new high school nearby, and proposals to put a casino nearby that could harm residents who struggle with gambling addiction.
This story has been corrected to clarify that the proposed Rules Committee map would split Canaryville into three wards, not two.