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Case Study: Edison Park

95% white; poverty rate 2%



As elsewhere in Chicago, political signs dot yards, businesses, and bus stops in Edison Park, a small patch of neighborhood on the city's far northwest side. Richard Gonzalez, for 18 years a Chicago police officer, shares top billing on Edison Park's wide lawns with Mary O'Connor, proprietor of O'Connor's Deli & Market ("Irish groceries are our specialty"), and Maurita Gavin, administrative assistant to outgoing alderman Brian Doherty. On his signs, Gonzalez's name sits atop punchy slogans: "Change Versus More of the Same" and "Tired of Basement Flooding?"

The ward the candidates are vying to represent is the 41st, comprised of Edison Park and Norwood Park, Edgebrook, Oriole Park, Wildwood, and O'Hare. Together the 'hoods form a westerly sprawl, starting at the Edens Expressway and ending at the airport. The 41st is notable for Doherty, the lone Republican on the City Council, and Edison Park is notable for its racial makeup: at 95 percent, it's the whitest neighborhood in town. Its median household income is $83,000, its family poverty rate 2 percent.

The census estimates we used, from 2005 to 2009, showed just over 400 Hispanics living in the area—4 percent of the population—and not a single African-American. But those estimates are based on a sampling, and Edison Parkers I talked with said there actually are a handful of blacks among the 11,600 residents.

But back to those signs: flooding's a big issue. Gonzalez's young campaign manager, Jason Hernandez, explained it to me while we drove through the neighborhood. There are no reservoirs, he said. "Every time there's even a somewhat serious rainstorm, you take a drive down Devon Avenue, it's one of the most depressing things you've seen in your life. The contents of a family's basement—pictures, videos, carpet, clothing, TVs—it's all out on the curb." It gets people asking, he said, "'What am I entitled to as a taxpayer?'"

Hernandez told me more than once that the neighborhood, which forms a sort of salient into the suburbs—it's surrounded on three sides by Niles and Park Ridge—considers itself a "suburb in the city."

Gonzalez's name on yard signs here swims in a sea of Irish: O'Connor, Murphey, Quinn, Mullen. "It was very hostile when we moved here," said Gonzalez, who's of Puerto Rican descent. That was 20 years ago. "When we first came in, they were a little surprised, a little shocked, a little discouraged, maybe. But that changed after two months of them knowing us. And it's been roses ever since."

Another aldermanic contender, Thomas Patrick Murphey, said he's noticed "a homogeneousness" when looking at voter sheets: "Just from a cursory glance, there are a lot of ethnic Polish and Irish surnames."

Murphey said he doesn't know why Edison Park is as white as it is. "I don't, in any way, shape, or form, get any sense of racial biasedness in the neighborhood."

Houses aren't particularly ostentatious in Edison Park—this isn't Wilmette, or even Oak Park—but neither are they as modest as what you'd find in, say, Jefferson Park. Aside from some small businesses clustered along a short stretch of Northwest Highway, the area is composed mainly of single-family homes. "They frown upon the idea of multi-dwelling units" in Edison Park, Hernandez said, and that "relates directly to their desire to maintain the suburban character."

Another sticking point in this year's aldermanic campaign is crime. It's rare here, but Gonzalez says he worries that the diversion of police resources into higher-crime neighborhoods could leave Edison Park vulnerable.

Candidates are playing to a crowd of city workers, including many cops and firefighters. "We have like half a dozen firefighters that live on our block alone," Murphey said.

The area's schools are a source of neighborhood pride, but they're in need of infrastructure improvement. Murphey pointed out trailers that Ebinger, a public grammar school, installed to handle student overflow. Hernandez said the problem is due partly to a lack of funding and partly to overcrowding—families moving illegally into the ward, into homes not zoned for multi-dwelling units "because people are so adamant about getting their kids into these schools."

Hernandez stressed that residents who complain of schools with too few resources are "not indifferent to the concerns of low-income communities." But neither do they want their own concerns forgotten. "You buy a $400,000 home and you send your kid to the school that's right across the street and you expect a classroom," he said. "We pay very high property taxes. Our cops are going away. Our schools are struggling. There's a sense that there are two Chicagos. There's downtown, and then there's the rest of us."

Sam Worley


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