by Gabriel Piemonte

I had the great good fortune to know Leon Despres a little when I worked at the Hyde Park Herald. Leon knew the true value of things and had that all-too-rare gift of tuning out the world’s noise that measures everything in dollars. He valued the Herald because he recognized that the power of a free press to strengthen democracy begins in the humble, homely reporting of bake sales and community meetings. As a result, I had remarkable access to a South Side political legend.
Leon was famous for being Fifth Ward Alderman when that meant being the alderman for Hyde Park, before politicking created the absurd ward boundaries we have across the city today. Leon would lecture Mayor Richard J. Daley on matters of principle and get his mic cut off in City Council chambers. He didn’t care; he would go keep on lecturing, because right is right.

Leon was alderman for 20 years, from 1955 to 1975. He said the alderman has two jobs. One of them is housekeeping: keep the garbage barrels emptied; fix the roads; get rid of the rats. The other is to speak the values of the community in public, to represent what is best about the neighborhood one represents, so that nobody forgets it and so it can help you and everybody else make better choices.

Leon seemed to always keep the ideal Hyde Park in mind. He fought to increase the amount of public housing to be put in Hyde Park during Urban Renewal. He was once shot and refused to press charges, using the opportunity to raise the issue of gun control. He was a great supporter, as one would hope, of the struggle for civil rights.

Today’s aldermen do not share Leon’s philosophy, based on their actions, and it’s too bad. Instead, they adopt a kind of middle-of-the-road stance, taking positions on topics that have made their way into the popular cultural consciousness (foie gras, plastic bags) but taking no substantive action regarding the underlying issues (animal cruelty, climate change). It’s sad, because our cities have so many serious issues they could be leaders in addressing. Instead, they do just enough to not make waves and to get re-elected.

In this historic moment in the history of the South Side, we cannot afford middle-of-the-road aldermen. We need bold action, and we need unity. Chicago alderman are famous for ignoring anything that does not happen in their ward. We need the South Lakefront aldermen to stand together and present a vision for how the coming changes to the South Side will benefit us, the residents of these communities.

Will we get this? Probably not – so we need to do it ourselves. South Siders, let’s come together around a vision for our communities that takes advantage of the growing interest in development here to make lasting changes that benefit everybody. Let’s share ideas and hash them out. Let’s engage in robust debate and agree to disagree with civility.

We need to have faith in our own ability to make change in our communities. The truth is, we do it all the time. It is community members that change a block from struggling to flourishing. It is the neighborhood that starts community gardens, organizes block clubs, and keeps an eye on one another. When things like these do not happen, communities languish, and no amount of outside pressure will make a difference until we decide we want to make a difference. The health of our communities begins and ends with us.

Leon Despres’ description of what an alderman ought to do is really a great description of most leaders: make sure the day-to-day business is handled and articulate a vision for the future. Unfortunately, it is not only our political leadership that is falling short. The South Side’s leaders in all sectors have been coasting for too long. We need a vision from below, one that prioritizes people instead of cultivating individual personalities. The people must steer the ship – no more would-be saviors, no more being told what is best for us. In 2017, the people should decide what direction we are going in, and the leader should see enacting that vision as his or her job #1.

(Photo: Ald Leon Despres (5th) on bullhorn. Tribune photo.)