CHICAGO/AMERICAN URBAN VOICES. I get off the Red Line train at Bryn Mawr, about six miles or ten kilometers north of the Loop, Chicago’s downtown.
It’s a crisp, sunny day and as I walk east towards Lake Michigan, past a couple of beautifully restored buildings on Bryn Mawr Avenue, it’s hard to imagine that this was a neighborhood on fire just a couple of decades ago. Crime and drugs was killing people, traffic was killing street life in this part of Chicago known as Edgewater.
I’m walking around to get a feel for the neighborhood before meeting one of the persons who played a central role in saving and restoring it to the pleasant and popular part of Chicago it is today.
Mary Ann Smith (right) is the alderman for the 48th ward, representing the local community of Edgewater in Chicago’s City Hall.
She receives me at her local office on North Broadway Avenue, and I’m not quite prepared for the bewildering experience a meeting with this remarkable woman turns out to be. I don’t think I’ve ever met a local politician so full of energy aimed at improving her community, and I’ve met a few.
I ask one question, something about cities and how to best improve them, and she talks the rest of the day.
“It all boils down to quality of life and trying to do things that don’t serve one kind of population at the expense of another”, says Smith.
When I read about Mary Ann Smith in Jeb Brugmann’s interesting book “Welcome to the Urban Revolution” (published last year), I realized that she would be a great example of a person committed to urban improvement that actually helped save a city.
Brugmann compares Chicago and Detroit, two big American cities with a similar background. Detroit collapsed and is today seen as one the greatest urban failures in the western world. Chicago could have gone the same way, but didn’t.
“In stunning contrast, Chicago has transformed itself district by district to resume its position as one of the most productive, creative, and vibrant cities of the world”, Brugmann writes.
A lot of this was done thanks to local community activists, and Mary Ann Smith was one of those before she entered local politics (you might recall another young community organizer on Chicago’s South Side who also entered politics and ended up in the White House).
I spend most of a working day with Mary Ann Smith and her colleagues in and around the alderman’s local office. By the end of the day she has told me the story of Edgewater, we have toured the neighborhood, had meetings with the local community groups and block clubs that form the backbone of the vibrant local democracy that Mary Ann Smith represents.
The atmosphere is relaxed but intense. There is no time to waste. Alderman Smith is dressed in blue jeans and drives around in a small car with a license plate saying “ALD BABE”. She has so many stories to tell and so many buildings to point out that I’m not sure she has an eye on the road as we travel the streets of Edgewater.
“When you walk around the neighborhood its hard to understand that in the 70’s, and even the 80’s, we had owners who burned down their buildings in arson for profit. My children used to look out the windows in the evenings and point out buildings that were on fire. But we decided not to give up our neighborhood”, says Smith.
Her background as an activist began with environmental issues concerning Lake Michigan. Another early issue was traffic and how it affected the local community. She got more and more involved in community politics when she in 1989 suddenly found herself appointed alderman for the 48th ward by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley who had picked her predecessor Kathy Osterman for the City Hall government.
She was first elected in 1991 and in February 2007 she was re-elected to her fifth full term of office.
As she tells the story of her many years of serving her community, she repeatedly comes back to the issue of cars and traffic and the harm it has done to so many American cities (Detroit being the prime example).
Edgewater, with some 60,000 residents within the 48th ward, lies at the upper end of Lake Shore Drive which connects central Chicago with its northern neighborhoods. This is where commuter traffic hits the streets and avenues of the local community.
“We now have some 150,000 vehicles commuting through this part of the city every day”, says Smith.
Early in her political career she began to study the effects the traffic had on Edgewater and she could see a clear connection to the decay of the neighborhood.
“This community was built for public transportation. Chicago used to have street cars every fourth or sixth block, which you can see on old maps. But for every decade the streets were widened to accommodate more traffic. Money for public transportation went down the toilet. You could see how the neighborhood was torn apart by this.”
As the old infrastructure crumbled and the cars took over, people began to leave for the suburbs. In the vacuum that followed, crime moved in and the neighborhood was soon in flames.
But Mary Ann Smith and her activist followers were not willing to give up. At one point in her early years as alderman she even began to physically challenge the drug traders.
“I had this colleague who was a big guy. We would take his jeep and drive around at night to street corners where we new the drug trade was going on. I would take a folding chair and sit down on the street corner. The presence lowered the comfort level for the criminals. It was dangerous, but my idea was that the police wouldn’t allow me to get shot”, Smith says.
This is just one example of the work Mary Ann Smith has done in Edgewater. Safety for the residents has been one of her cornerstones. Improving schools is another, sometimes a challenge in this diverse neighborhood with many newly arrived refugees.
Curbing traffic is a constant struggle. Sidewalks have been widened and the streets of Edgewater have come back to life. The proximity to a greatly improved waterfront at Lake Michigan has made this one of the most pleasant parts of Chicago.
The Bryn Mawr Historic District (left) with its beautifully restored buildings, where crime used to rule, is another source of great pride for Mary Ann Smith. On the other end of Edgewater, to the west, lies the old Swedish neighborhood Andersonville (above, right). Most Swedes have left, but a number of restaurants, shops and the Swedish American Museum reminds you of the heritage in what is now one of Chicago’s most attractive neighborhoods.
The achievement of the Edgewater activists led by Mary Ann Smith is a remarkable story of urban heroism. It goes beyond the struggle for a sustainable future in the environmental sense, even if that has been part of it.
In Edgewater, as in many other parts of Chicago, it started as a struggle for a future, period.
Mary Ann Smith sends me off with a heavy bag of material and impressions that could fill a book.
This is the fourth and final report on my meetings with American urban thinkers and activists in Chicago.