- Jessica Koscielniak/Sun-Times Media
- Seventh Ward alderman Natashia Holmes says city job cuts have a “dramatic impact” on struggling black neighborhoods.
Even in job losses, there are two Chicagos.
Over the last year and a half, layoffs, retirements, and unfilled positions have trimmed hundreds of workers from the city of Chicago’s payroll, continuing a leaner-government trend that’s been under way for the last decade.
But the job cuts weren’t spread evenly across the city. Residents of neighborhoods on the south and southwest sides lost a total of 525 city jobs between the end of 2012 and April of this year—while communities on the north and northwest sides picked up 172 new jobs over the same period, according to city payroll records acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request.
That means that since 2011—when Rahm Emanuel became mayor and promised to bring fiscal discipline to City Hall—more than 1,600 jobs have been slashed from the city payroll. And workers from the south and southwest sides accounted for more than three of every four of the cuts.
“It has a dramatic impact,” says Alderman Natashia Holmes of the Seventh Ward. “It’s not just someone losing their job—you also live in a community where you can’t access a new job.”
Holmes’s ward was one of the hardest hit by the city’s workforce reductions. Since 2011 the 60617 zip code area, which includes much of the ward, has incurred a net loss of nearly 500 city jobs. (You can see a detailed breakdown by area of the city here, or by zip code here.)
The municipal government is in a precarious financial position, and it’s well-known that for years the city payroll included scores of patronage positions. During a live interview at the Hideout last month, former alderman Richard Mell told Ben Joravsky and me how he was once able to help people out with jobs as Chicago River bridge tenders, even though they had no boats to watch.
But those gigs have been gone for a long time. Since Emanuel took office, the city has shed employees in the police department (316 positions), health department (262), Office of Emergency Management and Communications (254), Streets and Sanitation (160), and the fire department (125), among others.
These public-sector jobs formed the economic base of middle-class neighborhoods that are now imperiled, especially on the south and southwest sides. In 2012 and 2013, 826 homes went into foreclosure in the Seventh Ward, one of the highest totals in the city, according to the nonprofit Woodstock Institute. Other wards that have lost hundreds of city jobs over the last three years—including the Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, 18th, and 34th—also ranked in the top ten in foreclosures.
“Just because you’re saving a dollar here or there, you don’t look at the impact on our communities,” says Alderman Roderick Sawyer (Sixth), who’s called for greater transparency and analysis before jobs are privatized. “These people can no longer pay a mortgage, they can no longer spend money on goods and services, they can’t use public transportation as much. I think this is devastating our communities.”
The city’s policies for spurring private-market investment haven’t helped. As a study by the Grassroots Collaborative found last year, residents of black neighborhoods have lost jobs thanks in part to the city’s tax increment financing program, which collected hundreds of millions of tax dollars and poured almost all of them into the Loop and surrounding areas.
Even successes have been hard fought. A new Walmart opened in the Ninth Ward last summer—but only after years of political maneuvering and millions of dollars in public subsidies. The summer before that, 18th Ward alderman Lona Lane decided to let a pawn shop move into a vacant lot on the busy corner of 79th and Western, saying the four jobs it offered were better than none. Residents revolted, and the plan was eventually withdrawn.
“We’re having trouble attracting quality investment,” Holmes says. Faced with limited shopping options, residents who can spend their money elsewhere do so. But then investors say there’s no evidence that they can make money in the community, and the cycle continues.
Holmes says her goal is to make her ward more attractive for investors. “We have all this opportunity in neighborhoods that were once vibrant. We have the infrastructure. We’re close to the lake and to transportation networks.”
But maintaining infrastructure is also harder. While the leaner payroll helps the city’s books, it also limits its ability to deliver services.
Sawyer says aldermen need to summon “the fortitude to stand up and state that yes, this is a strong council form of government.” He says they need to demand more information about which jobs are being eliminated and what the consequences are.
Holmes agrees. “We need to start now, because by the time we get to the budget hearings a lot of this stuff has been determined.” And then aldermen tend to vote for it anyway.