Last Friday, Chicago’s City Council overwhelmingly voted to rename Lake Shore Drive after Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the Black trading post operator who, along with his Potawatomi wife Kitihawa, established the first recorded permanent settlement in the area in the late 1700s, which eventually grew into our current metropolis. I had previously advocated for the change.
About a week before that I had found myself in a Twitter debate with four locally famous white men about whether the—largely white—opposition to renaming the iconic shoreline constituted a racial issue. More on that in a bit.
In the wake of last year’s police murder of George Floyd, the advocacy group Black Heroes Matter, along with African American aldermen David Moore (17th), the DuSable ordinance sponsor, and cosponsor Sophia King (4th) argued that it would be a powerful statement of pro-Blackness to rename the shoreline highway for DuSable as a citywide tribute. And they noted that, as an adventurous entrepreneur whose trading post was a place of positive cultural exchange for people from many backgrounds, the pioneer is a great role model for youth, especially African American children.
Aside from Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first Black female mayor, who argued that renaming Lake Shore Drive would be bad for Chicago’s brand, support for the ordinance among public figures, publications, and the general public was largely split along racial lines. Streetsblog contacted all 50 aldermen to get their positions in advance of the vote. All of the 19 council members who cosponsored the ordinance and/or said they planned to vote yes were Black or Latino. Meanwhile, all but one of the five aldermen who stated or strongly indicated opposition were non-Hispanic white (which I’ll henceforth refer to as “white.”)
Media commentary showed a similar, if somewhat less pronounced, racial divide. Black journalists Laura Washington and Mary Mitchell from the Sun-Times, and Michael Romain from the Wednesday Journal wrote in favor of the name change. “It’s time for the Black Father of Chicago to get his due,” Washington argued.
White Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times columnists Eric Zorn and Neil Steinberg offered semi-endorsements, saying their personal preferences were to keep Lake Shore Drive, but they understood that a decision to rename the highway DuSable Drive would probably be on the right side of history. “Here’s my superpower,” Steinberg wrote. “I also realize it isn’t all about me.”
The two anti-DuSable Drive op-eds I saw were both written by white men. Conservative Tribune columnist John Kass blasted the DuSable Drive campaign as “virtue signaling.” And Mark Konkol ran an op-ed in Patch arguing that Chicago should “Ditch the arbitrary call to rename Lake Shore Drive for DuSable.”
The right-leaning Tribune, which had a 75 percent non-Hispanic white editorial board at the time, ran an editorial called, “Saving Lake Shore Drive, honoring DuSable—and what readers had to say.” On closer inspection, the seven readers quoted in the piece, all of whom were opposed to the name change, appeared to be white, and most of them didn’t even live in Chicago.
Surveys also showed a sharp racial split on the issue among Chicago voters. A WGN news poll found that, of respondents with an opinion on the matter, 55 percent of Latinos, 57 percent of Asian American / Pacific Islander individuals, and 61 percent of African Americans supported the name change, but 66 percent of whites were opposed.
Another survey of local voters was bankrolled by the two most outspoken anti-DuSable Drive aldermen, Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd), both of whom oversee well-to-do, overwhelmingly white downtown wards, with $12,000 in campaign funds. The poll confirmed the racial divide, finding that Latinos were 28 percent more likely to be in favor of renaming Lake Shore than whites, and African Americans were nearly twice as likely.
But during that Twitter debate I mentioned the week before the vote, the four well-known white guys argued that it wasn’t even fair to characterize the heavily polarized DuSable Drive controversy as a racial issue. The participants included Hopkins and Reilly, plus the Tribune’s Zorn and Crain’s political writer Greg Hinz.
The discussion started after I tweeted out a statement to Streetsblog from Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), who’s Latino. “I have no doubt if Jean Baptiste Point du Sable were a white man this change would have been made long ago. The only thing controversial about renaming Lake Shore Drive for Chicago’s Black founding father is how long it’s taken, and the opposition it’s received from aldermen representing the most affluent and white areas of our city.”
“Does the fact that Italian-Americans support Columbus Day in larger percentages than other populations make the anti-Columbus Day position anti-Italian?” Zorn said in response. “Or is [the DuSable Drive opposition] maybe not about ethnicity at all?”
Hinz chimed in, “Couldn’t possibly be that the pros haven’t made a convincing case that dumping an historic name is worth it, could it?”
Alderman Hopkins then got involved, noting that in 2000 when the Park District wanted to let a developer turn the DuSable Park site into a parking lot, a group of mostly-white nearby residents organized to save the parkland.
Then Alderman Reilly entered the conversation. “All of the feedback I’ve received about LSD is related to nostalgia—not race. And that feedback isn’t specific to any demographic group.”
Reilly had put a negative spin on the results from the survey he paid for, telling Hinz in Crain’s, “nearly 7 out of 10 Chicago voters currently do not support renaming Lake Shore Drive,” which could easily give one the impression that people of all races were against the plan. But it was also true that almost six out of ten voters weren’t opposed.
“Numbers and aldermanic support tell us that, in fact, as a group, only whites are opposed,” I tweeted.
That seemed to really set Reilly off. He fired back that he helped get the Michigan Avenue bridge named after the city founder in 2010, and along with his DuSable Drive adversary Alderman King, in 2018 he got Congress Parkway renamed for Black journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells. “I’ve actually put my money where my mouth is. Now, explain again how this is a racial issue and then tell me what you’ve ever accomplished recognizing historic people of color.”
That reminded me of what Richard J. Daley once said about social justice activists, “Where are their programs? What trees do they plant?” Not long after losing the DuSable Drive vote, Reilly blocked me on Twitter.
Ultimately Alderman Moore agreed to Mayor Lightfoot’s proposal for a rather wordy compromise name: “Jean Baptiste Point du Sable Lake Shore Drive.” When it was time for the vote, out of the 48 aldermen who participated, 33 supported the name change.
Of the 15 naysaying aldermen, as reported by Block Club Chicago, none were Black, and 12 were white, representing two-thirds of the city’s white aldermen. One thing all of those 15 wards have in common is significant white populations, in most cases white majorities, based on 2015 data. The districts include downtown; the near and mid-north lakefront; West Ridge; the far northwest side; and parts of the far southwest side. The latter three regions are home to most of Chicago’s Trump supporters. Here’s a list of the no votes.
- Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd): White alderman, 77 percent white ward
- Alderman Marty Quinn (13th): White alderman, 33 percent white ward
- Alderman Matt O’Shea (19th): White alderman, 67 percent white ward
- Alderman Silvana Tabares (23rd): Latino alderman, 30 percent white ward
- Alderman Ariel Reboyras (30th): Latino alderman, 28 percent white ward
- Alderman Felix Cardona (31st): Latino Alderman, 19 percent white ward
- Alderman Nick Sposato (38th): White alderman, 69 percent white ward
- Alderman Samantha Nugent (39th): White alderman, 54 percent white ward
- Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st): White alderman, 82 percent white ward
- Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd): White alderman, 69 percent white ward
- Alderman Michele Smith (43rd): White alderman, 85 percent white ward
- Alderman Tom Tunney (44th): White alderman, 83 percent white ward
- Alderman James Gardiner (45th): White alderman, 64 percent white ward
- Alderman James Cappleman (46th): White alderman, 57 percent white ward
- Alderman Debra Silverstein (50th): White alderman, 45 percent white ward
Tunney’s statement in the wake of the meeting seemed typical of these aldermen’s rationales: “My vote today reflected the resounding feedback I received from my constituents.” Again, more than four-fifths of his constituents are white.
During a press conference after the hearing, Lightfoot implied the months-long debate over DuSable Drive was a waste of time. “During this time that the council has talked about renaming the roads and signs, not one baby was fed and no worker got a job.”
But Moore and King shed tears, apparently of joy and catharsis, as they spoke with reporters after the vote, suggesting they felt the racially charged battle was worth it. “Fighting for a street name shouldn’t be tough, especially when it’s your founder, so that brings up a lot of emotion,” explained King. “We live with that unconscious bias, and conscious bias every single day. When I think about my mother who picked cotton in the Mississippi Delta, I know that this will bring pride to her. When I think about young people who don’t know who DuSable was, I know we did the right thing.”
In response to a question from WTTW’s Heather Cherone about the racial makeup of the opposition, Moore said, “I don’t get into that. People gotta vote either their heart, their conscience, or their prejudice. Whatever. I’m not going to dig into that. We got the victory and I’m happy about it.”
“I’m not even going to dignify those votes,” King said. “We got the win, and our children will be better for it.” v