Near North alderman Burt Natarus is an angry man, which is why he drove ten miles to the far northwest side one evening last week to harangue a tiny gathering of people from other parts of town. The scene was a poorly attended public hearing on the ward remap, and Natarus’s animus was directed at the Daley administration’s mapmakers.
Ironically, the 20-year council veteran had already been here to North Park Village, at Pulaski and Peterson, six weeks earlier for another public meeting, long before any maps were proposed. There he traded whispers and chuckles with 50th Ward Alderman Bernie Stone while a well-known gadfly from the African American community charged that council insiders were plotting to “maintain the status quo.”
How wrong the gadfly was! In the case of Natarus anyway. Under the administration’s “Equity Map,” Natarus, who considers himself a Daley ally, would lose most of his cozy 42nd Ward for an ungainly strip of territory that wanders six miles out to South Sacramento Avenue before jutting back toward the Loop. It would have a largely unconverted black majority. And to add insult to injury, it would be called the First Ward.
So last week Natarus found himself sitting next to chief mapmaker Alderman Richard Mell, and there the entertainment began. When Mell opened the floor for testimony, Natarus preempted the townsfolk and launched a 20-minute diatribe at Mell, to “show you the type of gerrymandering that you’ve gone through in order to create your version of additional minority wards.”
He hauled out written requests for Near North Side public meetings that Mell apparently had ignored; census data showing that his current ward fits remap guidelines nearly perfectly; the current map showing that his ward is limned on three sides by natural boundaries; and a dozen letters from business owners, condo associations, neighborhood groups, and a hospital begging that he be retained as their alderman. He also threatened “a petition drive with thousands and thousands of signatures on short notice.”
When Natarus finally finished, a spokeswoman for a far-north-side neighbors’ group rose, in an atmosphere heavy with anticlimax, to ask that Eugene Schulter be retained as their alderman. “He is our champion, he is our representative, and he is also very much our friend,” she stated with unimpeachable sincerity.
An Edgewater Community Council member stood next. Declaring that his people were “very delighted with the Equity Map,” he burbled on about an “integral space” and a “convergence of forces.”
This was apparently more than Natarus could stand, because he cut off the next speaker to interrogate the Edgewater resident:
–You are in favor of the Equity Map?
–Well yes, I was saying that–
–You said in your statement that you were impressed by the fact that they respect the natural boundaries of the neighborhood?
–I can speak for the, the wards in which we border. I think, ah, we had heard at times that 46, Helen Shiller’s ward, was going to be changed dramaticallyÉand we weren’t in favor of it. We wanted to let Rogers Park be Rogers Park, Edgewater be Edgewater, and Uptown be Uptown.
–What ward do you live in?
–Now with regard to 48, they respected the natural boundaries of the neighborhoods of 48 in this map?
–Primarily. There are some exceptions to that, but–
–But basically they respected that?
–And they didn’t split up your neighborhood at all.
–That’s true, that’s–
–Now you understand how I felt about my neighborhood when it was chopped up. That wasn’t right, was it?
–It certainly isn’t.
–It certainly isn’t, that they preserved your neighborhood but they chopped up mine.
Natarus played this for full effect and even a few laughs, but his point was serious. Another far-north-sider, speaking for Lawrence Avenue businesses, was concerned that their territory would be divided among four wards. Citing the “physical human problem of getting four aldermen to agree on any single thing,” he said: “So I would take a look at that and jiggle it around if you can.” Maybe it was the man’s studied nonchalance or the word “jiggle” that again incited Natarus, whose proposed ward looks like it was jiggled with a sledgehammer.
“You make a very valid point,” Natarus began, “that one of the purposes of setting up governmental districts, the reason they should be composite and contiguous, is that you are only dealing–you know it’s hard to deal with politicians–so that you’re only dealing with one or two rather than four or five.” Moments later he concluded, inventively, “In other words you want a dialogue, not a triple-logue or a quadruple-logue, isn’t that right? A dialogue!”
“I don’t know,” the man responded, pausing. “If I went to Italian restaurants I’d have a quadruple-logue.”
When the laughter died down, Natarus intoned, “Thank you. You’re on the right track, by the way, as far as good government is concerned.”
Testimony ended soon after, and Mell began a digressive defense of the council’s attempts to reconcile demography and community. “My answer to that,” Natarus growled, “is you didn’t even come close.”
Mell insisted that maps now in effect in Texas and California manifest “the most–bizarre, Rorschach-drawn entities,” but he admitted that the Equity Map was probably not the final word in Chicago, what with court challenges and referenda available to opposition groups. As Mell droned on, Natarus stood up, put on his trench coat and fedora, and slumped sullenly back into his seat. “If there be no more testimony Mr. Chairman,” he said, pouting, during a pause, “I move we adjourn.” This time Mell obliged and Natarus shuffled out of the back of the auditorium, alone.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.