One Hyde Park; Two Wards

From Leon Despres, the greatest independent Alderman in Chicago’s history, to Larry Bloom, to five-time alderman Toni Preckwinkle, and current Aldermen Leslie Hairston and Sophia King, Hyde Park has had its share of aldermanic narratives. In an attempt to get an understanding as to why Hyde Park is divided between the 4th and 5th wards, we reached out to the Hyde Park Historical Society (HPHS).

Michal Safar, President of the HPHS educated us on the history of the ward system. “The ward system was adopted in 1837 with our current system put in place in 1923. By law, the system is based on population with the boundaries altered based on the most current census. Hyde Park Township, which extended from 39th Street on the north to 138th Street on the south, was annexed in 1889 – so Hyde Park was much bigger then than now.”

Almost all of Hyde Park was in one ward, the 5th, until 1975. Rumor has it that Hyde Park was split into two wards to de-fang independent Hyde Park Alderman Leon Despres, et al. Despres was the 5th ward Alderman from 1955-1975 and was seriously disliked by the first Mayor Daley. Hyde Park has historically held a reputation for being a fortress of liberal opposition to Chicago’s machine politics.

Lots of political fodder was dispensed when Hyde Park was divided into two wards. On one side existed the University of Chicago controlling everything within its’ sphere of influence. On the other side existed Hyde Park’s liberal and independent thinkers. Anchored in Hyde Park and ironically nurtured by the University of Chicago community, the Independents brought together African-Americans and white liberals in coalitions that became the city’s main alternative to the Democratic machine.

Daley despised the upscale Hyde Parkers because they didn’t need his patronage but demanded good governance instead. Since they didn’t have to bow to Daley’s political rewards, and in an attempt to weaken Despres’ influence, Hyde Park was divided at 55th Street, separating the communities of Hyde Park and Kenwood.

Has it worked? Some say yes. Others say no.

In Despres’ own words he “…believe(d) “(Mayor) Daley was vastly overrated as a mayor. He was a skillful party leader yes, but only as a good administrator.”

At the time of both Despres’ and Daley’s falling out there were massive social problems in Chicago. In Despres’ 2005 book “Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman’s Memoir” Despres wrote, “Daley caused a chunk of the polarization between blacks and whites in the city by quadrupling the number of patronage jobs in his administration”. Despres quoted often that “Mayor Daley supported segregation in schools by supporting Benjamin C. Willis’ anti-Black and Hispanic administration”. “Daley obstructed the Shakman Decrees” Despres said “which barred the practice of political patronage, under which government jobs are given to supporters of a politician or party, and government employees may be fired for not supporting a favored candidate or party”. A victory came for Shakman though, when political patronage was largely abolished in Chicago.

The back street intelligence from the 1960s described former 4th ward Alderman Claude Holman as a “political hack” appointed by Mayor Daley to deride and try to intimidate Leon Despres whenever the mayor thought Despres was getting too big for his britches with his civil rights legislation. Holman was also a member of the “Silent Six” – the six Black aldermen who helped foil Despres’ civil rights initiatives on a continuous basis. This set of obstacles led to many up and coming politicos making a name for themselves by fighting the University of Chicago and City Hall. Names like Thomas N. Todd, David Axelrod, Don Rose, Harold Washington, Al Raby, Marshall Patner, John McDermott, Richard Newhouse and Michael Shakman; the list goes on. Abner Mikva, who was a congressman from Hyde Park and later the chief judge on the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court, was one of the first Chicago politicians to successfully challenge the Daley machine.

Is Hyde Park’s two-ward system working?  The back street intelligence answered:

Having two aldermen seems to make unimportant issues easily corrected in Hyde Park.

Having two aldermen seems to make important issues more difficult to resolve in Hyde Park.


JoAnn Fastoff Blackman is a long-time Hyde Parker and an award-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction books. Her various blogs have focused on environmental issues in and around Chicago. HPChamber Speak will appear periodically addressing issues impacting Hyde Park’s business community.