By AARON GETTINGER
The 4th Ward runs from Hyde Park to the South Loop: “We’re pretty much a microcosm of the city,” said its alderman, Sophia King, running for reelection after appointment to the seat in 2016 and a special election win in 2017. “And in terms of resources and how they’re distributed — there are places that are wealthy with resources, and there are places that haven’t had their fair share.
“So, we’ve been really looking at that and at the areas that traditionally haven’t gotten their fair share over the years,” she said, pointing to roadwork in Grand Boulevard but acknowledging that infrastructure is still not “up to snuff.”
King did happily acknowledge her work bringing the first two dog parks to the South Side, at 42nd Street and Vincennes Avenue and Lake Park Avenue and Oakwood Boulevard.
“The first weekend I became alderman, I was doing some clean and greens, and I stopped by Lake Park Place,” a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) development. King said women working there gave her the idea to turn adjacent empty lots into dog parks; listening to constituents has also enabled her to work to get rid of problem landlords that negatively affect quality of life on certain blocks in the ward, she said.
King said her office is also spearheading the mixed-use 4400 Grove, a redevelopment of the Washington Park Court CHA homes.
“That’s one of the first things that I’ve been able to take almost from beginning to seeing to through fruition,” she said. “When I first came in, it was a development, and there was a majority firm that was around the table, but yet it was a development that was going to use not only city funds and state funds…then to have nobody who looked like the people who lived in this old CHA development was, to me, not even appropriate.
“We started from the beginning and fought through that. They’re breaking ground — there’s a fence around it now — and there’s now a majority firm that’s paired with an African-American firm in a real joint venture. We intentionally had them interview firms that represented what I believe is the celebration of diversity that this city represents.”
King loves Chicago for its diversity, “and the fact that there’re 70 percent black and brown people should be celebrated. … This is not a gift for them, to bring resources back to their community. It’s what’s owed to them.” Seventy-nine percent of the $60 million project is now directed to minority firms, and King said the process made her to understand the logistics of contracting.
Her ordinance that factors into the $8 billion in renovations to O’Hare International Airport will allocate the capital to companies depending on their gross minority hiring, not just whether they are women- or minority-owned. “It’s really trying to get at the issue of who’s missing out in terms of jobs and employment and to some deeper issues that those are affecting, like safety and crime and mental health.”
King deferred on discussing the planned Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in favor of a broader discussion about development, particularly of the Michael Reese Hospital site, saying she would like it to be developed in a fashion similar to 4400 Grove. She said a committee of around 25 community members decided the Michael Reese developer and is working to ensure community benefits from the project.
Asked specifically about the OPC community benefits agreement, King said it would be fair to call her position “sympathetic.” “The community has to have assurances, and that’s what we’re doing at Michael Reese,” she said, saying that diverse hiring requirements were written into that project’s ordinance. Subsidies like those given for landmarked developments “should go to people who have been in a community during down times, and all boats should rise.”
Given the uneven effect casinos often have on communities, King said she opposes putting a casino at the Michael Reese site — or Chicago, unless, maybe, it goes in a tourist area like Navy Pier. She is not necessarily opposed to a commuter tax but noted that “the devil’s in the details.”
Asked about her proudest accomplishments in the past two years, King first mentioned the renaming of Congress Parkway in the Loop to Ida B. Wells Drive. “Being able to name a downtown street after a woman who I believe was probably the reason women got the right to vote almost 10 years before the 19th Amendment was passed in the State of Illinois,” she said. “The first street ever to be named after a person of color … it’s sad, but it’s also something to be proud of; something that young girls for years to come will hopefully appreciate.”
King said that her fight for parity extends to public education, pointing to her work in getting funding through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or the Chicago Public Schools capital budget for Kenwood Academy’s new track and field and HVAC system and a planned renovation “that will make it look like the school on the outside that it is on the inside.”
Regarding the ward’s other schools, King said she met with administration and local school councils soon after taking office to take stock of their needs. She said helped Dyett High School for the Arts hire a new assistant principal and open a new pool. At Dunbar High School, she helped develop a book designed to help students navigate education in trades, arrange apprenticeships with labor unions and create a paid summer internships program. And at King College Prep, King helped expand arts offerings and procure laptops and equipment for its auditorium.
While the 4th Ward’s neighborhoods are diverse, she said that public safety is the most pressing issue throughout it, followed sequentially by public education, economic development and mental health care (she has sponsored an ordinance to establish a City Council task force to prioritize communities for mental health services).
King called public safety issues in the ward symptomatic of lacking public resources; she said that suspected financial benefits from cutting the mental health care budget had resulted in increased costs in incarceration, law enforcement and services for homeless people. She decried the 2011 merging of six Chicago Police Department districts to three, saying it joined two districts with divergent needs — one had much higher levels of crime than the other.
“There are some direct consequences of merging our district, of not having the resources that we needed, and so I’ve been advocating for those resources and getting them,” she said — things like police on bicycles and police on foot patrol. “On the lakefront, I brought to their attention that there are literally 100 police at North Avenue, and we had like three at 31st Street Beach, which is becoming this huge area of interest.
“Delving into the numbers and not being emotional but statistical about it and saying we need our fair share of resources — parity,” King summarized.
Regarding the three straight years of disorder in Downtown Hyde Park on Halloween, King said the 2018 violence was not a matter of absent resources, given the number of police at the scene. She called Halloween a symptom of bigger issues, like teenagers having nothing to do.
“It was also an evening for students who see the inequities in policing to really play that out in a safe environment. Let’s be real: these kids aren’t gangbangers. These are relatively good kids who are [experiencing] nothing that we didn’t experience as youth,” she said. “They have realized that Hyde Park is a safe place to do this. It’s a safe place to also demonstrate their frustration with what they’re seeing happening in policing and inequities that are going on there, not just in the City of Chicago but throughout the country.” She noted that this was not an excuse for the violence.
When rumors circulated in early November that another “purge” night was planned in Hyde Park, King said school administrators sprang into action, warning parents ahead of time. She said such preemptive engagement work should occur throughout the year through events like school dances, which have grown rare in recent years, and partnerships with groups like the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club.
King was born in Evanston and raised there and in Jackson, Mississippi. “There was a striking difference. I went from a very intentional Evanston where ‘quotas’ was a good word and mandated to have diversity in every school — and I benefited from that — to Jackson, where I saw my first klansman and rode on buses that said ‘segregated’ on it,” she said.
She graduated from Evanston Township High School before majoring in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. After getting a master’s degree in education and social policy at Northwestern University, she taught and worked as a school administrator, working at the Chicago Latin School and CPS. She argued for stronger co-curricular programs in middle schools, saying they would pay off from higher per capita tax revenue in high schools and that stronger sports programs would build stronger communities and schools. King also said she was instrumental in establishing the Ariel Community School, 1119 E. 46th St.
King’s reelection campaign has been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Chicago Federation of Labor and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
A 30-year 4th Ward resident, King is married to attorney and DJ Alan King, a member of the Chosen Few, and has two adult daughters. She formerly had a paint-your-own-pottery store on 53rd Street and has founded nonprofits against gun violence and black unemployment.
“Everything I’ve done for those 30 years has come back to affirm that decision I made,” to enter politics, she said. “When you feel like you’re doing the right thing, there’s an energy or aura. And that happened. I went from ‘Hell no’ to ‘Wow, this is something that is really exciting me in a way that nothing has for a long time.’”