By Mick Dumke

December 18, 2010

Edward M. Burke, alderman of the 14th Ward since 1969, is widely regarded as the most powerful member of the Chicago City Council. But as he prepares to run unopposed for an 11th full term, the communities that make up his Southwest Side ward are going through vast and sometimes painful changes.

The 14th Ward has long been viewed as part of the bungalow belt, a stretch of the Southwest and Northwest sides once populated by blue-collar Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks and other European ethnic groups. In recent years, white flight, an influx of Hispanic families and the recession have left the communities struggling with ethnic tension and disinvestment.

Yet there are no signs that Mr. Burke is losing his grip on power in the 14th Ward, a gerrymandered area shaped like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. In an election season where change and transparency are themes in the race for mayor and dozens of aldermanic seats, Mr. Burke is an anomaly — a self-professed “old-school” ward boss without an opponent in an area undergoing extensive ethnic turnover.

He has built a formidable political organization and is legendary for eliminating opposition before it materializes. In 2007, he faced his first opponent since 1971: Paloma Andrade, a teacher who had never run for office. A supporter of Mr. Burke’s unsuccessfully challenged the validity of her ballot application, but the case was tied up in court for most of the campaign, and Mr. Burke went on to win with nearly 90 percent of the vote.

“When I first became alderman, the majority of people living in the ward were of Polish and Eastern European extraction, not Irish, and I’m proud to say I was elected by overwhelming majorities in those years, as I was four years ago,” Mr. Burke said in a recent interview. “If you get the job done, people reward you on Election Day.”

When Mr. Burke started his political career, the 14th Ward was centered in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, more than a mile and a half east of where the ward is now. With each new ward map, drawn at least once every 10 years, its boundaries have been moved farther west, away from the burgeoning Mexican population in Back of the Yards. For the last decade, the boundaries have stretched from 39th Street south to 59th and from Western Avenue west to Cicero Avenue, including most of the Brighton Park, Gage Park and Archer Heights neighborhoods.

All of these communities have undergone significant demographic change in the last 30 years. The Hispanic population of Brighton Park grew to about 82 percent in 2009 from 15 percent in 1980, according to census data. In Gage Park, it grew to 86 percent from 11 percent, and in Archer Heights it climbed to 68 percent from 4 percent.

In other instances, ethnic tensions have been more overt, said Craig Chico, executive director of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, which administers a business improvement program on Archer Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares through the Southwest Side. Every summer the program sponsors a festival, and some longtime neighborhood residents have not taken kindly to the families it attracts.

“We once got death threats,” Mr. Chico said. “The guy calling said he was a Polish person and he didn’t want to hear Mexican music.”

The 14th Ward was not hit as hard by foreclosures as some other parts of Chicago were, but the problem continues to grow. From January through September, there were 391 foreclosures, up 18 percent from 2009, according to the Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit research organization.

“It’s been a disaster,” said Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, a social service and advocacy organization.

Other homeowners have illegally converted their properties into apartments that low-income families rent out, the police and community leaders said, but there aren’t enough city inspectors to crack down, raising safety concerns and creating cultural flashpoints.

Crime is also a major concern. Sindia Varela, the president of the local school council at Kelly High School, at 41st Street and California Avenue, said her family moved to Brighton Park 20 years ago because her brothers were being threatened by gangs near their previous home in Back of the Yards. Now, she said, gangs are often a problem at Brighton Park schools and parks because so many parents are working long hours or simply not supervising their kids.

“There’s no excuse,” Ms. Varela said. “I raised my boys as a single mom, and I know where they are all the time.”

Some community leaders countered that recent arrivals have brought youth and vibrancy to neighborhoods that had been declining for decades. “I think a lot of the old-timers feel that the change that’s happened has sort of broken the community fabric,” Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia said.

Mr. Burke is savvy about forging alliances with Hispanic leaders. Workers from Mr. Burke’s political organization collected signatures for the mayoral campaign of Gery Chico, the City Colleges president and brother of Craig Chico. Gery Chico donated at least $25,000 to campaign committees controlled by Mr. Burke; his wife, Anne, a State Supreme Court justice; and his brother, Dan, a state legislator.

“He gets re-elected with 90 percent of the vote, so if people are upset they’re not expressing it in any way I can discern,” Gery Chico said. “I don’t know if there’s anybody more effective in the City Council for his ward than Ed Burke.”

Many supporters of Mr. Burke, who tend to be longtime residents, said he is accessible and uses his substantial clout at City Hall to take care of neighborhood problems quickly.

“I go into his office with 10, 12 questions, and he takes the slip from my hand and gets on two phones trying to address the problems,” said Stanley Lihosit, of the Archer Heights Civic Association. “There’s no question the man has power.”

Mr. Brosnan said Mr. Burke’s response to community issues had improved as residents became more organized. “It’s a mixed bag,” he said.

Mr. Burke’s political foes said he wields power through an old-school system of using political foot soldiers to field constituent requests for city services, virtually ensuring that only political supporters and longtime residents get help.

“I have heard complaints from ordinary citizens who feel they have to go through their precinct captain and sometimes they don’t like their precinct captain — he’s not bilingual or they just started voting and no one paid them attention before and they resent that,” Mr. Garcia said.

Mr. Burke said that he and his staff work hard to stay in touch with constituents.

Over the summer, he said, he participated in an anti-crime march and attended a number of community policing meetings. He also noted that he has worked with community groups to pressure banks to take more responsibility for vacant properties.

This month, his office helped 200 constituents review their property tax bills and look for exemptions, he said.

“I don’t see anything wrong with the old-school way of doing things,” Mr. Burke said. “The proof is in the pudding — I don’t have an opponent.”

He would not rule out working to have the ward moved west, where there are lower concentrations of Hispanics, when the City Council draws a new map based on 2010 census data.

“Who was the great author who gave the advice over 100 years ago?” Mr. Burke said, referring to Horace Greeley, the New York newspaper editor. “ ‘Go west, young man.’ ”

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