State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (7th) remembers Austin before the proliferation of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings.
“I’ve been in Austin for the last 44 years,” he said in a recent interview. “I worked in the community, went to school here, and had my real estate and legislative offices here. I’ve seen the community go from what it once was to where it is today.”
Ford recalled when Austin boasted “three grocery stores on Chicago Avenue, and two banks on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Laramie.” Now, he said, those establishments are gone. The grammar school he once attended, Our Lady Help of Christians, was torn down.
The West Side’s blight was on Ford’s mind when he announced that he would run for mayor of Chicago — the only candidate out of 14 people in the race for mayor who lives in Austin and one of just two, along with public policy expert Amara Enyia, who lives on the West Side.
Both Ford and Enyia said the attention paid by most of the city’s power structure to West Side issues is scant compared to the focus they bring to issues on the North and South sides. That disparity in focus, they said, has extended to the mayor’s race.
“We have not gotten the attention we really want, but we do everything we can to keep our attention focused on the West Side,” Ford said. “You have to have somebody in the race who will talk about West Side issues. I believe Austin is a reflection of what most black Chicago neighborhoods are like, which is why I think we’ll be ready on day one to represent the city.”
During an interview earlier in the campaign, Enyia said she’s seen the West Side go virtually unnoticed her entire professional life.
“One of the things that struck me when I started working is we never talked about the West Side of Chicago,” she said. “It was like that part of the city didn’t exist. Austin, in particular, is a huge community that has some pretty significant issues — especially if you’re down in Central and South Austin — but it also has a large population of middle-class families, professionals, teachers, judges and lawyers who also live there.”
Enyia said she was lured to the West Side from suburban University Park, where her father had been working. She decided to make the move after graduating from college and going to work in government herself.
“The idea that you can have entire communities completely off the radar by decision-makers in the city was just unacceptable to me, so I left and started working in Austin,” she said.
Enyia said one major challenge that is unique to the West Side is the lack of economic investment.
“We have key corridors that could be so much more vibrant that are not,” she said. “The city has to actually target economic investment in those areas because private investment follows public investment.”
Ford said his experience as a legislator in Springfield has taught him the importance of state government to the city’s ability to function and he’s been campaigning on his unique role as a state lawmaker — he is the only sitting member of the General Assembly running for mayor.
“With many of the problems in the city, the fixes are in Springfield,” he said. “We have to bring money back from Springfield for capital projects and schools; we have to change state laws that are on the books in order to fix our criminal justice system; the pension problem impacting Chicago has to be changed; you have to have somebody with relationships in the capitol to deal with those issues.”
Ford, the only candidate to officially announce his mayoral campaign in Austin, believes his campaign is most representative of the city’s largest community.
“My message has been clear,” he said. “We have to make sure we deal with the West Side of Chicago because if the West Side does better, the whole city does better.”
Read more about Ford’s and Enyia’s specific policy proposals for the West Side in extended interviews online at austinweeklynews.com. Aaron Allen is a former Fellow with City Bureau, a South Side-based journalism lab. He conducted an extensive interview with Enyia during the fellowship.