What constitutes a big news story? There is, of course, the old saying, ‘If it bleeds it leads,’ which is, frankly, true enough. But more goes into the making of a big news story than gore, shock and awe. Below, we’ve selected stories published in Austin Weekly News for each month of 2019 that were highly consequential when we reported on them and that could also be consequential in 2020.
January | On Jan. 3, Ald. Ed Burke (14th) — the Chicago City Council’s longest-serving alderman and former chair of the powerful Committee on Finance — was charged with attempting to extort a Burger King franchisee, delaying the permits to renovate a location in Archer Heights in order to pressure them to hire his law firm for handling their property tax appeals.
The bombshell news exploded the city’s political landscape and cleared the way for the election of the city’s first female African American, openly gay mayor in April. But in the immediate moments after the news, several West Side leaders chimed in with various proposals to correct the city’s long climate of corruption.
A number of elected officials and mayoral candidates called for ethics reforms designed to avoid abuses of power, but the proposal presented by Amara Enyia, the executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, was among the most sweeping.
She called for banning aldermen from working other jobs while in office, giving the mayor and the Office of Inspector General power to investigate aldermen without restrictions, audit and review no-bid contracts to see if they violate any laws, and move some “executive and administrative functions” to city departments.
February | On Feb. 26, Chicagoans went to the polls and delivered historic returns, with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and attorney Lori Lightfoot headed to an April 2 runoff that would bring the city its first African American female mayor — but down ballot, at least on the West Side, it was more of the same.
All of the incumbent aldermen representing the four wards within this newspaper’s coverage area were spared from runoff races, some dominating their respective fields in a year when not one of their races went uncontested.
In the 24th Ward, according to Chicago election data, Ald. Michael Scott captured 60 percent of the vote in a race that featured three challengers.
In the 28th Ward, Ald. Jason Ervin, who faced three challengers who made the ballot and one write-in challenger, won 62 percent of the vote.
In the 29th Ward, with four precincts still unreported as of Feb. 27, Ald. Chris Taliaferro secured 59 percent of the vote while neither of his major challengers cracked 30 percent.
And in the 37th Ward, Ald. Emma Mitts garnered around 54 percent of the vote, mot much more than the 50.1 percent threshold required to stave off a runoff, but still a comfortable lead over her nearest rival, who garnered roughly 40 percent of the vote.
March | On March 13, amid protests within the gallery and outside of the Chicago City Council chambers, aldermen voted 38-8 to give an $85 million construction contract related to the development of the police and fire training center in West Garfield Park to a controversial Los Angeles company.
Later during the same meeting, the aldermen approved zoning changes that will allow two black-owned restaurants to open near the training center, in what would otherwise be a strictly industrial area. The vote does not necessarily requires the businesses — Peach’s restaurant, which specializes in southern cuisine, and a Culver franchise — to locate to the site.
The March 13 vote cleared the last hurdle in building the joint fire and police training center at 4301 W. Chicago Ave. But it also opened up a brand new battlefront for those opposed to the development.
April | On April 2, Lori Lightfoot trampled Toni Preckwinkle by a nearly 50-point margin in a historic runoff, giving the current mayor one of the biggest landslide election victories in the city’s history.
Lightfoot’s crowded election night headquarters reflected the multiracial coalition that her campaign patched together to buoy her to victory — a coalition that included a strong LGBTQ presence and that seemed to channel the organization that propelled the city’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, to victory in 1983.
Like Washington, Lightfoot ran heavily on reform. She broke out of a crowded field of 14 candidates back in February to advance to the April 2 runoff — in no small part due to the fact that she was barely scathed by the scandals surrounding Ald. Ed Burke, the powerful former finance committee chairman who was hit with federal corruption charges earlier this year.
The April election also featured another historic race. The West Side finally got its first citywide elected official after state Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin (10th) beat Ameya Pawar, a former alderman, 59 percent to 41 percent, to become city treasurer.
Conyears-Ervin, the wife of Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), was buoyed to victory by a raft of endorsements from dozens of elected officials and major unions, including the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73, among many others.
May | On May 22, Catalyst Circle Rock held the grand opening of its Kehrein Center for the Arts auditorium at 5618 W. Washington Blvd. The event marked a milestone not just for the K-8 charter school that it’s housed in, but also for the Austin community and the greater West Side.
The space had previously been sitting empty for some 45 years and the project to renovate it was more than 10 years, and millions of dollars, in the making.
“The goal of the program is to help serve underdeveloped communities in the South, Southwest and West Side of Chicago. Austin is a prime location so we are very happy to contribute to bring this for the community and have the children be part of it,” said Susana Soriano, a financial planning analyst for the city.
June | On June 25, Gov. JB Pritzker signed the historic bill legalizing adult use of recreational marijuana in Illinois right here in Austin, at Sankofa Cultural and Arts Business Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave.
The bill, which its supporters called “the most equity-centric” cannabis legalization measure in the country, made Illinois the 11th state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana but the first to pass a comprehensive legalization package through the legislature rather than a ballot initiative, according to Capitol News Illinois.
Less than a month later, however, black aldermen in Chicago, led by powerful West Side Ald. Jason Alderman (28th), would lead a failed effort to stall the measure, attempting to delay when new law would go into effect (they hoped to push the date from Jan. 1, 2020 to the summer of 2020), because of the glaring lack of black businesspeople included among licensed cannabis operators.
“The real challenge is that there is not any equity amongst the 11 people that will start the sales effective Jan. 1,” Ervin said, according to WTTW News. “There are 11 dispensaries in the city of Chicago – none of which have any African American, Latino or female-related ownership – and that’s a problem for many people in our city.”
July | On July 10, the nearly 115-year-old Chicago Defender, once the most authoritative voice in Black America, released its last print issue — the cover boldly announcing the paper’s ambitions to publish its content exclusively online (a photo of a phone displaying the paper’s website on its screen hovered above a hashtag: #DigitalMoves).
“It is no secret that the media and publishing landscape has shifted drastically and the pace of change continues at dizzying speeds,” Hiram E. Jackson, chief executive of Real Times Media, the Defender’s parent company, explained in a statement the company released on July 5.
“That is why, over the past few years, we’ve made significant investments in digital media. Having experienced initially promising returns, we have concluded that we need to do more to continue building a business model for the future,” Jackson said. “It is simply time for the publication to break away from the printed page and put more focus on bringing our readers daily content from the African-American perspective and increasing the impact of our community voice.”
Jackson’s optimism notwithstanding, many African Americans across the country have been mourning the loss of the print product, which, judging by what’s happened to other iconic African-American media companies, could be a harbinger for more bad news to come.
August | On August 13, Mayor Lori Lightfoot released a feasibility study that poured cold water on the hopes of the many people who thought that the West Side might realistically stand a chance of landing the vaunted Chicago casino.
We had gotten our hopes up the month earlier, when the mayor said that the large vacant lot at the corner of Roosevelt and Kostner in North Lawndale was among five potential sites the city was considering for the proposed casino.
The Illinois Gaming Board determined that, at least as things currently stand, the idea of building Chicago’s first-ever casino is not yet feasible — wherever it’s proposed to be built — due to the city’s onerous tax and fee structure, as it relates to casinos (and most everything else).
In 2020, the mayor will likely try pushing for taxing and fee changes to the state law signed by the governor earlier this year that allowed for the city to have a casino in the first place.
September | On Sept. 12, the Chicago Department of Transportation released West Side recommendations contained in the city’s Vision Zero Chicago traffic safety plan—two years after the original plan, which did not include specific West Side aspects, was released.
The recommendations emphasized education over ticketing, as well as improving safety around transit stations and schools, and making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. Although the plan identifies several specific corridors and intersections that would get improvements, it also emphasizes that the city will continue working with residents to identify traffic issues and figure out the best ways to address them.
October | On Oct. 17, the Chicago Teachers Union announced that it would go on strike for the first time since 2012.
Austin Weekly News reporters spread out to different rallying points throughout the city on the first and second days of the strike, where we encountered Chicago Public Schools workers like Ackisha Reynolds, 41-year-old teacher at DePriest who has been in the profession for two decades and who put the teacher’s demands most succinctly.
“We have a big library, but no librarian,” she said. “How do you have a library with no librarian? It’s just a room.”
Reynolds said that she’s been on a pay freeze for the last six years. She was among those teachers who received no back pay after the last strike.
“Once you reach year 14, you’re on a freeze for six years,” Reynolds said. “I have a master’s degree, and about 30 graduate hours past my master’s. Why am I not compensated for my education and years of experience? It’s not fair.”
The strike ended after 11 days and a $150 billion five-year deal between the mayor and the union.
November | On Nov. 23, roughly 100 community members packed MacArthur’s Restaurant, 5412 W. Madison St., for a press conference held to launch Counting on Chicago Coalition — the result of a $2.3 million grant awarded by Illinois’ 2020 Census Grant program.
Habilitative Systems, Inc., a human services nonprofit based on the West Side, was named lead agency and will be responsible for distributing funding for various Census-related outreach efforts across the West Side.
The state’s 2020 Census Grant program awarded a total of $29 million in funding across the state. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office claims that the funding “is the largest per-person investment made in any state in the nation.”
The $2.3 million that will go to Habilitative and, by extension, the Counting on Chicago Coalition, is the most amount among the roughly two dozen lead agencies and coalitions that received the bulk of the funds, which will be critical to ensuring that the West Side, which was among the most undercounted areas in the state in 2010, is sufficiently counted in 2020.
December | On Dec. 3, Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson was unceremoniously fired by Mayor Lori Lightfoot for allegedly lying about the circumstances of an incident on Oct. 17, when he was discovered slumped behind the wheel of his SUV.
While the details of an investigation into the matter by the city’s inspector general have not been released, media reports at the time indicated that Johnson was out for drinks with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Lightfoot subsequently appointed Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck as interim superintendent.
Johnson’s termination set-off a predictable round of media speculation about who would replace him. Two candidates reportedly on Lightford’s shortlist to become permanent superintendent are former 15th District Commander Barbara West and Austin native Alfonzo Wysinger.
But regardless of who becomes the city’s next top cop, West Siders said during a public meeting on Dec. 12, the department must make hiring more black officers a priority and do a better job of understanding the needs of the community. They also called for a superintendent who would prioritize community engagement and training in violence de-escalation.