Washington treks the neighborhoods

From the very beginning of his campaign, reform candidate Harold Washington stressed the importance of sharing more city services and power with Chicago's diverse and often ignored neighborhoods. ''You will be City Hall,'' he used to tell enthusiastic audiences as he campaigned.

As mayor, he has been acting on that promise. He recently vetoed city participation in the traditional summer Chicagofest and announced that the city instead would sponsor nine ''spectacular'' neighborhood block parties.

His transition team has urged him to create neighborhood planning boards or mini-city halls in various parts of the city. And Commissioner of Neighborhoods Joseph E. Gardner, former vice-president of Operation PUSH and one of the mayor's first cabinet-level appointments, has suggested Washington hold a summer series of 8 or 10 meetings around the city with various ethnic and neighborhood leaders.

A few days ago Mayor Washington accordingly visited a Polish-Irish neighborhood on the city's Northwest Side (a white district that had given him few votes in the election) and conducted a friendly exchange of questions and answers. His refusal to say he would try to block the construction of public housing there, insisting the issue is up to the courts, was not reassuring to most present. Still, the fact that the mayor made the trek to a neighborhood where he was jeered during the campaign may have made the more lasting impression.

''You run the risk of raising expectations you can't satisfy by doing this kind of thing,'' says Robert Starks, who teaches inner-city studies at Northeastern Illinois University. ''But people who sense that you're concerned about them and want their input can forgive you if you only achieve 60 percent of what they ask.''

But there are those who see problems ahead in the embrace-the-neighborhoods strategy - particularly as the mayor moves into more activist neighborhoods.

''My guess is that community-action organizers are going to want far more down the road than the mayor can deliver,'' notes David Roth of the American Jewish Committee's Institute on Pluralism and Group Identity.

''He can shift health-care services, dollars, offices, and priorities to the neighborhoods, but if the people there mean it when they say, 'We want more power,' he's going to have a problem,'' says Northwestern University sociologist William Sampson, who is a member of Mayor Washington's transition team. ''You can give influence . . . change the way you do business with the neighborhoods, but you can't give power.''

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.