Many years ago Berny Stone, the legendary former alderman of the 50th Ward, taught me an axiom about Chicago politics that's stood the test of time: you can do pretty much anything you want, so long as you don't block people's driveways.
At the time, Alderman Stone was dealing with scores of constituents enraged about a TIF-funded grammar school the city was building on their block.
But it wasn't the dysfunction of the city's tax increment financing program that had them up in arms—it was clear they didn't really give a hoot about that. Instead, they were upset that their driveways might be blocked by parents dropping off and picking up their kids.
All of which proved once again that it's the little things that matter the most, in Chicago as in life.
I was thinking of Alderman Stone's lesson when I got a call from a friend to tell me about "Argylegate," the little tempest that's been raging in Lincoln Square.
Forget school cuts and closings, taxpayer subsidies for private-college sports arenas, or the price of tea in whatever place Mayor Rahm Emanuel is visiting now—the issue on the minds of residents in Lincoln Square is far more practical.
Specifically: Will 40th Ward alderman Patrick O'Connor, the mayor's City Council floor leader, use his formidable power to turn Argyle into a two-way street? Even if it makes their lives miserable?
Here's why they've been worried enough to ask.
Several months ago my friend received a flyer announcing that Alderman O'Connor was holding a meeting on the proposal to turn Argyle just west of Wolcott into a two-way street.
Her first question was, why would he even consider doing something so stupid? And her next questions were, who is Alderman O'Connor and why is he holding meetings for me?
The last my friend knew, she and her condo neighbors lived in the 47th Ward, and Ameya Pawar was their alderman. She knew this because she had voted for Pawar in February 2011, helping him to an upset victory.
She didn't recall voting for Alderman O'Connor for anything in the last two years.
As it turned out, that didn't matter, thanks to the process of reapportionment, which happens every ten years whether you like it or not.
People across the city have slowly been realizing that the alderman in charge of whatever zoning or traffic issue is rocking their ward is someone they've never heard of, much less voted for.
Reapportionment, of course, is when the mayor and aldermen redraw the city's ward map to reflect population and demographic changes. The idea is that each of our 50 wards should have roughly the same number of people.
This is intended to fortify the constitutional provision known as one person, one vote. Because we all know the mayor and aldermen would never, ever allow people in one ward to have more clout than people in another, since that's not how it works already.
In any event, the most recent reapportionment occurred in December 2011, roughly nine months after the municipal elections.
In their infinite wisdom, Mayor Emanuel and his loyalists in the City Council decided to start putting Chicagoans under the jurisdiction of the new map, even though they'd just elected aldermen under the old one.
As a result, people across the city have slowly been realizing that the alderman in charge of whatever zoning or traffic issue is rocking their ward is someone they've never heard of, much less voted for.
That's when they get really ticked off and look for someone to complain to who's geeky enough to care about reapportionment.
Nice to hear from you all.
There's a reason Mayor Emanuel and his posse decided to hurry up the implementation of the new map. As Alderman Pawar so artfully put it when we spoke recently: "My guess is that they wanted to give incumbents an opportunity to get to know their new constituents."
Translation: they wanted to give incumbents a leg up on anyone daring to challenge them in 2015. That way, we can keep this wonderful government going on and on and on.
But back to Argylegate. The proposal to open the street to two-way traffic was a carryover from two big real estate developments in the area.
The first was the creation of a shopping mall in the old Sears parking lot near Lawrence and Ravenswood that will feature a Mariano's grocery store and will cost the taxpayers $4.5 million in TIF money.
As you may recall, the TIF program is the one where the city takes property taxes from the schools and parks in order to help eradicate blight in the poorest of poor neighborhoods—which Lincoln Square is definitely not.
Yet in the broader scheme of things, I'd say this giveaway doesn't even make the list of the top ten rotten TIF deals of the Emanuel era. It's certainly not going to lose Pawar or O'Connor any votes. Hell, you give north-siders a Mariano's and they'll be ready to elect you pope!
The other development, just north of the Mariano's, is Ravenswood Terrace, a 150-unit apartment complex.
The developer thought it might be easier to market his units if prospective tenants knew they could pull out of the complex and turn both east and west on Argyle.
And so on January 16, Alderman O'Connor held a meeting at Amundsen High School to discuss the proposal.
Incidentally, no meeting was called to discuss whether it made sense to take a few million taxpayer dollars from our dead-broke schools and give them to the developer of the Mariano's shopping mall.
At the Amundsen hearing, the apartment complex developer produced a traffic study that said turning Argyle into a two-way street would eradicate poverty and disease as we know it. Or something close.
Then some poor schnook from the city's Department of Transportation got up and said on the one hand this and on the other hand that. You know, so he was solid no matter which way the wind blew.
Then his majesty, Alderman O'Connor, called for a show of hands.
As you might imagine, the no vote overwhelmingly won. I mean, really—what relatively sane person would want to put even more cars on a street unable to handle the traffic it already has?
After the vote, Alderman O'Connor pronounced that Argyle will remain one-way, at which point the peasants essentially fell to their knees and wept with joy.
The alderman was then free to return to the City Council, where he can continue to use his clout to kill TIF-reform proposals while remaining confident that his new constituents on Argyle will probably help reelect him in 2015.