Years ago, I was having a drink at the South Shore Inn in Hegewisch and talking to the Polish bartender about the neighborhood.
“We like the residency requirement for cops and firefighters,” she told me. “It keeps the neighborhood racially stable.”
In other words, it keeps Hegewisch white. The same can be said of Beverly, Mount Greenwood, Clearing, Dunning, Norwood Park and other edge-of-town enclaves where municipal employees have established neighborhoods that aren’t quite the suburbs, but aren’t quite the urbs, either.
“The blacks are all the way to Ashland,” a guy in Beverly told me last year. “That’s not bad, but it’s not good, either. This is the last place a city worker can live on the Southwest Side.”
Gery Chico, who has the endorsement of both the police and the firefighters unions, told a group of firefighters that it may be time to eliminate the residency requirement.
“We’re a different city than we were 30, 40, 50 years ago when this rule came on the books,” Chico said. “We have people who live in the city and work in the suburbs. We have people who live in the suburbs and work in the city. We have to be cognizant of those trends.”
Even Chico’s most powerful supporter, Ald. Edward Burke, has credited Mayor Richard J. Daley’s enforcement of the residency requirement for keeping the middle class in Chicago.
I’m going to give Chico the benefit of the doubt, and say he’s just pandering to cops and firefighters, because it’s hard to imagine any alderman who would vote to overturn the residency requirement. Minority aldermen don’t want to lose the tax dollars that provide services for their neighborhoods, and white aldermen on the Northwest and Southwest sides don’t want to lose their constituents to the suburbs.
It is true, as Chico suggests, that Chicago is more appealing to the middle class than it was 40 years ago. But it’s a different middle class -- migrants to the city, who cluster on the Lakefront. If we lose city workers, we’ll lose a lot of the flavor that defines Chicago: Catholic parishes where the parishioners declare their allegiance to the Pope, the White Sox, the Democratic Party and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish roughly in that order; real Irish taverns where the patrons root for the
Scottish soccer team beloved by Irish Catholics and used to raise money for the IRA; crusty hardware store owners who insist that having a zip code that begins with 606 doesn’t make them Chicagoans, because “that’s a federal number.”
Lifting the residency requirement wouldn’t just cost Chicago a lot of money, it would cost us a lot of our diversity, too.