Education | Politics

The Union Candidate for the Post-Industrial Ward

School counselor Susan Garza runs for Alderman in the 10th Ward

On February 24, Susan Garza hopes to replace John Pope as the Alderman of the 10th Ward on the Far Southeast Side of Chicago. The vocal and animated fifty-four-year-old calls to mind a progressive from a different era; she talks of how her father, a labor leader born in South Chicago who is “still fighting the good fight,” would “wake us up in the mornings and take us to the mill gates” to teach his children the significance of the local industry. The steel mills are no longer around, a devastating reality in the former manufacturing neighborhood, but organized labor remains. 

Garza is a counselor at Jane Addams Elementary School and was an outspoken advocate of bargaining rights during the 2011 teachers strike; as the South Side area vice president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, she is in charge of sixty-nine schools. She has been endorsed by the CTU, by mayoral candidate Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, and by United Steelworkers. Her tone toward Rahm Emanuel verges on outright hostility and her proposed policies are sharply at odds with those of City Hall.

“With the exception of maybe ten, maybe a handful,” said Garza, “the Aldermen are all rubber stamps and they do what Rahm Emanuel says.” Garza staunchly opposes the cuts Emanuel has made to Chicago’s public schools and public pensions, arguing that billions could be generated through a “LaSalle Street Tax”—a tax on futures and derivative transactions conducted in Chicago financial markets. Emanuel has called such a tax illegal and warned that it would be counterproductive for the local economy, discouraging financial firms from operating in the city.

Another point of contention centers on the Board of Education: Garza supports transforming the school board to an elected body, rather than one appointed by the mayor as it is now. Emanuel believes such a transformation would politicize the school board.

But Garza’s platform is also a local one. She knows the 10th Ward well—she lives in Hegewisch and works on the East Side, where she grew up; her father grew up in South Chicago, her husband in South Deering. She readily admits that there are problems on the Far Southeast Side of Chicago. “We’ve always been known as an industrial zone,” said Garza, “but you can’t even buy a book in our neighborhood. We don’t have a coffee shop.”

There’s a strong sense in neighborhoods like East Side and South Chicago that the residents have been cut off from the economic and political workings of the larger city. “A lot of people have never been to this part of Chicago—it’s a great neighborhood,” Garza said. But, then, like other residents interviewed, she qualified this statement. “When the mill closed down, it kind of became a different neighborhood.”

The 10th Ward lies on the very edge of Chicago. From the taquerías and dollar stores at 106th Street and Ewing Avenue on the East Side, a ten-block walk brings you to State Line Avenue. Here, as the city gives way to broad trash-strewn fields of vacant land and rail tracks, Illinois becomes Indiana.

To the north, past the wan shops and narrow frame houses of the East Side, Ewing crosses the Calumet River at the border of South Chicago. Wires and cables crisscross the skyline ten stories high, cranes dangle immobile over half-covered pyramids of salt, metal tanks, and squat factory buildings at whose facades laps the toxic Calumet River. To the south, Ewing leads past blocks of identical postwar ranch houses, garden ornaments (behold the wire reindeer, surveying with insentient eyes its lifeless domain), and waving American flags.

It’s a panorama of middle-class life that is surreal both for its perfect facsimile of middle-class Midwestern suburbia and its near-total emptiness. No matter the cardinal direction chosen, the traces of human life are subtle: occasional cars rush down Ewing, a few scattered pedestrians duck into businesses or wait silently at bus stops.

The 10th Ward is a diverse collection of neighborhoods—Hegewisch is largely white, the East Side is primarily Latino, South Chicago and South Deering are predominately African American. Garza’s son, Ryan, drove me through the neighborhoods, describing them as segregated both physically—the Calumet River and a network of rail tracks partition this corner of the city—and economically. “In Hegewisch, on the South Side, you’ll find million-dollar mansions,” said Ryan. “But by here, it’s all free and reduced lunch.” He gestured at a strip of shuttered storefronts, vacant lots, and fast-food outlets on Commercial Avenue in South Chicago.

Both of Ryan’s grandparents grew up here, and he has memories of a time when the shops were open and the street was vibrant. But the steel mills closed (the blast furnaces are still visible as crumbling brick ramparts in a weedy wasteland alongside Harbor Avenue) and the area lost its raison d’être. It’s the same story in neighborhood after neighborhood: in Jeffrey Manor, a gaseous chemical smell wafted above the overgrown vacant lots and housing projects from nearby factories; in South Deering, Ryan pointed out deposits of petroleum coke, a byproduct of the refining process that regularly blows in toxic dust clouds over the southern parts of the 10th Ward.

Susan Garza speaks of transforming these neighborhoods. She argues that she can “use tax increments to give people incentive to bring their business here—businesses that can thrive and do well.” She intends to push for a Community Benefits Agreement with the proposed Lakeside Development that would ensure that local labor is employed and that the development contains affordable housing. She intends to ban the production and storage of petcoke altogether—her son argues that Alderman John Pope’s talk of cracking down on petcoke is mere lip service, given that Pope receives campaign donations totaling at least $9,900 from KCBX Terminals and Beemsterboer Slag, the two major firms responsible for petcoke storage.

Garza also wants to transform the political atmosphere. Her platform would include local involvement in the budgetary process and the return of precinct captains who had served as a go-between for local interests and the Board of Aldermen. The political history of the 10th Ward is notorious for its power-grabbing aldermen: Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak represented this neighborhood from 1971 to 1987, when he led the opposition to Mayor Harold Washington. In 2007 he was indicted on eight charges including bribery, mail fraud, and wire fraud. Garza, on the other hand, believes in decentralization: “This is a ward that needs to be run by the people here,” she said. “Some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life have come out of the 10th Ward.”

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