As I walked through Boston’s Faneuil Hall, a marketplace and town meeting hall, I remembered why local politics mattered so much. Ever since the Revolutionary period, when a distant and unsympathetic Parliament frustrated the colonies, residents used the town meeting to exercise as much direct influence as they could. They had a right to speak up and be heard, and the town meeting became the highest form of democracy in America. Henry David Thoreau, a Massachusetts writer, referred to it as “the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.”
A week after my Boston vacation came to an end, I returned to Elmhurst City Hall to attend yet another meeting. There, I saw a long-time resident who signs up to speak at most city council meetings, and this meeting was no exception. As he spoke, I noticed that many of the aldermen were not listening to him, but rather looking at their personal cell phones. What were they doing on their phones that was more important than listening to a resident’s public comment, one of our most sacred symbols of democracy?
The meeting itself turned out to be very short—around 20 minutes long. A few minutes after public comment, I noticed that an alderman voted to approve a $5,150 payment to himself. I hoped it was a routine reimbursement. But even if it was, he still could have demonstrated his virtue—one associated with the “most respectable” congresses of this nation—by recusing himself from the vote.
I left the meeting, and I walked out the west side of City Hall to head home. I looked across York Street at the old office of Citizen Advocacy Center. It used to be an odd juxtaposition back in the day: a humble group of community lawyers and volunteers, helping everyday residents organize and engage with our government, sitting across the road from the grand edifice of City Hall, where deals are made and power is preserved. A lot of my friends used to rely on this office, an unassuming space with just a few tables and chairs to accommodate a crowd. Residents of the 3rd ward met here to coordinate opposition to a large nursing home in their neighborhood. The Virgil family came here to organize support for hoop houses in their backyard. In both cases, community lawyers stood side by side with the residents, but the city council did not back down. Citizen Advocacy Center has since moved to a new location by Industrial Drive, the now-vacant storefront a reminder of the hope and optimism that was once there.
As a child, I dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but eventually my career choices took me elsewhere. But even if you don’t have a law degree, places like Citizen Advocacy Center empower you to make a difference in your community. They help you understand that you have the right to demand information from your government, or to speak up at city council meetings. If a small-town mayor like Pete can run for president, then an everyday citizen like yourself can stand up to your elected officials.
Every time I walk around City Centre, I pass by other buildings that remind me of the impact that our city council has had on the neighborhood. An apartment complex on Addison Avenue that is backed by our state representative, who convinced the city council to waive stormwater mitigation fees. If only we could more strongly express our concerns about flooding! Further down the street lie a dry cleaner and other small businesses, whose customers can’t find parking anymore because they’re now crowded out by large developments and construction sites. For all the incentives the city council approves for big corporations, could we also ask the aldermen to think about the small, local businesses?
As I crossed the railroad tracks, where Addison switches to Cottage Hill, I approached a new condo building currently under construction. A towering crane loomed over my head. Even when folded in the evening, it gives the appearance of being the tallest structure in town, a sign of the upward growth planned for City Centre. To me, the building is yet another symbol of controversial decisions at City Hall. The developer asked to put part of the building’s foundation under public sidewalks, getting approval only after offering a $20,000 donation to the city’s new Public Arts Commission. City employees anticipated that the donation would happen, and support had already been locked in by the time the issue appeared before the city council, even after I expressed my objections. If the developer had not offered a donation to a city commission, or if the developer had donated to a commission other than Public Arts, would the city council have approved the request?
A few weeks later, the mayor appointed another alderman’s ex-wife to the Public Arts Commission, where she’d be able to spend the donation that the alderman had recently approved. The city council’s approval was required before she could take her position. She was well-qualified for the role, but the alderman did not disclose his personal relationship before voting to approve her appointment. During the next municipal election, the developer posted yard signs supporting the alderman’s re-election at the construction site, in violation of a local ordinance. I called the city’s code enforcement officer, but no citations were issued. I wonder if citations would have been issued if the aldermen hadn’t been connected in some way, or if the developer hadn’t offered a donation to a city commission. A few weeks later, the same developer donated $500 to the alderman’s campaign.
Unlike state law, Elmhurst doesn’t have ordinances that allow residents to submit a complaint for violations of local laws or ethical standards. Many suburbs, like Evanston, provide an ethics commission to review such concerns, but Elmhurst does not. I let out a long sigh, not quite sure what else I could do, as I walked under the shadows of the crane just two blocks away from my home.
I finally arrived at my apartment on Cottage Hill Avenue. Elmhurst used to be called “Cottage Hill” until 1869, but no matter how many hills we’ve had, I’m tempted to conclude that our government does not meet President Kennedy’s calling for us to be a “city on a hill.”
If progressive candidates in Elmhurst ever ran on a platform of “make great,” what would it look like? Surely not the chest-thumping populism promoted by the president, a longing for the economy of the past, couched in a wistful “again.” Perhaps it would be a platform of helping everyday residents instead of corporate interests, or promoting small, family-owned businesses instead of large chain stores. Perhaps it would be a vision of reform, accountability, and transparency. Perhaps it would be a freshman alderman’s bold challenges to the status quo and innovative ideas for improving our government. Perhaps it would be a recognition that city ordinances exist to enable residents to live our lives to the fullest, not to apply arbitrary restrictions that let the power brokers decide what is allowed and what is not. I sincerely hope that a progressive alderman would not vote to ban a hoop house in one resident’s backyard, while allowing ice rinks in other residents’ side yards.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with the search for greatness, as Mayor Pete concludes in his book. It becomes a problem when we associate American greatness with the size of our largest buildings or the fortunes of our most wealthy and powerful. It becomes a problem when we focus primarily on economic growth in our downtown areas, at the expense of the surrounding neighborhoods. It becomes a problem when we look for it in some grand, orchestrated plan, when as Mayor Pete says, “the most meaningful expressions of American greatness are found in the richness of everyday life.” The greatness of our nation is intertwined with the greatness of our cities, and the greatness of our cities is found in the “everyday prosperity, however imperfect and unequal,” of our neighborhoods.
What would it take for Elmhurst to become a model of virtue, a “city on a hill?” Will the city council commit to a platform of ethics reforms? Will they address the fact that their public bodies violated open meetings laws for decades? Perhaps they should take inspiration from Mayor Pete, who has dealt with scandals of his own: “dealing with the long reach of such past wrongs—and the present-day wrongs that flow from their legacy—I found myself answering not only for myself but for history.”
For all of Elmhurst’s faults, perhaps we need not search for greatness in our politicians. As I entered my apartment, I set my keys and my wallet on the table, next to some mementos I’ve collected throughout the past two years of my advocacy in Elmhurst. Having moved my belongings between homes five times over six years, I try to avoid having too many possessions, especially mementos.
But I’ve kept the items on my table because although they are not important everyday items, they represent the importance of the everyday. A “thank you” note from Jim Caffrey, who stood up to the Democratic machine and ran his campaign on integrity and positivity. A postcard from Ashley Selmon and Zahra Suratwala, who brought more female and minority voices to county politics. A signed campaign flyer from Liz Ambrogi, who campaigned tirelessly to unseat a “rubber stamp” on the city council. A button from Nicole Virgil, whose fight to bring hoop houses to Elmhurst is firmly rooted in her love for gardening and personal liberty. A pin from the League of Women Voters, whose observers bring much-needed transparency to our local government.
Our greatness is found in our living rooms, as neighbors gather to organize and advocate for the issues of the day. It’s found in the residents who speak at city council meetings time and again, even when those words are likely to fall on deaf ears. It’s found in the voters who show up at the polls every odd-numbered year, exercising their small yet solemn duty to our city, even though the outcome is often a foregone conclusion. It’s found in high school students like Nick Mastro, already involved in local politics even before he could vote. And yes, it’s found even in some public officials, like Alderman Mike Bram and former Alderman Paula Pezza, who go out of their way to help residents when others do not. The more people can thrive in our political life here in Elmhurst, the better our town can make a claim to greatness, and the more we can become a “city on a hill.”