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How Lakefront Liberals Became Milwaukee Avenue Progressives

As white progressives and working-class Latinx families align on political issues, they’ve formed a dominant coalition on the Near Northwest Side.

Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Once upon a time in Chicago politics, there was a creature known as the Lakefront Liberal. White professionals who lived in Lake View or Lincoln Park, they believed in good government and racial equality. They elected Dick Simpson to two terms on the City Council and made up Harold Washington’s modest white coalition.

Today, the Lakefront Liberal is mostly extinct. As lakefront neighborhoods on the North Side have become some of the wealthiest in Chicago, they’ve also become the most right-leaning in the city, and were by far the most supportive of Rahm Emanuel during his two campaigns for mayor.

So where did the Lakefront Liberal go? When the rent got too high at Clark and Diversey, they moved west, to Wicker Park, or Logan Square, or Avondale, and became Milwaukee Avenue Progressives.

Today, the Near Northwest Side is the heartland of the liberal Noth Side. The Chicago Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has its headquarters in Logan Square. In the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders’s strongest wards were on the Northwest Side. Three of the City Council’s six democratic socialists represent Northwest Side wards: Daniel LaSpata of the 1st, Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez of the 33rd, and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa of the 35th.

It wasn’t just low-income white Chicagoans who were priced off the lakefront between the ’70s and ’00s. It was Latinx Chicagoans, too. Daniel Kay Hertz’s book The Battle of Lincoln Park tells the story of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang centered at Halsted and Armitage, that fought against urban renewal in the late 1960s.

Lincoln Park’s Latinx population “was substantially diminished by the early to mid–’70s,” Hertz told me last year. “People moved either up to Lake View, or to Humboldt Park and Wicker Park. There was a neighborhood library [in Lincoln Park] that had opened a Spanish section, and by 1973, they shut it down because the constituents were gone.”

As a result, the Near Northwest Side was settled by two constituencies who had been through one wave of gentrification, and who were determined to avoid another. That’s according to Ald. Ramirez-Rosa, who himself grew up in Lake View, and who today is a leader of Chicago’s Progressive movement.

“As gentrification has moved west, you have a situation arise where you have longtime working-class neighborhoods like Logan Square, Hermosa, Albany Park, see an influx of younger, primarily white progressives,” he said. "That creates the mix necessary to elect someone like me. You have young white progressives and longtime Latino immigrant families agreeing very broadly on things like rent control, the need to raise the minimum wage, the need to support public sector unions, and the rights of workers generally.”

To wit, a non-binding referendum on lifting Illinois’s rent control ban won 71 percent of the vote in the 35th Ward. Ramirez-Rosa is working to build a seven-story, all-affordable housing building next to the Logan Square Blue Line stop. When he agreed to let developers turn the Grace’s Furniture building into a boutique hotel, he insisted on a Community Benefits Agreement requiring locally hired workers to be paid $17 an hour. The latest neighborhood controversy is over a proposed music venue that some residents believe will lead to “hipster gentrification.”

Those are all signs that the people who lost the Battle of Lincoln Park are determined not to lose the Battle of Logan Square, Ramirez-Rosa said.

“We’ve really come to a stage in urban politics where people are much more sensitive about issues of displacement. Whereas perhaps there wasn’t an organized constituency in Lake View that could stand up to displacement and fight for affordable housing in the ’70s and ’80s, that exists now in a neighborhood like Logan Square. There are a lot of people who live in Logan Square in very nice homes along the boulevard who are saying, ‘I moved to Logan Square and I want to maintain the diversity.’”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who lives in a very nice home in Logan Square, “has come out very strongly in support of the affordable housing development next to the Logan Square Blue Line,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Another facet of the Near Northwest Side’s political outlook: When Lakefront Liberals arrived there, they suddenly found themselves represented by some of the crustiest remnants of the Chicago Machine. Among them: Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (who was eventually succeeded by Rod Blagojevich), Ald. Jesse Granato, and Ald. Dick Mell (Rod Blagojevich’s father-in-law and political patron.) The 31st Ward has had three aldermen go to prison, and a committeeman, former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, who somehow avoided it. (State Rep. Will Guzzardi, another leading light of the Milwaukee Avenue Progressives, won his seat by defeating Berrios’s daughter, Toni.) Ald. Scott Waguespack was elected to the City Council in 2007 by running as a reformer against one of Rostenkowski’s old congressional pages.

“We were attacking the issue that the only way Chicago worked was the Machine Way,” said Waguespack, who has served as chair of the City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus. “It was more of a reaction, a good government movement, and trying to go after the Machine. It wasn’t about progressivism in what Alderman Rosa has. Ours was always, ‘Let’s fix local government.’”

Today, there’s still a strain of liberalism along the lakefront, says Ald. Ramirez-Rosa, but it’s not what it was in the ’70s and ’80s.

At least on the North Side, “if you’re looking for more working-class progressives, you’re going to go to the Milwaukee corridor. If you’re looking for a more coastal progressive, that’s just a little bit more elite, you’re going to go closer to the lake.”

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