Honorary street designations are a Chicago tradition mired in political controversy.
On Thursday, a new dustup was added to the pile.
Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) angrily demanded that the Chicago Department of Transportation take down signs put up without authorization earlier this month to honor former gang member-turned-community activist Hal Baskin.
Beale had initially intended to hold the ordinance in committee during Thursday’s Transportation Committee meeting.
When he was told that the Chicago Department of Transportation had already renamed a healthy chunk of 65th Street as “Hal Baskin Street,” Beale let CDOT have it and demanded that the signs be taken down.
“The department is putting the cart before the horse. They’re operating outside the scope of their job. They need to wait until it has passed City Council before they start erecting these signs. The signs will come down until it is passed,” the chairman said.
Beale said he’s gotten a barrage of complaints from Englewood residents who oppose the designation.
“Even though he’s turned his life around, there’s the past history and the precedent that it sets,” Beale said before Thursday’s Transportation Committee meeting.
Baskin, 64, said the honorary streets signs are a source of pride for the young people he works with in the impoverished Englewood community, many of whom have had brushes with the law.
“You’re a 64-year-old great grandfather and they still want to hold things against you from 40-some years ago? That sends a message to young black and brown kids that, if you change your ways and become a positive, productive citizen, you’re still being held accountable for way back when. So, why change at all? They’ll feel the same way about me,” Baskin said.
“With all this violence going on in the community, signs are the least thing we should be worried about. We should be fighting the violence as opposed to holding up a street sign. Two young men got killed just the other night down the street from where I live. We should be concentrating on that.”
Baskin has run for 16th Ward aldermen six times and lost every one of those races. In 1995, he infuriated women’s group by suggesting that then-incumbent Ald. Shirley Coleman (16th), who was once married to now-executed killer rapist Hernando Williams, may have been responsible for her ex-husbands crimes.
“She may not have been giving the man what he needed at home and that is maybe the reason he went out there on one of those rape sprees…If she had been a caring wife, a sensitive wife, [Williams] may not have done that,” Baskin said of Coleman at the time.
Baskin swore off gangs at the age of 19 and has spent the last 28 years running a group called P.E.A.C.E.; the name of the group stands for People Educated Against Crime in Englewood.
“My mother came here from Mississippi with 14 children. Ten boys and four girls. She decided to lay down roots in the Englewood community at a time when the community was changing from white ethnic,” Baskin recalled.
“Going to school in the `60’s and `70’s, you had gang territory all over between the community and the schools. Some of the areas you grew up in, you had to be part of some group to get a pass to go from one segment of the community to another.”
Ald. Toni Foulkes (16th) made no apologies for proposing the honorary street designation for Baskin.
“With all of the gun violence and how nonprofits want to stop recidivism, this man is out there doing conflict resolution. He’s talking to families when things are happening like shootings. He’s doing a lot of positive things. And they keep talking about what happened 40 years ago. We need to get over that. A lot of people are former gang members,” Foulkes said.
“Hal Baskin has lived in this community for 50 years. He has a lot of respect in this community. Some people in the political realm say negative things. But, whenever somebody needs something, they call him. On one side of the coin is a negative. But on the flip side, when they need help, they call Hal. When there’s a shooting, he’s there. When the community needs him, he’s there. At the dedication of the street sign, all of the community organizations were there.”
The Hal Baskin Street controversy is just the latest in a series touched off by the City Council’s political addiction to honorary street designations.
In April 2000, female aldermen and women’s groups managed to defeat in committee an honorary street sign for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, whom they called the “world’s biggest pornographer.” The following day, then-Ald. Burton F. Natarus (42nd) used a parliamentary maneuver to ram the designation through the full City Council.
Six years later, then-Ald. Madeline Haithcock (2nd) touched a nerve with — and was forced to withdraw — her proposal to rename a West Side street in honor of slain Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton. She was unwilling to divide the City Council along racial lines on a vote she was destined to lose.
In the wake of the Hampton controversy, then-Transportation Committee Chairman Ald. Tom Allen (38th) gave his colleagues a choice: either eliminate the honorary street designation perk or submit a biographical description of the honoree. That way, there won’t be any more Hampton-style “embarrassments,” Allen said.
Allen ultimately lost the political battle. Honorary street designations are a Chicago tradition and a way for aldermen to curry favor with clout-heavy constituents. They were not about to give it up.