So much for the ego gratification of having a Chicago street named in your honor — at least while you’re alive.
After years of political resistance, the City Council on Wednesday put itself on an honorary street designation diet — but not before another binge that includes an honorary designation for Oscar Lopez Rivera.
Before his 70-year sentence was commuted in the waning days of the Barack Obama administration, Lopez spent 35 years of his life in federal prisons for his role as a leader in the militant Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN.
The group claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings across the U.S during the 1970s, including here in Chicago, although Lopez’s supporters argue he was never convicted of personally hurting anyone.
The designation for the three-block stretch of North Luis Munoz Marin Drive was championed by Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), who worked the floor prior to the vote. Even with that lobbying, nine aldermen voted no. Most represented wards populated heavily by police officers.
“The street sign is in honor of Oscar Lopez. This is not related to any organization,” Maldonado said, referring to the FALN.
The designation infuriated Joe Connor, whose father was killed at a New York City restaurant bombing for which the militant Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN claimed responsibility.
“He is a sworn terrorist. . . . He was convicted of bombings in Chicago that did injure people. . . . And Chicago is gonna put up a sign in his honor?” said Connor, who was just nine years old when his father, Frank, was killed.
“The idea that people will walk by and see this street sign and think that Oscar Lopez was some sort of great person — it’s diabolical. The world is upside down here. What’s next for Chicago, bin Laden Boulevard? Charles Manson Court?”
For decades, Chicago aldermen have been addicted to honorary street designations as a way to curry favor with clout-heavy constituents and campaign contributors.
More than 1,500 designations have already been approved. Scores more are added every year, forcing the Chicago Department of Transportation to drop everything to rush the brown signs into production in time for ceremonies arranged by the local aldermen at the expense of more pressing safety needs. The exact number of signs is unknown, said Transportation Committee Chairman Ald. Anthony Beale (9th).
The plan championed by Beale closes the barn door after the horses are already out. In fact, it lets more horses in by exempting signs in the pipeline. That includes an avalanche of 24 new honorary street designations introduced Wednesday, including one for actor Joe Montegna.
West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) had the longest list to get in under the wire, with designations for his predecessor Ed Smith and for a host of ministers, including Reverends Marshall Hatch and Johnnie Miller.
After that final wave, honorary street designations would be confined to two per alderman each year. Sponsors would be required to bankroll those signs — at a cost of between $600 and $1,200 — from their expense accounts or from the $1.32 million in annual aldermanic “menu money.”
The signs would sunset after five years and be removed unless the designation is renewed. And only someone who is deceased would qualify for an honorary street sign.
“Nobody wants to give up this perk. But, everybody understands it’s a problem for the [Transportation] department. We have to stop the presses to put these signs out because they don’t go through the normal process. That forces everybody to stop what they’re doing to take care of it,” Beale said.
Why limit the honorees to the deceased?
“You don’t dedicate a building to someone who’s alive. Chicago is one of last cities that do honorary street signs and dedicate them to people who are still living. Every month, it’s a huge number coming through. It becomes a burden,” Beale said.
“To get a handle on it and make this non-political, we have to make these changes. A lot of people use these to gain political favor with communities. But if the person is deceased, it takes the politics out of it.”