Leslie Hairston

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) spoke about Mayor Harold Washington’s influence on her at an event held in honor of his 100th birthday on Saturday, April 23, in Harold Washington Park.

In her more than 24 years on City Council, newly-retired 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston has overseen a lot during her time in office.

In a ward that has long been a hotbed of political and economic activity, Hairston’s six-term administration has governed through population decline and (later) slight growth across its neighborhoods, and numerous development projects like the Obama Presidential Center, Regal Mile Studios, the Greater Grand Crossing Chicago Public Library branch and University of Chicago’s expanding campus. Her office also had to contend with the 2007 demolition of the nearby Robert Taylor Homes in Bronzeville, a public housing complex that’s destruction left thousands of people displaced on the mid-South Side, and the 2018 police killing of Harith Augustus in South Shore. Hairston’s tenure also encompasses for once-in-a-generation events like the 2008 financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the summer of civil unrest in 2020 following the police murder of George Floyd.

In a terse exit interview with the Herald, Hairston discussed some victories and challenges during those two dozen years in office.

On the subject of important political victories, Hairston spoke first and foremost about one in very recent memory: “The biggest fight facing the community, I mean, one of them, was Promontory Point, getting that landmarked and saving it.”

It took until Hairston’s final City Council meeting, held on April 19 of this year, for her to win passage of Chicago Landmark status for Promontory Point. Landmark status marked an important step forward in community members’ advocacy efforts — dating back to the early 2000s — to preserve the oblong peninsula’s limestone step revetment from both erosion and city-proposed demolition.

Preserving Chicago’s parkland has been a decades-long passion for her and is, in fact, one of the reasons she first got involved in city politics.

After a four-year stint in Springfield as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Illinois, Hairston returned to the mid-South Side in the mid-1990s. “When I had moved back here from Springfield, I got involved in the parks and the local neighborhood organizations, and I wanted to make sure that there was an office that was responsive to the community,” she said. 

The 5th Ward, which encompasses parts of the Hyde Park, South Shore, Woodlawn and Greater Grand Crossing neighborhoods, also includes all of Jackson Park and a large stretch of the lakefront.

Connecting the community to that lakefront was another achievement she noted. To make that happen, she pushed for a series of pedestrian underpasses to be built under DuSable Lake Shore Drive in the early 2000s.

Asked about how she’d balanced serving those four neighborhoods, each with a distinct economic and demographic profile, Hairston said, “I serve four different communities and each community is different. They have different needs; they have different values. But at the end of the day, all of them want to have clean, safe communities with amenities or in some instances, the basics.”

But Hairston’s administration has not been without some challenges.

Ever since Jackson Park was selected as the site for the incoming Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in 2015, local activists have sounded the alarm about the potential for displacement due to gentrification and rising property speculation in the neighborhoods surrounding the park. And although Hairston was a co-sponsor of the 2020 Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance, which includes numerous affordable housing provisions for that neighborhood, South Shore was ultimately cut out of the final agreement. 

Though South Shore has a city-high eviction rate and has seen a substantial increase in the number of investors buying up properties there since the OPC was announced, Hairston denied that significant displacement was occurring.

“We haven't had that and I think that's a testament to the work that was done and work working with the community,” Hairston said. “There's been minimal displacement. Shutting down a problem liquor store and replacing it with a thriving business is a positive, not a negative.”

For her part, Hairston championed the South Shore Condo Preservation Pilot Program, which gave $5 million in yearly grants to financially-strapped condo owners for necessary repairs and to meet their maintenance bills. Organizers from the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition criticized the measure for not addressing the needs of renters, who make up more than three-quarters of the residents in the neighborhood.

Questioned about her decision to leave South Shore out of the agreement, Hairston cast doubt on whether activists like the CBA Coalition, which includes the South Shore-based community group Not Me We, truly represented the will of the community.

“Some of those groups are outsiders,” Hairston said. “Outsiders think that people don't know what's best for them in their communities. And that's a little offensive.” 

“There are groups in South Shore that will determine what happens with South Shore and not outside influencers,” she continued.

This is an issue that her successor, Ald. Desmon Yancy, appears poised to break from Hairston on. In a referendum voted on by residents in nine of South Shore’s precincts in the February 28 municipal election, 88% of residents voted in support of establishing a local CBA ordinance. Yancy, a South Shore resident who was endorsed by Hairston, also ran on a platform supporting the quick passage of South Shore CBA, saying he would make it a priority for his first 100 days in office.

Hairston previously charged outsiders with fomenting disturbances in the 5th Ward when facing criticism from activists. Following the police killing of Harith “Snoop” Augustus in July 2018, protestors took to the streets of South Shore. Many were badly beaten and arrested by police. 

In a community meeting that took place later that month, Hairston characterized the protest as “mayhem,” before saying that “the vast majority of protesters were outsiders coming to the scene to agitate and incite chaos.” (There is no evidence of protestors being outside agitators.)

Although she worked on numerous police accountability efforts during her tenure, Hairston omitted reference to the recent Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance (ECPS), which provides a new model for police oversight, as one of her achievements. Passed by City Council last summer, the ECPS ordinance created the Community Commission for Public Safety, which is overseeing the search for Chicago’s next police superintendent, and the local police district councils, which held their first meetings earlier this month.

She focused instead on economic development and investment, with mention given to the Comer Children’s Hospital which is a part of University of Chicago Medicine. Asked about how she’s navigated the relationship with U. of C., which wields enormous power in the city because of its size and largesse, she said, “I look at them as just another institution in the ward. When they do good things, I praise them. When they do bad things, I criticize them, and have done so on numerous occasions.” 

Over the course of more than two decades, Hairston worked with three different mayors on these projects — Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot — each with a different style and bent of politics.

“Daley was a Chicagoan through and through. Probably because of his upbringing, he understood the value of relationships with the community,” Hairston said. Emanuel’s background in Washington, D.C. politics, she continued, meant that he took a more top-down approach.

Hairston’s retirement took effect on Monday, May 15, when Ald. Yancy was sworn in. He joins 12 other newly elected alders and Mayor Brandon Johnson.

The demands of City Council meant that she had little free time to do many things Chicagoans take for granted. “The city has changed a lot, and there's so many wonderful things that the city offers that I've not had an opportunity to take advantage of, so I plan on doing that,” Hairston said. One of those things on her list of to-do’s is “an architectural tour.” 

“At this moment, I have no plans to leave Chicago,” Hairston said. “I have no plans to leave my community, and I plan to be an active citizen.”

(2) comments


Leslie Hairston will be missed.

She did alot for the ward, and, particularly during the civil unrest of 2022, by engaging CPD and UCPD to protect the businesses in East Hyde Park from vandalism which affected other parts of the city.

Same for when she kept the Local Foods store on 71st and Jeffery protected during the unrest following the shooting by CPD of Harith Augustus.

Hope she stays involved in the ward.


I send my very, very best to our departing 5th Ward Alderwoman Leslie Hairston - who did a very good, honest job of representing our very diverse war.

God bless you Leslie!

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