A ceremonial street sign honoring Saul Bellow is posted at Augusta Boulevard and Rockwell Street, as well as at Augusta and Washtenaw, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.
The brown honorary street signs that sprout from light poles across Chicago likely will start to get culled under a plan that will head to the City Council next week.
For decades, the signs have been a form of political currency, a way for aldermen to reward supporters and neighborhood luminaries with a little aluminum panel of civic immortality. The City Council has approved about 1,500 of the signs the past 50 years.
But a proposal that passed the Transportation Committee on Thursday would require aldermen to cover the full cost of making and installing the signs out of their ward-level budgets, a process that could run up to $1,200 per intersection.
The signs would be allowed for only people who are deceased. And aldermen would be limited to two such honors per year, a response to city Department of Transportation officials saying they are getting pulled away from more pressing work like putting up traffic control signs to meet the timelines for aldermen who want to unveil honorary street signs at ceremonies on a given date.
Perhaps most jarringly to the Chicagoans who’ve grown used to the thickets of brown signs on poles alongside official green street signs, aldermen would need to apply to renew the honors every five years, or the signs would get pulled down.
"It was just a way of, sometimes you have multiple people who want to be honored, maybe on the same street," said Transportation Committee Chairman Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, who introduced the new rules, including the expiration clause for existing signs. "So you can have one down and then honor the next person the next five years, or scenarios like that."
Aldermen have been reluctant to relinquish their unfettered authority to bestow the signs at a time they have less control than they used to over basic city services like garbage pickup because of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s switch to a grid-based system instead of a ward-based system. Beale had to pull the ordinance off the table in December after colleagues raised concerns about it.
On Thursday, however, officials from Emanuel’s transportation agency came to a hearing and testified that they spend an inordinate amount of time and money dealing with installation of the signs.
"What happens is, if we get the notification (about an honorary sign) late, it causes us to have to shift our operation, which in turn stops us from taking care of the regulatory signs we have to maintain throughout the city," said First Deputy CDOT Commissioner Randy Conner.
The committee then approved Beale’s measure without opposition.
Meanwhile, aldermen will have a couple of months to continue to get the honorary signs approved under the old rules. Among the proposed signs that got the go-ahead Thursday was one sponsored by 26th Ward Ald. Roberto Maldonado to honor former FALN member Oscar Lopez Rivera.
Days before leaving office last month, President Barack Obama commuted Rivera’s prison sentence for his role in the organization, which in the 1970s and early ’80s plotted bombings, prison escapes and armed robberies in an effort to secure independence for Puerto Rico.
In 1981, Rivera was found guilty in federal court in Chicago of weapons, explosives and seditious conspiracy charges, and sentenced to 55 years in prison. Rivera received an additional 15 years in 1988 after he was convicted of plotting to escape from prison.