The Nerve Center of A Dead Ward

This building on 111th Street in Roseland previously housed the offices of the 34th ward and its once-influential 34th Ward Regular Democratic Organization. The alderperson of the 34th ward lived across the street from it for decades. But now, the structure sits more than 12 miles from the nearest edge of the ward.


Before her 2023 resignation, former alderwoman Carrie Austin was seemingly comfortable with the backroom dealmaking, petty graft, and casual nepotism of old Chicago machine politics. She was appointed to the position in 1994 after her husband, the previous 34th ward alder and a staunch ally of Mayor Richard M. Daley, passed away in office. Her late husband was elected into the role in 1987 as the named successor of alderman Wilson Frost, who rose to power via a close working relationship with Daley's father, Mayor Richard J. Daley. Frost was appointed 34th Ward alderman by the elder Daley in 1970 after he lost a reelection bid in his former ward, the 21st, at which time the 34th Ward was reshaped into a new form and bestowed upon him. The 34th Ward Regular Democratic Organization subsequently launched city and state legislative careers, and funneled well-connected people into municipal jobs, by expanding its close alliance with the Daleys into a broader entrenched system of support among other old-school alders, successive mayors, and city department leaders.

Carrie Austin was the second-longest-serving alder on City Council at the time of her resignation, and served as chair of several key City Council committees at different times, including the powerful Budget Committee. During her 29 years in office, Austin gained a reputation for directly hiring family members for ward and committee jobs, and for influencing the pay and working conditions of relatives employed in local government roles that she didn't directly control. Rumors swirled about other forms of corruption in her office and in the 34th ward political org. Often the appearance of impropriety was hard to tie to an actual crime: for instance, when Austin's chief of staff fell behind on property taxes he owed on the building photographed here, a 34th ward business owner contributed $1,000 to Austin's re-election committee and then agreed to purchase the property a few months later, relieving the tax obligations of Austin's associate and acquiring an income-generating commercial building in a deal made outside the open market.

Eventually, Austin and several others in her orbit were targeted by federal corruption investigations. This building was raided by the FBI in 2019, and the following years saw Austin fall from power in municipal politics as she landed in court over bribes and favors allegedly enthusiastically taken from a real estate developer. The case has yet to conclude. The chief of staff who sold the 34th ward office building to a campaign donor in 2011 is currently the subject of multiple investigations into malfeasance ranging from SNAP benefits fraud to undisclosed conflicts of interest in a county land sale. Sitting State Senator Emil Jones III, who rose to prominence alongside Austin in the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Organization under the guidance of his father (previously also a state legislator), currently faces bribery charges of his own in a case focused on a vendor of municipal red light camera systems.

Austin's rapid political implosion after years of brash machine-style leadership took place concurrently with Chicago's once-a-decade ward remap process, an always contentious effort to redraw ward boundaries when new localized population statistics are published by the U.S. Census Bureau. The sitting City Council votes on the final map, which means that the remap process almost always turns into a fierce battle in which alders attempt to maintain or increase representation of their own racial or political blocs on City Council, slyly carve potential election-year challengers out of their wards, or give themselves purview over important commercial corridors not currently within their ward boundaries. It's a messy, and often deeply undemocratic, negotiation that tends to produce final ward boundaries that bear little relationship to socially defined neighborhood boundaries.

Austin was essentially boxed out of conversations about the ward remap in 2021 and 2022, having lost all her committee chair roles and seen as inevitably headed toward retirement under the weight of her legal troubles. Consequently, the 34th ward was treated as a sacrifice from the very start of the remap process. Almost the entirety of Austin's ward, last substantially reshaped when it was handed to Wilson Frost in 1970, was absorbed into the adjacent 21st ward, with a small portion given to the 9th ward. A brand new ward, called the 34th but bearing no geographical or political relation to the old, was created covering the booming West Loop. By sheer bad luck of timing - a federal criminal case that coincided with the decennial ward remap - the previously powerful 34th ward ceased to exist in its entrenched form, pushing thousands of far south siders into new political territory and leaving this building disused for the first time in decades.