STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We are deep into redistricting for next year's elections. It happens once per decade based on the census and it leads to a lot of political battles. That is especially true this year in Chicago. African-Americans left the city in droves during the last decade, while the Latino population rose, as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
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CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: I'm here at the intersection of 12th and Michigan in Chicago. This used to be the city's migration gateway. Thousands of black southerners arrived at the Illinois Central Railroad station seeking the promised land of the North. The station is no longer here and the pattern of this century's migration is vastly different.
ROBERT PARAL: Well, the migration's in the other direction.
CORLEY: Demographer Robert Paral says the city lost a dramatic number of African-Americans. According to the 2010 census, 200,000 residents left Chicago, 181,000 were black. Merle Huckabee is among them.
MERLE HUCKABEE: I had to get used to the geese.
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HUCKABEE: That was new. That was new. That was something - watch your step. That was something different.
CORLEY: Huckabee, a stay at home mom, moved with her husband James and their two daughters to Hazel Crest, Illinois in 2006. Hazel Crest is a small, integrated but predominantly black village, a picturesque suburb about 30 miles south of Chicago's downtown.
Yellow leaves fall from the tree branches arching over the wide street that leads into the development of single family homes, condos and townhomes where Huckabee lives. It's peaceful here, she says. The family used to live near Roseland, a high crime area of Chicago.
HUCKABEE: For us it was about our kids. It was about a better school system for our children and it was about safety.
CORLEY: So as Chicago's population dropped to nearly 2.7 million, African-Americans moved to suburbs and many out of Illinois entirely. Whites left the city too, albeit on a smaller scale, while Chicago's Asian and Latino populations grew - Latinos by slightly more than 25,000. That means Chicago's city leaders have to redraw the boundaries of the city's 50 wards. What's at stake is representation and political clout.
The Voting Rights Act protects African-Americans and Latinos in the redistricting process, in an effort to ensure that minorities have a chance of being elected to public office relative to their share of the population. And in this Democratic town, race is more of a factor than partisan politics during redistricting.
ALDERMAN HOWARD BROOKINS: We're standing at 95th and Halsted in front of the Woodson Library.
CORLEY: The Carter Woodson Library is in Chicago Alderman Howard Brookins' South Side ward. It houses one of the largest African-American collections of historical documents in the country. Brookins heads the Chicago City Council's Black Caucus. He says redistricting may not be at the forefront of the public's conscience but it is extremely important:
BROOKINS: It means resources, it means voting power.
CORLEY: A power that Brookins says has allowed black Chicagoans to help elect several firsts; a black mayor of Chicago in the 1980s, two African-American U.S. senators and even a president:
BROOKINS: And so with that extra umph, we have been able to get people in higher offices.
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ROSITA DELAROS: (Foreign language spoken)
CORLEY: At this public hearing of the Chicago City Council's Latino Caucus, residents came to have their say about a new ward map for Chicago. Juan Calderon says his relatives live in several Latino neighborhoods.
JUAN CALDERON: I definitely think due to the increase among the numbers of Latinos, it's important for us to have equitable representation across the board in the city of Chicago.
CORLEY: Calderon said it would mean more attention paid to issues important to Latinos. In this neighborhood, there's a diverse population: Latinos, African-Americans and Eastern Europeans. And while the spotlight is on African-Americans and Latinos, Alexander Denell said race shouldn't matter.
ALEXANDER DENELL: On the other hand, I am with Americans of Polish descent. And I do want to stand up and say we Polish-Americans do count.
CORLEY: What it all means is that the redistricting effort has begun in earnest, and Chicago Alderman Ray Suarez says just as the City Council's Black Caucus has offered a version of a city ward map, the Latino Caucus will do likewise.
ALDERMAN RAY SUAREZ: In the past, when the Latino community was coming to growth in our city, we were never consulted. And I think we're going to try to do the best we can for all of our communities. But our responsibility in the end is the Latino community.
CORLEY: The city's Latino population is now at nearly 30 percent. Alderman Danny Solis, who heads the City Council's Latino Caucus, says the ward map the Black Caucus proposed is simply a starting point. It would drop one majority black ward and create two more majority Latino wards.
ALDERMAN DANNY SOLIS: The figures speak for themselves. We are in need of more Hispanic wards in the city of Chicago.
CORLEY: The question is: at whose expense?
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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