Chicago's 'most concerned citizen' to continue role as '51st Alderman' at City Hall

ByJohn Owens Localish logo
Monday, February 27, 2023
Chicago's 'most concerned citizen' continues as '51st Alderman' at City Hall
George Blakemore, Chicago's honorary "51st alderman," will be returning to City Hall regardless of the election results.

CHICAGO -- Change is inevitable in Chicago's City Council after Tuesday's municipal elections, with 14 alderpersons not running for re-election and a number of wards up for grabs.

But Chicago's 51st alderman will be returning to City Hall, regardless of the election results.

RELATED: What's behind Chicago's large early voting turnout and city council change-ups?

That honorary "51st alderman" is George Blakemore. And while he isn't an elected official, he is a constant presence at City Hall. For over 30 years, Blakemore has attended nearly every City Council meeting, where he often is given three minutes of time to comment on the council proceedings.

The colorfully-dressed 81-year-old Blakemore is also a frequent visitor to City Council committee meetings and other public board gatherings. That includes the Cook County Board and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation Board.

"I have many names," Blakemore says of himself. "Some people call me a 'concerned citizen", some people call me a gadfly. And some people call me an (expletive)."

Before public meetings that he attends, Blakemore signs up to be one of the members of the public who are allowed to speak about either agenda issues or anything else related to public policy.

Blakemore will often provide scathing commentary for politicians attending these meetings, questioning items on the daily agenda in his own unique, theatrical way.

For instance, he took on the city's Water Reclamation Board at a late January meeting, accusing the gathering of "fraud, waste and mismanagement" while questioning nearly every item on its agenda.

"All is not well at Water Management," Blakemore said to the gathering.

Laura Washington, the longtime Chicago journalist and ABC7 Chicago political analyst, first encountered Blakemore at City Council when she was working in Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's administration in the mid-1980s.

"George Blakemore is a classic Chicago character. He comes from the streets. He knows the streets, and he speaks for the streets," Washington said. "He's always been the person who's spoken for the voiceless, the person who's not at City Hall. He sees himself as a representative of the citizens who are not in the room and who maybe don't understand government as well as he does. He understands government better than probably 90% of the Chicago City Council."

Occasionally, he'll actually influence decisions. A few years ago, he lobbied effectively to add Harold Washington's name on the sign of the CTA's Library-State/Van Buren "L" stop.

Blakemore also ran as a Republican for Cook County Commissioner back in 2018, gaining more than 11,000 votes in a election where he was defeated by Democrat Bill Lowry.

But his main role is as a public watchdog who takes on politicians.

"I was trained as a political scientist and, and I have a degree in history in governing," Blakemore said. "I have to be (at public meetings) because if I feel like when I'm not present, nobody else will say the things that only I can say."

Blakemore'a main goal is to address economic and political issues involving Chicago's Black community. He can be raw and blunt when addressing these issues.

"He's a smart guy who knows his stuff," said 38th Ward Ald. Nicholas Sposato. "Sometimes he's goes overboard and can say hateful things."

"He's no-holds-barred," Washington adds. "He's assertive, he's aggressive, he's loud, he demands to be heard, and he's gonna keep on talking. He's gonna keep on asking and demanding until he gets an answer."

The politicians who witness Blakemore's style up-close agree.

"Anywhere where public participation is allowed, the 'Concerned Citizen' is there speaking for the people, pushing for goods, contracts and jobs, particularly for Black Chicagoans," said 15th Ward Ald. Ray Lopez. "So often in governmental meetings, there's no one here to advocate for the citizenry or anybody for that matter. George is here. So he's been a constant voice. He's basically our 51st alderman here."

Blakemore has spent over 50 years living in Chicago. "I came at the end of the Great Migration in 1970," he said. "I left Oklahoma City and decided to come up to Chicago to teach."

He spent time teaching in the Chicago Public School system, but decided to leave after a few years. "I think he decided he had enough of the bureaucracy," Washington said.

Blakemore later became a street vendor, where he was a recognizable presence for awhile at Maxwell Street Market.

These days, he supplements his income with his art, which he sells at various city festivals, like the recent State Street Holiday Market. His art includes colorful, abstract paintings done on canvas. But he is perhaps best-known for his paint-splattered leather jackets, shirts and pants.

Blakemore often wears his own styles. And he has sold his jackets and artwork to aldermen, including Ray Lopez, who has dedicated a wall in his City Hall office to Blakemore's artwork.

"After I leave City Hall, I'm so frustrated," Blakemore said. "So I take my frustration out in my artwork, that's my therapy."

Blakemore had a serious health scare in 2019, when it was reported that had neurosurgery for a blood clot in his brain, due to a fall. But the "51st alderman" is not slowing down and has no plans to step back from his still-busy schedule.

"We were thankful that he not only pulled through, but he pulled through with a vengeance," Lopez said. "The one thing George has done over these eight decades is inspire people to stand up. And there is a whole new younger generation that is learning who George Blakemore is, what a concerned citizen is. And what what it means to stand up."