Springfield’s Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory has been teaming up with restaurants and other businesses to pass out free dinners during the coronavirus pandemic. He said the goal goes beyond giving out free food.
“We’re trying to give back and work with some of our local businesses to help them, and to feed the community, as well,” Greogry said, while handing out BBQ dinners from Boyd’s Restaurant. “We’re also doing these events to give out some (COVID-19) information and census information as well.”
With social distancing requirements aimed at curbing the spread of the disease, Gregory said he misses face-to-face communication with members of the community.
“Not being able to meet in person with people is different for me, because I’m more of a face-to-face person,” Gregory said. “Especially going out to see problems when my constituents call me.”
The pandemic has changed how elected officials serve their constituents. When the virus hit Illinois in March, city council meetings moved online and many community events were cancelled or postponed.
Gregory, the city’s newest and youngest council member, said his job is different now, but his focus remains the same. The part of Springfield considered to be the east side - which includes large parts of Gregory’s ward - starts crossing the 11th street railroad tracks, all the way south to Stevenson, and all the way north to North Grand Avenue. Neighborhoods east of the tracks are predominantly black, and many have boarded up houses and businesses.
A six month investigation by Governing magazine revealed that those railroad tracks represent a dividing racial line within the city. The study showed that at nearly 41 percent Springfield’s poverty rate among black residents is higher than that of any of the other downstate Illinois cities examined in the investigation.
Gregory said it’s particularly important for his neighbors to see him not only helping out, but also wearing a mask and taking the disease seriously.
“On the eastern half of this city, from the south to the north, you have a bulk of the covid cases, and we’re seeing them spiking up,” Gregory said.
According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, 56 of the 323 COVID-19 cases in the county are residents from zip codes that include most of Gregory's ward. The 62703 zip code also stretches far south to Lake Springfield, and east to Interstate 55.
During his campaign, Gregory promised to bring a fresh perspective to the city council, but he had a rocky start to his term.
On Election Day last spring, his opponent, Gail Simpson, won by one vote. She served for a couple months during a contentious recount that came down to drawing a ping pong ball out of a bag. S
Simpson had more political experience and connections as she previously served on the city council and ran for mayor.
Jeanette Goza, who is on the elected board that oversees the Bank of Springfield Center in downtown, said she voted for Simpson. She said she’s lived in Ward 2 her the majority of her life, and she was not familiar with Gregory, hinting that she didn’t think he could represent the ward well.
But as time went on, Gregory’s hard work and dedication won her over, especially with his reaction during the pandemic.
“I think he’s really doing some positive things,” Goza said. “He’s out there on the street passing out food and masks to the people, that shows concern. He’s actually putting a face to his name, and I’ve been impressed.”
Community activist Erica Austin, also a Ward 2 resident, says Gregory is different from other politicians she has voted for in the past. She said he is young, passionate, and he is keeping up with the promises he made during his campaign.
But she says homelessness, violence, lack of businesses on the east and north side of town, and other problems that have plagued the area for years need to be solved.
“The restaurants should not be leaving our side of town to go to the west side. I feel like the east side needs just as much as a presence of businesses as the west side,” Austin said.
Addressing racial and economic divides in Springfield has been the agenda for many city council members over the years.
Frank McNeil served as alderman of Ward 2 for almost 20 years. He also played a major role in the voting rights lawsuit that changed the city’s form of government - from commissioner to aldermanic. He is Gregory’s mentor, and was first to call for the investigation of the late mail-in-ballots, which led to Gregory’s victory. He says he knew Gregory was a perfect fit for city council.
“What the east side of Springfield needed, and what the city of Springfield needed, quite frankly needed was some energy injected into the politics of Springfield...Shawn represented that kind of energy,” McNeil said.
The City of Springfield has nearly $800,000 dollars in federal money from the CARES Act for coronavirus relief efforts. Gregory says his main priority is ensuring that residents and businesses in his ward receive their fair share because the area is usually overlooked.
“One of the things I come to do is to show the city government and all governments… a real true outlook of what communities like mine goes through,” Gregory said.
The alderman says the pandemic has slowed down his planning on some economic development projects and two training academies, where people learn to be carpenters or barbers. Two residents from the east side run the academies.
Gregory said people not being allowed to work and others dying from the virus cause strain on a struggling community.
“(The pandemic) has put more priority on the things my community needs, because I think it set us back even further than what the community already was,” he said.