Heading south on the Drive after being away, I feel a surge of pride—such a beautiful city! I pull out my camera and begin taking pictures of the familiar buildings—the Hancock, the Drake, the Palmolive with its beacon on—the Gold Coast all dressed up for the night. The beauty of Chicago, the myriad things that are right about it, evoke pleasure and pride. The face of Chicago has only grown more beautiful with time.
The city’s historical strengths have gotten a lot of primping, beginning with Mayor Richard M. Daley, who began pouring money into its parks, intent on creating “The Garden in the City.” Even the commercial boulevards—ugly thoroughfares stretching out endlessly—were given expensive medians and beautified with thousands upon thousands of trees and ornamental plantings. Daley promoted the idea of Millennium Park and put together the public-private financing that converted a woe-begone strip of old railroad yards into an elegant yet popular park that became an immediate hit worldwide. Daley also worked to attract residential developers to the Loop and to expand student communities downtown in the hopes of making Chicago a more 24-hour city. He pioneered the use of TIFs—a now suspect slush fund whose initials stand for “Tax Increment Financing”—to create redevelopment zones in neighborhoods citywide. Famously, Daley peremptorily bulldozed the old lakeside airstrip called Miegs Field, which has since become a nature preserve.
Daley operated in boom times, mainly, and overspent cleverly, without taxpayers much noticing, or caring. But, more important, his ‘image agenda’ was carefully balanced with initiatives to improve neighborhood life. Daley was the city’s first ‘color-blind’ mayor: at least he realized that, to be reelected, he had to confer some benefits on all Chicagoans regardless of color, condition, or political allegiance. Pot-holes were fixed in independent wards. He built new playgrounds and libraries in every Chicago neighborhood. Even his quixotic and questionable dream of bringing the Olympics here was bound up in the promise of a flood of redevelopment for the South Side. Daley could have done more and spent less, but his approach to his job was founded on a recognition that his fate depended on the favor of ordinary, and ordinarily powerless, Chicagoans. He stayed focused on making the city more livable, on improving Chicago’s quality of life.
The challenge Daley struggled with, Mayor Emanuel shirks. Despite all the hoopla, Rahm lacks a solid economic vision for reviving the powerhouse that Chicago was. His signature projects won’t confer benefits that are broad and equal. Rahm’s Chicago is a narcissistic place: it’s all about the broad gesture, it’s all about tourism, it’s all about what outsiders think. Whereas tourism grows best where there’s authentic indigenous vitality, the mayor seems to think that tourism and leisure alone will sustain Chicago’s economy—if only we can build enough glitzy attractions to paper over the city’s festering woes.
Hence the crowd-pleasing Divvy bikes, the new Maggie Daley Park—a $55-million-dollar atrocity nobody needs—, the new De Paul stadium (which will benefit De Paul University while costing taxpayers millions), the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts—a colossal vanity project that Lucas should build without public favors on private grounds. Rather than having a ‘multiplier effect,’ the money Chicagoans spend on Divvy bikes flows out of the city to a New York firm.
Emanuel’s myopic obsession with making Chicago a nice place to visit offends every Chicagoan who longs to see the city safer, more prosperous, and richer in opportunity. Chicago’s mayor should be working the levers to enhance the lives of Chicagoans. Make their neighborhoods safer, their daily lives healthier; unshutter their schools, give their kids a path to the future, and stop Chicago’s population decline. Were Emanuel to do that, he really might have the chops to be president one day. As it is, Rahm’s Chicago, though prettier than ever, is starving for the love and care it deserves.