To the editors:
Ed Zotti is an astute commentator on urban planning issues in Chicago, and he also obviously cares for our city, but I must take issue with much of “Cityscape: Planning for Daley” (Reader, April 14).
In the first place, Zotti–along with every other journalist in Chicago–should renounce the misty descent into portraying Chicago as a “primitive society” desirous of “tribal chieftains.” The imagery is certainly romantic, but evoking primordial conditions and feudal allegiances doesn’t help us understand the city. We aren’t a hunting and gathering society lurching toward agriculture. We approach the 21st century, and Chicago is making the uncertain shift from a manufacturing-based to a more diversified economy. Associated with this shift are an altered occupational structure and a new pattern of neighborhood investment. And overlaying these local features of the shifting late-20th-century world economy is the federal government’s withdrawal of support from former domestic priorities such as subsidized housing. This real context and city require a mayor who can contemplate truly innovative approaches to economic development and neighborhood improvement. If Daley relies for advice on the tired circle of bank presidents, real estate moguls, and journeyman politicos whom the daily papers and t.v. stations parade as our tribal chieftains, god help us.
This brings us to another confusion in Zotti’s piece. By implication, community-based groups and leaders are identified as Slim Colemans and Helen Shillers–and as such, unreliable radicals. In this rendition of the city’s interests, groups such as the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Friends of Downtown are identified as reasonable and therefore legitimate participants in planning-related decision making. In fact, most community-based groups are not flamboyantly radical in the Coleman mold, and if Daley’s administration is interested in improving the quality of neighborhoods across the city these groups should be brought into the planning process and given resources. As for the Metropolitan Planning Council and so forth, these are fine groups that do good work; but they represent a fairly narrow stratum of the city’s population and their main concerns are questions of physical design. Incorporating these groups into planning discussions is useful, but in no way does it qualify as grass-roots planning.
Finally, if Chicago is becoming “a permanent encampment of the poor” it has little to do with our favorite demons, Coleman and Shiller. Ed Zotti, I, and every thoughtful Chicagoan know from where our poor come: an economy that no longer offers enough entry level jobs at decent wages and with career potential, educational institutions that don’t educate, a cultural fascination with drugs and alcohol, and a dozen more sources. Moreover, if we face the facts we will also agree that gentrification of Uptown, Wicker Park, and The Gap will not reduce the number of poor encamped among us. It will simply move them to another part of town. This is the single most important “planning” problem confronting Mayor Daley. How can his administration shrink this encampment by helping liberate its inhabitants from the occupational, educational, and behavioral walls that confine them?