I wasn’t going to write about the New Yorker‘s March 8 profile of Mayor Daley. As a general rule, I don’t like to critique other journalists—it’s hard enough to make a living in this racket, and the last thing any of us needs is somebody nipping at his heels.
But then I actually read the thing, and as a Chicagoan, let alone a Chicagoan who writes about politics, I realized I had no choice.
Listen, I got nothing against the guy who wrote it—Evan Osnos, a former Tribune reporter who’s spent most of his career in New York and overseas and now lives in China. Don’t know him, never met him. And his story’s not without its revealing moments, like the anecdote about the high school priest who gave young Richie Daley a paddling for talking in class, then “half jokingly” asked, “Your father’s not going to get me in trouble, now, is he?”
I appreciate the fact that Osnos at least tried to catalog some of the low points of Daley’s regime, like the Hired Truck and City Hall hiring scandals. Especially since puff pieces in other national media have made the mayor look like Mother Teresa.
And I’m certainly not one of those Chicagoans who thinks only the locals can capture the city’s essence. I thought Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker‘s political writer, did a good job with his July 2008 piece on Barack Obama’s connections to the Daley machine. A.J. Liebling’s New Yorker articles on what he dubbed the Second City and David Halberstam’s classic Harper’s profile of the first Mayor Daley remain relevant to this day.
But the view of the city you get in Osnos’s piece is the view you’d get if you took a limo ride with the mayor through the touristy parts of town. It bears no resemblance to the city that most ordinary Chicagoans see and live in every day.
Let’s start with the central premise that Chicago would be some giant slum if not for Daley. I know this is a standard spin on things—you hear it quite a bit from corporate types and other Daley defenders around here—but it irritates me because it’s a cheap shot at Daley’s mayoral predecessors, including my personal favorite, Harold Washington. Say what you will about Jane Byrne, Washington, and Eugene Sawyer, but they ruled during the economic dislocation of the 1980s. They didn’t have the good fortune to run the city during the go-go real estate market of the 1990s and early 2000s—a nationwide boom that boosted more cities than Chicago.
And embedded in this notion is the implication that a black guy (like Washington or Sawyer) can’t run a big city. I used to hear a lot of that from white people around here; it’s funny, though, that I haven’t heard quite as much talk about Daley saving us from ruin over the last few years, as city services have declined and property taxes have soared.
Osnos invokes the old Wall Street Journal line about Chicago being “Beirut on the lake” in the 1980s, as Washington and his white City Council battled for control of city government. “Daley took office at a moment when Chicago was paralyzed by infighting and mismanagement,” Osnos writes. “In 1987 William Bennett, the Secretary of Education, said that Chicago had the worst school system in the country—’an education meltdown.’ The center of the city was a desiccating museum of masterpieces by Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan. Infant mortality in remote neighborhoods was comparable to levels in the Third World.”
But then in 1989 Richie took charge, and “in the years that followed, Detroit, Cleveland, and other former industrial powers continued to wither, but Chicago did not. It has grown in population, income, and diversity; it has added more jobs since 1993 than Los Angeles and Boston combined. Downtown luxury condos and lofts have replaced old warehouses and office blocks. New trees and flower beds line the sidewalks and sprout from the roofs of high-rises. (Chicago has significantly more green roofs than any other city in America.) Diners and pizza joints have given way to daring restaurants like Alinea and L2O, where the chefs Grant Achatz and Laurent Gras are among America’s highest priests of the chemically complex food known as molecular gastronomy. Chicago is a post-industrial capital of innovation from house music to fashion—the Milan of the Midwest, as the Washington Post put it last year.”
OK, stop. I can’t take it anymore. Who wrote this stuff, Billy Dec? I like a good meal as much as the next guy, but what the hell does any of this have to do with Mayor Daley?
The downtown real estate boom was part of a larger demographic shift that started in the 1980s. It’s true that it was fortified with the hundreds of millions of property tax dollars Daley has handed over to well-connected developers and corporations, but it’s also true that thousands of the swank new condos are empty because there’s nobody in the market to fill them.
Osnos also repeats City Hall’s boast about leading the country in buildings with green roofs. But as the Reader has reported, his administration has also failed to offer residents a real recycling program, stood by as two coal-fired power plants on the southwest side produce dangerous air pollution, and done little to implement its own plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
And while I’m at it—house music? House music originated in the late 1970s, when Frankie Knuckles started spinning at the Warehouse on South Jefferson. If any mayor should get credit for house music, it’s Michael Bilandic.
Had house music emerged when Daley was in charge, I have no doubt he’d have done everything in his power to shut it down. For several years now he and his underlings in the City Council have been trying to force small concert promoters to get expensive licenses and insurance policies that could put scores of neighborhood arts institutions out of business; only pushback from big corporate promoters has put the plan on hold. Meanwhile, under Daley the public schools have all but given up on the arts: according to an October article in Catalyst, schools with more than 750 students are assigned either an art or a music teacher—and smaller schools only get one, part time.
And why is it that Daley’s boosters always compare Chicago to poor, unfortunate Detroit—a one-industry town battered by the collapse of its one industry? Chicago has always been a larger, healthier, more diverse town than Detroit. If you want to see how Chicago really ranks, compare it to New York City, whose population and wealth are rising faster than Chicago’s with a fraction of the attendant corruption. In fact, Chicago’s population has fallen in the last few years.
Oh, and let’s talk some more about infant mortality. Sure, the rates were disgracefully high in the 1980s. But since then they haven’t exactly subsided to acceptable levels. The citywide rate is 9.6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births; nationwide the figure is 6 per 1,000. And it soars in poor black communities like West Englewood (25.1 per 1,000), Washington Park (21.1), West Garfield Park (19.5) and South Shore (19.2), according to a 2007 article in the Chicago Reporter. If those neighborhoods were countries they’d rank below the Palestinian territories, Colombia, Albania, and Sri Lanka.
Despite all the pretty flowers, poverty persists in Chicago. According to the 2000 census, almost 14 percent of households here made less than $10,000 a year, and more than 60 percent made less than $50,000. I can assure you these residents aren’t dining at L2O, no matter how “chemically complex” its “molecular gastronomy” may be.
As for the schools, “when [Daley] took office, the district was in financial disarray and test scores were among America’s worst,” Osnos writes. “Daley’s changes have been controversial—some critics say that gains have been overstated and parents’ input has been marginalized—but dropout rates have consistently declined and test scores have improved.”
So what? There’s a long-standing dispute about how accurately the district reports its dropout rates, but by most accounts it still loses half its high school students before they graduate. The system’s still in financial disarray (about $1 billion in the hole) and the test scores at dozens of schools are still well below the national average—despite the fact that the tests have gotten easier in the last few years and teachers are required to waste everyone’s time teaching kids how to take them.
Did I mention that in recent years Chicago has been the murder capital of the country? In fact, the murder tally has been much higher under Daley than it ever was under Byrne or Washington—it’s even higher than, yes, Detroit, which Osnos points out was known as the nation’s murder capital in the 1970s. And now we’re so broke we can’t hire police officers to replace the hundreds of veterans who are retiring—even though our taxes keep going up and up. My property taxes were $2,700 in 1997; this year I expect I’ll pay close to $8,000. Now that I think about it, count me among those who can’t afford to eat at L20.
Osnos also writes that Chicago’s racial divisions are a thing of the past—especially on Election Day. “Daley’s political success in the black community is indisputable,” he writes. “In 1989, he received 7 percent of the black vote; in the most recent race, he won 70 percent.” Actually, he won only about 50 percent of the vote in predominantly black wards in 2007. It’s not as if everybody who’s African-American has been content with Daley: he’s faced at least one black opponent every time he’s run for reelection. And while he’s triumphed in each of these races, he’s done so with fewer and fewer actual votes. (For more on that, see this week’s cover story.)
I could go on. But I’ll just ask our visiting correspondents to reconsider the pervasive view that Chicago needs a temperamental tyrant who oversees a corrupt and inefficient regime in order to get anything done.
If we’re talking about city services—collecting garbage, clearing snow—they were delivered every bit as well under Byrne, Washington, and Sawyer as they are today. As for the hard stuff, like creating high-paying jobs, eradicating poverty, making sure poor kids do as well in school as rich ones—on those matters Daley’s as clueless as every other mayor.
Mussolini’s defenders used to say that at least he made the trains run on time. But Mayor Daley . . . oh, don’t even get me started on public transportation.
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.