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Taking the New Yorker for a Ride

The Chicago in Evan Osnos's story is the Chicago you'd see out the window of the mayor's limo.


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Mayor Daley profile

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.

Mayor Daley profile

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.

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