When Richard Daley was elected mayor of Chicago in 1989, the city, like many across the U.S., was a mess. It was home to high crime, failing schools, a legacy of ugly racial division, a quickly exiting middle class and a downtown that was dead after 5 p.m. Chicagoans feared their city was going the way of Detroit.
Nearly 25 years later, Chicago, though by no means perfect, is thriving, especially relative to the nation’s other major cities. Its economic diversity—manufacturing, technology, finance, health care, higher education, fashion—has helped stave off the worst of the recession.
It was always an unfair caricature, but the Chicago of Daley’s deceased father, the other Mayor Richard Daley, was known primarily for sausage and beer, rabid sports fans, crooked cops and pols and the Democrats’ disastrous 1968 political convention.
- Global Cities/Chamber of Commerce Lunch
- November 15, 11:30 a.m., program and panel discussion is from 12 p.m.-1:30 p.m.
- Stan Fulton Building on the UNLV campus, 801 East Flamingo Road.
Chicago is now a sophisticated city of art and architecture, music and culture. Perhaps most important, Chicago, unlike San Francisco or Manhattan, remains thoroughly middle class.
“If I can’t have middle class people living in the city, that’s not a city,” Daley told me in a recent interview.
Las Vegas has much to learn from Chicago and its former mayor, who is in Las Vegas Thursday for a Chamber of Commerce lunch that is part of the Global Cities Initiative, a joint project of JP Morgan Chase and the Brookings Institution.
Daley speaks in exactly the clipped, all-business way you’d expect, and he said that much of what he did early on was bread-and-butter governing and politicking, without which Chicago was fated to the long obsolescence of other Rust Belt towns. He formed coalitions with black leaders, even though he received just 9 percent of the black vote in his first election. He cleared out abandoned cars and houses. He took on homelessness. He also led frequent reviews of city regulations and discarded the unnecessary ones. All told, Chicago was seen as a relatively business-friendly city, though no one would ever presume to think they could take liberties with Daley. All this coincided with a national decline in crime.
Once some of the basic stuff was done, a surprising Daley emerged, one obsessed with planting flowers and trees and getting the city reading and hearing music.
“I’d be glad to be called a tree hugger,” he said.
Copying an idea from Seattle, he got everyone in the city reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” to kick off “One Book, One Chicago.” Daley, though a consummate Chicagoan, took pride in taking other cities’ ideas.
Daley pushed hard for Millennium Park and its Frank Gehry bandshell, which is now one of the greatest public spaces in America, at least during the summer. All of this was directed at preventing, especially among young people, the flight to the suburbs. It’s not a real city if it’s only 40 hours per week, he said.
He also took control of the city’s schools in 1995, and performance has improved, in fits and starts, ever since.
Daley was matter-of-fact about education and technology firms: “If you don’t have it, you’re not going to get those people.”
Daley was able to get big projects done in large part because the mayor of Chicago, like the mayor of New York, wields immense authority. Daley once turned a small corporate airport into the park that he wanted by sending in the bulldozers during the middle of the night. (A twist on an old Catholic joke: the mayor of Chicago is the third most powerful man in America, behind the president of the United States and the coach of the Notre Dame football team.)
The mayor of Las Vegas, by contrast—even a charismatic one like former mayor Oscar Goodman—is merely a member of the city council, and day-to-day operations are run by the city manager. Plus, we’ve got other jurisdictions and fiefdoms, resulting in a patchwork governing system.
Daley defended the “strong mayor” system, saying it makes the mayor accountable for policy failures and successes. “It’s responsibility. If you don’t take responsibility, who takes it?” he asked.
I don’t know about you, but every once in awhile, I wish our valley could find its own Mayor Daley to whip this place into shape.