"Politics of Poverty": Why Did John McCarron Do That? 

In the ebbing summer heat of 1988, the Chicago Tribune laid bare the forces of obstruction that are running the city into the ground.

The author of "Chicago on Hold: The New Politics of Poverty" has toiled in the vineyards of urban affairs for eight exacting years. The interests, the egos, the historical backdrop that inform each shift in the winds of neighborhood change are as familiar to him as the street outside his own door. John McCarron described himself to us as a journalist who had "been collecting string for this story" for a long time and now wanted to unravel it day by day in some semblance of a pattern. We'd describe him somewhat differently--as a reporter whacking with a sword at a Gordian knot, trying to liberate a Large Truth from a big, tangled ball of facts.

McCarron's Large Truth--the vision he set down before Chicago--was that the city is "being paralyzed" by "self-serving" foes of development. So stirring was the vision, and so spiritedly presented, it struck readers active in community development like a bolt of lightning. McCarron soon heard from a lot of people whose opinion mattered to him--people like John McDermott and Father John Egan--who told him "Finally!" and "It had to be said" and things like that. We spoke to other people, many of them McCarron's admirers, who believe he came to belligerent and simplistic conclusions.

"Chicago on Hold" began and ended with silly headlines. "'Reform' takes costly toll" kicked off the series on page one of the August 28 Sunday Tribune. McCarron winced at the quotation marks. "I'm not suggesting there's no such thing as reform," he told us.

The series ended a week later with an overview in the Perspective section. Said the headline: "The timid city--As coalition taunts, inertia rules the roost." "Taunts"? Has anyone seen this crowd that stands by whistling and hooting as Chicago sinks into the muck?

The problematic notion in all of this is that of antidevelopment forces working in concert. The idea of a coalition--McCarron actually used the word "movement"--did not originate with McCarron's series. For example, a long article on south lakefront redevelopment in the May/June 1988 Neighborhood Works spoke of "a new citywide coalition fighting what they call 'land grabs' by outside developers in black communities." Still, McCarron seemed uniquely willing to throw anyone and anything into the mix. He began with three dissimilar aldermen: William Henry, an old-fashioned machine opportunist; timid modernist Timothy Evans, who will lead the black vote wherever it tells him to go; and Helen Shiller, a New Left ideologue. Into the pot of chili McCarron also tossed opponents of the world's fair and of the new Bears and White Sox stadiums, and of plastic plumbing, and of school reform, and of a townhouse project on the near northwest side that McCarron approves of. Floating on top like shredded cheese was City Hall policymaker Rob Mier. And to the consternation of Chicago's philanthropic community, McCarron even cited by name foundations that fund community groups that McCarron believes are holding up progress.

Why did he do that?

"I think readers and the public want to know where these people get the wherewithal to create such a splash," McCarron told us. "And to be frank, I think some of the funding sources' own policies are at odds with the tactics of the grantees. And I wanted to get that out there and let those cards fall where they may."

A few cards stayed in the deck. McCarron let us know exactly who's been funding the grass-roots Chicago 1992 Committee, originally created to fight the world's fair, and the Interfaith Organizing Project, which wants to kill the Bears stadium project. But when he turned to the Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation and Northwest Community Organization (NCO), two northwest-side outfits he identified as "masters" of "development-bashing," McCarron merely said several charities give them money and let it go at that. Two of the charities they've gotten money from (McCarron told us he did not know this when he was writing) turn out to be Chicago Tribune Charities and the Robert R. McCormick Trust.

So, what about Bickerdike?

Created 20 years ago to build low-income housing, Bickerdike is "pushing the displacement issue" in masterly fashion, McCarron wrote. The not-for-profit firm, which is "equipped with federal antipoverty funds and a loyal following of low-income families . . . often joins NCO in protesting the private developers who are moving onto their turf." McCarron thinks that kind of behavior is out of line. But he told us, "Eighty-five percent of their work is worthy." He didn't say so in the series.

And what about the world's fair?

Frankie Knibb of the Chicago 1992 Committee isn't the one who killed the world's fair, although McCarron gave her space to take the credit. Our own view is that the fair failed because the downtown big shots flogging it didn't bring to their campaign an ounce of real vision. McCarron told us he blamed the "civic discontinuity" when Harold Washington succeeded Jane Byrne, and the failure "to galvanize widespread public support." In print, he let Frankie Knibb dump on the big shots and brag, "It was their fair or no fair, so it was no fair." But it's not on her head that Chicago wasn't "galvanized."

McCarron's series was marred by gratuities. Citing something called the Anti Land Grab Coalition, McCarron bothered to tell us what its founder, Robert Starks, makes each year as a professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois. ("Maybe it was borderline gratuitous," McCarron conceded.) Timothy Evans lives "at the south end of the 4th Ward . . . in one of the area's finest homes"--in other words, blocks from destitute Oakland. That's where Evans is opposing a plan McCarron favors to level four CHA high rises and move the tenants who lived there (most have been moved out so the high rises could be fixed up) into a new low-rise, mixed-income development. But the developer doesn't live in Oakland either. Neither does McCarron. Only the poor do.

"Chicago on Hold" is spotted with markers that attest to McCarron's grasp of the issues and psychologies at play out in the neighborhoods. But McCarron refused to let his powers of empathy bog him down. He wrote this time around to make waves, to redraft the development debate in tough new terms. He wrote with a kick-ass quality redolent of Tribune journalism at its most imperious. "Chicago," McCarron declared at the get-go, "is being paralyzed by a self-serving political movement fueled by the fear of displacement and orchestrated by leaders determined to stop change in neighborhoods that need change the most."

But is the change that's being stopped the same change that's so badly needed? And is there such a thing as a selfless political movement? And is Chicago truly approaching a state of paralysis or anything close to it? On the strength of a couple of black neighborhoods that balked at giving way to white sports palaces, and some CHA residents afraid to leave their high rises, and poor people in Uptown and Wicker Park hostile to gentrification, and a chief of economic development who prefers empty factory buildings in some places to converted loft apartments, McCarron asks us to accept that Chicago is.

A talk with the reporter:

"Many times I've gone to rallies, community-organization-sponsored rallies where you kind of wonder where people are from and where they live and who pays their rent," said John McCarron. "As far as reporting on not-for-profits goes, we take their word as bible--they're the word of the poor. We don't ask enough ourselves where the word of the poor ends and self-interest begins. My guess was that some groups--including some groups 85 percent of whose work is vital and appreciated--were turning more and more to building their base by attacking the displacement issue, which has been blown way out of proportion as a menace to the city's poor. I'm convinced that demolition is costing the poor way more than gentrification.

"A fair criticism of what I've done is that it should have had a second part about affordable housing. But this was not a series about the problem of affordable housing. . . . Another major criticism is that I was alleging a conspiracy theory. The use of words like 'coalition'--it sounds like people meeting for coffee every morning. We all know they don't. But even acting in isolation, if the combined effect is to deter the redevelopment of neighborhoods, it's at least a movement . . .

"Part of the way you come at this is do you believe public housing is a good thing or a bad thing. I can't imagine a scenario where it's a good thing. What do you do when the people living in this nightmare become a constituency saying we will not be moved? . . . [Timothy] Evans makes a valid point--a promise was made [that the tenants who left the CHA high rises in Oakland could move back in]. But are you going to forgo an opportunity to build 900 humane low-rise Dearborn Park-style units because of promises made three years ago to folks who were scared as hell then and those left are still scared as hell about change of any kind?"

McCarron acknowledged that much of his series "is sort of on the edge of fair comment versus editorialization, and some of my colleagues at the Tribune have hinted to me that at points I went over the edge." But one of his bosses dug out an old newspaper column; it had Russell Baker making fun of a familiar newspaper compulsion, something Baker called "the bland impartiality game." McCarron did not play that game.

Reading "Chicago on Hold," we began to suspect its true subject was not grass-roots recalcitrance but a major deficiency of civic leadership. "A vacuum!" exclaimed McCarron. "A ten-year vacuum! Or however long it's been since the snow flew"--that is, since a blizzard elected Jane Byrne in 1979.

"It seems back then [under Richard J. Daley] we had leadership and no community input," said McCarron. "Now we have a riot of community input and no leadership to direct it."

Which is worse?

"If you're ill-housed and don't have a job, you might think a benevolent despot is better. You might look fondly on the days of that benevolent despot."

What did Mayor Daley ever do for the poor? we wondered.

"Damn little," said McCarron.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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