Two mayors, two Chicagos | Bleader

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Two mayors, two Chicagos

Posted By on 05.17.11 at 10:16 AM

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Richard M. Daley had a certain quality that Rahm Emanuel lacks, James Warren noted in Sunday’s New York Times—a quality that gave the outgoing mayor an advantage over the incoming one. “As the church-going child brought up in a Bridgeport bungalow, he had an organic tie to the city’s neighborhoods and their ways of life,” wrote Warren, the Chicago News Cooperative columnist. He wondered whether Emanuel, raised mainly in the suburbs, could succeed “while lacking Mr. Daley’s visceral feel for the neighborhoods.” Warren guessed that Emanuel’s “air of power and steely resolve” and “impressive smarts” would help him overcome his deficiency.

But does growing up in any Chicago neighborhood give a person a visceral feel for every Chicago neighborhood?

Bridgeport was zero percent black when Daley was born in 1942. When he turned eight in 1950, it was still zero percent black. By his 18th birthday in 1960, Bridgeport had climbed to .2 percent black. The neighborhood’s poverty rate was low throughout his childhood, as was its unemployment rate; anyone who could ring a doorbell qualified for a city job. The streets were swept, the trees trimmed, the garbage picked up promptly, the snow cleared from the streets almost as soon as it hit the pavement. Did growing up in such a place create in Daley an organic understanding of life in Englewood, or in Lawndale, or in any of Chicago’s other black ghettos? Did his schooling at Nativity of Our Lord grammar school develop in him a visceral sense of what school was like in Woodlawn?

Elsewhere in the same New York Times, reporter Monica Davey observed that Daley “sees his biggest accomplishment as overcoming the racial, geographic and ethnic divisions that tore the city apart in the 1980s. 'No more "Beirut by the lake,”’ Mr. Daley said.”

The "Beirut by the lake” label came from the political fights between white and black aldermen in the mid-1980s. That was when Harold Washington, an African-American, was mayor, a fact that troubled most of the city’s white aldermen. The City Council rumbles were halted not by Daley but by Washington’s fatal heart attack in 1987, after which the white aldermen managed to install Eugene Sawyer, a spineless black colleague, as mayor until they could get one of their own elected. That turned out to be Daley in 1989.

“Beirut by the lake” was a passing phenomenon, sensational but far less important than the racial segregation that has been an organic trait of Chicago since 1910. Our intense segregation has made Chicago two cities, and prevents a child raised in one of the Chicagos from having a visceral understanding of the other one. Chicago has been more like Pretoria than Beirut, albeit with de facto and not de jure apartheid. Daley did little to change that, racial peace being much easier to achieve than integration and equality.

The demolition of the city’s housing projects, executed on Daley’s command, dispersed many of Chicago’s blacks to the southern suburbs. The hollowed-out neighborhoods they left behind are, with few exceptions, no less segregated. As the Reader documented in February, most black Chicagoans live in 21 community areas, 18 on the south side and three on the west side, that are astonishingly segregated for these "post-racial" times—their aggregate population is 96 percent black. And these neighborhoods are no less afflicted now than before Daley by the inequities that racial segregation dependably harvests: higher rates of crime, fire, joblessness, school dropouts, physical and mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction, single-parent families, child abuse and neglect. It would be unfair today to call Chicago “Pretoria by the lake”—unfair to Pretoria, which has made progress.

Segregation is a choice, not a fait accompli. Other regions are taking steps to challenge it—the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area, for one, prodded by the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race & Poverty. In Chicago, the steps lately have been backward: the city's Commission on Human Relations, the agency charged with combating discrimination in housing, has absorbed deep cuts in recent years, and the main private group fighting for desegregation here, the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, folded in 2006.

Emanuel, like his predecessor, has a politician’s visceral understanding of the volatility of race as an issue—so he won’t confront segregation directly. Chicago's defining problem wasn't even mentioned in the new mayor's inauguration speech; there are many words Emanuel is willing to utter, but segregation isn't one of them. Attacking segregation would truly require a steely resolve, and Emanuel is more likely to rely on his impressive political smarts. He'll address the problems of the city’s poor black neighborhoods with his own versions of the separate-but-equal strategies Daley tried. And probably with the same results.

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