Pie crumbs | On Politics | Chicago Reader

Pie crumbs 

Chicago is really bad at fairly slicing the economic development pie.

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click to enlarge Guess who got the majority of this pie . . . - DEBBIE HUDSON / UNSPLASH
  • Guess who got the majority of this pie . . .
  • Debbie Hudson / Unsplash

I was tempted to give Mayor Lightfoot a standing ovation for her recent “Chuck and Larry” remarks at the City Council, but then she started talking about slicing the pie—and it was downhill from there.

OK, let me explain . . .

Chuck and Larry are the lead characters in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, a really stupid and insulting Adam Sandler and Kevin James flick about two straight guys who pretend they’re a gay couple to get better health benefits for their children.

The less said about Chuck & Larry the better—though I can’t let this moment pass without quoting a Wall Street Journal critic who said the film manages to insult “gays, straights, men, women, children, African-Americans, Asians, pastors, mailmen, insurance adjusters, firemen, doctors—and fans of show music.”

Other than that—wonderful movie.

Anyway, at a recent council meeting Alderman Walter Burnett cited Chuck & Larry as a reason the city may want to reconsider a proposal to create set-asides for LGBTQ-owned businesses.

That nonsense prompted Lightfoot to proclaim that “as a Black gay woman proud on all fronts, I have to say I’m disturbed by the nature of the . . . discussion here today. We need not ask anyone’s indulgence, patience, or forgiveness, or acceptance to be who we are and who we love.”

Right on!

And then she made the pie-slicing allusion. “My friends, the pie is big enough to slice it in lots of other ways. . . . We need not victimize, demonize, and discriminate through our words because we are worried about what the size of the pie is going to be for me.”

I get the main point. As a city we’ve got to expand opportunity for everyone, not pit one group against the other. We shouldn’t resort to nastiness and prejudice, and aldermen should set a better example.

Amen to all that. But as a rule, the mayor should refrain from pie-slicing metaphors because— and here’s a sad fact about Chicago—if there’s one thing we’re really bad about, it’s unfairly slicing the pie.

Martin Luther King Jr. himself came to Chicago in 1966 to launch his campaign to end slums and, you know, more equitably divvy up the pie by spending money on areas that need it the most. And some Chicagoans reacted by throwing rocks and bottles at him as he marched through Marquette Park.

“I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the south, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago,” King told reporters.

In the years since King left town, Black residents have had to go to court to force the school system, the park district, the fire department, the Chicago Housing Authority, and the city itself to get them a bigger slice of the pie.

As for economic development dollars, it’s particularly hard to fairly slice the pie when the pie you’re cutting has been baked to favor the people who need it the least.

I’m talking, of course, about the tax increment financing program, the single largest source of economic development pie that the mayor has at her disposal.

Every year the mayor gets to distribute as much as $840 million of your property tax dollars to different neighborhoods.

The program is intended to help the poorest of the poor. But somehow or other, when the pie is sliced, it helps the richest of the rich. If you think of TIFs as a giant cherry pie, the wealthiest neighborhoods get the cherries and the poorer ones get the pits, year after year.

Last year, for instance, Englewood got $3.47 million in TIF funds. And LaSalle Center—in booming downtown—got $100.9 million.

I could go on and on. Roseland got $678,000, Near North got $35.7 million. And so on and so forth.

Mayor Rahm was particularly sensitive to accusations that he gave nothing but crumbs to the Englewoods of the world and came up with something called the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund.

It’s a fund filled with contributions from developers who make a fortune by building high-end developments in upscale neighborhoods.

In one of his last acts as mayor, Rahm held a press conference in which he congratulated himself for being such a benevolent overseer to the people of the west and south sides.

At last count, the neighborhood fund had doled out about $47 million to west- and south-siders. That leaves just another $1.3 billion or so to catch up with the handout that Mayor Rahm forked over to just one north-side community, Lincoln Yards.

As I said—fairly slicing the pie has never been a Chicago thing.

My many Mayor Lightfoot-loving friends (and I’ve got a ton of them) tell me that I shouldn’t blame her for Lincoln Yards. And that she’s a true progressive. And one day I’ll be singing her praises like she’s the second coming of Harold Washington.

Well, I had a glimmer of hope the other day when I heard Maurice Cox, Lightfoot’s hand-picked planning commissioner, on Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman’s podcast.

Asked about a couple of mega downtown deals that would probably require TIF financing, Cox said: “You start talking about billion-dollar TIFs. Could you imagine what we could do with a billion dollars in the south side just doing 100 little projects? I’m interested in unleashing hundreds of little development projects that incrementally build these neighborhoods one lot at a time.”

I almost fell out of my chair when he said that. A planning commissioner talking about fairly slicing the TIF pie so that the west and south sides finally get a bigger slice?

I know talking about being fair is a lot harder than actually being fair. But it’s a start.   v

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