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The Mayor Builder

books and culture

The Mayor Builder

How Richard M. Daley set the stage for Chicago’s comeback—and planted the seeds of fiscal crisis. January 27, 2017
Arts and Culture
Cities
Economy, finance, and budgets

Building the City of Spectacle: Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Remaking of Chicagoby Costas Spirou and Dennis R. Judd (Cornell University Press, 264 pp., $27.95)

Richard M. Daley took office as mayor of Chicago in 1989. The city was at a low ebb following the bitter racial conflicts of the so-called Council Wars period, when a largely white city council fought to stymie Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. During Daley’s 22 years in office, many of the Windy City’s neighborhoods gentrified, in part because of a blizzard of municipal-improvement projects originating with or approved by city hall. When Daley departed in 2011 after six terms, the city remained deeply racially divided and was teetering on the edge of a fiscal crisis. Costas Spirou and Dennis R. Judd’s Building the City of Spectacle traces the remarkable two-decade transformation of Chicago under Mayor Daley.

As part of his strategy to revitalize the struggling city, Daley embarked on a series of lakefront megaprojects: rerouting roads and eliminating highway crossings; authorizing multiple expansions of the McCormick Place convention center; and championing the renovation of Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. Reconstructing Navy Pier turned the neglected Near North Side landmark into a tourist-oriented entertainment venue, similar to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Navy Pier is now Illinois’s most popular tourist attraction, with about 9 million annual visitors. Daley tore up the runway at Meigs Field Airport in 2003 and created a 91-acre waterfront park out of Northerly Island. In 2004, he opened the 25-acre Millennium Park in the heart of downtown, featuring highly regarded attractions from internationally renowned architects and artists such as Frank Gehry and Anish Kapoor.

Building the City of Spectacle largely ignores Daley’s non-lakefront projects, such as investments at Midway and O’Hare airports and the Block 37 boondoggle, in which the mayor spent $200 million on an abandoned shell of an underground high-speed rail terminal on State Street. The book paints Daley as the heir to urban master planner Daniel Burnham, who was famous for saying, “Make no small plans.” Like Daley, Burnham focused heavily on revamping Chicago’s shoreline and envisioned an ambitious lakefront park system. But the authors say that Daley’s legacy is perhaps better compared with that of Robert Moses, who, before he could become a master builder, first had to become a power broker.

Initially, many Chicagoans wrote Daley off as a lightweight. His father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, died in 1976 after 21 years in office and was credited with sparing Chicago from the midcentury decline that befell most Rust Belt cities. The younger Daley’s critics vastly underestimated his political skills until it was too late to stop him from dominating city politics.

Daley steadily acquired power, working hard to win over Chicago’s African-American population, defusing the open animosity that had characterized the Council Wars years, and bringing the city’s emerging Latino population into his coalition. By appointing loyalists to vacant positions, Daley gradually reshaped the city council into a veritable rubber stamp for his agenda. He also managed to secure the absolute backing of Chicago’s corporate community and civic elite, who provided him enough cash to ensure “shock and awe” victories over successive opponents. He ultimately accumulated enough political power to push through whatever he wanted, good or bad.

Toward the end of his administration, Daley’s leadership became increasingly autocratic. His final term was marred by two terrible decisions. A $1.2 billion deal to lease operation of the city’s parking meters for 75 years drew the ire of Chicagoans, and a failed bid for the 2016 Olympics consumed civic attention while the city’s finances deteriorated. When Daley left office in 2011, his approval ratings had bottomed out, and the deeply segregated and economically divided city was broke. Still, downtown was poised for a major boom.

Spirou and Judd declare Daley’s legacy mixed, but some of their conclusions are questionable. They overstate, for instance, how much power Daley needed to consolidate in order to pull off his lakefront projects. Most major cities, including those without domineering mayors, have also constructed expensive capital projects like stadiums and convention centers. Daley’s vaunted power was more consequential when it came to pushing through bad policy moves like the botched parking-meter privatization and the Olympic bid, or in his unwillingness to use his power to make painful fiscal decisions.

The book also largely ignores the improvements Daley made to Chicago’s less flashy neighborhoods. He returned from a trip to Paris demanding that the city install wrought-iron fencing around parks and other spaces. He rolled out bike lanes and implemented streetscape improvements with new trees, median planters, and decorative street lights. And he started the process of rehabilitating the Chicago Transit Authority’s aging elevated lines and stations. These initiatives changed Chicago for the better and arguably contributed more to the city’s revival than the major lakefront projects.

Millennium Park, which many regard as a world-class urban treasure, is the one megaproject that clearly defines Daley’s legacy in a positive way. Construction ran vastly over budget and took years longer than projected, but Chicagoans rightly see the park as worth the wait and the price. Filled with highly regarded art and architecture, the park instantly became a popular gathering place for a diverse collection of locals and tourists. Unfortunately, Millennium Park wasn’t enough to cancel out Daley’s bad moves; current mayor Rahm Emanuel has spent much of his time in office grappling with their consequences.

Daley is rarely seen or heard from anymore, but Chicago can’t afford to ignore the hard lessons of his long tenure at the pinnacle of Windy City politics. Building the City of Spectacle is a good first step in exploring his complicated legacy.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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