From Nick Burt’s review of Kari Lydersen’s biography of RAHM EMMANUEL — “Mayor 1%”
In the first three pages of her new book on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Kari Lydersen shares an anecdote that all but summarizes the current dynamic in Chicago politics: In March 2012, the mayor attended a gala at the Chicago History Museum to celebrate the city’s 175th birthday. As the Chicago Children’s Choir sang “Happy Birthday” while Emanuel looked happily on, a woman in a floral headscarf charged up, interrupting the festivities to plead with the mayor not to go forward with his plan to shutter half of Chicago’s mental health clinics. “We’re going to die,” she begs. “There’s nowhere else to go. … Mayor Emanuel, please!”
That woman was Helen Morley, an indefatigable activist and mental health patient who had earlier that winter led a sit-in at City Hall to try to save the clinics. Emanuel, Lydersen writes, dutifully avoided making eye contact with Morley or acknowledging her presence. Instead, he shook the hands of friendly patrons and moved along before the birthday cake was even cut. Within a few months, the clinics were closed, and Morley was dead. The cause was a heart attack, but her friends were certain that the stress of the clinic closures played a role.
From a vantage point high above the Loop, Chicago is the picture of modern capitalism: glistening office towers, parks and architectural monuments named after billionaires, and a string of Pret A Manger cafes. If construction goes forward, the little grit of yesteryear still remaining downtown will be subsumed by expensive new hotels and a $173 million basketball arena for the private DePaul University, paid for in substantial part with public funds.
But on the ground, Chicago is also a city in which protesters occupy hospitals to demand trauma care on the South Side, where it’s not uncommon to see CTA riders wearing Chicago Teachers Union T-shirts, and where nearly 50 neighborhood elementary schools sat vacant at the start of this year, casualties of the city’s “school reform” plan.
These are the two potential legacies of Rahm Emanuel.
* * * * * * *
To an executive such as Emanuel, Chicago may appear less a mosaic of cultures, experiences and histories than a structure built of interchangeable parts. Longtime union jobs with the city, for example, can be changed out for outsourced nonunion work. A school in one neighborhood can be closed, its students shunted to a different school, in a different neighborhood, with little concern for the consequences to either community. And a rich urban space can be replaced with an array of tourism-oriented, TIF-funded development projects, as in neighborhoods such as Uptown and Logan Square, where public subsidies fuel businesses like breweries and shopping centers while rising rents displace longtime residents.
Even the patronage jobs that long greased the gears of the Chicago Machine—jobs that, however ill-dispensed, were still public-sector jobs for Chicagoans—have succumbed to the drive to privatize.
All of this has produced among critics a creeping nostalgia for the Daley era. Despite their offenses—corruption, dubious business deals, segregation—the father and son Daley were regarded as adoring caretakers of the city they ruled. Richard J. Daley, the elder, was reputed to have stopped to pick up overturned garbage cans as he surveyed his kingdom on his morning commute to City Hall. The junior Daley held his political meetings over corned beef sandwiches and paper cone cups at Manny’s Deli.
Emanuel is surely a beneficiary of the power the Daleys consolidated in city hall during their terms. Still a one-party town, Chicago also boasts a city council in which any dissenting votes are uncommon, and a mayor-appointed school board that critics deride as unaccountable. But there’s a prevailing sentiment that the mayor, though probably not any more powerful than the Daleys, is less encumbered with a personal concern for the city that he governs.