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Leadership Series: Mayor Daley and Chicago's economic transformation (Part 3)

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (Photo courtesy of Kate Gardiner, WBEZ Flickr)
Kate Gardiner
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (Photo courtesy of Kate Gardiner, WBEZ Flickr)

Throughout the Midwest, Chicago is known as the city everyone wants to come to – but that’s a huge change from 22 years ago, when Mayor Richard M. Daley took office.

The city’s even changed dramatically from when I lived here before, in the late 1990s.

This is the last of our three-part serieson leadership, where I look at the region’s – and arguably, the country’s – most famous Mayor: Richard M. Daley.


Tourists visiting Chicago have a fairly standard list of attractions to hit: The Magnificent Mile, the Art Institute, Navy Pier – and nowadays, Millennium Park.

Richard Daley pushed hard for the 25-acre park to built near the lakefront, which is used year-round – it has an ice rink in the winter.

“It’s like our Central Park,” said Chicagoan Mary Claire, who calls it the “jewel of the city”.

Bill Carpenter has a longer perspective. He started working downtown when he was 18.

“I remember when this was all railroad tracks, and it was pretty ugly,” said Carpenter, as he warmed up inside the skate shop. Back then, at quitting time, everyone left. Carpenter said Mayor Daley changed it – he calls Daley’s someone who was “born into” the job.

Richard Michael Daley took office in April 1989. He was first mayor elected since the death of Mayor Harold Washington two years before. (To see a list of all of Chicago’s mayors throughout time, click here)

By the time Daley became Mayor, the city was mired in political and racial turmoil.

Ed Glaeser is a urban economist with Harvard University. He looks at big picture stats like per capita income to measure Daley’s legacy. In 1989, Chicago’s per capita income was almost 11 percent below the national average. From 1970 to 1990, the city’s population fell 17 percent.

Flip forward 20 years, and Glaeser said the city’s richer than the rest of the country. Population, while declining over the past decade, is still overall on the upside, Glaeser said. And crime has gotten better.

While Daley may be most famous for economic accomplishments like Millennium Park Glaeser thinks Daley’s biggest economic legacy may less glamorous, but no less important: Daley took care of the basics.

“It’s important to clear the snow,” said Glaeser, who just released a book called “Triumph of the Cities”. “It’s important to make sure the garbage is cleared away, and to make sure the streets are safe. And it’s important to make sure permitting doesn’t get overly restricted. All of these things are the nuts and bolts of city government. Getting them right will not turn around a place that doesn’t have enough private sector energy. But getting them wrong has the chance to kill off almost anywhere.

Martin Koldyke is the founder of private investment firm Frontenac. His relationship with the mayor goes way back.

“When Rich was elected, we began to see the city become a more welcoming and nurturing place for early stage businesses,” said Koldyke, who added that Daley has been relentless about pushing projects that made the city not just an attract place to visit, but to live.

Daley didn’t respond to requests for a sit-down interview for this story.

Last fall, the day after he said he wasn’t going to run for reelection, this is how he reflected on the job:

“Every day, it doesn’t matter if you are criticized, every day I had to get up and do one thing: What was the mission for Chicago? Every day, you have to get out there. It doesn’t matter what people says, or anyone says, you have to go out there, stay on your mission and complete it. You cannot be afraid of going out. That’s why you have to have passion.”

Larry Bennett teaches political science at DePaul University. He sees Daley’s passion as making him a brilliant ambassador for the city. And he sees Daley’s strong leadership style as being a combination of the old and new Chicago.

“He sort of evokes the old even though he can be viewed as a new pioneer of urbanism,” said Bennett.

The challenge now is the next incarnation of Chicago: how do you keep this new urbanism alive?

Along 75th street on Chicago’s South Side, Soul Vegetarian East has been a mainstay restaurant for 30 years.

The restaurant’s walls are lined with brightly colored artwork including portraits of Barack Obama and Michael Jackson. Right inside the front entrance, there’s a framed picture of Mayor Daley with owner Prince Asaiel Ben-Israel.

“I would give Daley an A for creating the environment that made business feel comfortable in Chicago,” said Ben-Israel. “I think he gets an F in terms of security.”

By security, Ben-Israel means crime. He thinks that’s mostly why Chicago lost its bid to host the Olympics – something Daley spent a lot of time on. And Ben-Israel says another challenge has been the economy: the Great Recession of the past few years has been especially hard on the local South Side businesses.

“We now see an institution like Army & Lou restaurants, who’ve been in business for more than 30 or 40 years they’ve had to close their doors, Izola on 79th Steet, Minister Farrakhan’s restaurant, so we’ve got to paint a true picture”.

Also holding court this morning at Soul East is Helen Sinclair. Everyone calls her “Queen Mother” and she remembers mayors as far back as the 1920s. From her perspective now, there are at least three Chicagos: the wealthiest part of the city, North Side, the Loop area downtown, and everything else.

She ticks off a list of failings: crime and violence, poor public school systems, infrastructure so crumbled that many neighborhoods lack for proper grocery stores.

She does give Daley credit for one bright spot in her Bronzeville neighborhood and elsewhere on the South Side:

“I think he’s done a beautiful job on making it pretty. It is beautiful. And I like that he likes trees.”

Architect Thom Greene helped Daley add those trees – than half a million trees all over the city, from the Bronzeville to the North Side neighborhoods like Edgewater, where Greene lives.

It was also streetscaping: signs, little beautification projects to make the city look, well, beautiful. Greene says when people come to Chicago and exclaim about how nice everything is, he tells them it really is due to Daley.

“When I was on the Streetscape committee, the mayor would have notes, and he would want to know about the colors, why are these so, they’re not enough pink in those flowers on Michigan Ave, we got to have more colors, they got to cascade more, why don’t we have a water feature,” said Greene.  “He was very in tune with the little aspects and details.”

Greene says those details add up to creating spaces that attract not just people, but their spending money.  It’s about creating a sense of place.

But now he feels like that’s in jeopardy. Greene worries the city’s stepped up taxation and enforcement are now at odds with the city’s original beautification efforts.

“There’s a real dichotomy with the city of Chicago trying to make itself beautiful and then charging someone $25 a year for a public right of way permit to have flowers hanging off of your building in a flower basket,” Greene said. “[It] doesn’t seem right.”

Don Carter is the director of Carnegie Mellon’s Remaking Cities Institute. He said it’s clear that Chicago has been a standout among Midwestern cities that have been able to transform into a global economy. He attributes much of the city’s success to Daley – but added it just takes strength and staying on task: “You’ve got to have a vision and you’ve got to convey that vision to your department heads and say, this is what I have in mind and help me get to that point.”

A new era begins next week, when Chicagoans will face a ballot that for the first time in more than 20 years doesn’t have a Daley name. In fact, there’s been a Daley in the mayor’s office in Chicago for more than 40 of the past 55 years.

But even Daley himself says that doesn’t matter:

Asked that day about how should replace him, Daley declined to say, adding: “This office doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the people of our city.”

Urban economists like Glaeser, from Harvard, agree. Even though Daley has received much of the credit — and some the blame — for the city over the past 20 years, he says it’s the workers, small businesses and everyone else who are the real leaders in propelling Chicago’s economy.

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