The City That Doesn’t Work

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]

How did post-war Chicago, a city with powerful unions and considerable wage-equity, become a city that accepts ‘any job is a good job’ as an excuse for not guaranteeing its residents a living wage? How did Chicago become a city in which Wal-mart and other big-box retailers have become low-income residents’ main employment option? Chicago’s transformation from an industrial- and manufacturing-based economy to one based on service sector jobs (customer service, retail, entertainment, tourism; ad agencies, etc.) isn’t unique. But the how and the why of Chicago’s transformation differs from that of Detroit and New York. Each city’s story is linked to the industries that built them up and the political machines that ran them.

By the end of the 19th Century Chicago was once known not only as the hog-butcher to the world, but also as the candy-maker for the country. As those and other industries left, abandoned sections of the city emerged — neighborhoods and industrial corridors that still have no redevelopment plans. The Bloomingdale Line (in the Logan Square/Bucktown neighborhood), which once delivered raw materials to the candy makers in the industrial strip below Grand Avenue, is now being converted to a biking/walking green space; a small example of how city infrastructure must be reimagined to fit our 21st Century post-industrial economy.

Today’s Chicago exhibits patches of abandoned buildings and empty space left by departed industries, but it also bears deeper scars left by decades of corruption. Chicago’s political machine beginning with Richard M. Daley, mayor from 1955-1976, has left its mark on the city with failing schools, crumbling public transit; and unstable neighborhoods. Despite the city’s decayed infrastructure, Mayor Richard J. Daley and the current political machine (now joined up with corporate entities) is attempting to make Chicago into a ‘global city’ with the 2016 Olympics as a status symbol to justify further transformation.

What will this new Chicago look like? Increasingly it looks like a city that serves those at the top. 213.3 million of taxpayer money is being spent on an ‘underground superstation’ in the loop, the first stage of express trains between downtown and O’Hare, while CTA lines serving low-income parts of Chicago are cut. The $6.6 billion O’Hare Modernization Program makes sense if you think convincing businesses to house their North American corporate headquarters in Chicago trumps the needs of average workers.

Because of an uneven distribution of resources, many residents remain isolated in their neighborhoods with a lack of employment opportunities for themselves and sub-standard schooling for their children. Many low-income, people of color were pushed out of the city altogether as public housing was demolished without adequate replacements. For these and other reasons including a notoriously brutal police force and tragic youth violence, Daley’s insistence on turning Chicago into a ‘global city’ looks more and more suspect.

The industries that built up our cities have faded away, but Chicago’s political machine continues on, in many ways less accountable to Chicago residents than ever. Chicagoans should have a say in which neighborhoods get green space, quality transportation, and city services. When a job at Wal-Mart becomes some people’s only hope and the city is willing to accept unfair wages for its residents rather than insist on a living wage, it’s time to realize that Chicago is not working.

The story goes that Chicago candy makers started the tradition of giving gifts of candy on Halloween, and the first Mayor Daley at least knew to hand out a share of goodies to working stiffs, but Richard M. Daley only answers his door when big business comes looking for treats.

Illustration by Neil Brideau

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