Neighborhoods allowed to bar taverns, proposed bans on trans fats in burgers, a controversial — and, now, rescinded — foie gras prohibition. These rules make Chicago the most restrictive city in the nation, according to Reason magazine. If you want to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, look elsewhere.
But the average Wicker Park homeowner isn’t overly concerned with these inanities. He is much more concerned with all the reminders that the Second City is once again first in corruption. Or for that matter, whether the neighborhoods surrounding Wicker Park remain clean and safe to live in, and if the city’s schools will finally claw their way out of academic awfulness.
The hard truth for principled libertarians (including this writer) is that for middle class residents, a lot more goes into deciding whether a city is livable than aggravations that come from nannyish ordinances driven by political fads. Corruption and livability are much more salient issues.
That makes Chicago an interesting case study. Mayor Richard Daley has spent almost 20 years in office attempting to keep the city’s middle class and lure back suburbanites who long-ago fled it. His administration has also spent the past four years beating back a federal investigation into allegations of bribery, rigged hiring, and patronage deals within the city’s Hired Truck program.
Taxpayers have paid some $625,000 in legal fees — most of which have gone to law firms tied to the Daley machine — to defend employees charged as a result of the trucking probe and, as these things go, that’s relative chump change. Another $49 million in legal fees have been shelled out by the city during that same period in order to defend itself or its employees against charges.
These cases range from the alleged torture of four Chicago police officers by their former supervisor to violations of terms the city agreed to in a federal anticorruption consent decree handed down four decades ago during the tenure of Daley’s legendary father.
Even Daley’s successes are causing him headaches. A two-decades-old effort to revitalize and replace the city’s squalid housing projects came under question in June after three-year-old Curtis Cooper was crushed to death by a dilapidated gate at the notorious Cabrini Green complex.
The firm charged with managing the complex had its contract suspended by the Chicago Housing Authority. Its owner is the son of one of Daley’s key backers.
THE BLATANT SLEAZE IS as familiar to the average Chicago resident as a Carl Sandberg poem. After all, this is stomping grounds of the most legendary of American mobsters, Al Capone, who bribed every city official he could, and the spectacularly dishonest “Big Bill” Thompson, who collected three bucks from every city worker seeking a job.
Until recently, however, the quality-of-life improvements made the corruption and the ridiculous bans a lot easier to take. Since taking office, Daley fils managed to improve Chicago’s stature by erasing two decades of woefully inept leadership by the string of mayors who succeeded his father. He has started to rebuild the city’s middle class core by concentrating on the “broken windows” and blight of urban decay.
This has gotten results. Reported robberies have been halved between 1999 and 2006, according to the FBI. The violent crime rate has also declined by 50 percent as new policing tactics have abated its notorious gang related mayhem.
This low crime helped bring college-educated hipsters and downtown workers back to the city, helping to revive such formerly blue-collar neighborhoods as Ukrainian Village, as well as luring new private investment by developers in dilapidated districts such as the North Loop’s theater row.
The city’s public school system is also slowly improving. After Daley took full control of the district in 1995, the district’s four-year graduation rate improved from an abysmal 39 percent for its Class of 1995 to a terrible-but-better 46 percent for the Class of 2004, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research. The school district reports that 55 percent of the 8th graders who made up the original Class of 2007 graduated on time.
Hoping to keep young married couples in the city, who often leave for the suburbs once they begin having children, the city has become a serious supporter of school choice through its four-year-old Renaissance 2010 program. Forty-one charter schools have been launched by the outfit since 2010. Fifty-nine more will open within the next two years.
These moves, along with typical economic development subsidy deals such as a $21 million tax break package to aircraft giant Boeing for moving from its Seattle birthplace, had, for a time, given the Windy City a shine it hasn’t had since a young Brooklynite named Tony Bennett spoke well of the place.
LATELY, HOWEVER, THIS revival appears to be incomplete and sputtering. Many of Daley’s achievements are proving temporary or hollow.
Even as test scores and attendance has improved in the public schools, students are no more likely to be successfully prepared to move on to college, trade schools and ultimately, into the working world. Just eight out of every 100 students will move on to college, according to the Chicago Consortium.
Replacing the city’s infamous gang fostering housing projects — a legacy of the elder Daley’s efforts to segregate the city’s then-growing black population from the rest of the city — hasn’t gone as planned either. Eight years after moving to replace Cabrini Green and other projects with mixed-income housing, just 30 percent of the plan has been completed, according to the Chicago Tribune. Families are moving in and out of even more substandard housing.
Meanwhile the corruption remains a way of life. The deal-making that the Daley pere engaged in during the last years of his reign, when he siphoned off legal and insurance business to Daley fils and his brother Bill, is being repeated in the current generation.
A firm controlled by Daley the Younger’s nephew, Robert Vanecko, has garnered $68 million in investments from five city-controlled pension funds. Last year, the mayor appointed another nephew to a seat on the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which oversees U.S. Cellular Field.
For the average owner of a Humboldt Park home, all of this is more worrisome than the ridiculous loss of liberty inflicted on residents by the city council when they passed a smoking ban. It also won’t lure Des Plaines homeowners back into the city. Just over half of the kids born in the city enter its schools five years later. Parents are still opting for suburbia over The Chi’s broad shoulders.
Nanny state behavior on the urban level is often tolerated if the streets are clean, neighborhoods are safe, and government is efficient and free of widespread corruption. And if not? Well, then many of Chicago’s residents might walk with their feet to nicer surroundings before Daley’s seeming lifetime appointment as mayor is over.
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