In situations like this I usually invoke my “hall of fame” rule. That rule requires that, when faced with the urge to slap a politician’s name onto public property, we emulate how pro baseball and pro football halls of fame require players to have been inactive for at least five years before they can be considered for induction. (Hockey and basketball make their luminaries wait only three years.) The purpose is to prevent cheap sentiment and spasms of nostalgia from coloring the cool judgment of time.
For instance, the years have not been kind to Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley. The further his six terms as mayor recede in memory, the more fiscally irresponsible and ultimately destructive Daley seems.
He dined on our seed corn — most notably by selling 75 years’ worth of parking meter revenue for a paltry $1.15 billion in 2008. He failed to make the painful decisions that would have kept local pension funds healthy. He left flaming piles of debt for the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Transit Authority. I need not go on.
There’s a reason that a neighborhood branch library is still and perhaps forever the most significant public structure to bear Richard M. Daley’s name (compared with his exhaustively honored father, Richard J. Daley). By 2024, similarly harsh retrospective assessments may discourage us from putting the Emanuel name on the riverfront jewel he relentlessly championed.
Attaching names of prominent officials to buildings and other public structures (such as highways or an interchange) has a long history. Once a leader is out of office, they can fade from public memory. A prominent feature of the urban landscape with their name on it can help keep their name in public view for decades, perhaps even centuries.
Often, the name is attached to something they helped create. This is where putting Emanuel’s name on the Riverwalk makes sense: if he helped make it happen, his name reminds Chicagoans of at least one good important thing he did. His legacy will likely be mixed but who can deny the value of a nice public amenity?
But, the gesture can also seem vain, backfire in the long run, or . Self-application of a name probably would not work. Consider the fate of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. in major American cities. Or, the numerous honorary streets in Chicago that few notice. Even worse may be names that few remember even as the name is regularly invoked (the fate of the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago).
It will be worth tracking (1) how many places in Chicago bear Emanuel’s name in the long run and (2) how these named places affect his legacy.