The legacy of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago as a global city

After weighing the highs and lows of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s eight years in office, a Chicago Tribune editorial ends with this:

Because in the end, Mayor Emanuel kept his word. He pushed Chicago to keep moving, to shuffle forward, to improve its rank as a global city.

Not many big-city mayors can say that.

Two quick thoughts on how this conclusion feeds ongoing narratives about cities and Chicago:

  1. “Keep moving” and “improve” are linked to the idea of continuous city growth. Chicago may be slowly losing residents – or at least losing ground to faster-growing cities close in population like Toronto and Houston – but Emanuel helped stem the tide. Imagine this legacy: Mayor Emanuel could not increase Chicago’s population but think how much worse it would have been without all those new buildings downtown and in wealthy neighborhoods!
  2. Emanuel himself had a goal of keeping Chicago as a major global city. Indeed, it is. But, Chicago also has a lingering fear that it is not considered a global city, particularly compared to places like New York City. The population loss is likely part of this but so may be a location in the Midwest away from the exciting coasts. Again, for Emanuel’s long-term legacy: Chicago stayed in the top 50 of global cities!

Finally, all of this conversation makes it sound as if the mayor was the only one with influence in the city. The mayor of Chicago may always have an outsized influence – I’m reminded of former mayor Richard M. Daley’s visit to campus in 2011. This big man theory of history covers up a lot of other processes, including the work (or rubber-stamping?) of the City Council, the flow of global capital into Chicago, the influence of developers and wealthy business leaders, and numerous changes taking place within disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Ripe for ongoing sociological study: the process of creating Joe Paterno’s legacy

With the news that long-time Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had passed away, I thought about how his legacy will develop in the long-term, say 10, 20, 50 years down the road. This is ripe for sociological study: historical events are simply not reported as facts later on. Instead, are interpreted by society in certain ways based on a variety of factors (sportwriters, fans, political leaders, outcomes in court, historians, advocacy groups, etc.) and Paterno’s legacy will be no different. Here are three scenarios that I consider plausible regarding Paterno’s legacy:

1. Eventually, Paterno’s coaching record wins out and he is primarily remembered for having the most coaching wins in Division I. This record will be hard to pass, particularly in an era when coaching changes are more frequent as more programs expect to win big every year. Plenty of recordholders and winning coaches have unsavory parts of their lives (for example, Bear Bryant wasn’t exactly friendly and Nick Saban is known as repeatedly jumping ship for more money) and Paterno is not the first or the last. Paterno will mostly be remembered positively for having 409 career wins.

2. In contrast, Paterno’s involvement in the Sandusky scandal and in other recent matters (some player discipline and arrest issues in recent years) cloud his legacy and people remember his moral failings more than his wins or service to Penn State. Perhaps this will be closely linked to the Sandusky trial; the longer this stays in the news, the more people will remember Paterno’s involvement. More details will emerge and people will continue to wonder why Paterno didn’t act more forcefully. Especially since this is a scandal involving sex and children which tends to stir the American public, Paterno’s legacy is forever tainted.

3. I wonder if there will also be a Penn State/national split that will endure for decades. At Penn State, in Pennsylvania, and among alumni, Paterno will be revered not just for his wins but his way of doing things, his longevity at the school, and his philanthropy. While the scandal is a black mark, this does not outweigh his decades of doing good for Penn State. Nationally, I think there is a lot of head-scratching over the close-knit nature of the Penn State community (there are people who are still that close?) and his legacy will look different in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles than around Penn State.

Now, we only have to wait a few decades to find out what actually happens.

New polling data on presidential legacies

A number of sources are reporting on a recent Gallup poll on the approval ratings of past presidents. The Atlantic provides a quick round-up of the trends: Kennedy has a strong legacy (85% approval), Clinton and the first Bush are both up 8% compared to 2006 (up to 69% and 64%, respectively), George W. comes in at 48%, and Nixon is still in the dumps (29%).

What is fascinating to think about is how these legacies get constructed. Part of it is based on the performance of the president while in office. But part of it is also based on what happens after the president leaves office and how the cultural narrative develops about that time period. Richard Nixon can’t shake Watergate and Lyndon Johnson can’t escape the turmoil of the mid 1960s. In contrast, Bill Clinton was president during a prosperous era and JFK is still seen in glowing terms. All of these presidents except for JFK had some years to tell their story and become involved in other causes, if they so chose. These legacies are shaped by cultural narratives, common stories by which a country understands its own history.

I would be interested in see how these figures break down by different demographics. For JFK: is his support higher among those who were alive at the time or younger people today? For Reagan: what is his legacy support among Democrats?

This reminds me of a lesson I once heard in class from a professor: don’t trust the information in political memoirs because the purpose of such texts is to promote a particular legacy.