Quick Review: The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream

Thomas Dyja has a provocative argument in The Third Coast: while New York and LA are widely viewed as America’s cultural centers, Chicago of the mid-1900s contributed more than people think to American culture. My quick review of the book:

  1. The fact that the book is built on impressionistic vignettes is book its greatest strength and weakness. Dyja tells a number of interesting stories about cultural figures in Chicago from author Nelson Algren to Bauhaus member László Moholy-Nagy to University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins to puppeteer and TV show creator Burr Tillstrom to magazine creator Hugh Hefner. The characters he profiles have highs and lows but they are all marked by a sort of middle America creativity based on hard work, connecting with audiences, and not being flashy.
  2. Yet, stringing together a set of characters doesn’t help him make his larger argument that Chicago was influential. We get pieces of evidence – an important contribution to television here, the importance of Chess records, a clear contribution to architecture there – but no comparative element. By his lack of attention, Dyja suggests Chicago didn’t contribute much – art is one such area with a lack of a vibrant modern art scene (though what TripAdvisor ratings say is the world’s #1 museum does not get much space). Just how much did these actions in Chicago change the broader American culture? What was going on in New York and LA at those times? The data is anecdotal and difficult to judge.
  3. A few of the more interesting pieces of the book: he suggests Chicago contributed more to the Civil Rights Movement than many people remember (particularly due to the Emmett Till case); Chicago music, particularly through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, was particularly influential elsewhere; Mayor Richard J. Daley was on one hand supportive of the arts but only in a functional sense and the arts scene slowly died away into the early 1960s as creative type went elsewhere.

Ultimately, it is hard to know whether these contributions from Chicago really mattered or not. The one that gets the most attention – architecture through former members of the Bauhaus and then the International Style – probably really was a major contribution for both American and global cities. But even there, the focus of this book is on the people and not necessarily on their buildings or how normal Chicagoans experienced those structures or how the changes fit within the large social-political-economic scene in Chicago.

Starting to publish the Richard M. Daley mayoral legacy in biography

According to one reviewer, the first biography of Richard M. Daley’s time as mayor of Chicago misses the downsides of his time in office:

For a full generation, like his father before him, Richard M. Daley was Chicago. His reign has long inspired debate: In order to improve the city’s international standing and stop the flight of the middle class, was he right to focus on rebuilding downtown? Or did that amount to pulling the plug on the city’s poor and working-class neighborhoods, leaving behind a bill that’s yet to be paid?The answer is arguably both. Yet a new biography of Daley portrays him as the figure who made Chicago a center of international commerce and culture, but largely bypasses the communities and people he ruled over with unchecked power.

“His legacy would not only include finishing the unfinished business of the Daley family—improving race relations, public schools, and public housing—but also the transformation of Chicago into a global city,” Keith Koeneman writes in First Son.

Koeneman is a first-time author who writes about politics for the Huffington Post. He deserves credit for making the first attempt to chronicle Daley’s career and its lasting meaning, and First Son is a well-researched and readable work. But Koeneman’s assessment is flawed.

There is plenty of time for Daley’s legacy to develop and be debated. But, Daley himself will have some role in this. In his talk at Wheaton College in 2011 (follow-up here and here), he was clearly focused on the same kind of good things as mentioned in this biography and didn’t want to address the tougher issues. Will we see an autobiography soon? How will he use his current ties to the University of Chicago to advance his interests?

But, I remember clearly learning about political biographies and memoirs in a class I took in grad school titled Historical and Comparative Sociology. On one hand, these sorts of books claim to offer inside information on what motivated politicians. On the other hand, they are uniquely suited as devices to further a politician’s legacy. These genres can be more objective but they are often written with a particular point of view that then can taint the historical record.

To return to my first point, it will take some time to sort out Daley’s record. He will likely be remembered for being mayor as became known as a rare “comeback city” in the Rustbelt even as his legacy will also include issues with public housing, race and poverty, crime, Meigs Field, and other areas of the city that did not receive much attention.

Mayor Daley, U. of Chicago students “adopting” Gary

Former Chicago Mayor Daley and students from the University of Chicago have teamed up to help Gary, Indiana:

With guidance from Daley and Freeman-Wilson, University of Chicago graduate students are trying to figure out what to do with Gary’s abandoned buildings and how to promote greater use of technology to help the city accomplish more with less, among other projects.

The hope is that the students will go on to help other cities after graduation. If successful, the U. of C.-Gary partnership could be replicated in other industrial towns grappling with decline…

Last quarter’s class was divided into three project teams. One team is cataloging Gary’s abandoned buildings, which are magnets for crime and eyesores that further depress surrounding property values. Another is trying to recruit pro bono legal and consulting services for the city. And a third is trying to craft a strategy to clean up front stoops and empty lots one block at a time. This quarter’s class also is tackling untapped funding opportunities and economic development…

In Gary, Daley is applying things he learned as Chicago’s mayor. One example is helping Gary residents take advantage of the earned income tax credit, a tax benefit for the working poor that many don’t know exists. Taking the credit puts money back in people’s pockets, which prompts spending, which boosts the economy.

This sounds like a good project for graduate students who could get hands-on experience. In terms of helping the entire city of Gary, I’m more skeptical. If done well, someone like Mayor Daley and the prestigious University of Chicago can help connect Gary to people who are experts in certain areas (providing social capital) and also monetary capital. But, as the article notes, plenty of outsiders have tried to help Gary before…

Another question that comes to my mind is how Chicago and Gary are connected and whether a stronger partnership between the two cities could help. Gary is an industrial suburb that helped provide some of the materials that helped make Chicago great and also provided a port away from the city. But, such conversations would then have to include talk about things like shared infrastructure and perhaps the Gary Airport (does Chicago want this kind of competition?). Gary is part of the Chicago region and a metropolitan focus could help a lot here.

I’ve noted the work of Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson before.

Why would Mayor Daley want a second NFL team? Sounds like he wants prestige, economic development

Chicago’s former Mayor Daley said he wants a second NFL team for Chicago and a new stadium:

“I really believe we could get a second football team,” the former mayor said. “I’ve always believed — the Chicago Cardinals, Bears — why is it that New York has two? Florida has three, San Francisco has two. Now you think of that, we could easily take — Chicago loves sports and we could get a second team in here.

“You could build a new stadium, you could have huge international soccer teams come in, you could do the Final Four, you could do anything you wanted with a brand new stadium.”

Many in Chicago believe the city should have a stadium with a retractable roof to be able to host events like the Super Bowl and the Final Four. Renovations to Solider Field left the stadium as the second smallest in the NFL. That, coupled with the lack of a roof, makes it a longshot to host a Super Bowl…

“It would be privately funded, the government could help a little bit,” Daley said. “But I’ve always believed we could take a second team. And every Sunday we would have a team playing in the National Football League. That would be unbelievable.”

If I had to guess, here is what I think is behind these comments:

1. This is about prestige and status. Chicago is a world-class city yet other cities, including less notable ones like San Francisco/Oakland, have two teams and Chicago does not. Having another NFL team would generate more attention in and for Chicago plus allow other major events to be held in the new stadium. Chicago could become a center for all sports and grab away some of the business places like Indianapolis, New Orleans, Atlanta, and other places get because of having closed stadiums. Mayor Daley is also old enough to remember the days when Chicago did have a second team, the Chicago Cardinals, that ended up leaving for the Sunbelt. Arguments against this line of thinking: is there really fan interest in a second team? Would Chicagoans easily adapt to a team moving to the city from somewhere else (like the Vikings, Chargers, etc.)? Los Angeles is a world-class city and does not have any team – just because a city has a certain population doesn’t necessarily mean it has to have a certain number of NFL teams.

2. This is about economic growth. Having a second team would bring in more money and more events. A new stadium could be viewed as an economic boon. However, research clearly shows that publicly funded stadiums don’t return money to taxpayers and residents will spend their money on other entertainment options if a sports team is not available. Plus, a new stadium would likely have to be located in a suburban locale (the Bears threatened at various points to move to the northwest suburbs or to Warrenville on what later became the Cantera site) so the economic benefits would be spread throughout the region rather than directly in the city of Chicago.

From a social science perspective, I don’t find the second reason compelling. Government officials tend to justify stadium spending by arguing it will bring economic benefits but I think it is also really about prestige: it helps put or keep the city on the map and also attracts more media attention. The same politicians that don’t want to be the ones held responsible for a favorite team leaving the city would also like to take the credit for adding a new team.

Chicago to grant 900 more camping permits on Northerly Island per year

Yesterday, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel discussed further plans the city has for Northerly Island which includes more opportunities for camping:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday endorsed predecessor Richard Daley’s infamous late night bulldozing of the runway at Meigs Field on the grounds the destruction of the airport opened Northerly Island to use by many more Chicagoans…

With Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly and a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on hand Thursday, Emanuel talked at the Field Museum about the next steps in the evolution.

In the short term, camping permits will be increased by 900 per year starting next year, which the mayor said will give more children in some of Chicago’s hard-scrabble neighborhoods a chance to experience nature.

A pond and a savanna area will also be developed on the 91-acre peninsula.

Camping on this location sounds like a very interesting experience: Lake Michigan on one side, skyline of Chicago in the other direction.

I know some people may still be upset by Daley’s midnight destruction of Meigs Field but this is a reminder of how Chicago continues to develop its lakefront as a park while other cities lag far behind in developing land along their waterways.

Summing up Mayor Daley’s mixed “public housing legacy”

There wasn’t much talk about public housing before the election earlier this year to replace Mayor Daley in Chicago. (Frankly, there isn’t much talk about this at the federal level either.) But one journalist suggests that Mayor Daley left a “complex public housing legacy” for the new Mayor Emanuel:

Last month, as Richard M. Daley approached retirement, the Chicago Housing Authority released a first-of-its-kind report on residents who were forced to leave the high-rises. It concluded that the changes made life safer, more stable and more hopeful for thousands of families.

But while Daley was praised by some for abandoning the high-rise system, housing advocates say the changes have done little to break the grip of poverty.

“As an urban-development strategy, the transformation is an A. It gets a far poorer grade if it is approached as a strategy to help low-income populations to achieve social and economic stability in their lives,” said Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who spent 18 months living in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes as a graduate student in the early 1990s.

Some observers, like author Alex Kotlowitz, fear the disappearance of the high-rises means Chicago’s poverty has passed out of sight and out of mind.

Some of the media talk about public housing in Chicago has been positive: the once notorious high-rises, particularly those at the Robert Taylor Homes on the south side and the Cabrini-Green complex on the north side (see thoughts about the demolition of the last high-rise here, here, here, and here), are now gone. (It was a bit strange last week to ride the Brown Line north out of the Loop and not see any Cabrini-Green high-rises.) In the eyes of the media, the problems of concentrated poverty and crime have been reduced. The land can be put to other uses, particularly at Cabrini-Green as it is very valuable land between Lincoln Park and the Loop.

On the other hand, the concerns of people like Venkatesh and Kotlowitz will not go away. Simply destroying public housing high-rises does not deal with the larger issues: there are still large parts of Chicago where residents have reduced life chances compared to better-off parts of the city. In the article, new Mayor Rahm Emanuel is cited as saying that the goal of reducing the isolation of the public housing residents (the goal that was “short of ending poverty”) has been successful.

I can’t imagine the new mayor will or perhaps even can devote much time to this issue as the persistent problems of budgets, crime, jobs, and education need to be addressed. Still, it will be interesting to see how Emanuel addresses public housing moving forward.

The architectural legacy of Mayor Daley

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin considers Mayor Richard M. Daley’s architectural legacy in Chicago. Here is Kamin’s conclusion after going over Daley’s hits, mixed results, and misses:

Daley was a great mayor. He was also a flawed mayor. Power enabled him to reshape Chicago. And the abuse of power undermined him—and the cityscape he did so much to uplift.

As Kamin suggests, this will take some years and historical perspective to sort out. Regardless of the final verdict, it will be interesting to see how subsequent mayors try or don’t try to live up to a long-serving Mayor who generally went for big efforts with mixed results.