Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Fifty years ago today, Chicago elected a former (Republican!) state legislator and state's attorney to the Mayoralty. What followed were 21 years under "the Boss," the most masterful municipal politician in our nation's history, and a figure who to this day invites the entire spectrum of recognition — loathing to sycophancy. The political machine Daley built is especially remarkable because he built it at a time when political machines in almost every other city in the country had either been completely dismantled or were well on their way.

Today, life-long Chicagoans raised under his reign often refer to him as "old man Daley," to distinguish him from his son. When he was in power, however, people in the know referred to him as, simply, "Boss." Interestingly enough, the Russian word for boss — "vozhd" — was the universally accepted word used by Party appartchiks for Josef Stalin.

Daley, like Stalin, was a shrewd organizational genius. He didn't have the passion to stir men to action; he didn't have the great ideas to build a movement. He didn't have the charisma to embolden the people or the charm to make them love him. He was plodding, resourceful and meticulous. He worked the long hours. He saw the angles and always knew where to stand to avoid the anvil falling. It was Richard J. Daley more than any American who created the archetype of the "city manager" politician. In one respect, his son has outmatched him: the one thing he could never do was de-politicize himself to avoid controversy, like his son has successfully done. And today, much of the stain on his character is because of the positions he was forced to take on Vietnam and civil rights due to his perch atop the Democratic Party.

Like all people who function in bureaucracy, Boss Daley eventually became so distanced from the reality on the ground that he was often sincerely confounded by people's reaction to events. During the infamous 1968 riots that scorched the West Side after Dr. King's assassination, the Boss Daley issued a now-infamous "shoot-to-kill" order to his policemen regarding arsonists. Daley realized that the rioters were African-Americans and that they were destroying not white neighborhoods, but African-American neighborhoods. So he was shocked when those folks were outraged at his order to shoot. He was trying to protect their neighborhood!

In his landmark book on the great Mayor, Mike Royko tells a story of how Daley surveyed the damage from a helicopter, all the while stammering, "Why are they doing this to me?" The Boss had so enmeshed himself with "his" city that he felt any disorder in the city was an attack on him, personally.

Outside of the events surrounding the civil rights movement — his actions during which give him the dubious distinction of being the only politician to best Dr. King — the Boss still wields an enormous influence on our day-to-day lives. He throttled Chicago's decline and made it soar into the sky, defying the social trends of the day, when big cities were beginning to descend into disrepair and economic ruin. He single-handedly dragged Chicago into the future, bravely willing to abandon traditional industries in order to ensure a successful future. In this respect, his son Richard M. has also learned from — and possibly surpassed — his father.

And yet — with Boss Daley, there's always that "and yet" — part of his strategy for success was to quarantine poverty by means of massive housing projects that, if you were to call them inhumane, no one would accuse you of hyperbole. Chicago's housing projects became a case study in inhumanity and poverty, black holes of economic deprivation and criminality that plague neighborhoods and communities to this day. The State Street Corridor that housed the Harold Ickes Homes, Stateway Gardens, the Hilliard Homes, the Robert Taylor Homes and the Ida B. Wells Housing Projects was the American equivalent of the Russian pale, and given that at any time it was host to as many as 60,000 people truly earned the term "ghetto." Some believe the term ghetto derives from the Italian "borghetto," or "little city." The Cabrini-Green complex — originally two separate worker housing complexes, one for Italians and the other for blacks — became known the world over, as the murder rate in one highrise was often greater than that of entire mid-sized cities.

It was a convenient way for the Boss to reign in the poor and protect the ethnic white — and the middle class black — neighborhoods, keeping property values up. The legacy of this ghetto-ization will cost the city not only untold billions of dollars, but also a little bit of our collective humanity.

For Boss Daley, just as for Stalin, the Party was sacrosanct. Daley was no fool, and no more a bigot than anybody else from his station in life in that time in history. He had no problem inviting blacks and women into the halls of power — so long as it all occurred under the auspices of the Party. It was the Boss who gave men like John H. Stroger and Harold Washington and women like Jane Byrne their starts in politics. Diversity was just grand — so long as it did not accompany dissent or disloyalty to the Party. In this, his son has again bested him. Mayor Daley holds no position whatever in the Illinois Democratic Party. So he doesn't have the dual headache of maintaining both civic and party discipline. Loyalty to him is the only litmus test — Democrat, Republican, whatever.

But although our beloved Elective Majesty has in many ways improved on his father's methods, they are his father's. And although Richard M. has at least taken steps to undo his father's wrongs in segregating and ghettoizing the city, it is his father's city. We all live in the Boss' city, our understanding of our social space owes more to his vision than any other man's. For my generation, the son is The Mayor — but there can never be another Boss.

They said of the Vozhd, "He found Russia with wooden plows and left her with atomic piles." We can say of Boss Daley, "He found Chicago awash in swine's blood, and left her the polished gem of the prairie." Polished, but not unflawed.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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