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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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Thursday, June 20

Gapers Block

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Chicagoans love our local politics and politicians because they can be so colorful. But the reason they are so colorful is because they inhabit a relatively obscure office that weirdly holds quite a bit of power over people's day-to-day lives. The result is that you get unpolished people put into positions where they have to be polished, and the results can be pretty hilarious. Exhibit A, (former) Alderman Burton Natarus (42nd). For all his flaws, Natarus really was just a guy. So he thought it was OK to wander around Zoning Committee hearings munching popcorn out of a plastic baggie; he was just a guy hungry at work nibbling a snack. The sight of a man wandering around whispering jokes into committee members' ears with popcorn crumbs all over the front of his shirt was hilarious to us because it was so out of context — but surely we've seen similar things dozens of times in our regular work lives.

The alderman is not really a legislator; they are more like the executive official of their ward. This is why they get so much heat when things aren't going right, and this is why they're so dependent on the Fifth Floor to dispense the services they need to keep their constituents from getting pissed off.

It also leads them to start thinking of their wards as projects or enterprises they are in charge of cultivating and growing. They talk about "making progress" in their ward, they talk about the future of "the ward" as if the ward is a concrete thing (and not, as it in reality is, more or less an imaginary construct) that has hopes and aspirations. This, naturally, causes them to begin to disregard what their individual constituents, or even groups of concerned constituents, have to say about how things in the ward are changing.

"Well," an alderman may say, "you can't stop progress. This is where this ward is going." But the ward is not the alderman's Internet start-up company or science project; the ward is a group of citizens who live and raise families within a more or less arbitrary and usually hilariously gerrymandered geographic area. They own the ward. They are the ward. "The ward," insofar as you can even say such a thing exists, is in fact really just the people who live and work there.

So it is nonsensical when aldermen allow developers to come in and build obtrusive condos or townhouses that will by necessity drive up property values and therefore taxes, driving out long-time residents and renters (not to mention change the complexion of businesses) and then say, "Well, that's what the ward needs."

There is no such thing, really, as "The Ward." You are there to represent the people who are already there. Let them decide what is best for their future and their families. Granted, some leadership is necessary — and development can be a very good thing sometimes — but increasingly, Chicago's aldermen, and their counterparts in suburban Cook County, are treating the districts and villages they represent as the fiefdoms they control, like so many feudal lords trying to up their vassal count so they can brag at the next convention.

With all that in mind (I know it's a lot), consider the 2016 Summer Olympics. Mayor Daley wants them. The Chamber of Commerce wants them. The city's boosters and socialites want them. Undoubtedly, many of the individuals want them. But despite the temptation to really thrust Chicago into the global limelight, the Olympics are wrong for Chicago. Not because the city isn't cosmopolitan enough. Not because we don't have the infrastructure or space. Not even because of the people it would directly negatively affect. No, it's because of our politicians.

Like those kids who just can't keep a hamster alive, our aldermen can't be trusted with an Olympics.

I mean, these are the same people that looked at a dull, seemingly harmless though ill-conceived, privatization program that sought to reduce the city's amount of depreciating assets by contracting out trucking work and created The Hired Truck Scandal, one of the deepest and most nefarious scandals in a decade, leading to the indictment of the City Clerk and the near-ruination of the Mayor's political organization.

Now take that amazingly acrobatic feat of corruption, and add a few billion dollars and about 20 layers of bureaucracy. Now tell me that you honestly think the communities that will end up hosting the Olympics will benefit at all. Now tell me that the best season of "The Simpsons" is a double-digit number. Now tell me that the sky is salmon colored. Now tell me that you think Method Man's best songs are his R&B duets. You're crazy.

No, before we can trust our aldermen with the responsibility of something like an Olympics, they need to come before the people of Chicago — you and me, the people who inconveniently make up "The Wards" — and pledge, on the record and with details, that nobody who doesn't want to leave their home will have to, and that the enormous sums of money that will pour into the city will be used overwhelmingly to help build sustainable, balanced communities. This cannot be an excuse to finally fulfill the University of Chicago's dream and wipe out the low-income neighborhoods that surround it. This cannot be the opportunity to finally undo the Burnham Plan and revert the entire lakeshore into the exclusive property of the wealthiest Chicagoans.

The 1996 Democratic National Convention was a cash cow for many of the city's connected contractors, and made some people very, very rich. The 2016 Olympics should also make some people very, very rich, but it should also make many more people very, very comfortable and make even more people very, very satisfied and even more people than that very, very "Meh." It should make as small a number as possible very, very upset. Or homeless.

And I'm not talking about the Mayor or some aldermen saying, "We are going to monitor this process to ensure blah blah blah." Nope. Not good enough. In all their pitching these Olympics to us, the people who actually own this city, they are going to throw around a lot of numbers. "Blah blah blah dollars in revenue, blah blah blah in infrastructure improvements." We want to hear what percentage of that is going to be used to fix streets rife with potholes, like 63rd, that cause immense wear on cars and cost people with already middle to low incomes serious dollars every year.

I want to hear what percentage of blah blah blah is going to go towards creating a bus system in Chicago that people can actually count on to get to work. Imagine that.

What percentage of blah blah blah are you going to contractually guarantee will go towards the drug rehabilitation programs that could actually put a dent in the street-level drug crimes that destroy neighborhoods and cost taxpayers huge sums of money?

What percentage of blah blah blah is going to go into making sure teachers don't use CPS as their springboard into more lucrative suburban school districts, sapping the system of experienced teachers?

What percentage of blah blah blah will be guaranteed to minority- and women-owned contractors — but real ones, not fake ones set up by organized crime families?

I know it's early in the game, that a decision isn't due for two years. But these things tend to pick up steam and before you know it, boom, indicted City Clerk.

Oh, and let's change the motto. Something that reflects our newfound responsibility as citizens.

"Stir the Soul?" Come on. How about, "Get a Receipt."

GB store


anon / March 28, 2007 12:13 PM

Right on. I want the Olympics to come to Chicago. I just don't want any one of the current politicians, city leaders, etc to have anything to do with it.

If anyone wants to find out more, and even ask the tough questions of the right people, head over to this event at the Chicago History Museum:

Chicago and the Olympics: Is it a good idea?

Thursday, April 5, 6:30 p.m.

On April 14, the United States Olympic Committee will select and announce its applicant city for the 2016 Olympics. Either Chicago or Los Angeles will be victorious, but if Chicago is chosen, will the city really be a winner? Join us for a discussion, including Patrick Ryan from Chicago 2016.

Jeff / March 28, 2007 3:12 PM

Although I like the fact that politicos and others with inside information might be able to post on GB [at least semi-] anonymously, why write a post about issues of public import and promoting a chance to speak in public about an issue but use the handle "anon?"

Who are you? Who are the sponsors of the CHM event? Why don't you tell us who you are? Couldn't you provide some links to information about the event?

I don't mean to sound harsh, I'm just sayin'. Thanks for the heads up, though.

jack / March 29, 2007 8:46 AM

Fantastic post. The need for a negotiated, enforcable and broad community benefits agreement for communities affected by the Olympics (Mid-South, Pilsen, etc.) and the city as a whole is obvious. Stay tuned!

jerry 101 / March 29, 2007 9:54 AM

I'm not the anon, but it took me all of 20 seconds to find out the information you are looking for about that event. The google is a powerful thing.

google chicago history museum, click on the link, click on the link for upcoming events, click on the link for special events. and there you have it.

the K/NowJoin us for In the K/Now, a series of dynamic discussions about events and issues that headline local news and conversations around town. In the K/Now is presented in partnership with The Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council.

Chicago and the Olympics: Is it a good idea?Thursday, April 5, 6:30 p.m.

On April 14, the United States Olympic Committee will select and announce its applicant city for the 2016 Olympics. Either Chicago or Los Angeles will be victorious, but if Chicago is chosen, will the city really be a winner? Join us for a discussion, including Patrick Ryan from Chicago 2016.


> Make a reservation

big mystery there.

Gino / March 30, 2007 3:10 PM

Hear, hear. There are parts of the city, like Chinatown, too where due to redistricting, the local vote has been rendered meaningless. And also I think a thing as good urban planning with sustainable development that does not fundamentally alter the character of the ward, to the detriment of longtime residents or usually, to the enrichment of the alderman and or his/her, uh, "private partners."

christoph / April 2, 2007 1:51 PM

when you're riding the red, purple and brown lines, take pictures. send them to the olympics committee. maybe then king richie will remember who he works for.


About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at

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