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Daley Tue Jun 15 2010

Assessing Daley

Crain's Chicago Business recently came out with what they claim is "the most comprehensive quantitative analysis ever of Mayor Richard M. Daley's two-decade tenure." Co-authors Greg Hinz and Steven R. Strahler back up their claims with a series of graphs and maps that illustrate the trends that have evolved since Daley came to power in 1989. The resulting portrait of the city through Daley is a nuanced one that shows the city cementing itself as a global center for business, a magnet for upper-income earners, a city generally safer than the one 20 years back, and a larger city to boot. As the article states, "For a town once dubbed the buckle on the Rust Belt, Chicago -- part of it, anyhow -- has made strong, even stunning progress in repositioning itself for the 21st century."

On a purely statistical basis, nearly all of the core metrics one would use to determine the relative health of a city have moved in a favorable direction under Daley. Violent crime has fallen in half, at a rate that far eclipses the national average. Educational attainment throughout the city is up, with Chicago now boasting one of the highest populations holding bachelor's degrees at 32.2%, even eclipsing other "creative class" magnets such as New York (though just barely), according to the Brookings Institute. Throughout the city, household median income is up nearly across the board in all of the city's 77 community areas.

Paradoxes ring throughout the data. Though street crime is down, institutional crime behind aldermanic and City Hall doors still remains rampant. In Daley's 20+ years, the city has seen 13 aldermen convicted of crimes, as well as a number of city officials close to Daley put away. (In Daley's defense, a small number of those convicted alderman served in the City Council before he came to office.) While the city's property tax base has grown 151%, its debt level has ballooned an astounding 263%. Chicago's pension obligations are only 42.7% met, and despite the gilded success of the Loop and many neighborhoods that flank it, the city has quietly, slowly continued to lose jobs since Daley's ascension.

Numbers always paint a conflicting portrait however. Their very tangibility tends to ignore the intangibles and cultural measures that make cities vibrant and successful places to live. While consensus over Daley himself is never clear, and usually very stridently held onto in either positive or negative fashion, there can be no denying that Daley has been an unbelievably effective leader in ensuring Chicago has remained relevant. Whether one wants to argue over the merits or demerits of how Daley has done and continues to do so, the fact that the city is a destination while the greater Midwestern region around it languishes speaks volumes to Daley's capacity to make certain Chicago is a place people recognize and engage.

Chicago has long been the nation's best and most innovative incubator of new ideas and forms. (The coasts have always been the best places to package and sell them.) And in the past twenty years, when it seemed as if Chicago at times might have suffered the same fate as other cities, it instead reinforced its position as one of the nation's elite business and creative centers. Namely, Chicago bolstered the idea of itself as a place for people to meet, mingle and exchange. When people do so, ideas inevitably are shared, evolve and take shape to produce a sense of cultural enterprise. From molecular gastronomy to Jeanne Gang's Aqua building to the city's insanely vibrant jazz scene, Chicago has had a tremendous run the past twenty years in terms of creative output and popular perception. Statistics will not reveal that. Perhaps Daley's greatest accomplishment- bully pulpit, inane ramblings and all- is the he has made sure Chicago remains a verb, while many other cities in the nation decay into unused nouns.

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Bart / June 17, 2010 12:43 AM

Well done. Could Daley have been so effective in a city like Chicago without all the heavy-handedness? That, I suppose, is the toughest question to answer.

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