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Mayor Thu Jan 13 2011

Can't Paint with Band-Aids

As the ticking clock on Gery Chico's website indicates, the first round of the mayoral election is getting closer by the second. The final stages of the race are taking shape in arguments over who is best qualified to stir Chicago's ship straight as it fiscally sails to the bottom of Lake Michigan. And while the $600+ million budget deficit does balloon over everything, most of the talk emanating from the remaining candidates shows an equal deficit in meaningful ways to reshape and reform Chicago.

Each of the candidates have taken legitimate shots at criticizing some of Mayor Daley's failings, especially in regard to the botched parking meter deal, education reforms, and the continuing debate over privatization of city festivals and assets. There's been talk of lawsuits from Miguel del Valle and Carol Moseley Braun to cancel the parking meter lease, a call by Chico to outift every CPS student with a laptop, and in general, very controlled messages from the seeming front-runner Rahm Emanuel. With few exceptions, the race has simply been about band-aiding things that ail the city at present. Lacking in the discussion thus far is a concrete vision about pushing the city forward in ways that the citizenry interacts with it on a daily basis -- and especially, in the shape of the city's streets.

In flusher times than these, it was easy to see vision blasting forth from Mayor Daley's office, a concrete vision laid out literally in, well, concrete. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin picked up on this most tangible part of Daley's legacy shortly after the mayor announced his intentions to retire. The recession, and Daley's imminent departure, have obviously changed this dynamic, as current economics continue to force everyone to maximize for the most effect with minimal cost. There's been a glaring lack of ideas and information put out by the remaining candidates for doing so though. Yes, times are extraordinary on local and state levels, but such trying circumstances are also chances to inventively implement low cost initiatives that continue to move the city forward and show the city is capable of action no matter what. More so, Chicago must be in a position to stay ahead of the curve to ensure that when good times return, the city is a position to capture renewed demand of services and its infrastructure without having to play catch-up.

Examples of such initiatives are easily seen in a series of recent low cost fixes in New York: turning Times Square into a pedestrian pavilion, or creating a new network of dedicated bike lanes to the cool cost of just $8.8 million. Similar quality-of-life projects, such as shrinking Lawrence Avenue, have just gotten under way in Chicago, but for the most part, these type of street level and impactful measures are not being discussed in the mayor's race. As easy as it would be to cast stones as this being a mayoral candidate's responsibility to take up, perhaps some of the reason we don't hear much talk about such initiatives is because Chicagoans tend to wait for a vision from the top, and not exert pressure on their elected officials from the ground.

With the city purse empty and Daley vacating the Fifth Floor -- things that seem seismically poised to change the city regardless -- the next few years actually have the potential be a tremendously effective and innovative time period. However things get accomplished, or wherever the initial spark lights, Chicago needs to see itself moving forward and maximizing incremental changes to the cityscape that make it a far more involved place. And whomever ends up occupying the mayor's office should encourage creating new ways the City and its citizens can interact with one another, recognizing that you can't paint a new vision of a place solely using band-aids. There's no better indication of how that process plays out than in design and use of the city's streets.

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ozlock / January 14, 2011 7:17 PM

Can someone tell me how long Chico will continue to boast about his service on the school board?

Seems to me thatz a negative.

R.A. Stewart / January 15, 2011 9:42 PM

I don't know what incentive a mayor of Chicago would have for encouraging residents to get involved in city government. The city has been run from the top down since Harold Washington's death, and asking the future mayor and most of our aldermen to give up any of the royal prerogative will be a tall order. Pressure from the ground? That's the only way it would ever happen, but (a) City Hall and most ward offices have been incredibly adamant in resisting such pressure, and (b) an awful lot of Chicagoans are convinced that the alternatives are either a savvy autocrat or another Detroit.

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