By Edward McClelland

In 1983, shortly after Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago, Richard Mell, a white alderman, approached the African-American mayor with this plea: “Don’t make this city suffer for 300 years of injustice against your people. Don’t make me and others pay for it. Let’s not make this city another Detroit.”

At the time, it was no idle fear. In the early 1980s, Gery Chico told me a few years ago, Chicago “was seen as a vestige of America’s industrial past.” Chico is a lawyer who later served as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of staff, and ran for mayor himself in 2011. Three years before, the three-quarter-century old Wisconsin Steel plant on the city’s southeast side had padlocked its gates, throwing 3,400 steelworkers onto the unemployment line. Between 1967 and 1982, Chicago lost 250,000 jobs, and a quarter of its factories.

Chicago_Downtown_Aerial_View“Chicago’s basic problem is that it is losing industries, stores and jobs,” wrote Richard C. Longworth in a Chicago Tribune series entitled “Chicago: City on the Brink.” “Because of this, it is losing tax money. Because of this, it won’t be able to support itself, to pay for the services of a going city. And because of this, it will lose more industries, stores, jobs and taxes…The cycle has been going on for 30 years…there is no reason to think it will ever turn around.”

And yet, in the years since Washington took office, the city didn’t turn into Detroit. The opposite happened. Chicago turned into an Alpha World City with internationally renowned theater, restaurants, and architecture. It’s the hometown of the president of the United States, and a migratory destination for Midwestern college graduates seeking professional jobs in banking, finance, marketing, and consulting – many of them fleeing high unemployment in Detroit, Gary, or Cleveland.

But now, 32 years after whites feared a minority mayor would lead Chicago onto the Rust Belt scrap heap, the old panic is returning. Cook Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia – who was elected to the Chicago City Council in 1986 with Harold Washington’s support – is in a runoff against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In its first term Emanuel’s administration has seen the city’s bond rating downgraded five times, to two levels above junk status. But if Garcia is elected, predicts Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., the city’s financial plight will plummet to depths so far only reached by Detroit.

JCG cut

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia

“It’s a concern if we had one of the less-responsible people running against him,” Kirk said at a March 2 event celebrating Chicago’s Casimir Pulaski Day. “None of them could command the respect of the bond market. The collapse of Chicago debt – which already happened with Detroit – would soon follow if somebody who is very inexperienced replaced Rahm. …You’ve got to have a strong, capable leader and the people I’ve seen running against the mayor are not that leader.”

To Cook County Clerk David Orr, who was Washington’s deputy mayor, and briefly ran the city after he died in office in 1987, it’s a familiar scare tactic.

“It’s a pretty disgusting, irresponsible thing to say by Senator Kirk,” Orr says. “It’s the same kind of dirty trick: somehow, a minority can’t govern.”

Chicago didn’t follow Detroit into black nationalism when Harold Washington was mayor, and it won’t follow Detroit into bankruptcy if Chuy Garcia is elected. They’re completely different cities, with different histories, different characters, different economies, and different governmental structures. Chicago is far more prosperous than Detroit, and, despite intractable segregation, has less history of racial acrimony. The white flight that emptied out Detroit left Chicago with ethnically balanced demographics – 32 percent black, 31 percent white, 28 percent Latino – which make it impossible for any one minority group to control city politics.

Harold Washington ran for mayor on the slogan, “It’s Our Turn,” promising black Chicagoans a fair share of the jobs and power their community had been denied since their parents and grandparents migrated north in the early 20th century. White aldermen, such as Mell, took this to mean he would oversee a Midwestern Zimbabwe, as had Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. During Young’s 20-year leadership, Detroit became the largest black-majority metropolis outside Africa, and the city bulldozed a Polish neighborhood to make way for a General Motors plant.

But Harold Washington had no intention of ruling like Coleman Young. He couldn’t have, even if he’d wanted to. First of all, the two mayors’ political backgrounds were poles apart: Washington was a party regular who inherited a precinct captaincy from his father, then worked his way up to state representative, state senator, congressman, and mayor. Young was a radical labor organizer who was purged from the United Auto Workers during Walter Reuther’s Red Scare, and supported himself as a taxi driver before finding his niche in politics. Chicago, the capital of black political empowerment, has been home to more African-American congressmen than any other U.S. city. Detroit, scene of two of the nation’s deadliest race riots, was the birthplace of both the Nation of Islam and the Shrine of the Black Madonna, quasireligious black separatist organizations that have advocated violent resistance to white supremacy. Washington squeaked past two white candidates, incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, with 36 percent of the vote. Young was elected in 1973, the year Detroit became a black majority city. As that majority grew, so did his power. Washington oversaw a multiracial city, and was steeped in the Machine tradition of patching together unlikely ethnic alliances: he was elected mayor by a coalition of blacks, Latinos, and liberal whites.


Harold Washington

Even the cities’ charters dictated how each mayor could conduct himself. Detroit has a strong mayor-weak council form of government, which allowed Young to appoint all his own department heads. Chicago has a weak mayor-strong council system. When white mayors run the city, the council cedes its power to them. But Washington’s election set off a power struggle known as Council Wars, in which a bloc of 29 white aldermen successfully blocked Washington’s budgets and appointments. The racial battles in the Council chambers led Time magazine to dub Chicago “Beirut by the Lake.”

Council Wars ended in 1986. A federal judge ruled the city’s ward map violated the Voting Rights Act, and ordered special elections in seven wards redrawn with black and Latino supermajorities. Four of those elections were won by allies of Harold Washington, allowing the mayor to take control of the City Council. Chuy Garcia was one of those new aldermen. On the City Council, he passed a Tenant Bill of Rights and a Code of Ethics.

“There was never any progressive legislation that Chuy wouldn’t back,” Orr says.

Harold Washington’s mastery of Chicago only lasted one year. Since his sudden death, the city’s progressive movement has futilely attempted to reassemble his old coalition, but has consistently been defeated by better-funded, better-organized Machine politicians. Mayor Richard M. Daley, who won the 1989 special election to complete Washington’s second term, co-opted Latinos by creating the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which became an important source of patronage jobs for the laid-off steelworkers of the Southeast Side. After Garcia moved from the City Council to the state senate, he lost a re-election bid to a candidate backed by Daley and the HDO.

Washington spawned a generation of progressive politicians, but none could break Daley’s hold on the mayor’s office. Congressman Bobby Rush, a former pro-Washington alderman, tried in 1999. He won 28 percent of the vote. Barack Obama was inspired to move to Chicago by Washington. When Obama got into politics, he planned to follow his idol’s path to City Hall: state senator, congressman, mayor. Realizing the futility of that course, he pursued the more attainable office of senator and president.

Miguel del Valle, who was elected to the state senate in 1987 with Washington’s support, finished third in his bid for mayor in 2011, behind Rahm Emanuel and Gery Chico. One reason they couldn’t win: in 1995, the election laws were changed to prevent another Harold Washington. Instead of running in party primaries, which can be won with a plurality, mayoral candidates now compete in nonpartisan elections, with a run-off between the top two vote-getters if no candidate wins a majority. Southern states use the same system to prevent a black candidate from sneaking in amidst a divided white vote.

In 2011, Rahm Emanuel left his job as President Obama’s White House Chief of Staff to run for mayor, and won with help from his boss’s coalition of upscale whites and African-Americans. Emanuel still has the upscale whites – he won 70 percent of the vote in the Loop, where the per capita income is $65,526, two-and-a-half times the city as a whole. But his share of the black vote dropped from 58 percent in 2011 to 42 percent in the 2015 primary, largely as a result of his decision to close 50 schools on the South and West sides.

Blacks and Latinos have often been divided politically because of “historic tensions between down-and-out communities competing for jobs,” says David Moberg, a journalist who covered the 1983 mayoral campaign for the Chicago Reader.

[blocktext align=”right”]“The 100 largest cities in the nation are majority black and brown. We have to realize that if we’re going to better our condition, we have to work together.”[/blocktext]“We have to work together,” says Delmarie Cobb, a black political consultant who is backing Garcia. “The 100 largest cities in the nation are majority black and brown. We have to realize that if we’re going to better our condition, we have to work together. The powers that be have worked to keep us apart. I got in a cab, and the black cabdriver said, ‘Can you believe there are black people voting for Chuy Garcia?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m one of them.’ It was automatic: ‘They’re not for us.’”

However, this election may ultimately be more about class than race. Another reason Chicago is not like Detroit: while Detroit’s fortunes were entirely dependent on the auto industry, Chicago has a diversified economic portfolio. It has been a center not only of manufacturing, but banking, insurance, commodities exchanges, and education. Chicago survived the demise of the steel mills because it was well-prepared for the day when trading things and thinking about things became more profitable than making things. Professional services became Chicago’s new “product.” In the global economy of the 1990s, which gutted so many Midwestern cities, Chicago was a winner, sucking business and talent out of its regional satellites. In 1986, the city’s ad agencies, investment banks, law firms, benefits consultants, accountants, and management consultants employed 17,000 people; a dozen years later, they employed 60,000.

Chicago is not going bankrupt, no matter who becomes mayor. Here’s why Detroit went broke: since 1950, 1.2 million people – two-thirds of its population – have left for the suburbs, Florida, or a cemetery. Chicago has lost the same number, but that constitutes less than a third of its peak. Despite its population crash, Detroit is the same geographic size it was in the ’50s. So the police still need to patrol 140 square miles of streets, the public works department needs to pave those streets, and the water system still needs to maintain the network of pipes underneath. But there’s no way a city of 680,000 people who work as short-order cooks, bloggers, home healthcare aides, muralists, and daycare providers can support an infrastructure built for 1.8 million who worked as autoworkers, engineers, and mechanics. Detroit is the poorest city in the United States: its per capita income of $14,870 is half of Chicago’s; 39 percent of Detroiters live in poverty, nearly double Chicago’s rate. Most significantly, for funding a city with property taxes, the median value of a home in Detroit is $50,400; in Chicago, it is $233,200.

The fact is, though, over the last 30 years, parts of Chicago have turned into Detroit – if by that you mean they have become depopulated, dangerous, hyper-segregated, bereft of jobs, businesses, and even grocery stores where residents can buy an orange or a banana. That’s not a result of the policies of Harold Washington, but the policies of Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, who have starved the city’s outer neighborhoods of civic resources as they built their Alpha World city on the lakefront.

Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.

Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.

Globalization creates losers, too, in other words. In the last three decades, Chicago has been transformed from a city with a middle class anchored by industrial jobs to a city with an hourglass class structure. Only a third of the population lives in the new Global Chicago. The Second City now has its own Second City – black and Latino, occupying run-down, underserved neighborhoods far from the lake, interacting with the well-off only to clean their houses or drive their cabs. The city lost 200,000 residents in the last decade, many due to the demolition of public housing. But the Loop nearly doubled in population. Chicago may have fewer people, but it has more of the people Rahm Emanuel wants.

“The Hispanic and the African-American communities have a shared interest in job opportunities,” says Miguel del Valle. “We’re not getting the jobs that Emanuel talks about: the IT jobs, the Google jobs. We’re getting the valet jobs, the kitchen jobs, and we want to see more than that. It’s a separate and unequal economic structure that’s gotten worse.”

In Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, his book on the modern Midwest, Richard Longworth delivered an update to “Chicago: City on the Brink.”

“Many Chicagoans live better than ever,” he wrote, “in safe housing in vibrant neighborhoods, surrounded by art and restaurants, with good public transport whisking them to exciting jobs in a dazzling city center that teems with visitors and workers from around the world. These are the global citizens, hardworking, well-educated, well-paid, well-traveled. And many Chicagoans live worse than ever in the old ghettos, or worse, are being shoved by gentrification out of the ghettos into destitute inner-ring suburbs. The old housing projects lying in the path of the Loop’s expansion are knocked down and their inhabitants scattered to the civic winds. These are the global have-nots, separated by class and education as much as by race from any of the benefits of a global economy. In the middle are the global servants, immigrants, mostly Mexican, who perform the services – valet parking, gardening, dishwashing, dog-walking, bussing in bistros, low-level construction – that the global citizens need.

“All this, the rich and the poor, is on display in Chicago. Once a broadly middle-class city, where factory workers owned their homes and shared in the dream, Chicago today is a class-ridden place, with lots of people at the top and lots of people at the bottom and not that much in between.”

This series of maps, assembled in 2014 by University of Chicago graduate student Daniel Kay Hertz, illustrates the progress of Chicago’s economic stratification. Over the last 45 years, the lakefront has become wealthier, while the rest of the city has grown more impoverished. In 1970, most census tracts were middle class. Today, the middle class is confined to a few niches on the city’s fringes.

[blocktext align=”left”]Chicago today is a class-ridden place, with lots of people at the top and lots of people at the bottom and not that much in between.”[/blocktext]Consider also the city’s maldistribution of violence. In West Garfield Park, a monolithically African-American drug marketplace on the West Side, where the city has been mordantly dubbed “Chiraq,” the murder rate is 85.2 per 100,000 – nearly twice as high as Detroit’s. In Lincoln Square, the North Side neighborhood of bakeries, bookstores, used record shops, and eyewear boutiques where Rahm Emanuel lives, it’s 1.7. Another study by Hertz found that in the early 1990s (when Chicago had 900 murders a year), the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago were six times more violent than the safest neighborhoods. Today, the most dangerous neighborhoods are 15 times more violent. In 2014, Chicago had its fewest murders since 1965, but most of the gains in safety are taking place in areas that are also thriving economically.

Garcia is aiming his message at Chicagoans who have been left out of the city’s transformation. Under Rahm Emanuel, he argues, “the city has worked for the benefit of a select few, and the neighborhoods have been left behind.” He cites not only the school closings, but the mayor’s decision to spend public funds on a Marriott Hotel in the South Loop and a lakefront basketball arena for DePaul University.

In his first campaign for mayor, Emanuel promised to put 1,000 new cops on the streets. His failure to do so is not a big deal in Lincoln Square, but it’s a very big deal in Little Village, the Mexican-American neighborhood where Garcia lives, and where he ran a community development group for the 12 years between losing his state senate seat and winning election to the Cook County Board.

“I’ve seen gun violence in my own neighborhood, near my house, on a regular basis; I hear gunshots at night,” Garcia says. “Wanting to build a DePaul [basketball] arena while we have the levels of violence that we do in the neighborhoods is another clear example of this administration’s misguided priorities in Chicago, when the city is suffering from closed schools and the violence that goes unabated.”

Distributing resources equally around the city was one of Washington’s political principles, says Jacky Grimshaw, who ran the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs during his administration. That’s one reason he was so threatening to white aldermen, who were used to getting *more* than their fair share of city services.

Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia [credit: Garcia for Chicago, via Wikimedia Commons]

Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia [credit: Garcia for Chicago, via Wikimedia Commons]

“Harold’s motto became ‘the fairness mayor,’” says Grimshaw, who has not made a public endorsement in the current race. “If you weren’t white, you were left out. You couldn’t get a job in City Hall. You couldn’t get a ballfield in your park.”

Chuy Garcia is not Harold Washington: he’s not as eloquent, nor as charismatic. He’s not running in the same city, either. Chicago may be less overtly racist than it was 30 years ago, but it’s less equal, too. The roots of that inequality can be traced back to the deindustrialization of the 1980s, which contributed to the bitterness of Council Wars, as aldermen squabbled over the city’s dwindling resources. But he’s the current avatar of a progressive movement that reached its pinnacle of power under Washington, and has been waiting a generation for another shot at the mayor’s office. Garcia can’t win by reassembling Harold Washington’s coalition. He’ll need a much more diverse voter base, and he knows it.

“Chicago is a much different place than it was in 1983,” Garcia says. “It’s much more diverse, the city is roughly 1/3 [white], 1/3 [black], 1/3 [Latino]. What I think we put together in the election was a new coalition in Chicago that we will continue to build on. It’s a multiracial, multiethnic across geography coalition. I think that we’re building a campaign that will triumph on April 7, it represents change, and it will be a very diverse coalition. It will be robust with Latino, African-Americans, white ethnics from the Northwest Side of Chicago. It will also include the LGBT community. I will get Jewish votes. It will be a wonderful coalition of the 21st century.”

Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.

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