If Chicago’s Lost Its Way, It Can Look to Harold Washington to Get It Back

Chicago is defined by the Daleys, while Harold Washington is more famous for who he was than what he did. As the current mayor’s numbers slide among African-Americans, he can take some lessons from an underrated mayor.

Harold Washington Robert Taylor Homes

José Moré/Chicago Tribune

Harold Washington outside the Robert Taylor Homes, 1987

Just as I was going on break, a DePaul professor named Rachael Shtier wrote a shallow, caustic piece about Chicago in the form of an ersatz book review. I got this far:

“Poor Chicago,” a friend of mine recently said. Given the number of urban apocalypses here, I couldn’t tell which problem she was referring to. Was it the Cubs never winning? The abominable weather?

Cubs? Check. Weather? Check. All-too-common DEAD END/NO OUTLET signs of writing about Chicago (why don’t pieces about Houston, likely to be the third city in a census or two, start with the flailings of the Astros?), though Shteir gets some credit for efficiency.

Despite Shteir’s more than fair warning, this inexplicably made lots of people really upset.

It’s a shame: Shtier’s piece, objectionable mostly for its uselessness, got a lot of attention; more deserving of is Brady Dale’s lengthy interview with Thomas Dyja (h/t @moneywithwings), author of The Third Coast, one of the books Shteir was theoretically reviewing. He’s a good interview, and if you want a critique of Chicago that’s similar in tone to Shtier’s but informed and considered, it’s excellent. This part in particular struck me:

You are coming out the double dip of the Depression. It was really in a city in a terrible trough. Moholy understood that the city had the energy for more. This whole book is about how that is fulfilled — the individuals and their spirit but also the corporatism that is arising in the postwar era. The deal that everyone makes with [Mayor Richard J.] Daley, at the end of it, is one in which that yearning kind of goes away for a while. The city becomes very insular. It is segregated in a way that people in the other cities find amazing.

Later in the interview Dyja returns to the machine:

Then what happens with Daley is the demographics around the machine changed. It’s not so much about raising up the poor and giving them a turkey anymore. What Chicagoans are worried about in the Daley era is their homes — keeping their stuff. It’s about security.

Daley is a big man. He runs the show. He grabs hold of reins of power that were once a little more diffuse. The machine was a little more answerable to people before him. But he takes control and promises people that if they support him, they can hold onto what’s theirs. His voting block is interesting. It’s the ethnic whites and the black community. The people who keep in power are the two groups that hate each other. As much as Daley controls the machine, at least for the white ethnic community, there is a populism to it. He’s giving them what they want in terms of maintaining racial boundaries, and in return they will keep him office.

It’s prompted by a question Dale asks that read a bit off to me: “The only category of characters that doesn’t seem to have a Moholy or a Terkel — a great populist — is politicians. Your only great politician in here is Mayor Daley. Why wasn’t there a great populist Chicago politician?”

I’m not sure that’s quite true; I think the great populist politician Dale is looking for is Harold Washington, whom David Axelrod called “the most kinetic campaigner and politician I’ve ever met.”

The Daleys represent Chicago in the popular mind (Michael Bilandic is semi-infamous as a cautionary tale about public services). Washington, on the other hand, is famous for who he was (and the hostility that engendered), but not for what he did. And in a short but excellent essay by Gary Rivlin (whose Fire on the Prairie is the definitive account of his tenure) and Larry Bennett (author of The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism), these thoughtful observers of the city argue that Washington laid the groundwork for the city that Chicago would become in the 1990s and 2000s—even if his reputation, as expressed by NPR’s Cheryl Corley, is that “Washington critics argue that the mayor had little vision for the city and was not a strong manager.”

The Chicago government Washington inherited when he was elected mayor in 1983 was an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy — by design. The Democratic Party rewarded campaign workers with city jobs, and its absolute dominion over local politics meant there was never any incentive to cut the municipal workforce. During Washington’s four-plus years as mayor, he slashed the city payroll by roughly 15 percent, despite black unemployment in the double figures, and he was widely praised for hiring professionals who put the city’s shaky finances on much firmer footing. Shortly after he took office, Washington signed the city’s first Freedom of Information Act and passed an ethics ordinance despite opposition from many members of the City Council, including some who were otherwise his supporters.

[snip]

It was in no small part because of the Washington administration’s belief in neighborhood economic development and his empowerment of non-profit housing groups that Chicago started turning the corner from Rust Belt ghost town to innovative, forward-thinking metropolis. Chicago during the 1970s was marked by an occluded civic vision. Remember the business elite’s answer for reinvigorating Chicago’s economy — a world’s fair?

As Adam Doster noted last week, Dick Simpson credits Washington for "[opening] the idea of what a progressive city could be … what a regular, hard core, urban-manufacturing city of the old style could actually become.” At the end of This American Life’s episode entirely devoted to Washington, after winding its way through the city’s racial tensions, it comes around to Washington as a mayor and his effectiveness as a populist reformer. “But no one could ever see beyond his race,” Gary Rivlin told Ira Glass.

To this day, Washington is associated with the Council Wars (one of the few non-rubber-stamp City Councils Chicago’s ever had in its history), but Glass points out that “by the time he died, just a few months into his second term of office, Harold Washington had put together a working majority on the council…. [E]very political observer in Chicago says that he was making headway.”

Washington’s tenure was cut short, leaving an unfinished legacy, and it’s worth it to wonder what might have happened if he’d had a Daley-length run as mayor. And perhaps critical for Mayor Emanuel to consider it; awhile back he had reasonably strong approval ratings with a lot of fence-sitters, but they didn’t break in his favor, particularly in the black community:

The survey showed 50 percent approve of the job Emanuel is doing, roughly the same as a year ago. But those disapproving of his job performance stand at 40 percent — up from 29 percent a year before.

More African-American voters disapprove of Emanuel’s job performance than approve, 48 percent to 40 percent. That’s a sharp turnaround from a year ago, when 44 percent of black voters approved of Emanuel’s job as mayor while only one-third disapproved.

That doesn’t mean he’s vulnerable. Eric Zorn gamed out a realistic scenario in which Emanuel could lose, and… it’s not that realistic. But Emanuel, whatever his faults, doesn’t seem like the sort of politician to take comfort in a desultory statistical victory. As his first electoral test as mayor grows near, it’s worth it for Chicagoans, including those in the administration, to look back at the lessons not just of the Daleys, but the Harold Washington that was and might have been. 

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