THE BLOG

Chicago: A Tale of Two Cities

01/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There have always been at least two Chicago's wrestling within America's great heartland metropolis. The election of Barack Obama and the recent arrest of Governor Rod Blagojevich have once again shown how the city's angels are never far away from its demons. The iconic struggles of race, class and culture have been played out in street and park, back-room and boardroom, City Hall and union hall, and of course, in the headlines and in the hot air from which the "Windy City" gets its name.

Once swampland, Chicago now towers majestically above the prairie. Its heights rest on muddy foundations. The elation of the Obama win -- and the rush of its symbolic redemptive power -- marked the re-emergence of a renewed Chicago on the world stage. But the honeymoon was short, shorter than anyone expected, as the city found itself cast into shame by the Blagojevich scandal. A scion of the Illinois political machine and the man responsible for filling Obama's vacant Senate seat, Blagojevich was caught auctioning off the seat (as well as the state of Illinois, it appears) to the highest bidder. At the press conference where his indictment was announced, FBI agent Robert Grant summed up the net effect of the bust: "If [Illinois] isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor."

Obama's election does indeed exorcise some of the demons of Chicago's darkest history, particularly its legacy of racial strife (despite its cosmopolitanism, it remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation). Blagojevich's demise, on the other hand, is a reminder of how deep-rooted cronyism and corruption are in the city's political system. The two wrestling spirits of the city's history are visible in Obama's success and Blagojevich's shame.

All that sparkles isn't gold

Sitting in the middle of the continent, bordering one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply to the east and a thousand miles of some of the best farmland on Earth to the west, this metropolis of ten million is uniquely positioned as the ostensible capital of North America. It is the third largest intermodal port and hub (for planes, trains, ships, and automobiles) in the world behind Hong Kong and Singapore.

With the recent mergers of the Chicago Board of Trade, and the Chicago and New York Mercantile Exchanges, the city reigns as the commodity capital of the world. This is certainly a mixed blessing. Although commodities and their exchanges are soon to become more valuable than oil (despite their interdependence), their speculation can have disastrous effects, like the recent spikes in food prices and the financial collapse caused by "credit-default swaps." One thing is clear: it will soon be a proving ground for all sorts of new regulation, which will certainly buoy the cause of progressive reformers.

Chicago rolled out its extensive decade-long facelift to a world audience on election night. To the north of Obama's victory stage lies Millennium Park, the eye-popping prototypical 21st century urban public space with its open-air pavilion designed by Frank Gehry, corporate donor peristyle and reflecting pool, skating rink/boulevard cafe, replica prairie habitat, Amish Kapoor's iconic "bean" sculpture, and Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool that slowly cycle through the close-up faces of one thousand Chicago citizens. Behind the park is a dense thicket of new skyscrapers, anchored by the newly completed Trump Tower. At 1,300 feet of housing-bubble hubris, it is the second tallest building in north America surpassed only by the Sears Tower, which rises a few blocks to the south.

On the opposite end of Grant Park is Central Station, a dense residential community of towers, lofts, and town homes that only ten years before was undeveloped land owned by the railroads. South of that, across Lake Shore Drive and the new postmodern Soldier Field, is the new LEED-Gold certified green convention center at McCormick Place. And just south of that is the proposed location for the 2016 Olympic village.

New growth and gleam has come with its social costs. Gentrification and deindustrialization has reshaped the city's demographic landscape, making it a much more expensive and exclusive place to live. The Chicago police are still known for their corruption and brutality. And the capo di tutti capo of the state's Democratic political machine, five-term mayor Richard M. Daley, is one of the nation's last great political bosses. Daley redefines the term "ambivalent." Beloved by the vast majority of Chicagoans for resuscitating the city during its lowest days, he is nonetheless an authoritarian. His impending retirement may portend the end of Chicago cronyism that has for so long tenaciously shaped its politics.

Industrial age strife

The city's dual politics have ancient roots. A century ago, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. In the course of fifty years it had gone from an outpost of around 4,000 to a city of 1.5 million. European immigrants, largely German, Irish, Italian and Polish, drove most of the population explosion. These new Americans toiled in sub-human conditions in the factories and slaughterhouses that defined this new filthy smoke-and-rail choked industrial titan.

It was a time, as Upton Sinclair would later write in The Jungle, his novel set in the Chicago meatpacking industry, "of haves and have-nots." Wealth and poverty existed in extremes unknown to anyone living in America today. There was little government to speak of and certainly nothing of the vast canon of legislation that gives workers and consumers the rights and protections we now have. Big business reigned supreme, and Chicago, at the center of the continent, was its beating heart.

But as with conditions today, there is only so fast a heart can beat before it goes into arrest. Since Chicago had become the center of the new industrial America, it also became the political center of the country, where the bloody struggle between capital and labor was played out in the streets. Between 1880 and 1920, Chicago hosted at least one, and sometimes both, of the major parties national conventions.

In response to worker conditions and economic disparity, political movements guided by anarchists and socialists quickly took hold in Chicago, culminating with the two-day Haymarket Affair in 1886 when police opened fire on a crowd of protesters gathered to support striking workers after someone who to this day remains unidentified tossed a bomb at the police. Eight anarchists -- mostly German immigrants -- were arrested and charged with the bombing. Despite no evidence against them, seven were sentenced to death. Subsequent international outrage gave strength to the progressive movement, but did great damage to the city's image.

In what could be seen as the long culmination of this uprising, President William McKinley was assassinated by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901. Theodore Roosevelt, a reformer and anti-monopolistic "trust buster" succeeded him, beginning sixteen years of Republican rule marked by deep divisions in the party. Roosevelt wanted to take the Republicans into the progressive movement, but was met with powerful resistance by those who wanted to preserve the power of the moneyed interests.

After The Jungle was published in 1906, exposing the hellish conditions workers were subjected to in the slaughterhouses, meat exports -- one of the backbones of the American economy -- plummeted by fifty percent. To restore confidence in American meat, Roosevelt created the Food and Drug Administration, one of the most essential pieces of federal regulation ever passed.

The division in the party over progressive ideology led to a formal split at the 1912 convention in Chicago, with Roosevelt taking progressive Republicans into their own party, while incumbent president William Howard Taft, Roosevelt's hand-picked successor in 1908, retained control of what was left. The split is largely credited with handing the election to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.

Obama and Chicago's black politics

After World War II, Chicago once again set the tone of national politics. Forty years ago the world's eyes were also turned to Chicago. In horror, people watched as the Chicago police savaged protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. These demonstrations came on the heels of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the widespread rioting that they caused, which laid waste to much of the largely African-American West Side of the city.

Although New York and San Francisco had become the counter-cultural bookends of the nation, Chicago had become the center of political change, and the ostensible headquarters of radical groups like the Black Panthers and Weathermen. At the 1968 convention, these groups came along with thousands of ordinary citizens to redress the government's abuses of power, and the inequities of their society. The repressive response on the part of Mayor Richard J. Daley's police heralded the downfall of the Democratic Party, as well as costing Daley the Vice Presidential nomination. It also left Chicago adrift on the political sea, a discredited industrial giant rusting and crumbling like one of its old rail cars.

One shouldn't underestimate the intransigence of Chicago politics. The city's machine has always had a knack for harnessing the crowd for power, for managing upstarts and for preserving the ruling order. In both the first and second Daley eras, old school patronage was the main vehicle for keeping the city on a short leash. The elder Daley manipulated city jobs, the younger Daley exploited city contracts.

The radical undercurrents of the city, be they anarchist or socialist or black nationalist or Rainbow Coalition, have always gone head to head with the mainstream practices of the machine, and the machine has had to go to great lengths to stifle change. The 1968 war in the streets between the cops and the radicals was not just a proxy war fought between the counter-culture and the great silent majority. It also proved that the Great Society was like many American families: a well-crafted exterior masking deep anger and dysfunction and inequality.

In the wake of 1968, Chicago entered a dark age of violence, factionalization, and decay. A year later, in what was dubbed the "Days of Rage," radical protesters led by the Weathermen stormed through the city smashing and looting. In December of 1969, Fred Hampton, the charismatic and beloved young leader of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party, was murdered by the Chicago Police while he slept in his bed.

It was later revealed that Hampton's head of security, William O'Neal, was a paid FBI informant, and the raid was part of the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) carried out by Chicago's infamous "red squad." Hampton's murder was part of a plan spelled out in an FBI memo that was designed to "prevent the rise of a black 'messiah' who could unite and electrify the militant black anti-nationalist movement."

By 1975, when Mayor Richard J. Daley's twenty-year reign ended with his sudden death, the city entered a steep period of decline that would last for more than 20 years. It saw the exodus of more than a million people. In the 1980s, the city was dubbed "Beirut on the Lake" owing to its violence and bombed-out aesthetic. In those haggard days, aldermen carried guns into the city council chambers.

Evidence of the radicalism that drove the Black Panthers, Yippies and Weathermen has all but disappeared from American popular history. A caricatured version is sometimes taken off the shelf and dusted off, as we saw with the hyperbolic exploitation of the purported "relationship" between Obama and former Weather Underground founder William Ayers. Much of this is understandable. The rhetoric of Sixties radicalism bears little resemblance to Obama's language of "change." It was, at the very least, the language of division between, races, classes and generations. At its most provocative, it was the talk of insurrection and violent revolution, the apocalyptic prophesy of the great class war that would cleanse the way to peaceful utopia.

Through the legendary underground documentary, The Murder of Fred Hampton, you can get a glimpse into this world. Young and growing in strength, the Black Panthers were a committed group of Marxist revolutionaries who spoke openly of "killin' pigs." Their angry, profane and violent speeches -- some of the harshest coming from Panther Minister of Defense, Bobby Rush, now a U.S. Congressman representing the South Side of Chicago -- would be utterly shocking to today's political audience, even within the Black community.

In one scene from the film, various Panthers arm themselves inside their headquarters in anticipation of a police raid. Rush and Hampton's readiness in that moment to go out fighting spoke volumes about the lengths to which they would go. It also stands in sharp contrast to the actual manner in which Hampton did indeed give his life to his cause.

This devotion was largely why Bobby Rush rose to such powerful heights in the black community. Rush's rise to power brilliantly illustrates the complex and compromising dichotomies of Chicago machine politics, how it absorbs radical energy and uses it to power the system. Particularly when it comes to black politics, the machine consumes dissent. It took in Bobby Rush, the man who was once minutes away from opening fire on the Chicago police, who would have been murdered alongside Fred Hampton had he shown up that night at Panther HQ, and effectively neutralized him. He is now an affable old politico, but not one to be trifled with. When Obama challenged Rush's Congressional seat in 2000, the current president-elect was trounced.

Many blacks in Chicago never saw Obama as "black" before he became a candidate for president. It was only when he ran against a white opponent that he became the "black" politician. In Obama's case, his "blackness" as perceived by black Chicagoans, was only skin deep. His base, and his world, consisted of mostly college-educated white people. This is partially why he was able to rise to U.S. Senator so quickly, and why he was such a success as a politician on a national scale. It is also the same reason why a former Black Panther will never become Senator or President, but is perfectly suited to represent an almost exclusively black urban congressional district.

The Black Panthers were an expression of rage from society's underclass about the painful inequities of America. And that fiery Panther rhetoric had its roots not only in the writings of Marx and Mao, but also in the traditions of Chicago politics, where the progressive movement was born. If it were not for Emma Goldman and the Anarchists, it is doubtful there would have been the Weathermen and the Black Panthers.

Back to the future

That radical past may seem quite distant to the gleam of Chicago 3.0, but the rough-and-tumble history defines the politics and landscape from which Obama emerged. So too is the city's tendency for political infamy always lurking in the background, tainting even the most noble attempts at reform.

Just ask the last Governor of Illinois to get indicted for corruption, Blagojevich's predecessor George Ryan, a man many view as a real reformer for his stance against the death penalty.

Ryan, a Republican, was the epitome of the old school machine politician, a good old boy in the Illinois network. A decade before he was Governor, Ryan served as Illinois' Secretary of State. During his tenure he approved some commercial drivers' licenses for ineligible candidates (mostly undocumented immigrants) in exchange for campaign contributions. Eventually that investigation led to a sweeping indictment that alleged that Ryan "awarded state contracts to friends; disbursed campaign funds to relatives and to pay personal expenses; and obstructed justice by attempting to end the state investigation of the 'license-for-bribes' scandal." He was charged with "lying to investigators and accepting cash, gifts and loans in return for his official actions as governor."

The zealotry with which Ryan was prosecuted baffled many, most notably because he wasn't really that corrupt by Illinois standards, and his prosecution came during the early years of the Bush administration when the Republican Party controlled all three branches of government, including the Department of Justice. The prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, was a Bush appointee. Ryan's defense was that the indictment was political retaliation for breaking ranks with the Republican party over the death penalty, which he did in 2000 when he put an official moratorium on the Illinois statute and eventually emptied death row after uncovering major flaws in most of the capital convictions. These flaws cast doubt on the guilt of many of those sentenced to die, many of whom claimed their guilty confessions and other evidence against them were extracted under torture by the Chicago police (another ongoing scandal).

The national impact of the Illinois moratorium cannot be understated: for the first time since the death penalty began to be reinstated in the 1970s its efficacy was being hauled out in front of the public and challenged from both sides of the political spectrum. For his efforts, despite being labeled a shameless opportunist by his detractors, Ryan was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. In keeping with Chicago's history, the noble is never far from the sordid.