Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Charles Dharapak/AP

A new book examines how Mayor Richard M. Daley transformed the city into a destination.

If cities are our laboratories of progress and democracy, and mayors are our most pragmatic and innovative leaders, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley is arguably one of the most important political leaders of our time.

(Cornell University Press)

In more than 22 years as mayor of Chicago, he oversaw and helped steward the city’s transformation from a city of urban and economic decline to a city of economic rebirth and ambition. A masterful politician and master city-builder, he ushered in a raft of iconic projects of which Millennium Park, Navy Pier, and the Museum Campus are just the most notable.

Costas Spirou and Dennis R. Judd’s new book, Building the City of Spectacle, takes a deep look into Daley’s role in building and rebuilding the city of Chicago. Spirou is a professor of sociology and public administration at Georgia College & State University and Judd is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Together, they fit Daley into the context of the city’s broader history and explain the economic and social forces that have shaped it.

Spirou and Judd spoke with CityLab about Mayor Daley, Chicago’s transformation, and the challenges and contradictions of contemporary urbanism.

First of all, tell us why you think Chicago represents a “City of Spectacle.” How is that concept etched into the city’s history and its DNA?

Spirou: Chicago is not only a City of Spectacle; as we state in the book, it is the founding City of Spectacle. Spectacle was baked into the city’s DNA more than a century ago, when it hosted the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The World’s Fair of 1893 is a singular event in the city’s history; to this day, much of Chicago’s identity and collective memory revolves around the Fair and its chief planner, architect Daniel Hudson Burnham. The dazzling centerpiece of the Fair, the White City, morphed into the Emerald City of L. Frank Baum and William Wallace Denslow’s children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (published just seven years after the closing of the Fair). Burnham promoted the idea with its cluster of classicist Beaux-Arts structures, fountains, and manicured grounds, as the model for what soon became known as the City Beautiful.

The idea that parks, open space, and beautification might serve as much-needed antidotes to the social disorder and chaos of the industrial city quickly attracted followers, and in the 1890s a movement devoted to the ideals of the City Beautiful swept the country. The philosophical premises and design features of the City Beautiful informed the 1909 Plan of Chicago and the plans adopted by many other cities in the coming decades.

Chicago’s status as a City of Spectacle was secured, once again, at the end of the century when Richard M. Daley began his several terms as the city’s mayor. In the first decade of Daley’s leadership, the development of Navy Pier and the Museum Campus brought renewed energy to Chicago’s lakefront, and within a few years the lakefront and its nearby areas had become a virtual playground, attracting tens of millions of visitors each year. Chicago’s image came to revolve around its status as a tourist city and cultural hotspot, and its economy became increasingly dependent upon tourism. In building the $7 billion infrastructure that made all of this possible, Daley was keenly aware that he was borrowing from the template established by Burnham, and he often invoked Burnham’s name on behalf of his projects.

You devote an entire chapter to the first Mayor Daley's efforts to address Chicago's urban crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. Tell us more about that.

Judd: When Richard J. Daley took office in April, 1956, he confronted structural problems that threatened to undermine Chicago’s economy and initiate an unstoppable process of physical and social decay. There was a gathering awareness among the city’s civic and business class that the exodus of people and jobs to the suburbs posed a serious threat to the city’s economic health.

By successfully building and maintaining the centralized political apparatus that made him America’s most powerful mayor, Daley became widely celebrated as a machine boss and was also recognized as a mayor who got things done during a period of economic adversity. His reputation as “Dick the Builder,” the mayor who oversaw massive infrastructure projects as well as major investments in the downtown, depended upon his ability to maintain political stability. Following his death in 1976, the city experience a lengthy period of political turmoil, which came to an end only when his son came to city hall in the late 1980s.

Together the two mayor Daleys led the city of Chicago for more than four decades. How did the father influence the son? Where were they alike and where were they most different?

Spirou: Probably the most clear and direct influence of the father on his son was his fierce devotion to Chicago and its well-being. The two Daleys displayed an unmistakable civic loyalty that brought them a great deal of political capital, credibility, and trust. Neither of them sought any higher office; for them, serving as Chicago’s mayor was their highest ambition and first love. It is hard to think of another political dynasty in urban America that exemplified such a degree of civic devotion and loyalty.

In the years before he became mayor, many people noticed a remarkable similarity in the political style and public persona of the father and son. Like his father, the younger Daley often struggled in public settings and in front of a microphone, and was prone to tangling his words, sometimes in a way that generated laughter. This stylistic similarity caused many political observers to underestimate the younger Daley or to lead them to think he was an unsophisticated political hack. By the time he was elected to the office of mayor in 1989, however, Richard M. Daley had refined his political persona, and he quickly received favorable press coverage.

The considerable difference between father and son probably can be traced more to political circumstances than to personality or outlook. Both were products of their time. Richard J. Daley ruled Chicago like an old-fashioned machine Boss, dispensing patronage and favors to keep the organization together. Long before the younger Richard M. Daley came to office the rules of the political game in Chicago had begun to change. It would not have been possible for Richard M. Daley to resurrect a disciplined party machine that much resembled his father’s. The younger Daley understood that the political landscape had changed, and his political style reflected that fact. He became skilled at using media to his advantage. He also adopted a highly inclusive strategy that reflected the ethnic and racial diversity of the city.

Millennium Park in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

You describe Richard M. Daley as a "master builder"—even a "power broker"—alluding to Robert Caro's famous characterization of Robert Moses in New York. We’ve all read about Moses’s arrogance and disdain for people, but I've always found Richard M. Daley to be a kind and engaging person. Where he was similar to Moses and other power brokers, and where he was different?

Judd: Moses and Daley were worlds apart in personality and in their social skills. By all accounts, Moses was disdainful and arrogant. Daley was, by sharp contrast, very engaging. Like some commentators before us, we came to regard a comparison to Moses as apt mainly because both of these men possessed the political skills necessary to mobilize enormous resources on behalf of an ambitious building program that altered the urban environment around them.

Of course there are countless differences between Moses the career bureaucrat and Daley the elected official. As mayor, Daley was obliged to answer to an electorate every four years, and his building program, as ambitious as it was, displaced very few people. Nevertheless, it is useful to bring Moses’s name into the conversation: it serves as a reminder that Daley, like Moses, managed to become Chicago’s master builder only because, at the same time, he became a power broker capable of getting things done.

These days we hear that "mayors should rule the world." What does Daley's run teach us about the possibilities of mayoral power and leadership?

Spirou: There is ample evidence to show that cities all over the world are great policy innovators: they have to be because the problems they deal with are so immediate and constantly changing, and often unanticipated and unforeseen. Richard M. Daley shows just how much a creative urban leader can get done even when the political environmental or economic circumstance does not seem to be promising. When Daley came to office, Chicago was still mired in a protracted period of turmoil. Racial tensions were high, and few people expected that the situation could be quickly changed. Daley demonstrated that nothing is fixed; a skilled political leader can (and often must) change the calculus about what is possible. At the same time, leaders must be careful how they employ power. As Daley grew more comfortable in his mayoral role, he became authoritative.

The Chicago downtown skyline provides a backdrop for the Skyline Stage and Ferris Wheel at the Navy Pier. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Mayor Daley has been out of office for five years now, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has had significant challenges. How do you view how things have gone after Mayor Daley?

Judd: Rahm Emanuel has been successful in continuing Chicago’s upward trajectory as a leading tourist city. He has completed the conversion of Northerly Island into a nature preserve; expanded the Riverwalk park and promenade along the Chicago River; completed the Maggie Daley Park. A major entertainment district is taking shape in the area adjacent to McCormick Place, Motor Row, and Prairie Avenue. All of these projects were in the works or in the late planning stage when Daley left office. The completion and elaboration of Daley’s tourist strategy has given Emanuel much to brag about.

The one major disappointment came in 2015, when plans for a Star Wars Museum on the lakefront ran into determined public opposition. On the other hand, Emanuel has had to deal with the unfortunate legacy of Daley’s budgetary problems. Chicago’s chronic fiscal crisis is an issue that continues to adversely affect Daley’s post-mayoral public image, and constitutes one of Emanuel’s most pressing problems. Chicago’s incredible level of violence is another unresolved problem that Emanuel inherited. It seems to be utterly intractable, in part because it is a product of a racially divided city. Daley’s policies helped Chicago to become a global city with a strong economy, but as many people maintain this did nothing to reduce the city’s great social and racial divide.

These divides, if anything, seem to be worsening and the city is turning into two separate cities, one for the rich and one for the poor and less advantaged.

Spirou: In many ways, Richard M. Daley was a product of his times. Although he took many measures to improve and beautify neighborhoods, and to fund social programs, his first priority seemed to be for the remaking of the lakefront and the downtown and the goal of making Chicago into a global city. During his tenure Daley struggled with numerous issues including education, police accountability, corruption, public housing and fiscal responsibility. Rahm Emanuel governs in a different time. He will have to find a way to reduce violence, and to do so he will need to pay close attention to the great divide in Chicago. If he fails at this, he will not be regarded as a successful mayor. So far, he can claim few successes.

What are the big lessons we should take away from Daley's efforts and Chicago's broader efforts to become a "City of Spectacle?" What are the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and dangers of this approach?

Judd: Many scholars, policymakers, and informed members of the public proposed that the tourist strategy for urban revitalization is wrong-headed because it does not address the social ills of the city. We believe the critics are correct, for the most part, but that their target is off. It is absolutely necessary to build an economic base, and much of this depends upon ensuring that Chicago remains as a center of culture and spectacle, which requires a high level of urban amenities. Do policies aimed to this goal undermine social justice? Not likely—or at least not directly. To achieve that goal, policies designed to improve access to a quality education are required. Housing opportunities must be provided to people in need. Social services need to be strengthened. These, and more, are needed, and they can be pursued at the same time that policies to promote a livable city are pursued.

The idea that policies aimed at promoting growth and a high quality of urban life come at the cost of social aims is too simplistic. Equally false is the notion that policies to promote growth and a high quality of urban life are effective remedies for social problems. Urban failure benefits no one, but we must revise our definition of urban success to embrace both growth and social justice. The urban experience would be incredibly grim if it were to be defined solely by the things that people do when they are not engaged in work and the preoccupations of everyday life. In our view, what the critics of tourism, recreation, and urbane culture fail to offer is a positive vision that defines urban life expansively—one that embraces both “bread,” which is to say prosperity, and “circuses,” which offer spectacle, play, and a sense of shared experience in the urban community. A great city must offer both.

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