One of the nation’s great cities has been challenged in recent years by everything from a tragic murder rate to police abuse to pension shortfalls. As Chicago’s first black female mayor takes office, could the Windy City finally solve its toughest problems?Houston is Becoming the Cultural Capital of the South
On November 7, 2016, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was standing next to a patch of dirt in the city’s glitzy River North neighborhood, a towering construction crane behind him. Emanuel was celebrating a new milestone for his administration: A record-setting 33 tower cranes dotted the skyline in a testament to the city’s economic prowess and global stature. The mayor was ringing in the good news at the construction site of One Bennett Park, an 836-foot tower that is
But the news
Two and a half years later, Emanuel is wrapping up his second term, ending a tenure widely considered a boon to downtown but less helpful for many of the city’s struggling neighborhoods. Succeeding Emanuel is Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor and corporate lawyer who will become the first black female, and openly gay,
Lightfoot is taking over at a critical time. Emanuel helped the city recover from the recession, took politically painful steps to help steady the city’s finances and boosted its global status. But he left the heavy lifting on some of Chicago’s other problems—violence and crime, police abuses and racial and financial segregation chief among them—to his successor. Despite Chicago’s ever-growing importance as a center of global business and finance, the issues have been a drag on Chicago’s reputation for years—and have exacted a terrible human toll.
I think the new mayor will make progress in these areas. There’s no choice; she has to.
Lightfoot appears poised to tackle these long-standing problems. “I think the new mayor will make progress in these areas,” Dick Simpson, former alderman and current political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says. “There’s no choice; she has to.”
Emanuel took over as mayor in 2011 in the most Chicago way possible. After 22 years in office, mayor Richard M. Daley announced he wouldn’t seek a seventh term. Daley’s unexpected decision left a power vacuum in a city
Eight years later, Chicago’s economy is resurgent under Emanuel. Mirroring nationwide trends, the unemployment rate is at a record low of 4.4 percent. There are now more jobs per capita than there have been in 50 years. The city set new records for construction cranes in both 2016 and 2017, filling out its already magnificent skyline with a new wave of modernist skyscrapers. Led by companies like McDonald’s and Motorola, Chicago has seen more corporations move their headquarters there than any other American city for six years.
Mayor Emanuel deserves a lot of credit for his efforts to stabilize the city’s financial situation.
Emanuel’s love of the arts and humanities—he danced ballet while in college at Sarah Lawrence—helped boost the city’s appeal. Following the creation of events such as the Chicago Architecture Biennial and Chicago Ideas Week, the city set records for tourism in 2017 and then again in 2018, when 58 million visitors came to Chicago. The bustling downtown and
But that success hasn’t extended to every corner of the city. In 2016, Chicago’s murder rate was at a 20-year high. Since then, gun violence has trended downward, but Chicago still routinely has more murders than New York and Los Angeles combined. “The city has prospered under Mayor Emanuel,” the Civic Federation’s
The violence, police abuses and lack of economic investment have caused untold suffering in the city’s lower-income areas, where deep-seated pain and anger reverberate through communities, fueling future cycles of violence. Chicago is the only one of the country’s five largest cities to see a population decrease in 2017, the third year in a row of population losses, according to the New York Times. And in a
Bill Daley, who took Emanuel’s old job as Obama’s chief of staff, tried to succeed Emanuel again, this time as mayor. Upon entering the race in late 2018, Daley shot to the top of the polls. The business community fell in line, giving Daley by far the biggest campaign war chest in the 14-way race.
But Chicagoans didn’t want to maintain the status quo, and Daley won only 8 out of
The Lightfoot framing won out.
“The Lightfoot framing won out,” says Simpson. Voters handed Lightfoot a landslide victory: She won each of the city’s 50 wards. Now, residents and political observers are watching to see if her outsider status will really help in solving the city’s problems—or if she’ll be overwhelmed by Chicago’s powerful entrenched interests and Machiavellian political
Her background should help. Drawing on her experience as both a former federal prosecutor and the head of the police board, Lightfoot ran as a tough-on-crime candidate who is also highly qualified to reform the police department. Lightfoot played a role in drafting the federal consent decree—approved by a federal judge in January—that seeks to reform the department. And her police board fired more problem officers on average than previous boards, according to the Chicago Tribune.
It’s a balancing act. Lightfoot’s status as a former prosecutor and her support from police officers and for initiatives like a new police training academy gives her credibility with cops—but it also has some progressives skeptical of her reform bona
On the problem of gun violence, Lightfoot has called for a holistic approach that might also
Chicago’s financial problems will be one of her most pressing challenges. The city must earmark an additional $1.2 billion for its pension systems within the next four years, and no one seems to know exactly where that money will come from. Lightfoot has been vague about her plans for the city’s financial crisis, but she has come out
The new mayor’s first chance to test her political capital came in late May, when the Emanuel administration attempted to ram through approval of two proposed mega-developments before his term ends. The massive projects, one
Lightfoot asked Emanuel and the city council to pump the brakes, saying that hastily approving the projects ran afoul of her electoral mandate. When Emanuel refused, Lightfoot salvaged what she could, going to the developers and successfully pressing them to increase their minority- and women-owned business contracts, an agreement she announced on April 9. With protesters blocking LaSalle Street outside city hall, the council approved the $2.4 billion subsidy on April 10. “Enjoy this moment in the sun,” Lightfoot told developers after the vote. “You
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