24 November 2010

How to Fix Chicago in Seven Not-So-Easy Steps

Two months ago, I was in London. On the first day of my trip, I decide to check the news from home, not expecting anything exciting to have happened. That's when the bombshell hits...Richard M. Daley has announced he won't run for reelection in 2011. I've been meaning to write a post about it ever since, but only this week have we gotten confirmation on who the possible ascendants to the throne will be (barring the outcome of signature challenges and Rahm's residency status). I was never a fan of Daley's leadership style, but at least he's the devil we know. Of the twenty candidates, none have so far been very revealing as to their stand on any of the issues, or their plans once in office. Rahm Emmanuel is in favor of bringing jobs to the city, and as somebody who is looking for one, I reckon that's a good thing. Has there ever been a politician who took an anti-job stance? Never mind that of everybody who has ever run on the job platform, FDR is maybe the only who every personally delivered. Rahm doesn't strike me as much of a neo-New Dealer, but who knows? Maybe we'll see a Chicago WPA under his watch.

Emmanuel is the early favorite in the race, as he's got the most money and name recognition, and a shiny, happy teevee ad that's been running for a couple weeks. I suspect he would be a capable mayor, though I also suspect that if he were to get himself elected once, we'd likely be stuck with him for several terms. As for the others, I can only go by what I know of them already. A few are crossed out on my list from the start--Meeks, de Jesus & Davis, no thanks. Miguel del Valle has a decent reform record at the City Clerk's office, but so far his campaign has been vague about policy stands. Carol Moseley Braun is the sole exception, she's actually got an "issues" page on her website. She's got good credentials when it comes to sustainability, and she's in favor of doubling the mode share of cycling & transit, for instance, although without saying how she would go about it. Doubling cycling would still put Chicago at only about 4% (somebody correct me if I'm wrong), but doubling transit usage is kind of a big deal. The city already has around a 25% mode share for public transit (already high for the US), and the trains and buses are usually packed. Doubling ridership would require doubling trips and expanding the CTA's budget. Again, no details.

Without further ado, I present to you my list of Things Which Ought to Happen. I'm not full of myself or overestimating my influence, I'm just an unemployed guy with a blog, and I know what my traffic is like. But if I can inspire the debate between even just a couple of likely voters then I will have done what I set out to.

1. Fix the Schools

Okay, easier said than done, since school funding discrepancies are a national problem. But this has to be a top priority, or else any short-term gains will be for nought. I don't have specifics in this arena, as I am not an education expert. But there are plenty of people who are, and they should be consulted. Which leads me to...

2. Hire Department Heads With Relevant Experience

I'm sure Ron Huberman is a decent guy, but where in his CV would it indicate he is qualified to run the nation's third-largest school system? Likewise, CDOT has gone through six commissioners in the past five years. One of Daley's most annoying habits has been his continuation of the old Chicago tradition of appointing political operatives to top positions, rather than promoting talented people from within the departments or recruiting elite candidates from other large cities. The least we should ask is that people who know what they are doing are in charge.

3. TIF Reform

TIFs aren't by nature a bad thing. They've done a comparatively good job of managing them in Denver, for example. But this being Illinois, having a pile of money off the books is never a good idea. TIFs could be very useful for the city, but there needs to be real oversight and transparency.

4. Term Limits

For mayor and aldermen, three four-year terms and you're out. Get rid of the office of ward committeeman as well, no other big city has such a position and we don't need them.

5. Finish Rolling Out the Blue Carts

It's shameful that a city with a mayor who is constantly trumpeting how "green" it is can't do something as simple as pick up recycling. In my corner of the 26th ward, we are still without blue carts, and at this rate we may never see them. Even San Diego does a far better job, and it's been run by conservative Republicans for most of the last century.

6. New Streetlights

This may seem like an odd addition to the list, but there are just too many of them. The city is wasting millions of dollars each year in lost energy costs, not to mention the attendant problems light pollution and carbon emissions from burning coal. Back in the early 70s, Richard J. Daley made a big to-do about doubling the number of streetlights to "take back the night" or whatever. Nowadays, if you fly into Chicago after dark, you can easily see the city limits from above. The surrounding suburbs have far fewer lights and look black by comparison. Today, there are streetlight designs which are more effective at directing light down toward the street where it is needed and not off to the sides or out into space. Simply switching to more efficient bulbs would save at least $5 million a year, not to mention tons of CO2.

7. Curate a Bold Vision of the City's Future

I shouldn't even have to say this. I will not repeat the Daniel Burnham quote, but it's as true now as ever. It may have been easier to dream big in his day, when most of what we now know as Chicago was still prairie, but if the civic leadership really wants to compete with New York, London, etc, we need to stop thinking with a Rust Belt mindset. The first Mayor Daley understood this, and Napoleonic though he may have been, it's a good personality trait when it comes to getting things done. Chicago's future depends on the next generation of leaders at City Hall recognizing that all things are connected. Schools, health care, infrastructure, culture, housing...Chicago will never realize it's true global potential if it is lacking in any of these areas.

Oh, and if you can give me a job that would be super.

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