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Oct. 3 2009 - 1:17 am | 29 views | 1 recommendation | 20 comments

Home field disadvantage: Chicago Olympics opponents dropped the ball

Chicago 2016 Olympic City

Image by swanksalot via Flickr

Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics was a neighborhood revitalization program disguised as a major sporting event. It was so cleverly disguised that it almost diverted billions in private and corporate funding to devastated African-American neighborhoods where billions in private and corporate funding would otherwise never go.

But it was so well disguised that thousands of Chicagoans forgot that’s what it was for. And so it incurred  opposition from well-meaning people who should have supported it.

From the beginning, Mayor Daley steered the Olympics to the South Side. The centerpiece Olympic Stadium,  Aquatics Center, and other facilities were concentrated in Washington Park, which borders the East Englewood neighborhood. East Englewood has vast tracts of vacant land memorializing the neighborhood’s collapse. Landlords burned many of their own buildings when property values dropped, and other buildings fell to a city policy of bulldozing vacant structures.

The FBI recently named a stretch of Englewood the second most dangerous neighborhood in the U.S. I ride my bike through Englewood and Washington Park on the way to work, and occasionally I pause to pick up a shell casing.

It’s no accident Daley sited the Olympics in that place. Chicago has enjoyed a sustained renaissance since the 1980s, but Englewood has been one of the holdouts. After half a century of decline, Englewood had just begun to see stirrings of life early this decade, but then the real estate market collapsed.

It is a good candidate for a bold infusion of transformative cash.

In a post criticizing President Obama’s trip to lobby for Chicago’s bid, True/Slant’s Michael Roston wrote, “Chicago is not some failing city that’s in need of a renaissance that Olympic-related construction and planning would bring on.”

And Michael Roston is a New Yorker, so he can be forgiven for thinking of Chicago as the gleaming metropolis of the tourist brochures. But the natives should have known better.

Opposition to the Olympics fomented within a certain class–mostly North Siders, mostly white, but also mostly liberal, who would never conciously harm their African American neighbors to the south.

I fenced with a good many of them over the Olympics bid, and over and over again they brought up parking, which has nothing to do with the Olympics.

If you haven’t been treated to this roiling controversy, here’s the quick take: Mayor Daley sold the city’s parking meters for $1 billion, and parking instantly became much more expensive and difficult. As a bicyclist and environmentalist, I think it’s hilarious. But the move generated obscene volumes of road rage as frustrated motorists, mostly on the North Side where parking meters are common, tried to park their cars.

They turned that road rage against the Olympics.

And that class has its media. From the stodgy old Chicago Tribune to the spiffy new windycitizen.com, the Olympics were on the outs. (There was a fair sampling on True/Slant as well: Laura Heller, Lou Carlozo, Patrick Somerville all posted paragons of the genre–fearful prognostications about parking and graft).

An innovative form of journalism emerged. Graft was uncovered, malfeasance exposed, cost overruns detected and deplored. That in itself was not new–not in Chicago–no, the innovation came in the order of events. Graft, malfeasance, and cost overruns were reported before graft, malfeasance or cost had an opportunity to occur.

Preemptive journalism, I think we might call it. It reminds me a little of the preemptive foreign policy of the neo-conservatives. Their innovation was to attack evil countries before they become a threat. Preemptive journalism attacked the Olympics before anything could possibly go wrong. Or right.

Preemption has a way of making the ultimate outcome not matter. No weapons of mass destruction? Oh well. And if the Olympics would have been good for Chicago? Oh well.

In readers, preemptive journalism engendered a kind of anti-Olympian political correctness. It became correct in Chicago to be against the Olympics. You could give someone a little shock, and I often did, by saying you were for them. In the popular fog, to be for the Olympics was to somehow be in favor of the graft that had not had a chance to occur, to be in favor of nefarious Mayor Daley and his cronies, to be in favor of the mighty corporations, and worst of all, to be in favor of difficult and expensive parking.

These people had forgotten, of course, what the Olympics were for: to revitalize ailing neighborhoods on the South Side.

And if I reminded them, they reached for a preemptive answer, for this was a well rationalized group: gentrification.

Not only would there be graft, malfeasance, and cost overruns, there would be gentrification. There is something patronizing about even well-meaning beneficiaries of privilege lamenting gentrification on behalf of people who live in one of the nation’s most dangerous neighborhoods. We don’t want to gentrify you, so we’re going to let you continue dodging bullets.

But there are also reasons to suspect gentrification would not occur, at least not as predicted.

The neighborhood has a stable long-term ownership, a byproduct of decades of neglect by real estate pros. The city owns most of the rest. The Olympics would require lots of new housing, which would be vacant after the Closing Ceremonies. Vacant housing pushes rents down, not up, as other Olympic cities have seen.

And certain guardians of the neighborhood, including Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama, held powerful sway in the Olympic hierarchy.

“We have to ensure not only the safety of the visitor children,” said Jackson, “but also the safety of the home children.”

Obama’s support for the Olympics resonates from his work as a community organizer on the South Side:

“Organizing begins with the premise that the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions,” he wrote in 1990, “but from a lack of power to implement these solutions.”

The Olympics would have harnessed power and money under the guise of a sporting event, a tourist attraction, and brought it to bear on problems as serious as life and death.

Many Chicagoans missed that boat. Or they opted not to board because of another concern: taxes. Olympics always cost too much, they insisted, and we’ll have to pay for it, and our taxes will go up.

And sure, that may have happened. But just a few blocks from Washington Park is the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was obscenely expensive, with both private and public funding. A smallpox epidemic started at the fair and spread through the city. There was a mayoral assassination, a serial killer on the loose, a huge fire that destroyed the site.

No one seems to remember the bad stuff anymore, except when melodramatic novels remind us. People remember the fair as a triumph, Chicago brushing the ashes of the Great Fire off of its big shoulders and showing the world what it could do.

Those costs don’t burden us today, but we still enjoy the benefits of the fair’s influence: The Field Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute of Chicago, Jackson Park, the Midway, the University of Chicago…

Some of us hoped the Olympics might have similar long-term benefits. As it turns out, there will be no graft, no malfeasance, no cost overruns, no tax hikes, no gentrification, but also no change. And the next time those Olympic opponents read about a shooting in Englewood they’ll shake their heads, say “tsk tsk”, and just like they always have, they’ll blame the mayor.


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  1. collapse expand

    Well said Jeff, I’m a New Yorker and have no real stake in this but I was quite shocked to find the level of selfishness in those who objected to the Olympics coming to Chicago. Also one couldn’t help notice the similarity in those who objected to Olympics to those who object to health care reform. The merits of the project were secondary to their dislike of the parties involved. And frankly I find something a tad disgusting about white college educated journalist objecting to gentrification, as if poor neighborhoods should be kept as some sort of Disneyland that they can drive through and cluck “something must be done”.

  2. collapse expand

    Not a cosmopolitan New Yorker. Grew up in West Rogers Park, the neighborhood formerly known as Westridge, just off where the Devon Avenue South Asian thoroughfare meets Western Ave. My Dad still lives in Peterson Park. Have lived in a Chicago-like neighborhood in New York for 3 years, although maybe not much longer.

    Chicago certainly has its problems; what city doesn’t? But the proliferation of bike lanes, the explosion of residential real estate in places where people never lived before, the downtown-transforming effect of Millennium Park which came as a shock to so many of us how nice it was, the proliferation of better schools even if they do mostly serve white and Asian kids. The city is a nicer place than it was 15 years ago when I was in high school at Whitney Young, Michelle Obama’s alma mater. You can point to crime in the city being bad, but I remember a classmate at my academically high flying school getting beat to death in a park when I was a kid, too. Crime happens, tragic as its consequences are.

    In any event, I wasn’t opposed to the Olympics heading to Chicago; no longer being a resident of my home city, I wouldn’t have a dog in the fight. However, I was opposed to our President being involved in the Olympics bid for the reasons I described. In arguing that the city doesn’t need to be transformed, I was trying to say there isn’t a need for our POTUS to get involved in the Olympics bid as he might for say Detroit or New Orleans, city’s that do need to be rebuilt.

    • collapse expand

      I understand your argument, Michael, and I certainly agree with you that Chicago is a better place than it was 15 years ago and a much better place than it was 20 and 30 years ago. It’s true that some of Chicago does not need renovation, but I hope readers to realize that parts of it still linger in ruins from what Richard Wright, who lived near Washington Park, called “a war that never ends.” And the Olympics were aimed at renovating a couple of those parts, specifically.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    THANK YOU JEFF for writing this article.
    I was in the middle of writing a reader comment to send to both Chicago newspapers when I came across your writing. You are right on the money.
    As an example of cynicims that prevailed in the end I give you a quote from Charles Lane op ed in Washington Post:
    “The bid for a Chicago Olympics was to put a large American city, and probably the state and federal governments as well, deeply into hock constructing velodromes and the like, in return for the thrill of watching a bunch of steroid consumers try to break ephemeral world records in obscure sports.”
    What a sad state of mind. How many kids who live in the neighborhoods mentioned in your article and the rest of Chicago would be exposed to the wonderful spirit of Olympic competition and sports? What would it do for the kids on the South Side to get inspired and get new role models?

    • collapse expand

      Agreed Edge. We haven’t talked enough about what this would have meant to children in Chicago in both the short term, from the spectacle of peaceful international achievement, and in the long term. Englewood is known as a place where children get shot, sometimes by accident, sometimes not. Conventional methods haven’t changed that. Maybe the Olympics would have had an effect.

      And may I just add, Edge, that I love your guitar work.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Hi there. Interesting write up, but I think you miss the mark. As another resident of the south side who is also a CPS employee, here is my perspective on why the Olympics would have done more harm than good, especially to the south and west (the latter of which you neglect to address) sides:

    It seems like your entire argument rests on a false dilemma. One either helps these neighborhoods by infusing millions of dollars into the area, or one allows them to remain blighted. The problem is that while, yes, people are quick to yell out ‘gentrification’ when caught in the throes of some very beneficial economic development (such as the east edge of Pilsen), the extent to which the south and west sides of the city would have been affected by said investments would have results in thousands being displaced and their parks rendered unusable. Property values and tax hikes would have rendered these areas unaffordable for the people who currently resided in them, and would push them further west and south into areas like Lawndale and Roseland. Those who remain would see their parks–most notable Douglas and Washington–torn up in the throes of Olympian construction projects and increased security presence.

    All in all, and in the same vein as the thus-far poorly executed Plan for Transformation which is resulting in the relocation of hundreds of families to the worst areas of the city, the plan for the 2016 may have improved the neighborhoods, but at the cost of the people who currently live there.

    But to address the claim that those of us who didn’t support the Olympics “missed the boat,” the fact is that it was not just a concern for higher taxes that had 45% percent of the city’s residents fighting against the Olympics. It was a city deficit that is going to hit $500mil by the end of the year regardless of 2016’s presence (the school system alone has a $475mil deficit, independent of the cities coffers). It was an already suspect level of insider dealing that had people such as Michael Scott, a developer who consulted one of the firms that was hoping to develop the area around Douglas Park (where the Velodrome was going to be built), on the 2016 board. It was the fact that Daley loves to spend money he doesn’t have in order to remain politically shiny, at the cost of city services and programs.

    In the end, it was a poorly executed plan that failed in a way that only Chicago knows how to fail. And it was a plan that would have not brought about such rosy images as you paint here.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for your informed perspective, Chicagoan, but you’re engaging in some of that preemptive crystal balling. While property values tend to rise at the time an Olympic venue is confirmed, they tend to drop again after the games. Likewise, vacant housing would be created, which tends to lower rents, not raise them. The tax hike is a phantom. The Republicans have everyone well trained to fear phantom tax hikes. And the parks would hardly have been unusable. They’d be both more usable and more used. I don’t specifically mention the West Side facilities because they, too, are south of Roosevelt Road and thus, on the South Side. I don’t want people to think we’re talking about Garfield Park. And the reasons you give for your opposition: graft, cost overruns, etc. are the very ones I address above.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand


    I absolutely agree, the south side loses out again. But it doesn’t have to be that way and I don’t think we need an Olympics to make it happen. My opinion, opposition and distrust of Mayor Daley et al, is pretty well rooted in how mismanaged city resources are.

    The city already owns the property where the Olympic village was to be built. There is more than $500 million allocated to the Olympics and more than that in the Mayor’s TIF fund. Developing blighted areas is exactly what TIF’s are for. Instead, the mayor and alderman have used money taken away from schools and parks, and given it to campaign donors in the form of subsidies. TIF money would be well spent in the neighborhoods you mention. Instead, it’s given to the Board of Trade, the Willis (Sears) Tower or of all things, a car dealer (Grossinger) to build among the highest priced, market rate commercial property in country (the Clybourn Corridor).

    And the parking thing? It’s being used as example of the kind of backroom dealing that makes us so distrustful of city officials. Not about a lack of parking. It’s just one example of secretive maneuvers made by a mayor who does things in the dark of night. It’s easier to understand than TIFs, and effects more people on a daily basis, but it’s not really about parking a car. I suspect you know that.

    If only we can start some kind of discourse on how to change the way the city works.

    • collapse expand

      Laura, it’s kind of you to offer Uptown’s TIF funds to Englewood, but Englewood can’t take them.

      The mayor doesn’t really have a TIF fund, he has a whole bunch of TIF accounts. TIF funds have to be spent in the district in which they’re collected. And before they can be collected, the district has to begin growing.

      There is a Washington Park TIF District, and the funds are targeted to redevelop the land where the Robert Taylor Homes (notorious housing project) once stood and to fill in those vacant lots I mention above. That TIF was bringing in $1-$2 million a year with an Olympics on the horizon. Not only is that paltry compared to the Olympic billions, but it’s likely to dry up now.

      I have a hunch that motorists want to slow down and talk about the parking issue for the same reason Republicans want to slow down and talk about the climate bill — so they can buy time to kill it. The parking deal was not exactly made at midnight. I remember when the original hearings were held and stories were published. Most people just didn’t wake up to it until it was done. Maybe retroactive journalism is the cause of preemptive journalism.

      And the bottom line on that issue: drivers are a much bigger problem than parking.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        The parking deal was talked about for a good while, yes. The DETAILS were not given out to the City Council until days before they were required to vote, the plan on “public display” in the private offices of the firm that brokered the deal, and much of that not released to the public or press until after the council had approved it.
        By some accounts the only known person to have read the entire document is Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader.

        As for TIFs, I once again refer to the Reader. Ben Jarovsky is a local treasure and expert in the area. Writes Jarovsky:

        “By law TIF money is to be spent in the districts where it’s collected. In fact one of the big selling points for program, articulated by aldermen down through the years, is that TIFs keep tax dollars in local communities.

        “But a loophole in the state law allows the city to spend TIF money collected from one district in any adjoining TIF district—this is called porting. To raise the money for the schools, city and school officials worked out a scheme in which money was ported from one TIF district to another district. For example, the school board’s building a new South Shore High School located in the 71st and Stony Island TIF. But that TIF doesn’t generate enough money to pay off all the bonds on the $89 million project. So the city’s moving money into the Stony Island TIF from adjoining TIFs, including the Avalon Park district.”

        You’re welcome to Uptown’s TIF funds. They’re being used to build parking garages, 100% subsidized high-rises and a fish farm that would employ two people. And a non-union Target store.

        Please read more about TIFs and see how the South side can get in on the action.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    For Chicagoan,

    I think Jeff has pointed out that Englewood has a long term ownership which can only mean that the owners who are now residing in the area in their single family homes would see the value of their properties rise, instead of being undesirable real estate. If nothing else, homeowners would profit from this.
    As far as people being displaced further into Roseland and Lawndale, these are not the only South Side neighborhoods that could be alternative for those who would leave. They are the more problematic ones you hear on TV about and that’s why they are used to say that it would only shift the population from one bad neighborhood to another.
    Jeff, thanks for pointing out the perception that money just can be diverted from one account to another and the 11:55 reaction and outrage over the parking deal. The story was out there and I even posted in on my FB wall :) , but very few people paid attention to it.

  7. collapse expand

    Has the Olympics itself become some kind of millstone that gets hung around a select city’s neck, volunteer or not? I happened to be in the NYC office of a friend of mine who had lived in Brazil for three years when we heard the announcement that Rio got the 2016 Games, and he shook his head in amazement. He looked at me and said, “Three words: Total. Security. Nightmare.”

  8. collapse expand

    Maybe, Scott, but this city knows how to throw a party. There have been a couple of examples in recent years–2008 election night and the 2005 World Series–millions of people celebrating together without a single incident. And there is a history of longer events and massive public projects.

    The Olympics would have been a challenge, for sure, but the biggest millstone would have been the divided tribe. When we’re divided, we might get something more in the direction of the 1968 Democratic Convention. But when everyone shoves in the same direction, Chicago can lift.

  9. collapse expand

    Thank you for your comments. I have only one question, which should be a really easy one for a big, strong pundit like you:

    If Mayor Daley has such tender concern about Englewood and black people in Chicago, as you seem to suggest, why has he spent his entire career ignoring them? Couldn’t he have invested years ago, in more direct ways than the Olympics, instead of letting Englewood fester like a cesspool?

    Oops, that’s two questions. I can’t even count!

    • collapse expand

      Thank you for your questions, Peter.

      It’s beyond exaggeration to say that Mayor Daley has “spent his entire career ignoring” South Side neighborhoods. Chicago’s renaissance swept north before it came south. Your North Side neighborhood was not always so gilded. It enjoyed revitalization many years ago. In recent years, the South Loop has improved, Douglas has improved, Bronzeville has improved, Kenwood has improved–certainly not to the posh standards of Lincoln Park, but there’s a lot of economic history to be overcome on the South Side, and a lot less economic currency to work with.

      In a long-term urban revival, which revives first, a street surrounded by stores and apartments (like North Clark Street) or a street surrounded by vacant lots from insurance fires (like South Prairie)?

      Which has money flowing through it?

      The city built a new Kennedy-King College further west in Englewood as part of the effort to revitalize the area. Washington Park and East Englewood were beginning to show signs of growth when the economy collapsed and the growth froze. Some buildings that had been boarded up were renovated, a few new buildings went up, and more were planned: The city sold lots near Washington Park to non-profit developers for new low-income housing. But the wave of revitalization that swept across Chicago petered out, pardon the pun, at Washington Park, where the Olympics might have kept it going.

      Political leaders always could have and should have done more. But it’s a convenient fallacy to blame a political leader for every long-term problem he hasn’t solved. What if someone said, “The Clintons spent their career ignoring America’s health.” That statement, parallel to yours, would be especially cynical coming from someone who opposed health care reform under Bill Clinton. And likewise, blaming Daley for not solving problems when you’ve just campaigned against their solution strikes me as cynical. (But thanks for nicely embodying my last paragraph above).

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    Environmental reporting recruited me 25 years ago—on my first day as a reporter for my college newspaper, when I discovered my college was discarding radioactive waste in the regular city trash. Since then I've written hard news for dailies, including the Arizona Republic, and slanty news for alternative weeklies, including Newcity. I've written a column for New Times, stories on the Web for Forecast Earth, essays for PEN International and other magazines. I lived in an idyllic California village nestled among volcanoes and vineyards until my batteries were full of sunshine, and then I returned to my origins on the South Side of Chicago, where hope persists with no illusions about the struggle ahead. I cross the asphalt jungle by bicycle and el, mostly to get to the University of Chicago, where I teach journalism. But what matters more than any of this is a lifelong love for the natural world. We are all born with it, I believe, but some turn away.

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