Home field disadvantage: Chicago Olympics opponents dropped the ball
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.