Rahm Emanuel Has Not Been Good for Chicago

The hassles and dangers of living in the new global city.


Close, but no cigar: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks to the press after leaving a restaurant where he had lunch with Illinois officials on Election Day, Feb. 24, 2015, in Chicago.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

If Rahm Emanuel defeats Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to win re-election as mayor of Chicago on Tuesday, it won’t be because he’s made the city a better place to live. He hasn’t. Sure, he lengthened the school day, spent $425 million to speed up the “L” trains, balanced four budgets, started a bike share program, and satisfied the courts that the days of “who’s your clout?” political hiring are over at City Hall.

Based on those bureaucratic metrics, Emanuel’s mayoralty may look like a success. And that may be the case if you spend most of your time in City Hall, or even downtown. But most Chicagoans never visit City Hall, and they don’t live downtown. They spend their days in Auburn Gresham, Norwood Park, Hegewisch, or Avondale—the self-contained neighborhoods that make Chicago feel more like a confederation of 50 wards than a single city. And in most of those places, life has become more of a hassle. The libraries are open only half a day on Mondays. (And that’s a compromise after the mayor initially closed them all day.) Speed cameras spit out $35 tickets for going 36 miles an hour in a 30 zone. In the poor neighborhoods where Emanuel closed 50 schools, the children walk farther every morning and afternoon, often crossing gang boundary lines. Water rates have nearly doubled.

These may sound like petty aggravations, but they eventually add up to the question Do I really want to keep putting up with this? Between July 2013 and July 2014, Illinois lost 10,000 residents, in its first population drop since the 1980s—an indication that the state and presumably the city have become less livable.

Leslie Hairston, one of the few aldermen to vote against the speed cameras, complained they were a revenue grab that would drive the middle class out of the city. “I guess this is just going to be a city for wealthy people, that’s where we’re headed,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Hairston was half-right. Chicago has become a city for wealthy people and a city for poor people—people who can afford traffic tickets and people who can’t afford cars, with fewer and fewer left in between.

As Richard C. Longworth points out in his book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, Chicago has developed an hourglass social structure, divided between global citizens—“hardworking, well educated, well paid, well traveled”—and global servants, who park their cars, bus their tables, and walk their dogs.

Daniel Kay Hertz, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, put together an extraordinary set of maps illustrating the collapse of the city’s middle class, from 1970, when steel mills and the stockyards still provided well-paying blue-collar jobs, to post-Great Recession 2012. Wealth has become concentrated in a strip along the lakefront, while poverty has spread through the outer neighborhoods.

Emanuel did not create this divided city, but his mayoralty is a product of it, and he has an interest in perpetuating it, because the global citizens vote for him and fund his campaigns. The most extraordinary finding of the 2010 census was that the fastest-growing neighborhood in Chicago was the Loop, which has a median household income of $93,745. In the first round of the election, on Feb. 24, Emanuel made his best showing there, winning 73.2 percent of the vote in the Loop-based 42nd Ward. Billionaire hedge fund manager and 42nd Ward resident Ken Griffin, the richest man in Illinois, has donated $750,000 to Emanuel during the runoff. As a graduate of an elite suburban high school who made his career in Washington, D.C., then settled in the city to enjoy its cultural amenities, Emanuel embodies Global Chicago.

The central theme of Garcia’s campaign is that Emanuel has neglected the neighborhoods while building his global city on the lakefront. Nearly two years after the city debuted its Divvy bike-sharing program, it still hasn’t reached most of the South Side. Emanuel offered parkland to filmmaker George Lucas for a museum that Garcia calls “a monument to Darth Vader.” Garcia has also criticized Emanuel for spending tens of millions in public funds on a basketball arena for DePaul University “when the city is suffering from closed schools and the violence that goes unabated.”

After leading the nation in murders every full year of Emanuel’s mayoralty, Chicago has become more renowned for gangsterism than at any time since St. Valentine’s Day 1929. In the bloody year of 2012, when the death toll hit 505, Chicago picked up a mordant nickname: “Chiraq, Drillinois,” after both the war zone violence and the music it inspired. Drill, a dark, hardcore iteration of hip-hop that originated on the South Side, made Chicago the nation’s rap capital, attracting record labels eager to exploit the glamour of gangbanging in America’s No. 1 murder city. Gang-affiliated rappers Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and Lil Reese were all signed to six-figure deals.

Gangsta rap was once defined by its East Coast-West Coast rivalry, but it had to go Midwestern. Chicago has had far less success in taming street crime than New York or Los Angeles, partly because the city’s gang violence is so linked to its intractable segregation. Since 1991, when the movie New Jack City chronicled New York’s Crack Wars, that city’s murder rate has declined 87 percent. Los Angeles’ rate is down 76 percent. In Chicago, murders are down 57 percent, but the city has surpassed its larger rivals in total killings, even though it lost population while New York and L.A. grew.

Hertz also has a series of maps demonstrating that, like income, the gains in safety have been distributed unequally in Chicago. While murders have declined dramatically on the North Side, he found, parts of the South and West Sides “actually got worse, including some neighborhoods that were already among the most dangerous in the city, like Englewood and Garfield Park.”

Garcia has attacked Emanuel for failing to fulfill his promise to put 1,000 more police officers on the streets, or to curb gun violence in general, because, well, it’s not a problem in the mayor’s Chicago.

“I think the fact that I have grown up in neighborhoods in Chicago that are plagued with gun violence gives me additional standing, certainly more standing than Rahm Emanuel to lobby the state legislature for measures that will get more guns off the street,” Garcia said. “Why? Because I’ve seen gun violence in my own neighborhood, near my house, on a regular basis. I hear gunshots at night.”

Garcia lives in the Mexican-American neighborhood of Little Village, which had a murder rate of 15.1 per 100,000 in 2014. As Garcia was forced to admit in a debate last week, his son belonged to a street gang—the Two-Six (Darkside faction)—and was arrested for attacking off-duty cops.

“My wife and I live in neighborhood with its share of problems, including gang activity,” he said. “My son grew up in that community; it’s been challenging.” 

Emanuel lives in Lincoln Square, a neighborhood of muffin bakeries, bookstores, yoga studios, and vinyl record shops. Lincoln Square was murder-free last year. The mayor’s children attend the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where tuition is $30,000 a year—more than the median household income of several neighborhoods where Emanuel has closed elementary schools.

If Emanuel could have won re-election on his record, he wouldn’t be in this runoff. So he’s spent the past six weeks using his $20 million campaign fund to portray Garcia as a political naif and public-sector-union pawn incapable of dealing with the city’s financial problems, particularly pension obligations that are consuming an ever-growing share of the city’s budget. Emanuel surrogates such as Sen. Mark Kirk have warned that Garcia will lead Chicago down the same road to bankruptcy as Detroit.

Emanuel may have been lucky to draw Garcia as an opponent. Garcia was the third choice of Chicago’s progressive opposition. The first choice, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, probably would have beaten the mayor, by breaking into the coalition of blacks and upscale whites that elected him in 2011. But Preckwinkle decided to run for re-election last November. Garcia has yet to demonstrate he’s more than a protest vote. His best idea for raising revenue—a graduated state income tax—would require an amendment to the Illinois Constitution. He promises to save $500 million by shutting down Tax Increment Financing districts and sharing costs with other local governments, but when asked for specific budget cuts, he says he will “rely on the recommendations made by experts in the field, shortly after I am elected mayor,” then refuses to name the experts. A home-stretch poll has Emanuel leading Garcia 51 percent to 33 percent, with 16 percent undecided.

Rahm Emanuel can’t say he’ll make Chicago a better place to live, because he hasn’t. He can only claim that Chuy Garcia will make it worse.