Chicago is not a “tale of two cities” but rather, a “tale of two investment strategies” that left parts of the city thriving and other parts shrinking, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday.
Under fire for downtown-centric development that has left neighborhoods behind, Emanuel emphatically rejected, what he called the “politically convenient” argument that he needs to make a choice between the two.
“No world-class global city has a failing central business district. It is not in our interest as a city to pit one side of the city against another. Our challenge is to make that central business district work for all parts of…Chicago,” Emanuel said.
“If you have a growing thriving business climate where companies are moving here and jobs are here, you don’t want to attack that. You don’t want to run that down….What you want to do is…[say], ‘How does it work for everybody?'”
Without mentioning President Donald Trump, Emanuel argued that Washington D.C. has “turned its back on, not only Chicago, but every major metropolitan center” leaving the city to fend for itself. Springfield has also been “largely absent for years — and that’s on a good day,” he said.
“That means we as a city — all of us — have to be smarter, more thoughtful and more strategic about how we approach investing in neighborhoods. We don’t have a dollar to waste. We do not have the luxury to be frivolous because, without Washington or Springfield, we are in this boat together alone,” he said.
Emanuel has spent the last three years trying to shed his “Mayor 1 percent” label and rehabilitate an image with black voters that took a beating after his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
The mayor hired Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp to serve as a $185,004-a-year deputy mayor and chief neighborhood development officer. Zopp has since moved on to World Business Chicago.
The mayor also proposed: a series of incentive programs aimed at boosting minority contracting and employment; a $100 million Catalyst Fund to bridge the funding gap outside the downtown area; and a Robin Hood plan to let downtown developers build bigger and taller projects so long as they share the wealth with impoverished neighborhoods.
Already $11 million in grants have been doled out to minority-owned businesses to rebuild vacant commercials strips, with $10 million more in the pipeline.
More recently, he has used public buildings — like the new fleet maintenance facility and City Colleges headquarters in Englewood and the controversial new police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park — as catalysts for economic development.
Still, vanquished Democratic gubernatorial challenger Chris Kennedy accused the mayor of being part of a “strategic gentrification plan” to intentionally push black residents of Chicago.
Mayoral challengers have also condemned the mayor’s neighborhood investments as too little, too late.
On Wednesday, Emanuel tried to turn the tide by delivering, what his office billed as a major campaign address on economic development before a crowd of supporters in Bronzeville.
He touted his plan to invest in the “building blocks of strong neighborhoods” –– schools, parks, libraries, public transportation and public safety –– and said that same “coordinated strategy” would target six more neighborhoods: Austin; Belmont Cragin, Brighton Park; Chatham; North Lawndale and South Shore.
He declared the long-stalled plan to extend the CTA’s Red Line from its south terminus at 95th Street all the way to 130th to be “one of the top, if not the top public transportation priority for me.”
“We’re the only state in the Midwest that has not passed an infrastructure bill in the last decade. I’ve communicated to the leadership that–if they pass and I’m advocating they pass–a transportation bill, that Red Line South be the top priority, meaning the extension,” he said.
There’s a reason why Emanuel chose to deliver the speech in Bronzeville.
Bronzeville is one of the outliers, along with Chinatown, Englewood, Uptown, Little Village, Washington Park and Woodlawn. Those neighborhoods are rebounding, thanks to an infusion of both public and private investments.
But Emanuel was the first to admit there is so much more work to be done and more he needs to do personally to convince African-American voters who elected and re-elected him that he is doing enough to reverse the black exodus from Chicago triggered by decades of disinvestment.
“Sometimes, I joke about government. We have two gears — first and fifth. We don’t have anything between. We need to listen better and be more responsive. There are days in which we’ve done really well. We’re sitting in one of those. There are days we stink and we’ve made mistakes. We’ve got to level up and be honest about that,” he said.
“When neighborhoods lose residents and businesses, it tears at the fabric of that neighborhood and tears at the fabric of our city.”