Proposing a 5th star on Chicago’s flag: pep talk, or curse?

You’d think what happened after Ed Burke pushed for a fifth star would give Lori Lightfoot pause before doing the same.

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The current Chicago city flag hangs outside City Hall.

The current Chicago city flag, all four stars of it, hangs outside City Hall.

Sun-Times file

My people have a useful term that doesn’t translate well: kine hora. It’s Yiddish for “not the evil eye,” but means something akin to “knock on wood.” Were I to toss off some giddily optimistic prediction — “In September, when everything is back to normal, I’m looking forward to enjoying a sunny afternoon at Wrigley Field” — my wife might reply, “Don’t give yourself a kine hora.”

Fate has a way of grinding our faces in misplaced optimism. My ballgame plans, come September, might haunt me as I’m herded into the temporary detention facility set up inside the shattered ruins of Wrigley, snagged in the federal sweep of writers and people who wear eyeglasses after July’s general societal collapse. I’ll look around, dazed, realizing I’m in the exact spot where I had anticipated an afternoon of peanuts and box scores.

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Best to avoid cheery predictions.

So when Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, twice, she wants the city’s response to COVID-19 to be worthy of a new star on the Chicago flag, I winced, hope dwindling. Maybe this isn’t the beginning of the end. Maybe this is where the Bad Part starts.

“I want nothing less than for our efforts over the coming months to truly warrant a fifth star on our flag,” Lightfoot said last week. Maybe she was being merely motivational, the way a Little League coach tells his players “I want every one of you to put in your best Hall-of-Fame effort against the Bumblebees.” That doesn’t mean he expects them to end up in Cooperstown.

I hope so. Because to sincerely suggest a fifth star ... isn’t that jumping the gun? Isn’t plotting new flag stars an Ed Burke move? The defanged Burke argued a posteriori for a fifth star for the 2016 Olympics which, in case you forgot, didn’t work out so well.

Fortunately, the solution was posed by the mayor herself, exactly one year ago.

“There are four stars on Chicago’s flag, each standing for a point in our history,” Lightfoot said in her inaugural address. “The construction of Fort Dearborn, the great expositions of 1893 and 1933, and the reconstruction of our city following the Great Chicago Fire.”

One of those things, to quote the “Sesame Street” song, is not like the other: The Century of Progress. A big deal in 1933; not so much nowadays. Can you name anything the Century of Progress brought to Chicago? I know the Graf Zeppelin came here, but that’s only because I collected stamps (Scott C18: 50 cent green “Chicago Zeppelin” airmail).

In the simpler world of May 20, 2019, Lightfoot had no trouble effacing the entire arc of Chicago history:

“Today, we proudly reinterpret these four stars new meaning for a new century, with new challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.”

The stars would now represent safety, education, stability, and integrity.

See what I mean about kine hora? All worthy goals. But prematurely start repurposing the stars on the flag to celebrate their assumed achievement and you end up not with safety, education, stability and integrity, but with extreme peril, shuttered schools, roiling chaos and ... well, I don’t want to impugn the mayor’s integrity ... let’s say, umm, transparency issues.

So, knock on wood, should the city battle back COVID-19 and emerge in semi-decent shape and we only then decide to memorialize our success on the flag, yes, we could add a fifth star, with all the controversy and cost to follow. Or we could, in a process Lightfoot herself suggested, repurpose the Century of Progress star, and change it to represent Chicago giving the bum’s rush to COVID-19.

Chicago’s city flag is generally considered one of the most beautiful in the country. If we’re seizing municipal symbolism, there’s always that weird infant with the unnatural helmet of hair on the city seal. The mayor should have City Council pass a resolution — assuming she still has the votes, and that a few more alderman don’t rebel because she’s mean to them and took away their goodies — to call it the “Babe on a Clam Shell Representing the Re-Birth of the City after Only Five Months of COVID-19 Shutdown.” Then we can promptly forget about this ordeal, which is what everybody really wants to do.

Not be reminded of it, even symbolically, every time we pass a city flag.

A baby with an unnaturally full head of hair on a clamshell, in bronze, a detail from the Chicago seal in the mayor’s office.

The odd baby on a clamshell on the Chicago City Seal represents “contentment, peace and purity.” We could repurpose it to represent rebirth after COVID-19 and leave the flag alone.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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