It’s true that Chicago is a haven for college graduates from hard-luck Midwestern cities. Lake View has so many Michigan State bars that some people call it “Michago.” But the industrial decline that ravaged this region began long before Daley became mayor, and so did the efforts to keep it from ruining Chicago.
First of all, Chicago always had a more diversified economy than Cleveland, Detroit or Buffalo. Like those cities, we had steel mills, but they were clustered on the banks of the Calumet River, in the southeast corner of town. The mills disappeared in the early ’80s, as they did everywhere else. Downtown, we had publishers, banks, and financial institutions. We had Sears Roebuck, Wrigley, the Board of Trade and the Playboy Mansion. Mayor Daley’s father turned a little Orchard Field into O’Hare, the world’s largest airport, ensuring we would remain the nation’s transportation hub, as we’d been during the era of rail travel. While Cleveland’s Dennis Kucinich nearly drove his city into default, Daley ensured Chicago’s bond rating never dropped below AA.
Richard J. Daley was a thoroughly provincial man, a Middle American prude who was reluctant to allow Hollywood producers to film in Chicago. Jane Byrne helped modernize the city’s image by inviting moviemakers here. The Blues Brothers, the greatest Chicago movie ever, was filmed with her enthusiastic approval (she even posed for a photo with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi). It documented the old, industrial Chicago, a city on the verge of change. The ’80s were a big decade for Chicago movies, as filmmakers celebrated the city in Risky Business, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Untouchables.
Chicago also avoided, to an extent, the white flight that cut the populations of Detroit and Cleveland in half. After Harold Washington was elected mayor, Ald. Edward Vrdolyak told him, “Don’t let Chicago become another Detroit” -- a city in which triumphant black politicians grabbed all the spoils. He didn’t. Washington, an early master of transracial politics, appointed whites to head Streets and San and the fire department, hoping to convince voters in Beverly and Norwood Park that he wasn’t going to turn the city into a Midwestern Zimbabwe. He never got those people to vote for him, but keeping them around to vote against him was a victory.
By 1989, when Richard M. Daley became mayor, other Midwestern cities were already depressed and depopulated. Chicago is more beautiful and more prosperous than it was when he took over, but Daley didn’t scrape away the rust all by himself. He simply built on the work of his predecessors.