Monday, August 30, 2010

While You Can Fight City Hall, It's Not Necessarily Recommended (Book Review: Chicago: A Biography)

Has Chicago ever had a good government? And if you don’t think it has, what does that say about the importance of good government? These aren’t the only questions or even the most important questions (indirectly) proposed by Dominic Pacyga’s Chicago: A Biography, but they are the ones I found the most fascinating to think about while reading it.

Chicago politics are the stuff of popular political imagination and became especially relevant during the 2008 campaign, when the G.O.P. attempted to claim (and still attempts) that Obama was somehow a consummate Chicago politician, with the insinuation that he was somehow from the Al Capone-era of look-the-other-way government, with a nice cash supplement to get the head so turned. That was an amusing claim at the time and I’d say it’s still pretty amusing now, because it overlooks two important facts: first, Obama was allied with the Hyde Park reformer faction; second, Chicago reformers prove the adage wrong—you can fight City Hall, you’ll just probably fail.

Let’s start with the first question: has Chicago ever had a good government? This seems like a terribly loaded question to propose so baldly, as whatever flaws Richard M. Daley (mind the initial) has, he’s certainly not as bad as some of his forebears. No: the question is relative. By good government, I mean relatively good government—i.e. government that’s better than its peers. Daley the Younger has had his moments (see, well, the book I’m reviewing, or, alternatively, the New Yorker article which sadly is gated by our Condé Nast overlords), but ultimately: there’s still a lot of violence in Chicago—twice the homicide rate of New York—the school system is still pretty bad, and there’s still corruption. For all of the rejuvenation of Chicago, you still can’t avoid these facts.

But what about its peers? New York has had some howlers (e.g. Robert Moses) in official or unofficial charge, and Los Angeles’s city history is underratedly seamy (see: Chinatown; for the longer version, read Halberstam’s The Powers That Be and focus on the sections about the Los Angeles Times. Crazy stuff), with petty corruption, high-handed authorities and a general oligarchical structure contested only ineffectively by reformers and regular people, who often are more than a bit nutty themselves. So if Chicago appears bad, it looks slightly less so in comparison to its big city peers that it so deservedly stands among.

Which of course raises the question: just how important is good government anyway? If the governments of these three cities leaves much to be desired in terms of wisdom, competence and empathy, and these three cities are, on balance, pretty awesome places today, just what does that say about the importance of governance? I suppose the claim you have to make, if you’re concerned about the quality of governance, is that these three cities would be that much awesomer with a legacy of effective, nimble, honest governance, but this is a hypothethical that you can’t go beyond in terms of arguments—it scarcely proves anything. The cities that are failing these days—say, Detroit—are probably failing for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of governance therein (though, there too, Detroit’s government left something to be desired—see Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis). Maybe the biggest success story for good governance is beautiful Portland, Oregon, which decided what kind of city it wanted to be in the 1970s and became exactly that.

The only conclusion that seems supported by the evidence doesn’t really answer the question: that cities are in many ways remarkably robust environments because they get so much power from the communities that stay there, year after year, and create memories worth treasuring and extending.


(A note: I’m aware that the typical book review weighs on the merits and demerits of the book in question. Chicago: A Biography is really quite excellent and well-written, and alive to the importance of Chicago in national history, both in affecting it and mirroring it. I recommend purchasing the dead-tree version of the book, as it’s well-stocked with illustrations and maps, and my last knowledge of the Kindle is that it’s still deficient from the illustrations perspective.)

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