February 15, 2014


Rahm Emanuel: Mayor America (Edward Luce, 2/14/14, Financial Times)

Emanuel's often testy relations with Chicago's black neighbourhoods could be pivotal to his re-election next year. The gulf between the two Chicagos is at least as big as that between the "two New Yorks", which Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of the Big Apple, has promised to bridge. De Blasio comes from the Democratic party's liberal ("Sandinista") wing and promised to make New York's Upper East Side pay more to make life better for its underclasses. Emanuel is closer to Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio's predecessor, who drew on his philanthropic networks to revitalise New York's economic heart. Both are enthusiasts for non-union charter schools. De Blasio, on the other hand, is a champion of the unions.

Emanuel's Chicago versus de Blasio's New York may be the closest America has to an experiment in how to make its cities both liveable and competitive in the 21st century. "Look, we face international forces that are far bigger than us," Emanuel told me in an interview in Mexico City, which he was visiting to inaugurate a city-to-city partnership (almost a quarter of Chicagoans were born in Mexico). I had asked him whether he and de Blasio were rivals. "We both have a great amount of concentrated wealth and great poverty," he replied. "My challenge is to make it a still-great city for the middle-class families that are the bedrock of Chicago." [...]

Emanuel has persuaded many companies, including United Airlines and Google Motorola Mobile (recently bought by China's Lenovo) to shift to Chicago's stunning business district. They joined big brands such as Boeing, Exelon and Hyatt. Others, such as Kraft Foods, McDonald's and Walgreens are based in Chicago's suburbs. Emanuel has also helped to create 10,000 digital jobs, most of which are based at 1871, a thriving incubator housed in the city's venerable Merchandise Mart. The company is named after the year of the great fire of Chicago, which marked the start of its ascent to become middle America's so-called third coast. Large chunks around it are gentrifying. Chicago has a higher share of graduates in the workforce than any other large city in the US. "If Rahm fails - and I don't believe he will - it will not be for lack of trying," says Michael Sacks, a Chicago financier, who co-chairs World Business Chicago (WBC), the city's de facto economic steering committee.

At Emanuel's request, WBC commissioned a 10-point plan from McKinsey and the Brookings Institution to revitalise Chicago's economy. Emanuel has also asked The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Midwest's leading think-tank, to devise a "foreign policy" for the city. "It will draw on Chicago's global roots," says Ivo Daalder, Obama's savvy former ambassador to Nato, who heads the council. Chicago is Mexico's fifth-largest city, Poland's second-largest and home to America's largest population of Ukrainians, Serbs and Koreans. From Greektown to Chinatown, Emanuel is fond of describing Chicago as the "most American of American cities". Unlike New York or LA, each of which are built around one industry - finance and entertainment - it is diversified. No single industry accounts for more than a seventh of its jobs. "We have hardly begun to leverage Chicago's diversity," says Daalder.

On the other side of the tracks, few of Emanuel's successes are much in evidence. In the decade before he became mayor, Chicago haemorrhaged 200,000 people - almost all of them African-American. Under Richard Daley, most of the South Side's notorious housing projects were levelled. Nothing was built in their place. Upholstered neighbourhoods such as Bronzeville - one of the so-called minx ghettos - were gradually taken over by the dispossessed. Well-to-do African-Americans continue to flee to the suburbs in a "black flight" that mirrors the "white flight" of the 1960s and 1970s. Around the now-demolished Michael Reese Hospital, where the young Obama organised unemployed steel workers, gangs have long since ruled. The two Chicagos rarely intersect. Yet the South Side's murder rate mortally impinges on Chicago's global image. From within the Loop, crime is chiefly a problem of perception. The streets of Chicago's North Side are among America's safest. At 415 homicides last year, Chicago's fatalities were less than half their peak. Reducing it further - and ending Chicago's reputation as America's murder capital - is one of Emanuel's three obsessions. His shorthand is "safe streets". The other two are "stable finances" and "strong schools".

In his recent memoir, Robert Gates, the former secretary of defence, described Emanuel as a "whirling dervish with attention deficit disorder". A private family man, Emanuel has two daughters and a son, whom he rigorously shields from the media. His wife Amy, who converted to Judaism when they married, also keeps a low profile. Emanuel, who gets up at 5.30am every day and is frequently seen jogging along Chicago's Lake Shore, puts as much energy into fighting crime as he does rejuvenating the business district. Given Chicago's reputational problem, they are two sides of the same coin. "I need stronger gun laws and I need stronger parents," Emanuel tells me. "One I can work on and one I can ask for." From after-school mentoring to expanded summer youth-jobs programmes, Emanuel puts the same emphasis on social work as he does on "flooding the zone" with police. Although still considerably higher than LA or New York, Chicago's crime rate fell last year to its lowest since 1965. This is in spite of Emanuel's efforts to convince adjacent jurisdictions to tighten their gun laws. Guns are banned in the city itself but Chicago's environs do a roaring trade.

Emanuel's largely unrecognised success has been won in the face of drastic budget cuts - a consequence of Chicago's spendthrift noughties.

Posted by at February 15, 2014 7:16 PM

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