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Editorial: Daley and Chicago evolved together

Mayor Daley built Millennium Park expanded O’Hare Airport closed Meigs Field — all good. But he cut bad parking meter

Mayor Daley built Millennium Park, expanded O’Hare Airport and closed Meigs Field — all good. But he cut a bad parking meter deal. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 14, 2011 12:31AM

We grew up together, Rich Daley and the City of Chicago.

We were like neighborhood kids hunkered down in our cultural tribalism, comforted by the familiar, looking back on where we came from to define who we were.

We were Irish and Polish and Italian. We were African American. We were Puerto Rican. We were Mexican and Chinese.

We were steel mills and stockyards, freight trains and trucks. We were more about muscles than diplomas.

We were North Side and West Side, South Side and Southwest Side. And we all knew the Southwest Side was more a state of mind than a place, its eastern boundary shifting west as white turned black.

This was the Chicago of our fathers, of Mayor Richard J. Daley and a generation of men and women who grew up in a depression and fought a world war. Finally on firm ground, they asked for little more than a good job, a safe neighborhood, good schools for the kids, and maybe a cold beer on the front porch on a hot night.

But then we, the kids, came of age. And we could see — anybody could see — that the Chicago of our fathers was cracking.

The stockyards had closed. The mills were closing. The Loop closed down at night. The suburbs beckoned. The racial inequities no longer could — or should — be tolerated.

Something had to give. A larger vision and purpose, rising above the old provincialism, were needed.

We had to look forward, not backward, and find our own way.

The election of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983 helped us there. No going back now. And the blatant racism of the Council Wars years — “Beirut by the Lake” — perversely pushed the new day along, making clear that the old ways of doing business no longer could be defended, if ever they could.

Then came Richard M. Daley, son of Boss, first elected mayor in 1989. Who would have guessed he’d be anything but a Bridgeport throwback?

But he surprised us.

On Monday, his last day in office, Daley will have been mayor of Chicago for 22 years and 22 days, and in that time he has grown and evolved, just as Chicago as grown and evolved, and not at all coincidentally. The man shaped the city, and the city shaped the man.

Somewhere along the line, this son of Bridgeport became an unlikely social progressive. He built a multiracial coalition and brought every color into government. He became a champion of gay rights. He created a greener and more international city, with a burgeoning high-technology base.

He dared to take over Chicago’s failing public schools and pushed the most aggressive reforms in the nation. He tore down the high-rise public housing ghettos that his father had created. He built Millennium Park, began a massive expansion of O’Hare Airport and closed Meigs Field, returning Northerly Island to ordinary Chicagoans.

There’s a darker side to Daley’s legacy, as well, but his achievements far outweighed his failures. To say otherwise is unfair.

Daley turned a blind eye to political corruption, awarded contracts to a slew of pals and never made much of a dent in ending the violence in the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. He cut a bad deal when he sold the city’s parking meter business, and he has left his successor, Rahm Emanuel, with a massive budget hole to fill. Our neighborhoods remain segregated. And though our schools are better on the whole, they’re not better by much.

But anybody who has lived long enough and been around enough knows what might have been. The Chicago of 2011 looks a far sight better than the Chicago of 1989. We have found that new sense of purpose, that larger vision.

We have stopped looking backward — enough already with that “City of Big Shoulders” stuff — and forged a forward-looking identity that is the envy of every other Northern Rust Belt city.

Can we say this without sounding naive? Can we say this without denying the enormous difficulties that beset us still?

We grew up together, Rich Daley and the City of Chicago. The man shaped the city and the city shaped the man.

We made the Chicago of our fathers our own.

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