“Beautiful City” for most travelers calls up images of Sydney, San Francisco, Paris, Florence, Geneva, Positano – tourist meccas of great historical significance.
Nearly all urban areas boast first class neighborhoods – London’s Hyde Park, New York’s Soho, Toyko’s Ginza, Boston’s Beacon Hill, Washington’s Georgetown, Rome’s Spanish Steps. Few cities are regarded, however, from a macro point of view, as truly beautiful.
One U.S. city, Chicago, over the past eighteen years has joined the elite ranks because of the single-minded determination and extraordinary power of its chief executive, Richard M. Daley, and the legacy left by his father, the last of the omnipotent big city bosses.
While Chicago is still perhaps better known to people who have never been there as a haven for the mob; as having Olympic quality graft and corruption; and, while city hall is still not above setting the law aside, they are more likely to be planting flowers than firing machine guns.
In most cities when the mayor wants to convert a heavily utilized lake front airport to a park, it requires the full support of the City Council and general public. In Chicago, an army of heavy equipment is dispatched pre-dawn on the pretext of homeland security, to tear up the runways, and truck the aircraft away.
Chicago has always been admired for its landmark architecture, miles of city parks and exquisite lake front. For most of its existence, however, there were two cities – north of State and Madison: affluent, progressive and largely white – south of State and Madison: impoverished, blighted, crime-ridden and largely black.
Despite mediocre schools and the white flight which drove city dwellers to the suburbs for most of the sixties, seventies and eighties, Chicago almost totally avoided center city decay because of the Daley’s commitment to business and the best public transportation in the country.
While Richard Sr. lived his whole life in Bridgeport (11th Ward), a white, south side immigrant enclave surrounded by some of the worst urban slums in America, he is best known for bolstering the commercial and financial interests to the north. Richard Jr. moved out of Bridgeport to a newer and trendier area, but refocused efforts on the city as a whole.
In eighteen years of dedication to beautification, Chicago has spent millions planting trees and shrubs along once littered roadways, planting flowers in median strips in once dangerous neighborhoods, shut down massive crime-ridden city housing projects, enticed developers to build new affordable low-rise housing and modern shopping centers to support the local population.
Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago, was long the lone area of gentrification on the south side. Today the surrounding neighborhoods are enjoying full scale renovation and restoration. Much improved schools are beginning to attract young upwardly mobile families to return to the city to be close to their jobs and to take advantage of the extraordinary cultural and recreational opportunities available to its residents.
Few would argue that North Michigan Avenue has surpassed New York’s Fifth Avenue as the finest shopping street in America. It’s Museums of Art and Natural History, its Symphony and Lyric Opera rival the world’s best. Most gourmets would rank dining in Chicago on a par with New York, Boston and San Francisco, and put the neighborhood bars, pizza joints and hotdog sellers at the very top of the heap.
While their records don’t always support them, there are no more rabid and loyal fans than those of the Bears, the Bulls, the Cubs and the Sox. Wrigley Field is one of the most beautiful ball yards in America (the other, Fenway Park).
Some mayors might have lost their jobs for allowing a project like Millennium Park to cost three times as much and take four years longer than planned. The finished product, however, nestled alongside Chicago’s extraordinary Art Institute is so magnificent that it promises to further solidify Chicago’s reputation as one of the most beautiful and livable big cities in the world.
For all of its core center city success, Chicago is still a city of neighborhoods, unique and self-contained. Old Town, Greek Town, Buck Town, Wrigleyville, Taylor Street, Logan Square, Humboldt Park – ethnic enclaves for Polish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Croatian-Americans, Indian-Americans, African-Americans and a haven for Eastern European, Russian, Latino and Arab immigrants.
Chicago continues to become more beautiful, not just in its physical appearance, but in the manner in which its citizens look to be inclusive in their approach to their neighbors. History will reflect that the almost forty years of Daley stewardship have truly helped “the great city of Chicago” become even greater.