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The Mayoral Balancing Act

Tension between downtowns and neighborhoods isn’t going to go away.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
A few months ago, on the day she took office as the 56th mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot pounded away at the potent issue that she had spent months campaigning on. She wasn’t going to be a “downtown” mayor. She was going to be a mayor for the neighborhoods. “We need fairness,” Lightfoot said, “which means paying as much attention to our neighborhood business as we do to the businesses downtown. Our neighborhoods have been neglected for too long. They cannot be any more.”

Running as the neighborhood candidate made perfect political sense given the reputation of the mayor she was succeeding, Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel’s efforts on behalf of Chicago’s affluent city center had led critics to deride him as “Mayor One Percent.” But Emanuel’s association with downtown wasn’t the only thing neighborhood activists held against him. They resented his decision to close 50 of the city’s public schools, most of them in minority neighborhoods. They were angry about his inability to bring down the crime rate in those same communities. They cited an Urban Institute study claiming that Chicago’s white neighborhoods received nearly three times as much public and private investment as those that were mostly black.

It sounds like an open-and-shut case against a myopic mayor catering to his rich friends and ignoring the poor. But once you start looking at the details, you begin to see a more complicated picture. During his eight years in office, Emanuel established a fund to move fees from downtown projects to support small business in poorer parts of the city. He shifted tax increment financing, which under previous administrations had been targeted mostly to gentrified neighborhoods, to better meet infrastructure needs. He lured grocery chains to some of the most food-deprived places on the South Side. He even built a 67,000-square-foot food research center in long-suffering Garfield Park.

And he protested to anyone who would listen that, regardless of his public image, he wasn’t some downtown elitist ignoring the rest of the city. “At the end of the day, we are a city of neighborhoods,” he said in a speech shortly before he announced his retirement. “We all know going back decades there are neighborhoods in our city that had been starved of investment. … Lack of investment takes families out of neighborhoods. We do not have a dollar or a neighborhood to waste.” In the twilight months of his mayoral career, it’s hard to see why Emanuel would bother to say those things if he didn’t believe them.

The truth is that if you look back a few decades in modern Chicago history, you find the same rhetoric, the same accusations and the same defenses. In 1985, shortly after Harold Washington took over as the city’s first elected black mayor, he appointed an advisory committee to look into the downtown-vs.-neighborhood issue. The commission found what Washington no doubt expected it to find. “Our neighborhoods have suffered long enough,” one of the commissioners declared, “while our tax dollars go to support downtown development.”

Mayor Lightfoot is determined to keep her pro-neighborhood promises. In her first few weeks in city hall, she suggested that she might not go along with one of the local business community’s most ambitious projects: a development costing as much as $20 billion along the south Lake Michigan shoreline that would house a huge transit center and 20 million square feet of office, hotel and residential space. She warned the prospective developers that they had to satisfy concerns of nearby neighborhoods about being cut off from the lakefront, or the project might not be built. The developers “have to submit themselves to a vigorous community engagement,” she said.

But whatever steps Lightfoot ultimately takes in that direction, here’s a prediction I’d be willing to put money on: If Chicago’s central city continues its commercial boom, which it will, and crime in some of the outlying districts remains an intractable problem, which it also will, someone will come along in four years and say the mayor didn’t keep her vow to focus on the neighborhoods. It happens to all of them.

Perhaps the most effective “neighborhoods first” campaign in modern urban history was one of the first, waged by Maynard Jackson in his race for mayor of Atlanta in 1973. There’s no disputing that Jackson had a genuine case to make in that election. Atlanta had been run for decades by a tightly knit cadre of downtown merchants and corporate executives, a group that was wedded to development in the center and largely ignorant of what was happening in the black neighborhoods farther out.

Jackson vowed to change the balance; he won the election and became the city’s first black mayor. He turned out to be a strong leader who made impressive strides at promoting minority jobs and businesses. Nevertheless, the poorest neighborhoods didn’t improve much; many of them declined. Long after Jackson was out of office, some of those enclaves did start to thrive, mostly because of an influx of affluent white professionals. It was neighborhood resurgence of a sort, but not the sort Jackson had in mind in 1973.

In the ensuing years, several mayors of other cities went to great lengths to show that their solicitude for neighborhoods wasn’t just rhetoric. Stephen Goldsmith won election as mayor of Indianapolis in 1991 in part on the perception that his predecessor, William Hudnut, was putting too much money and effort into downtown renewal. Goldsmith took neighborhood revival seriously. He made a test case of a declining district called Haughville, opening a health clinic and luring manufacturing companies to an abandoned railyard there. He instituted crime watches, and the crime rate in Haughville went down. Many of the lessons there were tried out in other sections of the city, and the results were encouraging.

Goldsmith won national attention as a creative and energetic neighborhood-minded mayor. But here’s the bottom line, or perhaps I should say here’s the irony: When he left office after two terms, he was still having to deflect criticism from constituents that he had spent too much time and money on downtown development.

Sometimes the neighborhood ploy works; sometimes it doesn’t. Two years ago in Detroit, Coleman Young II, an African-American state senator and the son of the city’s first black mayor, ran a full-bore neighborhood campaign against Mike Duggan, the incumbent white mayor, accusing him of letting the city’s black neighborhoods rot while the city center became a magnet for white gentrification and investment. “It’s the best of times for those who are privileged,” Young charged, “and the worst of times for everybody else.” Duggan responded that he had demolished whole swaths of vacant houses and repaired thousands of broken streetlights, and that if that wasn’t pro-neighborhood, nothing was. The voters reelected Duggan overwhelmingly. But some of the city’s longtime political observers professed to be tired of the whole argument. “It’s a fact,” one of them wrote in The Detroit News, “that we as a community have been talking about the same stuff for years.”

Why exactly do we talk about “the same stuff” interminably, in Detroit and in almost every large American city you can name? One simple answer is that neighborhood agitation is a species of populism, and populism sells in urban politics. It didn’t succeed for Coleman Young II, but it works often enough to make it an enticing strategy for insurgent candidates like Lightfoot.

But a better question might be why, after decades of self-professed neighborhood mayors, the struggling neighborhoods are falling further and further behind downtown, not gaining on it. Here we need to step back a bit and consider some larger realities.

The most important one is that downtown development and neighborhood renewal are different propositions, occupying entirely different realms of public policy. Making a downtown attractive is largely a matter of economics and market demand. Developers have to be convinced that corporations will locate downtown and that local residents will patronize the bars, restaurants, boutiques and entertainment venues that spring up to cater to them. If the enticements are attractive enough, the enterprise will usually succeed. It will also bring in some big bucks to the city treasury.

Neighborhood revival programs are nothing like that at all. Yes, they require the courtship of private developers. But much as we prefer not to say so, they also require adjustments in human behavior. They require crime rates in the poorest urban neighborhoods to decline significantly. They require schools that provide a decent basic education, and—perhaps more important—a cohort of pupils who come to school prepared to learn what the teachers have to teach. Those are urgent human problems that we don’t presently know how to solve. There is ample evidence that simply pouring money into them is not a solution.

And so it isn’t really any mayor’s fault that big-city downtowns are coming to life while our poorest neighborhoods remain poor. But as long as that remains the case, the issue will come back again and again—and again.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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