There’s an old expression out of Lewis Carroll: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot insists on being more deliberate about where her city will be heading in the wake of the pandemic, recession and protests calling for racial justice.
On Thursday, Lightfoot’s Recovery Task Force released a 104-page set of recommendations for the city’s future. Lightfoot described it as a “once in a generation” opportunity not only to rebuild the economy but achieve greater equity.
“This is the beginning of a longer journey,” says Samir Mayekar, Chicago’s deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development. “Now we have to roll up our sleeves and implement this.”
It won’t be easy. The task force’s five committees — made up of local heavy hitters in corporate, academic, philanthropic and other realms, with community input — have come up with a total of 17 recommendations. Lightfoot co-chaired the task force with Samuel Skinner, a former White House chief of staff.
Many of the recommendations are ambitious, pursuing goals around equity and increased minority business ownership that have eluded Chicago and other cities for decades. Even the simplest ideas — such as creating and staffing a multilingual 211 service to help residents access social service programs — pose a challenge for a city that’s facing a $700 million budget shortfall.
But Lightfoot’s desire was to think big — and to look beyond the city’s current problems. While responding to the health emergency and getting the economy reopened have consumed energy and attention, the task force’s job was to think about where the city might be 18 months from now.
Other cities and states are pursuing similar exercises, trying not only to navigate the current challenges but plan for the post-pandemic future.
“We’re taking some body blows out here,” says David Frockt, who chairs the Washington Senate’s special committee on economic recovery. “We have to focus in particular on how we make sure there’s demand out there that will drive the small business recovery that will bring people back to work.”
A Divided City
Most “visioning” exercises take months or years to complete. Lightfoot launched her task force in April at the Water Tower — a symbolically important spot as one of the few structures that survived the Great Fire of 1871.
While looking for ways for Chicago to rise again from the figurative ashes, the report doesn’t sugarcoat the city’s problems. Hours worked by hourly workers plummeted by more than 60 percent in March. A third of the jobs in the entire Chicago region are still considered vulnerable. Unemployment among Black Chicagoans is double the rate of any other racial or ethnic group.
“We’ve known there’s been disinvestment, especially on our South and West sides and in our Black and brown communities,” Mayekar says. “COVID really compounded those disparities.”
The share of census tracts in the city that were considered very low-income rose from 17 percent in 1970 to 46 percent in 2010, while the share of high-income tracts grew from 3 percent to 15 percent. Those trends have continued, with disparities growing as Chicago’s middle class has been hollowed out.
During Rahm Emanuel’s time as mayor, the narrative around Chicago was that it presented an emblematic “tale of two cities,” with the Loop and surrounding areas attracting corporate headquarters and tourists, while the city’s South and West sides slid deeper into post-industrial recession, losing population and shuttering schools.
“While the strengths of our city have shown through in ways large and small, our vulnerabilities borne of generational inequality and systemic racism have also flashed like a neon sign—and flashed even brighter following the murder of George Floyd,” the report notes.
Sharing More Wealth
During her campaign last year, Lightfoot ran as an outsider, taking on the remnants of Chicago’s vaunted political machine and promising to address corruption at City Hall. She launched a program last fall called INVEST South/West, which seeks to attract and align $750 million worth of investments to the city’s neglected neighborhoods by 2022. The task force report calls for a new program to address inequities throughout the city, along with the expansion of existing anti-poverty and safety net programs.
It also calls for creation and support of more minority-owned businesses, recommending that the city streamline red tape and regulations and offer financial assistance. “We are hearing from so many companies in Chicago, asking how can we change our procurement processes to make sure we’re contracting with Black and brown-owned businesses,” Mayekar says.
At the same time, Chicago wants to maintain its position as a magnet for outside capital. The task force calls for the city to continue its successful push attracting corporate headquarters, while also suggesting it position itself as the “HQ2” location of choice. With more companies likely to spread out their workforces and seek redundancies, Chicago certainly offers more affordable land than rivals such as Los Angeles and New York.
Staying on Task
The task force report is replete with consultant speak. There is a lot of talk about “leveraging,” “convening” and “engaging communities in partnership with stakeholders.” In places, it essentially punts, calling for the city to “create pitches” that will appeal variously to corporate investors, film producers and tourists.
Just as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden released a “Buy American” economic plan on Thursday, the report calls for a “Buy Chicago” campaign to encourage residents to spend their dollars locally. It also seeks a new “master brand” to replace old mottoes such as “Second City” and “Windy City,” but so far none has made it off the whiteboard and into brochures, let alone people’s imaginations.
The report is clearly an outline, setting down priorities and offering ideas for pursuing economic growth, achieving greater equity and tending to the needs of residents. The task force committees will continue to meet on a quarterly basis, checking on the city’s progress and inputs from the private sector. The report anticipates that its recommendations will be implemented in phases through 2023.
No doubt, as with other such exercises, Chicago will fall short in many ways. It’s impossible to predict how the urban landscape around the nation as a whole will be reshaped by the pandemic and all the economic and social problems it’s unleashed.
Still, Chicago has put its collective head together and now has a sense at least of where it intends to go.