Wednesday, September 08, 2010

This says it better than I ever could

Daley a father figure for Chicago

Daley was the dad.

Good dad. Bad dad. The man we've loved to hate and the one we've depended on more than we like to admit.

Go ahead, curse him. It's fashionable, and often deserved.

He throws tantrums. He plays favorites. He is not cool. He has screwed up some things big-time. Disobey him at your peril.

But for years, all we've had to do is look around the neighborhood — Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland — to see that we've been lucky to have a guy like him running our household.

While other cities stumbled and fumbled into the new millennium, Mayor Richard M. Daley led.

He led Chicago far and fast, and if he did it for pride and power, he also did it for love.

He hasn't done it alone, and he certainly hasn't done it perfectly, but in his 21-year tenure, Chicago has turned into the great city it used to only think it was.

I say this as someone who has lived many other places and lived here for 25 years. When I arrived, Chicago was dirty, viciously racist, tired.

Under Daley, and in important ways because of him, the city got better. It seemed, physically and spiritually, to get brighter.

It's no surprise then that when Daley announced Tuesday that he wouldn't run again, you could practically feel the tectonic plates shift beneath the Loop.

"Simply put," he said at a news conference, "it's time. Time for me, it's time for Chicago to move on."

He's right. It's time, for him and for the rest of us.

He's 68. The city budget is a shambles. His popularity is down. His wife, Maggie, who stood next to him Tuesday, leaning on a crutch, is living with cancer.

He seems to have sensed, in the words of the old Michelle Shocked song, "The secret to a long life is knowing when it's time to go."

Opinions quickly fell into two camps.

One: Good riddance.

The other: OMG. What now?

Even the "good riddance" people have to be worried about what now.

Today's college freshmen weren't even born when Daley took office 21 years ago.

They take for granted the gleaming skyscrapers, the clean streets, the green roofs, Chicago's prominence in the world.

And if they also take for granted the troubled schools, the gangs and guns, the cronyism and corruption, it's important to remember that Daley's failure wasn't inventing those, it was failing to fix them.

Go ahead, argue. That's part of living in this vast, messy town. Chicago feels like family. We argue, loudly.

And one reason Chicago feels like family — I've lived in cities that don't — is that for 21 years, the same guy has been head of the clan, like his father was before.

In deep, subtle ways, the fact that Chicago has been a family-run operation has provided a sense of connection and security. I don't mean security in all its forms; we all know the unemployment rate and the crime stats. I'm not arguing that patronage is good.

But Chicago feels grounded in a way few cities do, connected to itself in a rare way, in part because it has been run by someone who has the city in his history and his bones and his heart.

Cities, like people, go through phases. This has been a good phase for Chicago. We may not appreciate how good until later.

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