Monday, January 17, 2011

Richard Daley, Sun King Mayor of Chicago

Looks like I've got a streak of posts on urban issues going here. I do have other interests that I intend to get to as well. In any event, this article on the Urbanophile blog was rather fascinating to me:

It's a look at how the power to get things done in Chicago is concentrated in a ‘nexus’ of entrenched interests, and the ramifications that this has for the city. Often referred to as the ‘Chicago Way,’ the city has established itself during the administration Mayor Daley (the son, Richard M. Daley, who has been mayor since 1989, not his father Richard J. Daley, mayor from 1955–1976) as a city that Gets Things Done. On the other hand, its economic growth has been stagnant for years, even as the city's prestige has increased.

Much of the article describes the totality with which the Chicago Way permeates every aspect of doing business of any sort in the city: “I believe the Nexus resulted from the culture of clout combined with the fact that, with the exception of the interregnum between Daley pere and fils, power has been centralized on the 5th floor of city hall for decades. The Nexus may have come into being around the mayor, but now it has become a feature of civic life, one that practically longs for what Greg Hinz has labeled a ‘Big Daddy’ style leader to sustain the system.”

This stands in contrast to many of the problems New York City has had over its history, which often involved a mayor unable to deal with with competing entrenched interests. For many years, for example, Robert Moses built his own empire of sorts through controlling various city and state agencies, accumulating more power than most of the mayors he theoretically served under. (Robert Caro's book The Power Broker is a highly recommended read on all of this.) It would be a fascinating study to see how power is accumulated and used differently in different major cities.

The one quote in the Urbanophile article that struck me was in this comparison: “The ultimate dream of the clout seeker is a centralized unitary state like Louis XIV’s France. In Chicago, we’ve come amazingly close to achieving it. It’s not that there’s no conflict, but it is all of the palace intrigue variety, not true conflicts between rival power centers.” In a way, I think Louis XIV is the right example here. While much is made of the opulence of Versailles and the excesses of the nobility, what gets rather less attention is the fact that Louis XIV managed to set everything up that way to consolidate his own power.

I'm far from an expert on France during the 72 year reign of the Sun King, but it was a similar story of putting himself in the center, and slowly working to keep all conflict between others for his approval. The French nobility were kept in perpetual competition with each other, spending vast sums just to maintain the lifestyle expected of them at the palace. And Versailles itself was designed to literally put Louis at the center, with the nobility arranged outward from him, vying against each other for the attention of the king. Mayor Daley might not have that sort of absolute power, but it does seem the model.

And like modern day Chicago, France in the early 18th Century, has been able to accomplish things that would have been impossible without the ability of its leader to keep everyone in line. On the other hand, France's great rival at the time, Great Britain, where during the long reign of Louis XIV, one king was beheaded and another fled the country, was able to innovate much better, despite a much smaller supply of people and natural resources. So, whoever wins the upcoming election, now that Daley's retiring, has his or her work cut out. I'm ever the optimist about such things.

And, in case you're wondering, I'm not going to say anything right now about our own mayor-for-life situation here in Boston.

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