The legacy of Richard M. Daley on Chicago's South and West sides


The Chicago Reporter looks back at the track record of Chicago’s longest-serving mayor in some of the city’s most under-served communities. While Richard M. Daley has received praise for restoring the city’s downtown and establishing Chicago as a “global” city, his performance in lower-income communities on the city’s South and West sides are met with mixed reactions.


As his 22-year reign as one of Chicago’s most influential and memorable mayors came to an end this month, the impact Daley had on the city will probably be argued for another two decades.
     Taking office in 1989, he stepped into the job during a turbulent time within city politics, with critics and supporters alike crediting him for unifying a divided Chicago City Council, while leading the way in support of progress in racial issues.
     Daley has also received praise over the years for his economic development, beautification and environmental sustainability initiatives, as well as lowering the crime rate over the past decade.
     But the era of Chicago’s longest-serving mayor can be viewed as being one of a mixed bag at best.  He left behind a budget deficit estimated at more than $500 million, and famously sold off public assets such as the Chicago Skyway and the city’s parking meters for one-time cash infusions whose proceeds are very nearly exhausted.
     A comparative analysis between U.S. Census data from 1990 and 2009 showed while the city saw improvements overall on such issues as housing, poverty, unemployment and education,  those successes did not tend to carry over into lower-income neighborhoods, where in a lot of cases, the problems only got worse.
     “There were some positive benefits into the neighborhoods, there was some spreading of housing and economic development into particularly minority areas, which had not been seen for decades,” said Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago who served two terms as alderman of the 44th Ward during the 1970s. “But it’s not been enough to compensate for the other two problems: the recession and the collapse of affordable housing.”
     Overall, Simpson said he considered Daley’s impact on the city’s impoverished areas would be viewed as “mixed”.
     “Some of the neighborhoods, like Woodlawn and others, have begun to get more private housing development in them and some economic development,” Simpson said. “But overall, poverty and unemployment have remained at unacceptably high levels and the Daley administration was not able to resolve that.”
     Census data showed that while the citywide unemployment rate decreased from 11.3 percent in 1990 to 10.5 percent in 2009, the numbers in some neighborhoods–particularly in predominantly black communities–were considerably higher, with some more than doubling citywide figures.
     Alternatively, the most dramatic drops in unemployment were seen in neighborhoods that were predominantly black in 1990, but whose demographic makeup has since changed to mixed or predominantly white.
     In fact, no ethnic group saw bigger changes over the course of the Daley era than the city’s African Americans, which lost 12.5 percent of its total population between 1990 and 2009. During the Daley era, predominantly black communities witnessed the highest unemployment and the highest increase in unemployment from 18.4 percent in 1990 to 19.6 percent in 2009.

     In spite of the numbers, Carlos Nelson, executive director for the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, credited Daley’s efforts toward improving the city’s landscape with having a positive effect toward economic development in Auburn Gresham and similar communities.
     “In spite of losing population and employers, I think the maintenance and beautification efforts, the environmental efforts his [Daley’s] administration has really launched and brought to the forefront, I think has had an economic development impact,” Nelson said. “It’s developed a sense of pride in areas like the Auburn-Gresham community amongst the residents that have been here for a while, which in turn has caused them to reinvent where possible in our community.”    

Steven Ross Johnson

Photo credit: flickr/kate.gardiner

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