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The City by the Lake in the New Economy

By Kevin Robinson in News on Apr 24, 2007 1:50PM

2007_04_skyline.jpgA piece that ran in Sunday's Tribune got us to thinking about the ramifications of last week's election here in Chicago. Much has been made about the significance of the nine new aldermen that will take office in May, especially those that had the support of labor. Dorothy Tillman, Madeline Haithcock, and Shirley Coleman all went down, beaten by union backed candidates. Toni Foulkes in the 15th Ward, an actual union member, beat Felicia Simmons-Stoval for an open seat in a ward that encompasses much of Englewood. In the municipal elections in February, Sandi Jackson took out Daley appointee (and daughter of William) Darcel Beavers, and Brendan Reilly ran Burt Natarus out of a seat, both with the support of labor. As Ben Calhoun points out, Daley's messy break up with labor is one of the few things he's not been comfortable with. The building trades unions, in particular, have backed the mayor, and it's been a fine line for Hizzonor to walk, courting big business while trying to stave off an onslaught of organizers, activists, and union members that were more than willing to knock on doors in neighborhoods where the the Machine has been substantially neutered by Patrick Fitzgerald.

But take a look at who replaced those nine aldermen: Bob Fioretti, a white, middle class attorney, Pat Dowell, a black, middle class woman, and Scott Waguespack, a white middle class law school graduate and public administrator, all replaced Machine regulars. This election, more than any other in the last 20 years in Chicago, was about class. As the face of the city has changed in the last two decades, a new set of priorities for ward residents has emerged. In gentrified parts of the city, loyalty, jobs, and power have become less important. Service, what the new middle class lives and dies by in the business world, has become the defining role of local government. In poorer wards, people are clamoring for opportunity - nothing new there. But as Laura Washington pointed out, if you can't deliver the goods, backing one of your own isn't a good enough rallying cry anymore. And why should it be? People in wards that haven't benefited from the global economy, that have been left out of this new global city that Daley has been building want a piece of the pie, too. Unfortunately, they have been offered nothing more than a few crumbs from the table, told to take a shitty retail job instead of a real future in one of the gleaming office towers downtown, or a good high-paying job with benefits working on some of that construction boom that feeds the new economy we've all been told so much about.

In many of these wards, (though not all, mind you), ward residents have begun to look very much like the growing gap between rich and poor in the US. As the middle class has shrunk nationally, beginning with the closing of steel mills and other manufacturing plants in the eighties, and now the vast outsourcing of tech jobs and other lower-middle class work to nations that pay far below what people earn here, we've seen a tremendous shift in both the type of work that people do, and the concentration of wealth that work generates. Scott Waguespack is an example of this change, and as Richard Carnahan summed it up so eloquently last week, the Ted Matalks of Chicago that the Machine produced are no longer good enough. Toni Foulkes, as well, is emblematic of this new Chicago: a city of college educated "knowledge workers" and the service sector employees that bake their bread. Is it any wonder that a union of janitors and nursing home workers would pony up over $2 million and hundreds of foot soldiers to take out aldermen that can't deliver a better life?

As the City of Big Shoulders puts on a tie and goes to work in an office tower or a hotel, a new group of aldermen will be heading to the city council. The question that remains unanswered, however, is how these new aldermen will manage their piece of a city that is caught up in such a far reaching economy.