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Note to the Next Mayor: Chicago Is a City of the World, But We Want the Neighborhoods Fixed, Too

In the community where Officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald four years ago, residents worry about policing, crime and inequality.

A Chicago flag flies outside Chicago City Hall. (Taidgh Barron via Getty Images)

ProPublica Illinois reporter Mick Dumke looks at the state’s political issues and personalities in this occasional column.

Chicago police Officer Ray Tracy opened the September community meeting for police beats 815 and 821 the way he does every month, by going over the good news and bad news in the area’s recent crime statistics.

Tracy noted that crime in the two beats, which make up much of the Archer Heights and Brighton Park neighborhoods on the city’s Southwest Side, remains relatively low.

But the totals had ticked up in a number of areas, Tracy told the 20 residents gathered in a Catholic school classroom, many sitting in kid-size chairs. Several garages had been burglarized. And in the second half of August, there had been three shootings — none fatal, though still troubling.

“We’re on it,” he said.

It happened to be the day after Mayor Rahm Emanuel rocked the city’s political establishment by announcing he wasn’t running for re-election, and hours after jury selection began in the first murder trial of a city police officer in decades. Although neither of those topics came up at the meeting, it was held just blocks from where Officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed teenager Laquan McDonald four years earlier — a case that continues to roil Chicago and surely contributed to Emanuel’s decision.

The issues Tracy and residents discussed at the meeting — involving crime, disinvestment and inequality — offered glimpses of the challenges the next mayor is going to have to address in neighborhoods around the city, and that many Chicagoans never felt Emanuel fully took on.

Former downtown alderman Burton Natarus used to say, proudly, that he was the janitor of his ward, the one who took care of all the little things, starting with making sure the garbage was picked up.

Chicago mayors, by contrast, have widely been viewed as monarchs ruling over their city-state with nearly unchecked power. Even if that’s not strictly true, mayors reign over the massive bureaucracies that run the local schools, social services, streets and public safety apparatus.

Still, Chicago residents expect their mayors to sweat the small stuff, too, before it becomes bigger stuff. They want them to know what’s going on in their neighborhoods, and to use their clout to get those things fixed.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, shakes hands with former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley as Sen. Dick Durbin, center, smiles, after the inauguration ceremony for Emanuel’s second term as mayor in 2015. (Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, crushed or co-opted his opponents and often ruled as a despot. But people also believed he was all about Chicago. I saw this up close many times. I once visited a social service agency based in a storefront office in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side. A picture of Daley with the agency’s leader hung on the wall, right next to a shot of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor.

Emanuel was born in Chicago and worked for Daley, but he spent most of his political career in Washington, D.C. After surviving a court challenge over whether he was even an official resident of Chicago, he was elected mayor twice, and with millions of dollars to spend attacking his rivals, he might well have won a third term.

His backers note that Emanuel’s Washington connections yielded federal money for the transit system, and his tireless promotion resulted in tourism and jobs. They argue that he elevated Chicago’s status as an international city, and that he’s not popular because he made tough decisions to cut budgets, hike taxes and hire more police while improving accountability.

But to most long-time residents, Emanuel has never fully become Chicago’s mayor.

His penchant for D.C.-style spin — “governing by press release,” as I’ve heard it described — left many in Chicago feeling he was performing for a national audience.

Some of his announcements were tone deaf. Others were simply misleading.

He was on a ski vacation in 2013 when aides announced a list of 50 schools that would be closed, which he alternately said was to save money and improve student performance. After the 17-year-old McDonald was shot 16 times by Van Dyke in 2014, Emanuel’s administration fought releasing the video and other details until ordered to do so by a judge. The mayor then went on an apology tour of black churches and soul food restaurants, even as police and mayoral aides secretly monitored Black Lives Matter and others protesting police shootings.

Top: In this still image taken from a police vehicle dash camera released by the Chicago Police Department in November 2015, Laquan McDonald walks up a street just prior to being shot by Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke, on Oct. 20, 2014. Bottom: Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke leaves the Leighton Criminal Courts Building after the first day of jury selection in his murder trial on Sept. 5, 2018, in Chicago. (Chicago Police Department via Getty Images; Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Part of this story unfolded in police beat 815, which is where Van Dyke killed McDonald as the troubled teen walked down South Pulaski Road holding a knife.

In a sign of how the Southwest Side has been changing, about half the residents at the community meeting were white, mostly middle-aged or older, while the others were younger and Hispanic. A few minutes into the meeting, Silvana Tabares introduced herself to the group as the new alderman of the 23rd Ward, which includes some of the area covered by the police beats. In June, Emanuel picked Tabares, then a state representative, to replace the retiring Michael Zalewski. Tabares is the ward’s first Hispanic alderman after a long line of predecessors with Polish or Eastern European backgrounds.

Tabares took notes as residents talked about illegal apartment conversions and overcrowding. One woman said her street light kept going out, plunging her block into darkness, and she couldn’t get the city to deal with an infestation of rats. And then it was back to crime.

Among the good news, Tracy said, was that a burglar was arrested. “His car ran out of gas,” Tracy said, drawing laughs.

After the meeting, Hector Ayala, a 20-year resident of Archer Heights, said he and his neighbors team up to keep their streets and alleys clean. But his garage has been broken into repeatedly and he worries that crime is rising.

Eventually, in November 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department released the 2014 video of Laquan McDonald being shot and killed by Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Ayala said that as a Mexican-American, he appreciates the need for better relationships between the police and the community. But he also thinks Emanuel failed to lead the way.

“I think the mayor turned his back on most of the police,” Ayala said.

Michael Kovac, a retired firefighter who now serves as a community liaison for beats 815 and 821, said Emanuel has been held back by the city’s deep indebtedness.

“I think his strongest focus has been on redevelopment in the Loop area,” Kovac said. “I have to say, I don’t think he considers himself a real Chicagoan.”

For all of his political maneuvering, Emanuel could never convince many Chicagoans — of widely varying political views — that he was invested in them or their neighborhoods.

Anyone who wants to replace him should have another plan.

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