Here's the Deal: Buying and Selling of the Great American Cities

Here's the Deal: Buying and Selling of the Great American Cities

by Ross Miller
     
 

In the heart of downtown Chicago, on a square block surrounded by major civic landmarks, there stands - absolutely nothing. Why this desolation where there should be a fabulous skyscraper, a vertical money machine? How did this three-acre chunk of prime urban real estate, at one time the hub of a down-at-heel but bustling commercial district, become a blank eyesore,… See more details below

Overview

In the heart of downtown Chicago, on a square block surrounded by major civic landmarks, there stands - absolutely nothing. Why this desolation where there should be a fabulous skyscraper, a vertical money machine? How did this three-acre chunk of prime urban real estate, at one time the hub of a down-at-heel but bustling commercial district, become a blank eyesore, unused and unprofitable? And what does this sad vacancy tell us about the fate not only of Chicago but of nearly every American city in the aftermath of the Age of Excess? Here's the Deal is urban historian Ross Miller's hard-hitting, no-holds barred answer to these troublesome questions. The redevelopment of Block 37, a richly historic site in the heart of the North Loop, was conceived by Mayor Richard J. Daley, his successors in City Hall, and an astonishingly brazen crew of schemers, speculators, pols, and operators as the way to transform an area of "urban commercial blight" - old, low-rise buildings filled with marginal if not seedy businesses - into a glittering tower that would not only be architecturally worthy of its neighbors (City Hall, Marshall Field's, the State of Illinois Building), but would, with its 2 million square feet of office space, throw off millions of tax and rental dollars annually. For twenty years, through five mayoral administrations, public officials and real estate entrepreneurs of every stripe wheeled and dealed. The three biggest developers in the Midwest were involved; the glamorous architect Helmut Jahn came up with a truly sensational design. "Here's the deal," they all told each other, while the booming eighties steamed ahead. But in the end, when the boom went bust, when credit dried up and downtown office space became the single thing the American city had too much of, then the "deal" was all there was. The ruination of Block 37 is a quintessential Chicago story, and Ross Miller tells it with the passion of a native and the blistering honesty of a classic muck

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A vacant, three-acre block sits in the heart of downtown Chicago, still a gaping chasm six years after its "mad mix of high and low" stores, professional offices, retailers, theaters and seedy enterprises were demolished to make way for skyscrapers and gleaming emporiums. In an involving cautionary tale of greed, wheeling and dealing and shameful neglect of the public interest, Miller (American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago) traces the seeds of this fiasco to Mayor Richard Daley, who, beginning in the 1960s, endorsed the bulldozing of once-vital neighborhoods. The author faults a series of six regimes, including those of Chicago's first female mayor, Jane Byrne, and its first black chief executive, Harold Washington, for devising the category "economic blight," which permitted them to condemn commercial property, remove title from its owners and trade the property to speculators and land pirates who promised jobs and fatter tax rolls. FJV, the company committed to develop Block 37 since 1983, took seven years to get started after protests and lawsuits from preservationists, but the project, according to Miller, fell victim to the office building glut, the overdevelopment craze and a credit crunch. Photos. (Feb.)
Bonnie Smothers
Ross Miller, architectural critic and urban historian (also nephew of the playwright Arthur Miller), investigates the existence of a gutted block in downtown Chicago and interprets the failure to erect grand city buildings on the site, after Mayor Daley's successful machinations to rip the land from its owners, as symbolic of the state of the nation's great urban cities. At the heart of Miller's story is the pure deal--" the highly ritualized quid pro quo of power sharing" that "worked not on muscle, but purely on mutual advantage" --to illustrate the secretive business between private real-estate professionals and local government; the federal government got in on the action by awarding cities open-ended urban renewal grants. Miller's players are the late mayor Richard Daley and real-estate tycoon Arthur Rubloff, the relentless Charles Swibel, a developer and notorious real-estate adviser to Daley and subsequent majors, architect Helmut Jahn, and a cast of hundreds. It is a byzantine game, and Miller is so caught up in tracing, and retracing, the backgrounds of the players that repetitions show up and strands of arguments are left unresolved. Nevertheless, it is an insightful analysis of big-city politics that will receive much attention inside, and outside, Chicago.
Kirkus Reviews
A strange tale of race and power politics in the putative cause of urban renewal.

Miller (English/Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs), a longtime student of Chicago's architectural history (American Apocalypse, 1990), relates a story of how ward-heeling politics led to the unforeseen destruction of Block 37, a northside zone noted for shops, restaurants, and theaters catering to a middle class that, in the late 1960s and early '70s, began to shift from white to black. Mayor Richard Daley, Miller writes, saw in that shift a neighborhood inevitably going to seed, and in that deterioration a threat to his power. His response was to declare Block 37 a candidate for urban renewal, and he ordered his planners to make way for a mighty new complex of skyscrapers that would bring the big money back to the Loop in defiance of white flight to the suburbs. What he launched instead was a flurry of speculation, as developers bought and sold properties for vastly inflated prices, prefiguring the more notorious feeding frenzies of the 1980s. By calling for renewal, Miller argues, Daley sowed the seeds for Block 37's destruction: Where skyscrapers were to stand are now gaping holes and piles of rubble, the detritus of a real-estate boom gone bust. In telling his story, Miller sometimes falls into roman-noir prose ("Larry Levy had sold these big-time developers on this marooned strip of downtown as effortlessly as he hawked a flat slice of cheesecake at Kaplan's"). Although dealing with a cast of moneyed Jewish speculators and Irish and Italian heavies, Miller lays on the ethnic clichés a bit too thickly for comfort, and he tends to moralize needlessly throughout a story whose moral lessons lie close to the surface.

Still, this is a sobering look at the destructive combination of big money and urban politics—a story played out all too often in recent American history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780394589992
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/19/1996
Edition description:
1st ed
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
6.65(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.22(d)

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