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Overview


In this witty combination of memoir and observation, Thomas Geoghegan addresses the widespread cynicism about our government and explores what it means to be a "national" civil servant and a "local" citizen.

"This is unlike any public-policy book I've ever read: part Catcher in the Rye, part The Road to Wigan Pier, part The Federalist Papers, it is mesmerizing, rueful, painfully honest, and never, ever dull."—Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test

"Extraordinary. It has the essential trait of a memorable book, in that after reading it you look at daily life in a lastingly different way." —James Fallows, author of Breaking the News

"[Geoghegan] has written a book that is not only compelling to read but that provokes us to seriously reflect on the choices we make and how we spend our time." —Jonathan Coleman, Washington Post Book World

"Geoghegan's language is playful. . . . Personal reminiscence mixing with historical anecdote, dipping into complex themes . . . shifting from wistful nostalgia to dark comedy." —Robert B. Reich, New York Times Book Review

"A truly strange and wonderful book." — William Finnegan

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Editorial Reviews

Jason Zengerle
About a third of the way through his new book, The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life, Thomas Geoghegan alludes to Nietzsche's observation that every philosophy is disguised autobiography. Nietzsche, of course, was rebuking philosophers who claim to construct objective theories of the world when in truth they are merely addressing their own experience. Geoghegan, it seems, has taken that rebuke to heart. In The Secret Lives of Citizens, he spins a political tract out of a memoir, dropping the disguise of objectivity altogether.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, for a work of political theory, The Secret Lives of Citizens is eminently readable, and Geoghegan has some insights that are well worth reading. In recounting his professional life -- from his internship at the New Republic to a stint in Jimmy Carter's Department of Energy to his past 20 years as a political activist and public-interest lawyer in Chicago -- he wrestles with the question of what it means to be a good citizen in late-20th century America. Or, as he puts it: "Under FDR? I could start a union. Under JFK? I could join the Peace Corps. Under LBJ? Go to the inner city and teach a child. But under Carter and Clinton, the two Democrats of my adult life? They didn't give us anything to do."

So Geoghegan goes out on his own. He serves as one of the few white volunteers on the campaign of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington. He attempts to force the municipal government to do something about a tuberculosis outbreak afflicting the poor by digging up a 19th century public health law and filing suit against the city. He writes a play and tries to stage it, in the vain hope of creating a civic experience. He pushes a vague proposal for redefining the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act to combat poverty. If these efforts seem small and futile -- well, they are. But at a time when Americans lead remarkably atomized lives, at least Geoghegan is still trying to connect.

That said, The Secret Lives of Citizens ultimately suffers from its efforts to connect with the reader. Geoghegan's autobiographical approach to political ideas is frustrating. Instead of just saying what he means, he plugs his politics into the story of his life. He presents every argument in the form of a pithy conversation with a friend frequently identified by a lone initial. He accompanies every citation of an authoritative source, be it Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life or Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization, with the information that he himself struggled to understand it. And he relates every fact, no matter how dry and mundane, to himself. For example, when he wants to point out that in 1993 more Poles than Mexicans emigrated to Chicago, he frames the statistic in the context of "a question I toss out at parties." He must go to some really dull parties.

Not that his personal experience shouldn't have a bearing on his politics. Indeed, in some ways it's refreshing that Geoghegan can be so candid about the ways his own situation -- whether it's his fears about being single for the rest of his life or his inability to find a parking space on his block -- has played a role in his political development. But in the end his arguments have to resonate with more people than just himself. And unfortunately, by writing his political manifesto as an undisguised memoir, Geoghegan has cast his appeal to an audience of one.
Salon

Timothy Noah
If...Spalding Gray were a Washington policy wonkthis is what he would sound like....[Geoghegan] is sincerely angry about his country's weak commitment to social justiceand deadly serious about finding a way to revive the spirit of the Progressive movement and the New Deal....[This] book should e read simply because it's elegant and funny and sharply intelligent. —The Washington Monthly
Robert B. Reich
His is a whimsical, personal journey that never quite gets anywhere but stops at a lot of interesting and oddball spots along the way....What's a citizen to do? It's the serious question that lies at the heart of the book, but Geoghegan answers it ironically....With liberal passions gone and Chicago hollowing out, the author never quite decides.
The New York Times Book Review
Adam Liptak
In his odd, splendid new book [Geoghegan] is a bit sheepish about making his political points; he hides them in a swirl of bitter anecdote and digression.
New York Observer
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Geoghegan's politics are anything but politic. In Which Side Are You On, he mounted a spirited defense of American labor unions, heaping opprobrium not only on union-busting politicos and captains of industry but also on incompetent and corrupt labor leadership. His new book is a personal memoir written in a vinegary, colloquial style that sounds spoken from a squeaky bar stool in one of the author's beloved Chicago dives where pictures of dead aldermen adorn the walls. Geoghegan recalls working for Harold Washington's mayoral campaign, explains what it was like to work for the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., and muses on how, in a thousand ways, the old Chicago of machine patronage and smoke-filled rooms was more democratic than the new Chicago of faceless managers and yuppie noodle parlors. He is by turns disgusted and flabbergasted at the extent to which, in his view, the country has abandoned government for the precarious shelter of the market. The subtitle is a nod to a book by Herbert Croly, the founder of the New Republic, who believed that the purpose of government is to raise the standard of living, not just the GNP. "Now," Geoghegan laments, "even Democrats... have trouble saying it. Now we say, equal opportunity. College loans. Clinton begs people, 'Don't give up hope.' How dreadful. A Democrat, begging like that. 'Don't give up! Maybe your child will do well on his SATs!'" Funny and informed, with a proudly bleeding heart, Geoghegan is one of the most passionate and persuasive throwbacks to New Deal liberalism.
Robert B. Reich
His is a whimsical, personal journey that never quite gets anywhere but stops at a lot of interesting and oddball spots along the way....What's a citizen to do? It's the serious question that lies at the heart of the book, but Geoghegan answers it ironically....With liberal passions gone and Chicago hollowing out, the author never quite decides.
The New York Times Book Review
Timothy Noah
If...Spalding Gray were a Washington policy wonk, this is what he would sound like....[Geoghegan] is sincerely angry about his country's weak commitment to social justice, and deadly serious about finding a way to revive the spirit of the Progressive movement and the New Deal....[This] book should e read simply because it's elegant and funny and sharply intelligent.
The Washington Monthly
Kirkus Reviews
Meet political essayist and attorney Geoghegan, an unrepentant liberal, i.e., a living anachronism. With power moving from the center to the periphery and political involvement essentially defined as local activism, Geoghegan (Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back) reminds us that Lincoln went to war to establish the primacy of the Union, not the states. His heresies include doubting the wisdom of state governments—"When the states do look good, which is hardly ever, it's always because of something Washington, D.C. is really doing"—and crediting government with making cities "blossom" in recent years. He doesn't claim that the federal government is doing a good job; his point of departure from conservatives is that he wants it to do a good job rather than to disappear. For Geoghegan, the tragic story of recent decades is that we have "lost the art, the old art, of running a Central Government." Unfortunately, his message is mostly lost in a volume of personal stories that are more self-indulgent than illustrative. We learn about his experiences in national politics in Washington, D.C., and his experiences in local politics. We learn that he believes American life should produce increasing prosperity for everyone, not just improve the chances that some will get rich, and we learn of his liberal prejudices for cities and the East and against the suburbs, countryside, and the South and West in what hopefully is self-parody. We certainly learn that Geoghegan is a talented writer, entertaining not only as a political novelty but as a storyteller with an eye for the amusing turn of events and phrase. But we do not learn enough about how hislife links up to the themes of government and citizenship to put the pieces of this book together into a coherent whole. Fun to read, but unlikely to help fulfill any promise of liberalism.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226287645
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2012
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 246
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Geoghegan is a labor lawyer in Chicago and recently authored In America's Court.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


There Is No One City


WHEN I WAS THIRTY AND SICK OF D.C., I THOUGHT: "OH, GO! Just pick out a city and be a citizen of it!"

    It was 1979, everyone was going. I decided, there must be a city, maybe to the North.

    But for an American the problem is: There is no one city. Not like Paris is for the French, or London for the British.

    Oh, there's Boston, Seattle, Cities of the Fabulous Coffees. And New York and L.A., Cities of the Fabulous Jobs.

    But each one I picked up and turned over like a silver goblet, I always thought I saw a flaw.

    Boston? Too many kids. Toy town. Seattle? City of Silly Bicycles. L.A.? Or for that matter, Atlanta?

    How do I know I'm not there now? Maybe there is only one city in the U.S., and the airlines just circle one airport, and I get back on the same interstate, and check in the same Radisson.

    Ever notice on the interstate how the "green" on the ramp sign is the same green in every city? That's odd, isn't it?

    But then there's New York, where the Radisson is unaffordable.

    "Oh New York!" my old teacher Sam B. once said. "New York, it's still the mecca, isn't it?" Oh Sam, if only it were! If it was 1940, and it was the New York of Auden and Frank Loesser, my life would have been simple. But by 1979, when I had to choose ... uck, all the old wet New Yorkers, lying sodden on the sidewalks.

    "It was the only city," I told Steve, "where even the orange juice looks pestilential."

    "The only city," he said, "where you can take a shower and not get clean."

    Anyway, who can be a citizen in New York? It's a place one would go to dial a "900" number, like "1-900-I-C-O-N-F-E-S-S," and at the other end there's the mayor, whispering some private repulsive fantasy.

    No, I wanted to be a citizen, like Cincinnatus. Roman farmer, who left his plow, saved the city. I was born in Cincinnati, and I thought of my grandfather like that: he had left his business, insurance, to be a county commissioner in the Depression, 1932. I remember him as an old man, hands out, blessing his grandchildren. It would take us half an hour to walk a block, people coming up to shake his hand.

    "Maybe," I thought, "I can live like he did, end my days, with my own grandson holding my hand."

    But I needed a city, right?

    It's what Aristotle says in The Politics. It's the lesson of the Buddha: "You need a base."

    It's what they all said to Kafka, when he started out: "You need a base."

    Sure: a base, then it's a block, soon it's just a single room.

    But I had to take a risk, find a city to vote in, use up half an hour to walk a block.

    Because I remember the famous story of the man who said: "In the 1920s I went to Paris, because everyone went to Paris then; and later to New York, because everyone went to New York then; and later to L.A., because everyone went to L.A. then.... And really the whole time I should have just picked out some place and stayed there!"

    Well I did do that. I knew the city I wanted: I wanted a big, disheveled city, Catholic and alcoholic, to shut myself up in:

    To breathe into me an immortal soul.

    Be a citizen and a voter, for a thousand and one nights.

    I picked out Chicago, our political city. Precinct workers knocking on doors. It would get me out of my room.

    And the whole thing ended badly. Now in one or two city elections, I've lost even the heart to vote. Walk a block, know no one, OK: But stop voting?

    I'm unsure of the exact year I first tried it, maybe 1991. I was getting off the El and thinking, "I can still make it," but I now know I was trying not to. Then I panicked and began to run, past the Red Tomato to Bert Weinman Ford.

    Are you shocked? Want me to say what happened next?

    A cop was standing at Weinman's. "Sorry. All over."

    "All over? No," I said, "it's 6:59!"

    "It's closed."

    And at that moment I felt a thrill. I'd come to vote against Daley, and I couldn't remember his opponent.

    But though there was a thrill, the shame was: I'd never live like my grandfather. Or even have a grandson.

    So why had I even come to Chicago? It was a good city, I thought, to cast my ballet.

    I thought I could have it all: Augustine, The City of God. And The Adventures of Augie March.

    I wanted it ethical and elegant.

    Urban and urbane.

    And dark bars like the one, the other night, where Ann was in the black dress, and singing.

    I once thought this would be such a serious city. And out here I could concentrate on being an American, not like being on the coasts with people peering in from abroad.

    But slowly even this city became, well ... silly. But that's the problem: every city in America seems the same now, doesn't it?

    One half: Girls, in tennis whites, dawdling over cat calendars.

    The other half: Babies, in crack houses, sitting in feces.

    I feel at times split in half myself. But is it the city's fault I'm split like this, or is it really mine?


THIS MUST BE THE CITY!


When I came here, I had the sense that Chicago was the best place to be a citizen. I got this idea from books I'd read in college. I think of the great writers on republics.


Machiavelli on small republics
Harrington on compound republics
Madison on large republics


    They wrote the great prophetic books. From these I got my reasons:

    First, number. Chicago had three million, the same as the U.S. at the time of our founding. As late as 1960, that was still enough people to elect a John Kennedy! The Founders whispered, "This is the right number."

    Second, wards. It was divided into wards. One alderman or "councilman" per ward. Fifty aldermen. Too many? It was the one alderman city, big city, that had so many wards.

    It's easy to drive around it, since it's all blocks, and grids, and wards. "Now why," you think, "is that important?" It's the ward, Hannah Arendt wrote, in her book On Revolution, that is the "organ" which comes, spontaneously, from every revolution. Paris, 1789. Paris, 1871. Petrograd, 1918: suddenly, there's the ward. Even Thomas Jefferson, she wrote, tried, at the end, to cut the country up in wards.

    In his Northwest Ordinance, everything is blocks and grids. So in the Midwest, we'd be wired like cable to think in terms of squares and wards.

    That's why, I always believed, people in Chicago do "think politically," and why it is our political city: it's the "red" city. Haymarket, Grant Park, always on the political bubble.

    Anyway, it's Jefferson, not Daniel Burnham, who did this. That's the second reason the Founders said, "Go."

    Third, and this may sound odd, flatness.

    My brother, when he first saw the city, hit on it: "Nothing, not a hill, between these neighborhoods, rich and poor, white and black...."

    A flat city crackles politically. When there's a big storm, electrical, we're all out in the open, in a public square.

    My first days! September 1979, I was thrilled. First, I'd found the right ward. Up north in Rogers Park, on the lake, I could pad to the sand in my bare feet. And drink two cans of Old Style, and smoke cigars, and toast the seagulls, circling.

    By municipal tennis courts: as bleak as the New Deal's.

    Second, did I ever meet aldermen! Everyone I knew:


My roommate, David, was an alderman (ward 49).
My employer, Len, had been an alderman (ward 5).
On the El, I met a girl, red hair, the niece of an alderman (ward 48?).


    The numbers 49, 5, 48 ... and how many more would I know by the first snow? I could see myself asking a date, "Dinner in 8?" Back then I seemed to table-hop wards. And 49 was deli, 48 Vietnamese, and 44 was Sather's ... and I just didn't notice as the years went by (1983, 1987, 1991) how with each election the city was shrinking. Maybe not in absolute terms (though it was), but relative to the bigger suburban darkness and beyond.

    Then one day after grazing in every ward, I noticed: it's shrunk! Sure I was still a citizen of the city, but what happened to the charge?

    I'd go in, pick up my ballot, there wasn't even a little spark.

    I should have seen it coming, when Ed Sadlowski said he was at a ball game, "And I saw a guy actually TIP THE VENDOR!"

    Yes, the city as a boxing gym, and now it all seems punchless. The old Chicago gone ... the Chicago where the median age was sixty-two, and people were fat, and I was the youngest guy in the bar.

    "Who lost Chicago?" I sometimes blame it on the kids.

    The other day I sat in Tucci Milan with a friend.

    "Don't quote me," he said.

    "I don't want to be quoted either."

    "But I think all the cities were more exciting in the 1970s."

    "Of course it could just be our age."

    "No, the city is dull now, don't you think?"

    But what appalls me is these kids, corporate types, little earrings, who sip martinis, they don't even know where their wards are.

    The noodle shops have all smudged the lines. And with the kids, being here, and not voting, they've taken the punch out of the city.

    They roam from noodle shop to noodle shop, they don't know the numbers of their wards.

    Oh sure, blame it on the kids. It's just as much my fault, when I stopped going to meetings. Now Tocqueville said: that's the first duty of an American, to go to a meeting, to "associate." The older I got, the harder it was to go to a meeting that starts at 7 P.M.

    First, I had to have my fix, i.e., my jogging began to get worse.

    But which came first, the running or the running from meetings? It's all a form of "fight or flight." At 6:00 P.M., I can go over to Lake Shore Drive, and see people like buffalo in Nikes thundering up the cinder paths.

    What are they running from? They're running from meetings. Because now we meet for a living, and we meet all day.

    And at night, we run faster, and now this in turn creates another crisis: "I have to eat!" Running is a kind of a drug, after all, so now people have the munchies, and they have to go out to eat. Who can go to a meeting?

    It's true, I could come late. But then people would stare, "Oh, his hair is wet," and shake their heads, "Oh boy, he's on endorphins."

    Second, wasn't I scared of the people in there? These are people who have been in meetings all day! Oh sure, in Tocqueville's day, the 1830s, I'd have gone to a meeting at night! Out in the woods, lonely all day. And if I went to one, everyone else would be an amateur like me.

    Now if I walk in, it's a roomful of ... pros, foundation people. Meeting vampires. All day at other places out at O'Hare, the meeting airport, where they've been sucking blood from conferees around the U.S.

    Finally, our jobs, the hours. Even if I could come by at 7:00! They'd whisper, "He can't be much of a lawyer!" Oh sure, if I were in Europe I could meet, but I'd be out of work at 4:00 or 5:00. But we work 1,700 hours a year, on average, they work 1,400: apart from vacation differences, the hours spent at work each week are not much different. Maybe two extra hours off a day. But doesn't Civil Society live or die in these one or two elusive hours?

    Of course we could just shorten our meetings.

    That's my agony ... how to get the things to stop? I've tried it all: summing up, not summing up.

    Lately I've tried grinning at people, grinning until they stop ... the way, they say, Davy Crockett tried to "grin a bear."

    And as Chicago became punchless, I even came to blame the mayor, Rich Daley. Now my old activist friends like C. rage at him: "I hate him, I HATE HIM!" C.'s an organizer, and she hates the way he goes around and tells people to stay in their homes. "Don't come out, the city'll take care of this!"

    It's not his fault, is it, that the city can't punch in a president or even a governor?

    No, it's not Daley. It's just why punch at all in a city that's shrinking?

    Once, the Second City. Now? Not even second in Illinois. We're third. The first is suburbia, especially DuPage County, out to the west. DuPage is where you can get a job: that is if you're out there already, with a house and a car. It's mean, white, Republican: its boss, "Pate" Philip, is the head of the state senate. Now in Springfield, DuPage outclouts us all. Pitiful for me to blame Daley for that. In a way the mayor is even ... well, disarming. Even now, over fifty-six, he's still "Rich," the boy mayor. It is disarming how he's not in DuPage. He is still in the city, even though he seems to belong, almost umbiblically, to the Weber grill.

    Of course, where in the city is he? The old mayor, he was in a bungalow, people could drive by.

    His son, in a private complex, who really knows where?

    But he's still here, right? Since 1960, just think ... over 1.5 million ethnic whites have left!

    It's true he has voting stats like Dad. But here's the one stat that shows his real power:


Suburbs (six counties)
Downstate
City
4.5 million
4.2 million
2.8 million


    "The Suburbs," which are the Lost City of Old Dick Daley, wandering like the Ten Tribes, are not just out of Rich Daley's control. They're in control of him! Chicago, the city magazine, asks each year:

    "Who Runs Chicago?"

    Of course, the magazine always lists Daley as No. 1.

    He's number one, because he can still tow away my car? But guys like Pate and Jim Edgar, the governor, who don't even live here, can tow away the whole city.

    Now in theory that's impossible because Chicago has home rule. But what is home rule? "We don't have to wear our motorcycle helmets if the State tells us."

    But on anything really important, we in the city are like flies to wanton boys. Three examples:

    1. In 1995, over the screaming of city Democrats, the State simply abolished ... poof ... the city's school board.

    Well now Daley says, oh that's what I wanted Jim Edgar to do. Sure. And it's true that he did get the power to appoint a new board, so he would now get the blame for the city's collapsing public schools. But Daley had no choice. It was the State of Illinois, unilaterally, that had lined him up against the wall.

    (And did other mean things, like crippling the city teachers' union.)

    2. Then it almost took away O'Hare! Our airport! What is the city but O'Hare! But the suburbs wanted it, and Daley saved it, i.e., city property, only by signing a pact with the city of Gary, Indiana, to help Chicago run the airport. So now, technically, it's an "interstate" airport, and under a special federal law, the State of Illinois can't grab it away.

    But what an escape! I thought we'd have to go out, like militia, and ring the airport, to keep the National Guard from seizing it at night.

    Boss? Hard to be boss, when they can break and enter at will.

    3. And what about the bread of the poor? Even that, it turns out, is now handed out from Springfield. Medicaid, welfare, we have to go there and beg. What if we run out of food? Springfield, where is it? How do you get there?

    It's 197 miles away. Too close to fly, and too far to drive, as people say, and devised, almost maniacally, to always be beyond our reach.

    When did the state take over the city? I began to notice, going to ball games, and one day I nudged a guy, who was tipping a vendor:

    "Say, when did all the ball teams begin to come from states?"


Colorado Rockies
Texas Rangers
Florida Marlins


    Was it when states started to seize airports? And impose martial law on the poor? And more troubling, when I'm at the park, when I think about this as a citizen, what is the team ... city, state, or federal ... that I'm playing on now? How confusing now to be a citizen activist. Once, there were three or four ways any young activist could "change the world."

    Now I doubt that any of them really work. What would?


1. Go to D.C.? Too much gridlock.
2. Sue in the public interest? The courts are too scared.
3. Work for the unions? They're busted, mostly.
4. Cities? They've been busted too, in terms of power.


    Indeed, I have brooded about this: I think the one great thing now would be to run for state rep.

    Now when I came here, that would have seemed nuts. Alderman: that was the great thing. I actually dreamed, once, I guess, sort of, it was a fantasy, of being an alderman. Walk around. People would know my name.

    Now the paradox is, if I really want to help my city like this, I'd have to leave it, I'd have to be a state rep. It's odd, I used to think the horror of politics was ... well, knocking, going to their apartments. Now, why worry? As the voting rate drops and drops, I think, "I can invite them to my apartment."

    Of course my place isn't big enough. Yet.

    But if the voting drops at the 1950 to 1996 rate for presidential races (i.e., from nearly 80 percent to under 50 percent), I could, one day, have them all over.

    In some suburban elections I could invite them all over for brunch.

    Here's something chilling I saw in the paper. In Belarus, the president canceled the election because only 60 percent of the voters showed up. Now, I know this is a pretext, but at least, they could even think of it as a pretext!

    Anyway, I no longer worry about going door to door. No, the sad, evil thing now would be: to give up my city, the reason I came here.

    Drive ... 197 miles, slowly, like Lincoln's funeral train. I see myself surrounded by kids, on rollerblades, the "voters." I'd say, "Kids, to save the city, I have to leave it.... Go down there and talk to your parents."

    They'll weep and oh ... pierce their ears. It sounds strange: that to be a state rep, that's how one really is an alderman now. How many even know their state reps? Or better, how many know, for sure, the last time they voted for a state rep? One year ago, or maybe two, or fifteen? If they canceled the office, how many years would pass before anyone would really notice?


ANYWAY, THE PROBLEM IS, where is the place I can connect with the whole city? I mean even the parts that lie outside the city walls. Oh, they're out, sometimes past O'Hare, out among the trees. Oak Forest, Forest Oak, Oak Lawn. Dark places, no sunlight, where people have to file Freedom of Information, just to get the names of their mayors. What if I lived there? One day a hearse honking: "We're taking you to Forest Lawn." The weird thing is, at moments, the people out there still think they're living in Chicago.

    The kids, out there, as they grow up, have a strange way of talking: "You from Chicago?" "Yeah." "Which suburb?"

    But it is a good question, isn't it? Which: There's Oak Park, where they sell the Financial Times. Or Riverdale, with a crime rate worse than ours. "There is no one suburb." Yet every night at 10:00 they all sit down for the Channel 2, or 5, or 7 News, to watch "us" back in the city, see what "Chicago" is doing, which aldermen are fighting their indictments, all to entertain "them."

    The saddest thing of all: to watch another person's government on TV. I think about some of them after they flick it off, go to bed, begin to sob, shaking in their sleep. They know they used to live here, or should live here. And now ... they don't even have a government to watch.

    It's why I believe they're so enraged about city crime. "Why?" says an academic. "It doesn't affect them." Even when that's true, it's still taking place back in their homeland, the ancestral home. It's back in the old public square, where they used to gather. It seems wrong for it to be there. Who cares about crime in Riverdale? But the city ... and each year, it's more and more gorgeous, like a wedding feast from which guests in RVs have been turned away. And what have they been given? Villages, untelevised.

    Water districts, like handfuls of dust.

    I too would be in a rage.


THIS BUILT-UP OUTER GOVERNMENT is baffling. No rational account of it is possible. A lawyer friend who deals with local and state government says, "Even I can't understand it."

    Ms. Radtke of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission tells me: In our six-county area, there are nearly 1,300 "governments." OK, some are like mosquito abatement districts, etc. But there are, she says, 268 municipalities.

    Now, just imagine, from the top of the Sears Building: out there, 269 municipalities! Maybe 240 with the mayors elected for life. No one even knows them on the street. Ms. Radtke claims we have more governments in our ... uh, area, if that's the word ... than there are even in Massachusetts.

    What kind of vision, broken up like this, can we have of the city now?

    James Madison and the Founders wanted a large republic, because a large republic, he said, would enlarge our views. We'd think in bigger terms than, say, O'Hare.

    So I can moan about how we live in little burblets, how they're so small, too small even to haul away the trees.

    Indeed, we seem to live among the trees, Oak Forest, etc. That's the problem with having 1,300 governments: they're too small to check and balance the state. And with no one looking, and the local governments like cities becoming smaller, the state usurps their role. For example, as few seem to know, the state here has put caps on taxes that local governments can levy. So in the case of Cicero, it's not Cicero but the state that puts a ceiling on what Cicero spends.

    Then there's the secret government, or the government that's not just off TV, but virtually off the books, for example, the "state-city boards." As my friend Myer says, "They control the real prizes ..."


Who builds the Bears stadium?
Who builds the third airport?
Who builds ... if they do build ... the casinos?


    So I laugh, I scoff: This is what Daley and Springfield fight over. Does the mayor get two seats on the board, or one.

    But come on ... do I really want Pate Philip to get them all? Sometimes, I think, we do have to go down there.


YOU HAVE TO GO DOWN THERE


Yes. Bring back a skybox. No, I had other reasons to run for state rep. What? Well, defend the poor. It's now the state, not the city (and not Washington), where one does the battle.

    And, well, I had other reasons.

    One night in Laschet's, a bar, I complained to Tony how I'd gotten a fundraising letter from an old crush, and now she was running for office.

    "So?"

    "So? Well at least she put a personal note at the end. But she's ... being a citizen, you know? What am I doing?"

    "Want to run for office? Run for office!"

    "No, no, I'm not worthy, etc."

    "But your issue. Why would you run?"

    "Yes, why would I run, really? I mean other than envy? She's doing it, so why can't I?"

    I tried to think of an issue.... "Well, it might improve my social life."

    He lit up. "That's it! That's the issue ... Looking for the right girl."

    "I can't run on that!"

    But later Tony and M. took me to lunch, to talk over, well, the race. "Have you seen a map of the district?"

    "No."

    "You should."

    "Yeah," Tony said. "Get a copy of the paper, the B__."

    "I, I have to read that?"

    The B__ is a neighborhood newpaper, pictures of grade school kids who got into high school.

    "Well," said Tony, "how much money will he need?"

    "Hm." M. gave a figure, which I can't remember.

    "But look," I said, "nobody knows me."

    They laughed.

    "You can buy name recognition."

    Not with my name, I thought.

    "What you need," M. said, "the one thing you have to have, is a lot of friends."

    "But," I almost wailed, "if I run for office, I won't have any friends."

    Of course who cares once you're in, right? But that's the paradox: at first, to run, you really do need a lot of friends. Too many friends.

    "But isn't this what you wanted?"

    I argued it over and over. What if I'd lose?

    I had a friend who lost. I remember how I came across him wandering around the Loop. It was his first day back, he said, after his loss. I took him to lunch. He sipped tea. He smiled, "This is a good day."

    He'd lost and now was $40,000 in debt. I stared in horror. What if this were me?

    Friends would take me to lunch. I'd sip tea. Say slowly, "This is a good day."

    No, no no. But on the other hand, what if I won?

    Well, I'd be in Springfield. "He so loved the city," he went down there and gave it up. What agony. The hotel every night! Yes, but I could do something for the poor. That's where the battle is.

    But what about the "stings"? I read now about the mass indictments of aldermen, over ten of them in the last five years.

    In a story the alderman with the "wire" is quoted as saying, "You know a guy is on the take if, when he's offered a bribe he says, `Oh. That's not necessary.'"

    I gasped when I read this. "Might not I, being polite, say, `Oh. That's not necessary'? And then click. Handcuffs. Ten years in Statesville.

    And what of other horrors? A friend of mine was telling me what she saw outside her window. Friday night, at 2:00 A.M. A car pulled up, with a spotlight, and shone it all over a local pol's house. The guy had a megaphone, on the car roof, and was shouting, "X, YOU ASSHOLE, COME ON OUT! COME ON OUT!"

    He shot the spotlight wildly all over the house, and kept screaming, "COME ON OUT!"

    I told Tony, "See, that'd be me! What would I say to the neighbors?"

    "Say: `I'm just happy that people feel they can come to me at any hour.'"

    No, no, I'm out.

    One thing that haunted me, though, was a remark from my friend Gus, "Think of all the deals you could see."

    I could see them from up here. No, he was right, I should go down.

    And if I cared about the inequality, the poor, that's where I could do something. But do what? Government by discussion ... with these guys?

    I backed off from running. Later I had an experience that made me feel I'd done the right thing, I guess.

    It was on Good Friday, at night, I was light-headed, I'd fasted ... that means, for me, I had postponed dinner.

    Anyway I went to a Whole Foods and saw J., a woman I knew, coming out of Transitions, a New Age bookstore.

    Now it's true J. lobbies for the good causes in Illinois, but she's tough, hard-knuckled, so I was surprised to see her coming out of ... well, that store.

    "Oh," she said, "I was buying tapes."

    Let it pass, I thought.

    She went on, "Yes, from over there. I play them when I drive down to Springfield. When the Republicans won in '94, I thought, `What am I going to do? How am I going to deal with this?' I mean, they'll cut everything. But still I ... I couldn't do this job if I think of them as evil."

    "Sure."

    "So ... I buy tapes, and I try to think positive thoughts, kind thoughts."

    "About ... about these Republicans?" (It was a question.)

    She frowned, "Yes, what else am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to hate them? I can't be like S."

    "No."

    "And the other thing I do, I get these Rush Limbaugh tapes and pop them in, for the drive, the whole three hours. By the time I pull into Springfield, some of these ... legislators, they seem almost reasonable."

    I was dizzy.

    "Now," she said, "you could say, `Well, why do this?' But lately I've been able to get some deals. Now maybe I'm kidding myself, and none of these deals will hold, but ..."

    I was starving.

    Later, eating alone, I thought, "Maybe, to deal for the poor, you do have to play the tapes."


I NOW THINK, "Forget Springfield, build a city up here." Try to heal the broken vision, and think of city and inner suburb together as one city. "Yes, the battle really is up here in Chicago," I think.

    A while ago, I went to a speech by a state legislator from Minnesota. His topic was "building bridges" between the city and (inner) suburbs. Cicero, Maywood, Riverdale, they have many of the problems of Chicago: crime, poverty, even gangs. In some cases, their tax bases are in decline, while Chicago's has shot up. The outer suburbs are the common foe, sticking us with the poverty, crumbling schools. Pitiful to drive past the old malls of the inner burbs: some are just used car lots.

    Forty people in the room. Where were they from? the moderator asked.

    "Who's here from downtown civic organizations?"

    A few hands.

    "Who's from the governor's task force?"

    Sounds like a chain gang, doesn't it?

    "Who's from the better housing groups?"

    The roll call went on. The associations seemed to outnumber even the people in the seats. Then came our speaker from Minnesota. He told us how in his state, the city and suburb even work together on tax issues. He said they sought to replace the local school property tax, which is inequitable, with the income tax.

    "What?" someone yelled, "That would put us even more in the State's power!"

    "Why is it," Mary next to me said softly, "why is it these guys are always from Minnesota?"

    The legislator went on with the story of Minnesota, how the churches helped heal things, etc.

    "So, yes," he said, "we have to think region wide."

    "This is Chicago!" someone said. "We don't even think city wide." But how wonderfully high-minded it would be for us in the city to march out to DuPage, and say, "Bad enough to abandon the city ... did you also have to abandon the poor little Inner Burbs?"


THE OTHER DAY AT THE ITALIAN VILLAGE, in a kind of darkness-at-noon, I had lunch with Tim, who used to work with Harold Washington the mayor. At the end of his life, Harold thought about a city-suburb coalition, Tim said. As a black mayor, he didn't want to become isolated.

    Oddly enough, Daley seems to think less about it, we agreed.

    At the time there was much press as to how Daley had unified the city, made it stronger. No more arguing, turmoil, as there was under Harold Washington.

    But as a result, the voting has dropped. Especially for blacks, who, as an academic friend moaned, "are so isolated, cut off, even from Hispanics."

    Yes there was turmoil under Harold, but didn't people come out to vote? "Tim," I asked, "don't you think Republicans in Springfield used to fear him, because he could turn out so many voters?"

    "Sure," he said.

    "In Springfield, didn't they worry that Harold ... well, in a statewide race, he could take a guy out."

    Tim said, "And did."

    Now he's dead.

    Now Daley's unified the city. And so no one votes, which is fine by him.

    In Springfield now, well, what's to worry?


THE CITY BLOOMS


But the city blooms, even as it becomes weaker politically. When I say the city blooms, I have to explain what I mean by city.

    As my demographer friend J. said, there are two cities. "There's the old Chicago, the old city ... that's dead. But inside that old city, there's another city. It's white hot. It's ... it's not Lincoln Park, it's what I'd call `Greater Lincoln Park.'" He meant: the spiraling out of the primal ur-Yuppie neighborhood. He got me to think of it as a city.

    "It has a population of 1.1 million, it's a city the size of greater New Orleans."

    And Daley is like a master of revels of this little city, the white hot "New Orleans."

    Meanwhile, in the outer-shell city, cold and dark, the ball is swinging, bam, bam, knocking the houses down.

    There's much talk of public housing coming down, Cabrini, etc., but it's the private housing stock that's going too. In the first half of 1996, a reporter found, the city was knocking down private buildings at the rate of TWO CITY BLOCKS A WEEK.

    OK, they're crack houses, etc., where children are dragged in and raped, but even if it's true ...

    Two city blocks a week?

    I said this to J., and he said, "Look, we have to tear the city down if it's going to come back."

    "All of it?"

    "We aren't tearing down all of it."

    He was annoyed, so he took me to a map: "Look at the little green lines. These are little rivers of green ... That's all new development." Looking at this map, I had an image of snakes: Loop professionals wriggling into places where I didn't think they belonged.

    I kept thinking of the two cities, the white-hot little one, throbbing, in the corpse of the old one.

    It turns out even the taxes are set up this way. More and more the Mayor is using "TIFs," or "tax increment financing" districts. Only a policy wonk like me would care about TIFs, but they really are the new "shame of the cities." A TIF is supposed to help a "blighted area," but someone decided the Loop is blighted. So that means all the new tax revenue from the Loop, fabulously wealthy, can only go back to the Loop. That's why the rich areas, taxwise, are like gated compounds. Their taxes can't leave!

    The rich get more fancy lampposts, while the poor get cut out of the city's boom.

    So, starved of tax money that belongs to me, my friends, the outer city crumbles. "But still," I thought, "how can the city tear down so much?" I asked Len, my colleague, about this.

    "Oh," he said, "they send out inspectors, who find building code violations. Then they go to building court, then they wait, till they collect a lot of judgments. Then they go and knock down a lot of buildings all at once."

    He paused, "And the owners are very pleased, often. It saves them the expense."

    Do I want the city to be full of these rotting crack houses? Of course not.

    But I feel badly that by kicking out the poor, the city is pushing its problems, the poor, I mean, over the city line.

    Now it's true, as J. cautions, we don't know if the poor are moving out to Riverdale or Harvey, or some other place, some suburban Devil's Island. We have to wait for the next census. But Riverdale and Harvey do have more poor. Does it matter if the poor are "out there"? Sure, because out in these midget burblets, there's no Big City for the poor to march on, no Daley to corner: "Give us food, give us jobs!"

    As the city, the "new" Chicago, becomes smaller ... and yes, weaker ... it is so much easier in a way to push out the poor. Push them, ah, just over the city line. Now it's the burbs' turn to cry: Maywood, other places. So as the city becomes weaker, it becomes stronger. As it loses people, it runs budgets in the black.

    Now that seems at first counterintuitive: the fewer people, the more the tax base of the city rises. That's true all over isn't it? I keep thinking of those numbers:

    Chicago (1947): 3.7 million

    Chicago (1998): 2.8 million

    And it seems to me that the smaller the old city gets, the more our civic imagination shrinks.

    It makes it easier to cut back food stamps and turn our glance away from mass poverty.

    But if Chicago is no longer as big, it actually looks like a bigger city. I mean the new postmodern buildings, glass, and the tops with little turrets and needles and minarets.

    I stare at those little turrets and minarets, many a night from my window.

    Maybe I can't be a citizen now of a big old-fashioned city but at least I can imagine how it used to be.

    It's ascended now into the sky like a skygod. There it is, every night.

    It burns and burns, but it never seems to burn up. From here, I can feel like I'm standing on holy ground, and should take off my shoes.

    It always reminds me how in cities once there were live men and women with large hearts, and they had the nerve, the imagination to see the country whole, and do such bold things--the New Deal, the Great Society, which had floors and minimums that no one in the city could go below. Still, I miss the time when the city wasn't just a view, but something that, as Madison might say, "enlarged our view."

    But unlike those days, it's easier to stand at night and see the city, oh, as a unity, as one work of art ... subspecie aeternitas.

    Sometimes I think, Oh, go live in a burb. Stop looking at a line of boxes.

    Yet I can't seem to stop looking at it, the way it hangs up there, and burns. What does it mean, this light that seems to travel from the distant past?

    Oh, I like to drive to Halsted and Chicago Street to look at it ... and, just stop, and look up at it. To see, every night, one city, all of us in a single city, the whole republic in a single glance.

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Table of Contents


1. There Is No One City
2. City of Fabulous Jobs
3. When They Burned the "White House"
4. In the Gridlock Archipelago
5. Known Down the Door
6. "Now Do You See Me, Mr. Mayor?"
7. City of Fabulous Plagues
8. A Ticket to DuPage
9. I'd Be Happier in D.C.
10. If I Could Park in My City
11. I'd Be Lonely in This City
12. City of Fabulous Kids
13. In the "White City"
Epilogue: The Promise
Acknowledgments
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