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.
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 politicsa story played out all too often in recent American history.