Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, suffered a fatal heart attack in his City Hall office the day before Thanksgiving 30 years ago. I was in the building that morning covering a City Council committee meeting for ABC 7, and our cameraman shot the memorable video of paramedics rushing a lifeless Washington into an elevator for a trip that ended at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where news of his death was confirmed.
That set off a tumultuous week of mournful tributes, raucous demonstrations and intense backroom dealing, culminating in a wild, all-night City Council meeting where aldermen elected a new mayor: Eugene Sawyer, a kindly but politically weak alderman who ran the city for two years before losing to Richard M. Daley in 1989.
I thought about those consequential days after a recent visit to the Loop library that bears Washington’s name with two of our grandchildren, who reveled in the fun of arts, crafts, books, blocks, puppets and story-telling in the children’s area.
It’s one of the many free downtown amenities I’m thankful for this holiday season as I reflect on Chicago’s past, present and future.
I started covering local news in 1972, when the first Mayor Daley— Richard J.—ran the infamous “Chicago Machine” the “Chicago Way.” Political leaders hired and promoted city workers—many of them friends, neighbors, family members and cronies—who, in turn, worked the precincts, dispensed the favors and turned out the vote on Election Day. Those same officials lobbed inflated contracts to businesses that made generous campaign contributions. Quid pro quo on steroids.
And what about us—the taxpayers whose hard-earned dollars paid for government? We got decent service from public employees some days and rude, dismissive treatment other days. Government was more of a cold, transactional business than an honest, citizen-friendly public service, and that contributed to failing schools, crumbling public housing, deteriorating parks and libraries, fiscal chicanery and endless corruption in city agencies and departments.
Harold Washington—a charismatic Democratic machine operative who slowly broke from the party orthodoxy—was swept into power by a grass roots reform movement that had finally found its messiah, and his four-plus years as mayor set a new course for Chicago. The black and Latino empowerment agenda—a fairer share of jobs, contracts and neighborhood improvements—was also an unspoken push for an open and more welcoming city in place of the insular political stronghold.
Slowly and often reluctantly, city officials cognizant of the close scrutiny they were under from tough federal prosecutors, vigilant government watchdogs and restive voters, began to support new housing and education programs, ethics and transparency measures, police reform and fiscal accountability
Mayors started turning to their well-heeled friends in the business, civic and philanthropic communities to help taxpayers fund new programs at Navy Pier, the Cultural Center and Harold Washington Library, and build the magnificent Millennium and Maggie Daley parks.
The downtown area, which already featured world-class cultural attractions, became a major destination for tourists and residents alike. It’s been a remarkable transformation.
Many Chicago neighborhoods are still beleaguered by decades-old ills, including poverty, joblessness and epic gun violence, and City Hall is still facing daunting fiscal challenges. But a new generation of leaders is tackling those prolems head-on in exciting new ways.
As head of the BGA, a civic watchdog organization, I often criticize government officials. But today I want to thank all the dedicated change agents for their commitment to a warmer, friendlier and more welcoming Chicago, a city that—fingers crossed—can, over time, feature more of the clean, safe, prosperous neighborhoods Harold Washington dreamed of.