Monday, April 13, 2009

The 2016 Olympics: Little Richard Wants His Tutti Fruti

Yesterday, as International Olympic Committee officials departed Chicago after their evaluation visit, the city’s leaders breathed a sigh of exhausted relief. Having girded their loins and put on their finest smiley faces for six whole days, the mayor, his aldermen, ward healers and hundreds of other concerned groups attached to the nourishing Democratic party teat, having temporarily put aside their class, race and gender differences, are all puffy-eyed and cranky.

This morning, over breakfast, my old friend, the stalwart state congressman Davey Z, was repeatedly rubbing his jaw. “I’m sow-ah from smilin’,” he says in his Bridgeport bray. “But it’ll be wort’ it, if we get it.”

The obsessive it so many of our movers and shakers shimmy to. The dream they all dream of. The pinnacle of the thin-aired precipice they aspire to gaze down on the rest of us powerless proles from.... ? Well, it’s called respect and our leaders insist that We want it. Yes: We!: All of us: The collective We. We, you see, want it! Why do We want it? Well, because We’ve not got it. Nobody respects Chicago, you see. People everywhere respect great cities like Munich, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, London, Milan and New York. But... Chicago? We’re most famous for corruption and gangsters. Actually, I’m okay with that, I come from a city-Manchester-whose name carries an even more ignominious reputation for Victorian oppression of its Catholic masses, cotton mills and street thuggery. Such reputations are meaningless to me. At any rate, I’ve lived here now for 32 years, although my friend, Congressman Davey Z believes that even in me, somewhere, buried deep down in my subconscious, there really is a need for civic pride. We hope our beautiful lakefront parks, the historic architecture of our downtown buildings and a joyous, ethnically diverse population has impressed them enough to win the 2016 Summer Games for our fair city.
For our Mayor, Richard M. Daley, after nineteen years in office, and never quite being seen or taken quite as seriously as his father, Richard J. Dailey, twenty-one years in the office, known in his time as the American Pharoah, or to be slightly less hyperbolic, the Warwick-the-Kingmaker of the Democratic Party, this visit has been the single most important week of his career. As the Justice Department diligently uses its federal Rico and Shakman Decree laws to slowly erode the power of the city’s Democratic machine, the little gentleman stutters more and more at his press conferences. No longer able to guarantee jobs and opportunities for graft to the relatives and cronies of his once ruthlessly efficient army of aldermen, city employees, park district workers, policemen, firefighters and ward healers, the mayor finds himself slowly becoming marginalized. Getting the Olympics for our city represents a last throw of the dice for a testy little fellow who is bound and determined to leave behind a legacy that transcends late show t.v. standup comedian jokes about the windy city’s relentless graft. Richie--for that’s what we all call him--like some miniaturized, personality-deficient, reverse-negative photograph of his dad, definitely Richard--thinks bringing an Olympiad here will place him on a leadership pantheon, separate and equal to his father.

All the city’s big guns went off before the IOC reps departure. Oprah Winfrey hosted a magnificent ball at the Art Institute. Michael Jordan, having been persuaded and cajoled by Barack, Michelle, Juanita and Oprah, to take up the unofficial position of Chitown ambassador, has been, I’m told, training for this as if it was his third go-around for the Bulls. The Obamas interrupted their European goodwill tour to broadcast some shmoozing for the city live on satellite from Ankara at what is about 4 a.m. Turkey time; and, of course, a veritable crew of major and minor celebrities with Chicago roots, strutted their best shillin’ stuff at Oprah’s Ball. I’m not much into cebrities, per sé, but Davey Z reeled them off. Vince Vaughan, Amy Madigan Lili Taylor, David Schwimmer, Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio, Jeremy Piven, Jenny McCarthy, Bonnie Hunt, Dennis Farina, Denis Frantz, John Mahoney, George Wendt, Scott Turow, Gary Sinise, William Peterson, John Malkovich, Glenn Headly, David Mamet, Joan Allen: Oprah’s army of unpaid interns must have spent months on the phone.

The state and the city may be broke, but the city has, nevertheless, been repaving roads, cleaning up parks and getting support from its most famous resident, President Obama. Yet, the Pres is kind of embarrassed that so many of those locals he paid his dues with as a 'grassroots organizer,’ are very much against the Olympics. Protests are planned by many troubled residents who fear the Games could leave Chicago deeper in debt, displace poor people, destroy historic buildings, tear up parks, disturb migratory birds and even ruin summer yachting plans. I, personally, am not really very interested in how yachters really feel. Still, ironically, just as the interested parties with tenuous connective ties to the Democratic party have made common cause to lobby for the Olympics, so too will the groups who benefit from preventing it from ever taking place. Only five months after winning the election, the party’s loyalist machine finds itself up against a lakeshore and north shore green elite it was only recently making love to..

An organization called No Games Chicago, which has drawn sizable crowds to public meetings and other events, protested daily outside the bid committee's office and held a “Bike Ride Against the Games." Still, outside the Muffy and Buffy set, a separate group of community and labor organizations protested also. They are not at all opposed to the Olympics, per sé, they say, but, are, they insist, going to keep making common cause with the Greenies unless leaders of the city and Chicago 2016, the group of civic and business leaders developing the bid, provide “more community benefits.” The City Council's finance committee and Olympic supporters passed legislation meant to satisfy some of those concerns two weeks ago, when a ‘memorandum of understanding’ promised affordable housing, the lion’s share of construction jobs for locals and many more contracts for female and minority-owned firms. Though the legislation didn't go as far as some had hoped, Councilwoman Toni Preckwinkle called it a victory. "I'm grateful we came a long way down this road," she said. "It behooves advocates to savor their victories and focus on the benefits rather than the things they didn't get."

Many of us, however, remain skeptical about such 'behoove your" behavior. Will such agreements actually be honored? Why is it, I wonder, that the full City Council won't vote on the ordinance until late April?

The equally cynical executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, ,Jay Travis, puts it this way. "As community groups, it's hard for us to trust the outcome. We played by the rules and we were promised we'd have something signed before the IOC visit. Now ne're being told-- just have faith! Just to wait until they leave. You know, but our faith has been strained."

Promises! Promises! Right? Yesterday, having had been introduced to me by Congressman Z, Patrick Sandusky, a Chicago 2016 spokesman, Richie Daley laid on the charm thickly. “Lookit, the Olympics will have both an immediate and long-term benefit for neighborhood residents. It creates investment and jobs and furthers the city's image as an international destination. Investors estimate the Games will create $22.5 billion in economic activity from 2011 through 2021. It will bring Chicago to the global stage and let the world see the city in a way they haven't before," he said. "It will impact the way youth participate in sports in the city. It will create jobs, and it will have lasting benefits for communities that will stay on long after the actual Olympics are gone."

Now, really, folks, can this be taken on faith?. Normally, I really can't help but be dubious about such hyperbole. Admittedly, the beloved one, Obama, has been a big booster for the Games, cutely musing about wanting to walk the family to the opening ceremonies near the end of his second term at a new stadium that would be built in Washington Park, blocks from his Hyde Park home. Obama even taped a catchy message for IOC officials that was played at a November meeting in Istanbul. City officials hope he will make a personal appearance in Copenhagen in October. Indeed, the city's bid book features a full-page photo of Obama's election-night rally in Grant Park, and city leaders hope their successful handling of that event will impress the IOC.

Chicago has projected that the Games would cost $3.3 billion in operating expenses and $1 billion more in infrastructure. These are far lower estimates than those of Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro, the other finalists. Estimated security costs, which would be absolutely staggering for Madrid and even more staggering for crime and disease-ridden Rio, would be relatively far lower for Tokyo and Chicago. Still, officials say all funding would be through private investment, though the city has promised $500 million in guarantees for operating cost overruns and about $45 million worth of services. Consequently, many opponents are convinced the city would ultimately be forced to throw more money into the pot.

At this moment, Vancouver and London, hosts of the 2010 Winter and 2012 Summer Olympics, are spending hundreds of millions on Olympic Village construction after private developers were unable to get funds as a result of the credit crisis. Vancouver officials had initially promised only $30 million in government funding, now they will have to look for new loans at higher interest rates..

"Despite the mayor's claims that the taxpayer will not pay a dime, we don't believe him," the actor and No Games spokesman Tom Tresser told me while gesturing a lot, like a sort of political King Lear. "Chicago is notorious for mammoth construction project overrun. No doubt, this will turn into the biggest boondoggle in city history."

A DePaul University study of past Olympics, led by sociologist Dr. Stephen Alexander, found mixed long-term benefits for host cities. Barcelona successfuly used the 1992 Olympics to revitalize many decayed parts of its city, while the 1996 Games meant more debt for Atlanta, although technology and transportation problems were actually less of a problem than the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park which encouraged cancellation by thousands and the ultimate loss of millions. "It's very difficult to study what happened in previous Games to predict what would happen in Chicago," Alexander said.

The IOC considers local support in its decision. Chicago's rivals have also faced strong opposition lately. In Tokyo, many residents fear the Games will cost too much,,displace the city's largest fish market and cause severe traffic gridlock. Still, a study recently commissioned by Chicago 2016 finds public support running at 77 percent. This may run a little high, but even independent polls also find that a majority of residents are definitely in favor of Chicago being the host city. Still, as even my politician friends will admit, the city's planning concepts were widely criticized by residents and councilmen for being secretive and not attempting to incorporate public input. By February, Chicago 2006, as the negative voices grew shrill, Daley responded by tripling the size of the outreach committee to more than 60 members, included critics.

Still, although gentrification and city overspending are the major concerns, there is also opposition on other fronts. One green group, Preservation Chicago fears the demolition of the historic Meigs Field lakefront airport terminal and parts of the shuttered Michael Reese Hospital, the planned site of the Olympic Village. Others fear their parks will be taken over for years. Washington Park, for example, is known for African American family reunions and long-standing cricket matches among West Indian immigrant families.. "They call it a temporary stadium, but when you're housing 80,000 people, just how temporary can that actually be?" Jonathan Fine, the president of Preservation Chicago asked me.

Anyway, let me close with a vision from Monday, April 7, 2009. It's Oprah's Farewell IOC' ball! Very slinky and carefully wrapped in a thick vanilla-ice cream shawl to fight off the night chill, Oprah Winfrey is walking the red carpet in some heels so high that surely her health guru Mehmet Oz, would have a heart attack. Although she's 30 minutes fashionably late, she stops to talk to a wall of underdressed reporters, Hollywood-style, before heading into a gala for visiting international Olympic officials at the Art Institute.

"Oprah,"I say. "You've got that look like it's a done deal. A sure thing."

She winks at me. Lifts up two thumbs. Nodding to about 40 protesters chanting on the other side of Columbus Drive, Our Lady of Eternal Talk and Rectitude says. "It's going to be big. It's huge. It's enormous. I don't understand what they're complaining about. It's only going to be good for everyone."

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