Chicago a model as Atlanta region strives for greatness
By Maria Saporta
CHICAGO – “I love Chicago,” declared former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin at the opening night dinner of the 2021 LINK trip on Oct. 27. “Chicago is one of the great cities of the world.”
The setting of the dinner said it all. The Chicago Cultural Center, completed in 1897 as Chicago’s first central public library, is a stunningly beautiful architectural marvel featuring Preston Bradley Hall with a translucent 38-feet in diameter dome made of Tiffany glass – the largest Tiffany dome in the world.
For a group of about 100 metro Atlanta leaders, it was the second time LINK has been to Chicago. The last time LINK visited Chicago was in 2002 — the first year of Franklin’s administration and during the tenure of Mayor Richard M. Daley.
A handful of the 2021 attendees had gone to Chicago in 2002, including Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which organizes the LINK (Leadership, Involvement, Networking, Knowledge) trips since their inception in 1997.
“In 2002, we were a bit in the afterglow of the Olympics,” Hooker said. “Transportation finance and transit funding were a major issue and the need for more state investment.”
That could fall in the category of the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s hard not having transit — envy when going to Chicago with its robust network of transit options — from an urban rail and bus system to commuter trains and express buses serving the region of about 8.6 million people compared to the Atlanta region of about 5 million.
“Transit is one of our competitive advantages,” said Erin Aleman, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning — ARC’s counterpart.
Dorval Carter Jr., president of the Chicago Transit Authority, put it this way: “We have one of the best transportation systems in the country. Cities around the country are spending billions and billions of dollars to build out a system like we have.”
The 2021 LINK trip focused on issues of racial inequity as well as ways the Chicago region has been able to work together — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it’s hard to capture three days of panel and group discussions in one column, I will try to highlight some of the main takeaways that could be brought home to Atlanta.
Those include Chicago’s commitment to urban design — the Folded Map Project and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.
Dr. Teresa Cardova, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois who also chairs the Chicago Plan Commission, spoke of the “City Beautiful Movement” — promoted by city planners and architects in the 1890s and early 1900s — led by Daniel H. Burnham, who famously said: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
Cardova said the Burnham Plan is why Chicago has so much public space with parks and boulevards. “Most of the lakefront is public space,” she said. “It’s the biggest public shoreline of any city in the United States.”
On the way from the airport to downtown, Franklin paid attention to the trash cans and the absence of trash along the roadways, commenting that all the litter she saw could fit in one small plastic bag.
“I’m an infrastructure person,” Franklin said. “They have developed a culture of preserving the environment. You can tell a lot about a city by how clean it is. We have got to be sure the basics are well done well. That’s how you gain the trust of the people who you serve.”
Franklin then challenged the Atlanta leaders on the trip. “Let’s clean up metro Atlanta.”
Several Chicago leaders talked about a decline in Chicago’s Black population in recent years.
“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Black Chicago made a mass exodus to Atlanta,” said Tonika Johnson, creator of the Folded Map Project. “We view Atlanta as a new promised land.”
Johnson created the Folded Map Project as a way to help unite a racially divided city. If one folds a map of Chicago with downtown at the center, the North and South sections of the city mirror each other down to the street names but the northern half is more affluent and white while the southern section is poorer and Black.
The project helped connect people who lived at the same address save for the North or South distinction, and they became “map twins” — getting to know how they differ from each other. In some areas, that’s even led to block twins for people to better understand why segregation and inequities are bad for a city.
“Wherever segregation exists, there’s a fold,” Johnson told the Atlanta delegation. “There is always a fold in your city. We have come up with a ‘find your fold’ guide.”
Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity, said we could explore our fold through our streets. Many Atlanta streets change names as part of the city’s racial residue. For example, Boulevard becomes Monroe at Ponce de Leon Avenue because white residents did not want to live on the same street as Blacks.
Like Atlanta, Chicago is a Fortune 500 town, just more so. There are 36 Fortune 500 companies based in the Chicago metro area compared to 16 in metro Atlanta, according to Michael Fassnacht, president and CEO of World Business Chicago.
“Equity is in the center of everything we do,” said Fassnacht, repeating a theme many people mentioned when talking to Atlanta leaders.
Toni Preckwinkle, president of Cook County, explained: “Equity is about getting everybody what they need. Equality is about giving everybody the same thing. It’s about finding the root causes of inequality.”
Chicago is based in Cook County, the second-largest county in the country with a population of more than 5 million.
Preckwinkle, Cook County’s president since 2010, said that while Chicago is the largest city in the county, the county also includes another 130 cities, villages and towns.
Back in 2002, one of the ideas that made a real impression on the Atlanta delegation was the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. It was started under Mayor Daley, who forged relationships with mayors throughout the region.
“We built a real sense of trust and partnership when Mayor Daley was in office,” said Dave Bennett, who has been executive director of the caucus since 2001. “Mayor Daley would come to our regular board meetings and walk into the room by himself. He participated as a peer.”
After Daley, there was a “lull” in regional cooperation when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in office. But Bennett said during the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, it has “improved 300 percent.”
During the height of the pandemic, the Mayors Caucus would hold Sunday night zoom meetings every week when as many as 100 to 200 mayors would participate to share information on how to navigate the public health crisis as well as the racial tension following the killing of George Floyd.
“I just realized the value of regionalism,” Lightfoot told the LINK delegation. “We are all interconnected, and we recognize that. It’s partnership and collaboration.”
Back in 2002, Mayor Franklin brought that idea home and created the Metro Atlanta Mayors Association (MAMA). It started out strong, but subsequent Atlanta mayors have not engaged with the organization. While MAMA still exists under the Georgia Municipal Association, it has limited impact in the Atlanta region. But there is interest in reviving the MAMA especially depending on who wins the Atlanta mayoral election.
Bennett said Chicago’s Mayors Caucus “didn’t really take off until we hired a staff.v It is an independent organization funded through membership dues and foundation grants. He added it is essential for the mayor of the signature city to participate to keep all the mayors throughout the region engaged.
Like Atlanta, Chicago is wrestling with issues of affordability — particularly in popular neighborhoods.
“The big challenge for the mayor is to bring development to the neighborhoods without gentrification,” Cardoza said of Lightfoot.
Chicago Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox spoke of the city’s version of a Marshall Plan for the South and West sides, areas that don’t have the economic vitality of other parts of the city.
“The center of Chicago belongs to everyone, but the real soul of Chicago belongs in the neighborhoods,” said Cox, who was planning commissioner in Detroit when LINK went there in 2017. At the time, Cox told Atlantans that his challenge was to have deep community engagement with “zero displacement” of legacy residents.
Now that he’s in Chicago, Cox has a similar challenge trying to create mixed-use, affordable communities “to unlock the economic potential” of those communities without pushing people out.
“Chicago has been down this road before. The 606 gentrified everything in its way,” Cox said of a project that’s similar to the Atlanta BeltLine.
Clyde Higgs, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., bristled a bit at that comment, but he later told a few members of the LINK delegation of his team’s efforts to have more affordability surrounding the corridor.
When it came to transit, the LINK delegation heard how Chicago transit agencies have been working on a common fare system so riders can seamlessly travel from one system to another.
Jeffrey Parker, general manager and CEO of MARTA, said that while the Atlanta region already has a regional fare system, it is in need of an upgrade.
Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the regional transportation agencies — GRTA, SRTA and the ATL, called it a “once in a decade opportunity to leverage what MARTA is doing and have everyone get on the same system” while making it more inclusive and flexible to changing technologies.
Both Parker and Tomlinson acknowledged Atlanta needs to have more dedicated funding to expand transit in the Atlanta region. The state of Illinois is a major investor in Chicago’s transit agencies.
“If we don’t have the match, we are not able to maximize federal funding,” Tomlinson said. “We have to make a stronger business case.”
Meanwhile, ARC Chair Kerry Armstrong used the Chicago LINK trip as an opportunity to thank Doug Hooker for his decade-long tenure as ARC’s executive director. Hooker, who announced that he will retire at the end of March 2022, was on his last LINK trip as ARC’s leader.
“We realized early on that we were not going to be able to replace Doug. Doug is irreplaceable,” Armstrong told the group. “We are looking for a successor to Doug.”
Armstrong said the goal is to have a new executive director on board a couple of months before Hooker leaves so there can be a smooth transition.
Unlike recent LINK trips, there was, unfortunately, no formal feedback session for LINK participants to share their insights about what they learned in Chicago and what they would like to bring home to Atlanta.
The next LINK trip likely will take place in May 2022, and Austin, Texas currently is the front-runner for the 2022 trip.