Friday, December 21, 2007


A statue of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington.

Not long ago, while Glen was at work, he heard a radio broadcast about a man named Harold Washington, who was the first black mayor of Chicago. Chicago marked the 20th anniversary of his death this past November.

The politics and climate of the city made his campaign difficult. In fact, he won by a mere 4% (many white democrats supported the republican candidate), and for a long while, he didn't have a majority backing him on council, so he ruled by veto. That changed over time: he was committed to treating everyone equally in Chicago, regardless of race. It was important to him that services were distributed evenly around the city. In fact, many of the white council members simply voted against everything the mayor introduced, even if hurt their own constituents. Washington reached out to those residents personally, to let them know their representatives voted against their road repairs and so forth, and asked for their support. He got it; he pushed for reform; he fought corrupt political patronage. He eventually won over some members of council, and he was easily reelected in the spring of 1987. An aside that touched me: he also looked after a colony of feral Monk Parakeets (an intelligent, social, talking species of parrot), who lived in the park across from his apartment. He died in office (while actually in his office), not long after he was reelected, in November 1987.

Glen came home after listening to the broadcast about Harold Washington, so impressed with what that man was able to accomplish in his short tenure as mayor. He set out to find it on the internet for me. In fact, he found two stories online, and we listened to them both.

In case you'd like to do the same, here are the links:
a short story on NPR
Glen found an episode of This American Life (based at WBEZ in Chicago), which originally aired the story in 1997, on the 10th anniversary of Washington's death; the producers followed up, and added a bit to the story for the 20th anniversary. This story is longer, about an hour, but it's really good.

I was able to listen to these stories just for their own merit, and marvel at a man who overcame a downright racist political machine in Chicago, and served so well, and left a legacy. Subsequent mayors of Chicago, to this day, have continued several of Washington's policies, and they learned, too, that white politicians could not take the black community for granted. Candidates knew they needed to take a stand on poverty, civil rights, and police brutality.

Afterward, it wasn't hard to compare and contrast Washington to Trenton's mayor, Doug Palmer. Our cities are different, but there are many striking similarities, too. Palmer is this city's first black mayor, elected not far in time from when Harold Washington was elected. Trenton, too, like it or not, has had racial issues. Maybe in his early days in office, Palmer was intent on reform, equality, and healing, but now, nearly 20 years later, looking back over his legacy, we see a gutted city: the businesses and restaurants central to Trenton's history, are all nearly gone. We see neighborhoods destroyed by crime, neglect, poverty. I know this is a much-debated issue, but in my opinion, instead of helping the people who were here, Palmer took other municipalities' RCA (Regional Contribution Agreement) money so those municipalities didn't have to provide any low-income housing. This concentrated poverty in Trenton, which kept the poor surrounded by more poor people. This is an abuse of the program; wasn't it designed to help the poor get ahead because the surrounding communities would inspire and uplift them? Instead, Palmer has exploited the loopholes, taken the RCA money, and built cheap, shoddy housing (while beautiful, historic buildings, e.g., the high school, are allowed to fall apart), and threw the disadvantaged to the wolves. This encouraged crime and disrupted the lives and livelihoods of the middle class and business owners. I'm not implying that the middle class or businesspeople have more of a right to enjoy life, but there's no good reason to concentrate suffering, either; I think the spirit of the RCA program was to help the poor, because they don't deserve that lot in life. So, many Trenton residents and business owners felt it would be better to move out than fight a losing battle. Perhaps Palmer forgot the man he was, the man who wanted to provide some good civil service? If that man ever existed. It's hard to tell, because now, he's a petty, self-serving, career politician who feels he can engage in cronyism, change the rules and ordinances willy-nilly, and sleep in house that is not even in this city, while the low-income housing falls apart, along with the communities who live there; and everyone else is dumbfounded.

I'm not saying that Chicago is all roses. And I'm not saying that Trenton is a lost cause. I'm not even saying that every problem in Trenton is the Mayor's fault. But it's amazing to see what one man was able to accomplish in Chicago — a much bigger city, with a bigger opposition — in five years. And because he left the city in better shape than how he found it, now Harold Washington's name is emblazoned on the grand public library in Chicago; he has a park named for him on the South Side of Chicago; the Harold Washington Memorial Parrot Defense Fund was set up to help care for the birds he loved, and to this day, people from all over the world come to Chicago, just to see those Monk Parakeets. There's a monument with his likeness on it at the Social Security Center in Chicago. A cultural center named for him is located in the city's Bronze district. There are dozens of other tributes to him all over that city, and I could list them all, but the point is that his biggest legacy is that his life has inspired and helped so many people.

I'm not saying that Doug Palmer's political contribution was null, and that when he's gone, there will be no monuments made in his honor, but right now, all I can see is maybe some crumbling building named for him, or his bronzed bust in some uninspiring structure which is underused anyway, because that's what we have in Trenton, thanks to Palmer. I bet he would have been better off if he got out of Trenton a long time ago. And the rest of us probably would have been better off as well.*

* I say that, knowing that his job is difficult, and that not every person is cut out for the position; I say that, knowing if he left, it's no guarantee things will improve right away. But things were bad enough even 5 years ago that it was worth taking the chance of losing him then.

A note about Monk Parakeets (pictured above): there is some controversy surrounding them. They're native to South America, but were introduced here, as pets. Some dumbasses let go of them, either on purpose or intentionally (not sure which is worse) and like the cats in my neighborhood, they multiplied. Somehow, despite their tropical roots, they're able to survive in chilly northern climates like Chicago, and Connecticut. Some people find their big stick nests to be unsightly, and there is some fear they will disrupt our own native species of birds and plants. Although, folks in Brooklyn have decided they like the Monk Parakeet better than pigeons, partially due to the fact that people, in general, hate pigeons, and don't hate cute green and yellow birds who can speak, and because pigeons will stay away from the parakeets, and because pigeon poop erodes old brownstone; the chemical composition of Monk Parakeet poop is harmless to old buildings.

1 comment:

Dan G. Tawnie said...

Great read on Mr. Washington. I had never heard of him prior to this. It's a shame we usually hear about the bad ones, but the good ones never get the attention they deserve.

There are monuments to Palmer already...all the headstones of those murdered in Trenton honor our dear Mayor.