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Cheap Bling on the Lakefront

Visitors to Chicago marvel over the beauty of our lakefront, and residents by the hudreds of thousands enjoy using its long, uninterrupted miles. A “museum campus” consisting of the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Adler Planetarium grace the parkland with three elegant buildings, inviting the public to explore various dimensions of our shared natural world. The only unfortunate architectural intrusions on the lakefront are the boxy McCormick Place which walls off the lake south of the loop, a contemporary apartment building by Navy Pier, and the adulterated Soldier Field with its futuristic addition on top of the old neo- classical stadium.

Chicagoans have worked hard to keep the lakefront preserved as public space. Mayor Daley managed to retrieve a large tract for the public when, a number of years ago, he had city trucks dig up the runway on the lakefront airport in the dead of night, opening up the space for development as a beautiful nature preserve and park. In this instance, the unilateral use of raw mayoral power turned out to be a real gift to the city! Unfortunately, the current mayor seems less interested in expanding public space than in handing over public space for private development.

The issue at hand is Mayor Emanuel’s desire to give film maker George Lucas a prime piece of lakefront real estate to build his “Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts.” It’s a little unclear what “narrative arts” really means beyond a showcase of Lucas’ use of special effects in his famous movies. I enjoyed the movies and I suppose there are plenty of people who’d like to visit a museum displaying Lucas’ wares. But I don’t really think this compares in gravitas to the missions of the Shedd, Field, and Adler a short walk up the lakefront. About the only obvious connection to the site that I can see is its proximity to the Millennium Falcon spaceship disaster next door on top of Soldier Field.

The mayor argues, perhaps accurately, that the only way to entice Lucas to build his museum in Chicago is to give away a prime spot on the Lake. (Last summer the city closed one of the lakefront’s beautiful park areas for an entire weekend in order to allow Lucas and his Chicago millionaire wife, Mellody Hobson, to hold their lavish wedding reception in protected privacy.) Emanuel also argues that a nicely landscaped museum on that spot would be an improvement over the parking decks used by alcohol infused Chicago Bears fans tailgating there in the fall. The mayor fails to explain why he’s not considering a third option – burying or removing the parking lot and leaving the green space landscaped and open.  

Luring Lucas’ wealth to Chicago, with all the attendant celebrity excitement, may be a feather in the cap of the mayor. But it’s hard to see how the public interest is really served in the long term. That may not be much of a consideration. There is an alarming trend – and not just in Chicago – to hand over all sorts of public assets to private use. The city has given its parking meters to a private company, saddling us with an enormous financial burden that will last for decades. Our bus shelters are operated by a private vendor. And so it goes.

Far worse is the relentless privatization of the public school system. Last summer the city closed just under 50 public schools. Since then a significant number of charter schools have either been opened or approved. Charters masquerade as public schools. In fact they are private schools run by private operators playing with public money. What’s next? Libraries?

It’s one thing for private wealth to enhance the public good – John Shedd, Marshall Field, and Max Adler were all Chicago businessmen who made their money in department stores. Andrew Carnegie dotted the American landscape with public libraries. But their buildings and their missions served a broad public interest from the start and have endured as civic treasures ever since. A George Lucas museum? Think cheap bling amid authentic gems. Why should a city have to give away part of its public treasure to make way for private aggrandizement – either for Lucas or Emanuel – of the cheapest and most ethereal sort?

When so much of our public wealth is sliding into the private domain, the public needs to stand up and say “no!” Even if we don’t care, our children and grandchildren will.

John H. Thomas
July 10, 2014

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