Mayor Emanuel: No to schools, yes to a new arena for a (currently) terrible basketball program.

Demonstrators hold placards during a Chicago Teachers Union protest in ChicagoSomehow, we knew it would come to this, didn’t we, fellow Chicagoans? Those of us who were completely fed up and disenchanted with former Mayor Richard M. Daley felt that a vote for President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, would symbolize a complete change from the way the city was run under Daley. For 22 years, Daley oversaw a large metropolitan city and used his political power to manipulate the system so that his family and friends benefitted from it. Questioning his motives and policies were met with a patented Daley look of bewilderment, almost to suggest that you were completely out of line to wonder aloud why the city of Chicago is so rife with corruption, nepotism and a certain level of failure. So we voted for Emanuel, and we loved that the diminutive politician had already won a good number of us over by serving as the POTUS’s guard dog. Despite the fact that opponents of Emanuel like Gery Chico and Carol Moseley Braun had what I believe were much closer ties to the city, Emanuel picked up over 55% of the vote. When Chicago Public Schools teachers striked in mid-September, it wasn’t a good thing. Disregard that. It was one of the worst things that could happen to a weakening public school system with no viable resolution in sight. It’s true that Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, didn’t help the cause by letting Emanuel know while he was a mayoral candidate that if all demands weren’t met, the teachers would go on strike. She also didn’t aid matters when she resorted to insulting the mayor at a Labor Day rally in 2012. However, Mayor Emanuel is a scrappy little guy and made it clear that he and then-CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard weren’t going to make a bunch of blind concessions. Granted, asking for a 30% raise over 2 years when you’re an employee in a system that is over half a billion dollars in the red won’t endear you to many folks, even scholastic-loving parents. Yet, some were up in arms when teachers simply wanted better job security, health benefits and resources, as well as a new standard for evaluating students devoid of using standardized tests. I believe most of the public were on the teachers’ side, and I’m sure many felt that Karen Lewis destroyed Emanuel and Brizard (who later quit) on her way to a solid victory. As if the teacher’s strike wasn’t awful and embarrassing enough, then came the issue of the possibility of dozens of schools closing. I wrote in late-February about the potential closings and was incensed at the number of schools offered to be sacrificed to the elitist, capitalist gods. Well, instead of 129, “only” 49 schools have been closed. It’s been written that the closings were the largest in US history. 40,000 students were displaced and hundreds, if not thousands of teachers and staff members lost their jobs primarily due to mismanagement of the Chicago Public School system. Now, CPS has had issues before Mayor Emanuel took office, and I don’t mean to imply that he did nothing but exacerbate them, but he didn’t really do much to ameliorate them, either. Regardless of Emanuel’s efforts while there were dozens of schools on the chopping block, the fact that the closings happened during his term are not flattering. Decades from now, when thinking of Emanuel, two of the things that will stick out to me most are the teachers’ strike and school closings. Period. So, not long after the school closings were made official and people and families had to deal with not having a say in how their lives would be forever altered, it was reported that Mayor Emanuel wants new facilities for DePaul University’s basketball program. At the McCormick Place, of all places. The men’s program has a great history, but has been a complete joke over the last five seasons. An overall record of 47-121 (with a paltry seven conference wins over the last five seasons) means that you should probably be more focused on getting better over having better facilities, although top-notch facilities do make some difference when it comes to athletics. The women’s program has been much better, posting a record of 117-52 over the same period of time. There have even been tournament appearances and a Sweet 16 berth as well for the Lady Blue Demons. The guys hoop squad has been lucky to win a handful of games in the large and tough Big East conference. It’s true that the university, located in the rather plush Lincoln Park neighborhood, could use a new basketball arena for its program. The men’s and women’s teams have to play in Allstate Arena, in Rosemont, Illinois, which is about a 30 minute drive from downtown Chicago. Allstate Arena isn’t downtrodden, but no one will ever mistake it for a state-of-the-art basketball facility. Also, playing home games in the city would make it much easier for Chicagoans to see the Blue Demons play, and it’s safe to say that selling recruits on playing in Chicago instead of Rosemont would be a huge advantage. Chicago is home to some of the country’s finest high school basketball players, and it’s a shame that so many boys and girls not only pass on DePaul, but other in-state schools as well. DePaul’s contract with Allstate Arena expires after the 2015 season, and they clearly want a new home. As big of a college sports fan as I am, I am not a fan of DePaul athletics. I have nothing against the school or its athletic program, but I’m just not a fan, in spite of my Chicago roots. These feelings, or lack thereof, have nothing to do with my disdain for Mayor Emanuel’s proposal. This proposal isn’t new, but now that there are actual specifics, the plan is much easier to criticize. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, just what in the entire hell are you thinking? One large obstacle among many Chicagoans is what we would have to pony up to help build the new arena. $33 million in taxpayer money (out of the total cost of $173 million) isn’t much, really. And, oh yeah, Chicago isn’t in a world of debt right now, with systems failing all around and a lack of discourse that would ordinarily be used to help build them back up. Just focus on Emanuel’s $1.1 billion “Enhance Chicago” tourism and trade infrastructure revitalization effort, and all will be well. Yes, construction of the arena would create jobs, but the last time I checked, building an arena is not an eternal process. Nearly 4,000 permanent jobs as a result of the new arena would bring down Chicago’s unemployment rate of almost 11%, another boost to the city, but how exactly would a new arena do much to improve the “city’s quality of life,” Rahm? Would gang members suddenly call a truce in the spirit of DePaul’s new basketball home? Would the CPS high school graduation rate drastically increase because of the new facilities? Am I wrong when I express concern over how more tourists would stop gentrification, racism, classism, sexism and homophobia in the city? Dammit, we’re talking about a private school with a basketball program that is collectively less-than-stellar. Say what you will about the women’s program, but unless you’re talking about UConn, Tennessee or Baylor, there aren’t a lot of women’s basketball programs that are cashcows. So while DePaul’s women’s team is certainly at the least a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big East, they’re simply not the main attraction when it comes to DePaul basketball. Unfortunately, the onus to bring in the cash will almost always fall on the terrible men’s program, which in most male-dominated sports circles, is otherwise known as “the basketball program.” How will that happen when not even 3,000 people showed up per game for the men’s squad last season?! Of course, neighborhood residents aren’t too fond of the idea of using public taxpayer money to benefit a private (and Catholic) institution, and they’re right to at least question. Hell, there are people who don’t live anywhere near the 2nd Ward who can’t believe this could happen. Others and myself understand that the new arena would be used for more than just DePaul basketball, which somewhat softens the blow. Even though the United Center offered their services, rent-free, it wouldn’t be the smartest idea for a basketball program that has problems filling up Allstate Arena to try and do the same in the 22,000-seat UC. We would love it if Emanuel’s claims that the facilities would make Chicago second to none when it comes to tourism and hosting large events come to fruition, we really would. It’s just…we’re Chicagoans, and we know just how fucked up this city’s political arena can be. I wouldn’t put Emanuel in the same sentence as Daley just yet, but this plan stinks somethin’ serious. I fully anticipate that DePaul’s men’s and women’s basketball teams will be calling the McCormick Place home in the near future, and I also anticipate Chicago taxpayers coughing up hard-earned loot to help fund its construction and being peeved about it. To my understanding, not many Chicagoans have been enthused of late over DePaul basketball and I doubt that mentality will change anytime soon. No matter, because Chicago politicians do whatever the hell they please in the name of making our city “better.” Thanks for your concerns, Rahm. P.S. I am completely aware that there have been other stadiums and arenas built using public funds, and that it is something that will never cease to exist. The intent of this post was not to compare or really even single Chicago out as the lone city in America in which shady political dealings sometimes occur. I wanted to point out that Mayor Emanuel did not take the friendliest stance with CPS (and also shunned the entire hell out of the Cubs’ brass when they wanted renovations to the ever-craptastic Wrigley Field), but seems to be very enthused about reallocating already-diminished funds to help build a new basketball arena and convention center which in my opinion, are unnecessary. And for DePaul, a private Catholic institution, at that. Huh…

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