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Mayor Daley's Food Legacy

By Anthony Todd in Food on May 16, 2011 3:40PM

Rooftop1.jpg On Friday, we took on Da Mare's impact on the city's music and arts - today, it's time to turn to restaurants. How has the mayor's tenure affected the city's food scene? As with most of the mayor's legacy, it's a mixed bag: genuine improvements and admirable goals mixed with inefficiency, graft and lost opportunities.

One of the greatest legacies of the Daley mayor-ship, for better or for worse, is the large-scale gentrification of Chicago. When Daley took over, downtown was not a particularly friendly place - we still remember when most of the now-hopping River North was inundated with liquor stores, porn shops and adult theaters, shocking those who dared to venture a few blocks off of Michigan Avenue. West Randolph, Chicago's sometime "Restaurant Row," was a warehouse district when Daley took office. With gentrification came fine dining (or at least higher prices) and most of the neighborhoods that took off during Daley's reign are now havens for trendy restaurants.

At the same time, the development during Daley's reign had a dark side. The renovated buildings and high-income communities that allowed $40 per plate restaurants to exist often drove out small, locally-owned business. Sometimes, as in the case of the South Loop, development was done so fast that it backfired. When the goal was simply to draw in as many wealthy people as possible, whatever the consequences, neighborhoods often ended up without retail or dining for long stretches of time - the South Loop still struggles to attract and keep restaurants. And, whenever food and city property mixed, the public had to be on the lookout for corruption; Chuck has often written about the sweetheart deal the Park Grill got out of the city. The potential privatization of Taste of Chicago mingles uneasily with the growth of Chicago Gourmet and other high-end food conventions - a mixed legacy.

If we want to focus on the positives, we can look back on Daley's genuine love for food and restaurants, his commitment to sustainability and environmentalism, and the dramatic growth of the city's farmers market system. Chicago now draws food tourists from all over, has the best restaurant in the world, and won some Michelin stars. But even during the Michelin unveiling, the spotlight shone on one of Daley's failures - the inability to improve the transit system enough to get people from the outlying areas (especially the airports) into the city's dining rooms. Restaurant owners have complained loudly about the negative effect that high parking prices, another Daley fiasco, have had on their businesses - especially on suburban visitors.

Unfortunately, during his last year in office, Daley's stated morals seem to have been unable to keep pace with the demands of a changing foodscape. Mixed use foodspaces and urban farms contribute to a vibrant city, and we've heard the mayor speak eloquently and positively about the need for green development. But pretty speeches don't get the job done, and despite the oft-cited Daley ability to wrangle the city council, simple changes seem unable to get through. There has been no large-scale change in the city's regulatory attitude (indifference and occasional hostility) towards these developments, and if green, local food was a genuine priority for the administration, change could happen. Food trucks, the biggest food story of 2010, will have to wait for Rahm, who made development around food a major part of his mayoral campaign. And the strength and political abilities of our outgoing mayor didn't stop rogue alderman from using politics to try to kill green spaces in their neighborhoods.

At the end of the day, from a purely taste perspective, Daley understood the needs and desires of Chicagoans who love food because he loves it too. He "got" local eating, farming and restaurant development. Here's hoping Rahm does too, and that he combines it with a genuine push to make the city's legal system more friendly to innovative food businesses. If eliminating food deserts, legalizing food trucks and promoting urban farming become as high a priority under Emmanuel as privatization was under Daley, Chicago could become a world-class food destination for more than just our great restaurants.