Inauguration date: May 6, 1991
This speech is recorded as it first appeared in print. Archaic spelling and misspellings in the original document have not been corrected.
It’s customary, at occasions like this, to emphasize the positive. And no one feels more strongly than I about Chicago and the special character of its people.
Since the beginning of our history, Chicago has weathered trials and setbacks that would have overwhelmed lesser communities. And in the past two years, we’ve demonstrated our strength again by overcoming the divisiveness that stood in the way of progress. Working together, we have moved forward.
Today, Chicago remains strong and viable at a time when other cities are threatened with bankruptcy, cuts in basic services and endless strife. But this should not simply be a day of back-patting and congratulations, nor a time to rest on our laurels. This should be a day of renewed commitment. Because we’re still facing serious challenges that seem to grow in number with each passing day. From crime and drugs on our streets, to failure in our schools, to economic decay, cities everywhere are under siege. And Chicago in not immune.
But my greatest concern is not the problems we face. It is our willingness to confront them. The most powerful force in government is inertia, and it’s the one thing Chicago can least afford. Because to stand still today, with all the challenges we face, is to fall behind. Our problems are more complex, and our financial resources more limited, than at any time in recent history. We will continue to fight in Washington, D.C. and Springfield for every available dollar. And we will send a strong message to the federal and state governments that they cannot solve their fiscal problems by shifting their responsibilities to the people of Chicago and other cities.
Still, it’s clear that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to solve all of our problems. Chicago’s future depends on our ability to find new and efficient ways to get things done. This process won’t please everyone. Change never does.
But we should never forget that our mission is to serve people, not to perpetuate needless bureaucracy. That lesson is important, not just for city government, but for the local agencies beyond our direct control who, too often, seem unaccountable. We’ve scored dozens of victories over waste and inefficiency in city government over the past two years. And we’re just beginning. My goal in the next four years is mold a government that is smaller in size, but greater in performance. And those who manage our schools our parks and our transit system must do the same, or these vital services will collapse under the weight of their financial problems.
As for the city departments—which are under my control—I’ll continue to search for every available avenue to save money and improve services. What works, we will keep. What doesn’t work, we will scrap. That process will soon begin in the police department, where a panel of outside experts will evaluate operations to see how we might save both money and lives. But with drugs and guns overwhelming the system, a bureaucratic overhaul alone will not solve the current crime epidemic. And here, we do need help from Washington and Springfield.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Drugs are a national plague. They breed crime. They destroy lives and communities. The seeds of violence are being distributed on our streets each day. Huge sums of money are rewarding the drug traders and, too often, corrupting the system. And we cannot truly attack the problem unless and until the federal government cuts off the drug pipeline at America’s borders.
Now that we’ve freed Kuwait, it’s time we bring the same level of commitment to the liberation of Lawndale and Pilsen and every community that today is held hostage to drug-related crime. And we also have to liberate ourselves from the power of the national gun lobby. I strongly support the Brady bill, the seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns. We have our own bills in Springfield to increase penalties for gun crimes. But these are modest steps.
With blood running in America’s streets, it’s time to seriously consider a total ban on the manufacture and sale of handguns in this country. It’s a drastic measure. But with handguns becoming a leading cause of death in our communities, we need drastic action. Whatever steps we take, we must be prepared for a long and difficult battle to reclaim our streets and our children from the gangs and the drug dealers. The battle for our children also extends to another front, and that is the continuing crisis in our public schools.
The creation of local school councils was a step in the right direction, and many of these councils are waging a valiant struggle to redeem education in their communities. But there are miles to go. And with each passing year, thousands more young Chicagoans are doomed to a life of ignorance and failure. Many are not being equipped with the skills and training they need to win and hold the jobs of the future. They are being warehoused and forgotten, often in schools that are crumbling. So the call for new money to sustain what many see as the same old system simply will not fly.
The people of Chicago are frustrated. The General Assembly is skeptical. The pace of real reform has been too slow. The school bureaucracy still stands in the way of change, rather than leading it. And the current financial crisis threatens to trigger another round of doubt and finger-pointing, in which the real mission of our schools , and the welfare of our children, are lost.
I well not prejudge the debate that is about to unfold in Springfield. But I do know this. Band-aid solutions will not solve the critical problems of Chicago’s school system, nor will a quick infusion of cash. Faced with similar problems, some cities are experimenting with even more dramatic ideas, such as voucher programs to upgrade their schools. And if we can’t break the stranglehold of bureaucracy and school board politics in Chicago, we may have to take that next step. Because the key to hope for a whole generation of Chicagoans is our ability to improve the quality of education.
We want our children prepared for the jobs of the future. And we want to insure that they don’t have to move to California to find them. That’s why I’ve been so outspoken on behalf of a second international airport and other projects vital to our future. There are no quick fix solutions to the economic challenges we face. But the airport would mean 200,000 new jobs for the Chicago area and the economic revival of a section of our city that badly needs help. I know that this proposal has been controversial. Any proposal of this magnitude ought to provoke discussion. But it would be tragic if, in debating among ourselves, we squandered the opportunity to take this important step for our children. We will continue to work with the people of the southeast side to address their concerns fairly and compassionately. An I urge all political leaders to play a constructive role in that process, instead of jeopardizing the regions’s future for their own political gain.
Another issue that has been bogged down in politics is the McCormick Place expansion. Chicago’s prominence as a convention center is vital to the entire state of Illinois. But other cities across the nation have caught on to the benefits of the convention trade, and they are hard on our heels. We must expand McCormick Place or lose our competitive edge in the battle for convention and tourism dollars. We also remain committed to the development of small businesses in our neighborhoods. And it’s my hope that in the years to come, we move beyond the false struggle between downtown development and neighborhood development. We need both.
Without thriving communities, Chicago will lose its heart. Without a thriving and prospering downtown, Chicago’s economy will wither and die. So let’s unite as a city behind essential building blocks such as the new airport, the McCormick Place expansion, and the downtown circulator. At the same time, let’s continue to build our neighborhoods. There is much work to be done-work to maintain and enhance all that is right in Chicago. And work to address what is wrong. And in this tough environment, progress most often comes in small but meaningful victories. Two years ago, a pregnant woman in Lawndale would wait up to four-and-a-half months for her first appointment at a city clinic.
Today, thanks to our efforts to cut through red tape and delays, that wait has been reduced to a matter of weeks, and more babies will be born healthy because of it. Two years ago, many of our police were shuffling paper behind desks. Today, civilians are handling more of the paperwork, freeing the police for duty on our streets.
Two years ago, the city lacked a strong commitment to tackle the problems of the homeless. Today, a one-cent cigarette tax for the homeless is in place, available bed space is up eighty percent, and homeless Chicagoans are being referred to private programs that offer help and rehabilitation.
Two years ago, abandoned cars littered our communities. Today, thanks to an innovative new partnership with private towing companies, we’re removing thousands more cars and earning millions in revenue for the city.
Two years age, the gangs and drug dealers roamed freely in our schools. Today, there are two uniformed police in every high school, regular meetings between the police commanders and school principals, and spot-checks for weapons.
We can’t solve every problem overnight, or even in four years. But we can make a difference. And the struggle is not just the responsibility of government. Each and every one of us can make a difference. It’s time we acknowledge that government simply can’t find or finance all the answers, nor solve every problem. But we can work to promote solutions, in partnership with business and labor, civic and community organizations, religious leaders, foundations and universities. And each of us, as individuals, can help build a better Chicago.
The person who helps a senior citizen across a busy street makes this a better community. The caller who turns in the local drug dealer makes this a better community. The men and women who volunteer their time to tutor disadvantaged children make this a better community. The employer who hires a disabled worker makes this a better community.
To preserve what is best about Chicago and improve what is not, we all have to stretch our energies, talents and commitment, as past generations did, in response to the challenges of their day. More than a century ago, Chicagoans rebuilt this city from ashes and rubble. Faced with disaster, Chicago emerged stronger than ever, thanks to a determined people. Today, the danger is not a great fire, but indifference and conventional thinking in the face of changing times. We either rise to the challenge of these times, or be engulfed-not by flames, but by decay, despair and defeat.
I love this city. I love it enough to make the difficult decisions that are right for Chicago’s future, not just for the political moment. Chicago’s problems are large, but so is our heart. If you doubt it, consider the history of the pier on which we stand. Left for years to rust and rot, this great resource is undergoing a stunning rebirth many thought would never come. After a decade of discouragement and delay, a renovation has begun that will transform this pier into yet another jewel on Chicago’s shining lakefront. Because we refused to give in, “because we had a dream and saw it through” we will, on this site, leave our children one more lasting asset.
Our larger dream is to hand our children a Chicago that has a bright future as well as a glorious past. The truth is that it won’t be easy. Results are not guaranteed. But if we pull together, committed to the goal of a better Chicago rather than simply business-as-usual, we can and will make a difference. And that difference may make it possible for future mayors to stand at this very place, on a refurbished pier, as proud and hopeful as I am today.
Thank you very much.
- Chicago City Council. Journal of the Proceedings, May 6, 1991, p. 13–19.