Chicago’s Downtown: Dead or Alive?

LaSalle Street is deserted. A post-pandemic norm

Though the pandemic is waning, downtown Chicago remains semi-comatose.  On a Monday at mid-day, the financial district was empty except for a handful of pedestrians.  Absent were the Ubers, trucks, and cabs usually clogging this part of town.  South LaSalle Street, which has been in decline since the Chicago Board of Trade (center) closed its trading floors, is even more of a ghost town than before.


How sound are the balance sheets of these massive commercial buildings?  The Real Deal reports that, by the end of 2020, the vacancy rate in Chicago’s central business district had climbed to a “grim” level of 14.2 percent, with 148.2 million square feet of unrented office space.  Meanwhile, businesses still holding leases tried to reduce their obligations by offering to sublease 5.4 million square feet of vacant space, a 93-percent increase over 2019.

Commercial real estate broker MBRE reports that the vacancy rate has since increased to 15.36 percent at the end of March, 2021.  When the sublease space is thrown in, the total rate of surplus office space comes to 19.20 percent.  (Office vacancy in the Chicago suburbs has been rising, too.)


With so few Chicagoans commuting downtown, and tourism at a standstill, entities that provide ancillary goods and services are languishing.  It’s eerie seeing so few people on this particular stretch of Adams.  Normally, people would be strolling toward the Art Institute (center), going for lunch at the Revival Food Hall (left), or doing business at the Federal Court Buildings and Post Office (right).


In-person activity in the vicinity of the Federal Court remains subdued.  Chicago’s downtown, while paralyzed by COVID, was also gravely injured by the opportunistic violence perpetrated during the summer of 2020.  Many businesses went under in the wake of the looting and the trauma; others, though solvent, remain indefinitely closed for want of custom.  Some storefront businesses, like the Intelligentsia in the Monadnock Building (center), stand poised to reopen should their former clientele materialize.

Given the relative expense of doing business in Chicago and prevailing wait-and-see atmosphere, it’s doubtful when the city will wake up and regain its health.

Goodness

A moral and cultural collapse is fueling the long political crisis Americans are living through. Well-meaning, tolerant, and patriotic people are still in the majority, but the behavior of the January 6th insurrectionists and everyone friendly to them establishes that civil society and federalism are gravely imperiled. The American way of government is based on compromise and negotiation; it is based on civility and comity; and it aspires to realize a humane and virtuous vision of itself. It is founded on a hope of betterment, on a set of ideal principles regarding individual rights and privileges. Throughout time, American leaders have paid lip service to these ideals and sometimes chanced their lives, careers, and reputations to make them real. The nation’s political identity is intrinsically moral and idealistic. This remains true, no matter how far short, in actual performance, it falls.

The underpinnings of republican government are rotting away. Over the past few years, we’ve discovered how many Americans hate the federal government. They resent their fellow citizens. They’ve had it with learning and discussion. They are sick of “bullshit,” meaning the ideas and values of anyone (especially anyone in power) who doesn’t speak or look or act their way. Their favored recourse is intimidation: speak loudly and crudely, ignore decorum. Belittle, smear, and threaten opponents. Gang up on the rule of law, which works best garbed in the regalia of intolerance, preferably while bearing a stick or a gun. Sneer at moderation, at tradition and respectability. Even polite-looking figures such as Ted Cruz and Lauren Boebert are actually completely corrupt thugs inside.

These people are looking for their next chance to attack police officers, desecrate the flag, and destroy government norms.

The question is whether good Americans can stem the tide. Can we stop the pendulum from swinging toward violence and extremism, and get it to move back to the other side? Can we neutralize the influence inflammatory figures enjoy? Can we restore contentment and consensus, notably by ministering to legitimate grievances and needs? Can the political establishment refrain from abusing its power, and get back to the retreating goal of figuring out how best to promote widespread prosperity, how to restore dignity and safety to ordinary households and communities? A world of trouble lies ahead if the answer is no.

The Inciter-in-Chief

In his final year in office, Donald Trump demonized and denigrated his political opponents while inflaming a sense of grievance in his followers. Having become president on promises to “drain the swamp” and fight a corrupt political establishment, he treated any political figure who opposed, or merely competed with, him as an enemy. Meanness rather than civility was his metier. Whereas the duty of a president is to execute and administer laws impartially, Trump ran the White House like a machine politician, rewarding loyal “friends” and punishing the rest.

Trump’s willingness to foment violence against “enemies” became evident in April, when he began egging on groups of gun-toting citizens in several states, including Michigan, who resented strict COVID measures as an intolerable curb on personal liberty. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” Trump tweeted, explicitly encouraging them to overthrow the state’s lawfully elected government, implying that it was akin to tyranny. Trump had incited his first insurrection. Shortly afterward, members of right-wing militias stormed the statehouse in Lansing and forced their way into its legislative chambers, chanting “Let Us In.” At least two of the protestors later joined a plot with some ten others to bomb the capitol and kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Michigan state legislators were terrorized. Whitmer had to carry on knowing that the president had made her a target of violence.

After the plot made the news, Trump brushed it off, saying Whitmer should “make a deal” placating her would-be captors. In the end, Trump got away with his blatant attack on Whitmer and Michigan’s state sovereignty. Inciting violence in Michigan cost him nothing. Among disaffected whites, who resent the way minorities and women are achieving political parity in US society, his following grew. State governors were silent. Female senators, who might have identified with Whitmer and chosen to stand up for her, also said nothing. No one formally called out Trump for this unprecedented and unwarranted attack on a state government and its authorities.

Trump’s partial success in Michigan encouraged him. It inspired him to plan crowd violence more methodically. He continued experimenting with militaristic language, particularly in the service of a boastful, grandiose narrative. He projected excessive confidence and invincibility. He spoke as one destined to win reelection, speaking dismissively of the machinations of his supposedly corrupt opponents and “others” who were not really American and definitely not worthy of the franchise. In the run-up to the November election, Trump loudly denounced the nation’s sophisticated election system as unfair and easy to manipulate. He repeatedly challenged the legality of election procedures in key states and counties, even where such measures enjoyed bipartisan support. In the summer, emails went out to Trump supporters inviting them to join “Trump’s Army.”

After losing Biden, Trump continued casting aspersions on the honesty of state and local election officials. He questioned the vote. He refused to concede, instead gathering about him a chorus of sycophants (including many top Republicans) who amplified his baseless claims of election fraud, perpetrating the Big Lie. Thousands began echoing his rallying cry of “Stop the Steal.” Trump’s insistence that he had won the election, that Biden and the Democrats had somehow stolen his victory, resonated with a segment of his followers who felt that they too had been passed over and betrayed. Secretary Pompeo kept the faith, insisting on November 10 that there would be a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

Trump’s forces kept pressing on every front, threatening death to election officials and others who refused to falsify the election so that Trump could win. In Georgia, a frustrated election official, Gabriel Sterling, begged Trump via social media, “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.” In Michigan, armed Trump protestors showed up at the home of secretary of state Jocelyn Benson for a “Stop The Steal” rally one December night. They surrounded the house and taunted her, as she and her 4-year-old son decorated for Christmas inside. Such folk believed, as one Trump fundraising email put it, that they were “the President’s first line of defense when it comes to fighting off the Liberal MOB.”

Having exhausted every legal option for overturning Biden’s victory, Trump orchestrated one last grand maneuver to wrest the presidency away from Biden on the day Congress was to receive and record the Electoral College results. Trump’s determination to disrupt and derail the proceedings predated the occasion by several months. This time, the groundwork he laid ballooned into a choreographed melee, a pitched attack on the Capitol and the people within it, that has no precedent in American history.

When the Senate impeachment trail begins on February 8, House managers will present a more complete picture of the storming of the Capitol that injured some 140 police officers and caused eight deaths. The outgoing president deliberately manufactured an assault on the legislative branch that could have resulted in the end of our Constitutional tradition.  He encouraged a spirit of grievance and distrust among his followers, stoking their resentment against Congress and the political establishment itself through a sedulous campaign of put-downs and lies. He told them to march to the Capitol; they obeyed. He watched the violence from the White House with delight. Afterward, he claimed to “love” the mob and averred that “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

Next week, the ex-president will send lawyers to the Senate to defend the indefensible: Trump’s premeditated attack on Congress, the vote, and the nation itself. The senators must find him guilty. To do otherwise will destroy the prospect of peace in our land: presidential authority will have no limit, and the peaceful transition of power will be a thing of the past.

Image: Screenshot from NBC coverage of the assault on the Capitol,
from this source.