CHICAGO – Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and a group of University of Chicago graduate students he now teaches are reaching across the state line to help the battered steel town of Gary, Ind.
The initiative, announced Tuesday by the university’s Harris School of Public Policy, started with a phone call last year from Karen Freeman-Wilson to Daley as she was running for mayor of Gary. Her call for advice about what to do about abandoned buildings and crime led to a mentoring relationship between the elder statesman and the 51-year-old Gary native, who became the city’s first female mayor in January.
“I wouldn’t have expected more than one meeting,” she said Tuesday in a phone interview as she recalled the beginnings of the project with her fellow Democrat, who upon retirement became a distinguished senior fellow at the university’s Harris School. “He was the person to say, ‘I want to do more. I want to mentor you.’”
Daley, who served six terms as Chicago mayor, said he was persuaded to help because of Gary’s history and relationship with Chicago and the promise he saw in Freeman-Wilson.
“Gary has a great history to the development of this country with the steel mills,” Daley said in a phone interview. “A lot of people from Gary worked in Chicago and a lot of people in Chicago worked in Gary and made their lives better. It was a combination of her great commitment and what she stands for and my belief that no part of America should be forgotten. I want to work with her.”
Daley invited Freeman-Wilson to speak at the university in January. She told the students how Gary’s population, nearly 200,000 in the 1950s, has dwindled to 80,000 because of the decline of the U.S. steel industry.
Freeman-Wilson’s father was a steelworker and her mother managed a community center.
After graduating from Gary public schools, Harvard and Harvard Law School, Freeman-Wilson went on to become Indiana’s attorney general.
“People understand my heart for the city and my goal to make a place that was very good for me better,” Freeman-Wilson said Tuesday. “They’re willing to come along with me for the journey.”
Students involved in the Gary project are conducting an inventory of abandoned buildings, researching successful municipal budget practices and developing a plan that would give neighborhoods more predictable services with a regular schedule for work on potholes.
“We’ve been in Gary all summer,” said Nick Epstein, a 28-year-old public policy master’s degree student. “There are a lot of abandoned buildings in very, very poor shape. It looks like there had been some sort of natural disaster.”
Epstein and other students are working with the Gary mayor’s staff to restructure the city budget to reward departments that meet performance goals. The practical experience has allowed him to meet the real people affected by policy decisions, he said.
Daley’s wish that Gary not be forgotten may also inspire outside donations to a new fund at the university to support the students’ study of Gary’s problems and possible solutions. The project benefits not only Gary, but also the graduate students, who gain practical experience in urban public policy, said Dominick Washington, a Harris School of Public Policy spokesman.
“This all started with Mayor Freeman-Wilson, who sought out Mayor Daley’s counsel in tackling the challenges in her city. That speaks a lot for Mayor Daley’s standing for other urban mayors as a statesman and a font of knowledge for tackling a lot of these issues. He’s a go-to person. Having him as a distinguished senior fellow allows us to secure these opportunities that we might not otherwise have been able to secure.”