Fifteen years already? That went by fast. When Richard M. Daley dug up Meigs Field in the dead of night, on March 31, 2003, it seemed an unhinged, illegal act, the worst thing the mayor had done during his administration—we didn't realize then just how badly he was mismanaging the city's finances, digging a hole that Chicago struggles to crawl out from to this day.
I loved Meigs Field, and was lucky enough to take off the tiny lakefront airstrip once, in Susan Dacy's stunt biplane, to do barrel rolls and loop-de-loops over Lake Michigan.
This column ran in 2012. What impresses me most is that, six years ago, I'd actually phone the mayor's office to try to get his reaction on something. Now that's inconceivable, because I can't imagine him giving a candid response on any subject whatsoever, nor anybody caring if he did.
So it was odd to see Emanuel this week seem to defend Daley's biggest lapse while mayor: the surprise, probably illegal 2003 destruction of Meigs Field, the city's downtown airport that . . . well, why re-invent the wheel?
"Meigs Field was an urban jewel and a unique lakefront asset that will never be replaced," the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in 2005. "As tragic as its loss was to the vibrancy of downtown Chicago, worse was the dead-of-night manner in which Mayor Daley destroyed it two years ago, without question the most extreme abuse of power he has committed in a decade and a half in office - well, as least the most extreme we know about."
OK, OK, it was me who wrote that in the Sun-Times in 2005. But wait, we're coming to the best part:
"Even if it were a good move—and it wasn't—he did it the wrong way. I might want an omelet for breakfast, but that doesn't mean I want Mayor Daley to break into my house and prepare it while I sleep."
Granted, I'm an airplane fan. What man with a pulse isn't? I've always rejected the argument that you had to be a bigwig using Meigs to jet from deal to deal in order to benefit from the field. Many, particularly kids, liked to see the aircraft come and go. The terminal was a small gem of late 1950s modernism. The place had a lot of history. Going for a ride with Bill Lear, who was showing off his new Learjet, a Daily News reporter looked out his window and said that scant Meigs runway looked "like a stick of gum."
The city has mile after mile of underutilized lakefront park, and it made no sense to destroy Meigs just to add a few hundred yards more.
So ruining Meigs was a mistake, and Daley doing it in his I'm-the-King-of-Chicago-I-can-do-what-I-please manner made it worse.
Time is a balm, however. Asked if digging up Meigs was the right thing to do, Emanuel initially said, "It is right, yes, on this level, this way: Meigs Field is no longer there."
But that seemed to be saying that the ends justify the means. Whatever works, just do it.
"I'll leave it to others to make that judgment," Emanuel continued. "I think it was the right thing to do."
Which is it? Since I wasn't there, I thought clarification was in order. Perhaps the mayor was flustered by my colleague, Fran Spielman—a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, Front Page, honed-razor of a newspaper reporter who will cut out your heart and make you comment on it as you die. If she asked me the time, I'd start to cry. I thought, to be fair, I had better check with Emanuel's office. So he approves of Daley's most power-mad act?
"No way, no how," his office replied.
Well, that's a relief. So does that mean—follow-up question!—that the mayor is not laying the groundwork for his own extra-legal, unilateral acts? That he won't, oh, decide to fill in Belmont Harbor? Because really, who enjoys that? A handful of rich boaters. That's all. Why indulge them when the city could seize the lagoon and fill it in. More campground for poor kids! And the Water Tower—it really jams up the intersection. Why not pull it down in the dead of night and reassemble it south of Roosevelt Road, where congestion is not such an issue? And why go through all the bothersome hearings and preservationist thumb-sucking and hobbyhorsing that are the hallmarks of a free country, or were, when a powerful mayor can simply decide it's the best thing to do and then command his quivering underlings to see that it is done while nobody's watching?
Again "No." Emanuel is celebrating his ill-gotten gains, but not the act that got them.
I suppose he can't, at this point, put the airport back. Too late for that. And, looking forward, as he wants us to, transforming Northerly Island to prairie might turn out wonderful. The idea of camping there, with the stunning cityscape arrayed before you, is enticing. I'd sure give it a try, for a night.
But I think it's too early for anyone to shrug off what happened to Meigs. It was a crime. Daley ripped up the runway while planes were still parked next to it. It cost the city more than a million dollars in fines, and sent a chill down the back of Chicagoans, or should have. The city kept re-electing the guy, and now it's got another mayor for life, whose office insists he is definitely not, no way, no how, testing the waters to see what the public will accept. Let's hope not.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 19, 2012