Bulls Markets: Chicago's Basketball Business and the New Inequality

Bulls Markets: Chicago's Basketball Business and the New Inequality

by Sean Dinces

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The 1990s were a glorious time for the Chicago Bulls, an age of historic championships and all-time basketball greats like Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan. It seemed only fitting that city, county, and state officials would assist the team owners in constructing a sparkling new venue to house this incredible team that was identified worldwide with Chicago. That arena, the United Center, is the focus of Bulls Markets, an unvarnished look at the economic and political choices that forever reshaped one of America’s largest cities—arguably for the worse.

Sean Dinces shows how the construction of the United Center reveals the fundamental problems with neoliberal urban development. The pitch for building the arena was fueled by promises of private funding and equitable revitalization in a long blighted neighborhood. However, the effort was funded in large part by municipal tax breaks that few ordinary Chicagoans knew about, and that wound up exacerbating the rising problems of gentrification and wealth stratification. In this portrait of the construction of the United Center and the urban life that developed around it, Dinces starkly depicts a pattern of inequity that has become emblematic of contemporary American cities: governments and sports franchises collude to provide amenities for the wealthy at the expense of poorer citizens, diminishing their experiences as fan and—far worse—creating an urban environment that is regulated and surveilled for the comfort and protection of that same moneyed elite.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226583358
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/05/2018
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Sean Dinces is assistant professor of history at Long Beach City College.

Read an Excerpt


Bullish on Image: Basketball and the Promotion of Postindustrial Chicago

In the middle of the 1990s, journalists started marveling at a curious phenomenon outside the United Center, the Bulls' recently opened, state-of-the-art arena. According to their reports, visitors from across the globe were gathering around the statue of Michael Jordan erected outside the new facility. Writing in 1995, Richard Roeper of the Sun-Times noted that "tourists from as far away as Thailand ... posed for pictures by the ... icon, as fans tossed coins ... near the base." A couple of years later, the Tribune's John Husar described a Mexican sightseer taking photos in front of the statue. The visitor told Husar that he wanted "a memento, something to show our son or grandchildren we were here." By decade's end, the statue was the terminus of a pilgrimage taken by thousands of domestic and international tourists alike.

The popularity of the statue corroborated the claim made by the local, national, and international presses that Jordan and the Bulls had rehabilitated Chicago's reputation. Indeed, it was a reputation in need of repair. When the Bulls started winning NBA titles in the early 1990s, the city was reeling from decades of economic decline and was dogged by a long history of vice, corruption, and segregation. Journalists and those they interviewed were nearly unanimous in the belief that the team, and especially Jordan, supplanted images of the Second City as the seamy haunt of world-famous criminals. In 1997, R. C. Longworth of the Chicago Tribune asserted that "the city's symbol is no longer a syphilitic [Al Capone] and his henchmen but a stately athlete ... and his talented teammates." Capone's syphilis had apparently become a fixation at the Tribune. The following year, the paper's John Kass posited that Jordan "forced cabdrivers in almost every European country to stop mentioning the mass murderer and syphilitic psychopath Al Capone in their first reference to Chicago."

The Bulls' alleged impact on Chicago's standing in the eyes of outsiders was well timed, arriving amid intensifying competition between cities for investment — a process prompted by slowed growth and receding federal aid to municipalities. Before the Jordan era, Chicago stood poorly positioned to compete; by the 1980s deindustrialization, political corruption, and racial conflict had convinced many investors to look elsewhere. Under the leadership of Richard M. Daley, who became mayor in 1989, Chicago politicians and business leaders launched a decades-long collaboration to develop distinctive entertainment amenities in and around downtown. In theory, these amenities would repair the city's global image and entice new visitors, residents, and employers. Working closely with the news media and local tourism industry, the Daley administration aggressively promoted the city as global tourist destination by publicizing assets like the redesigned Navy Pier and Millennium Park as well as the Taste of Chicago festival. At first, the Bulls did not figure prominently in these promotional efforts. But as the franchise's dominance and global renown grew during the 1990s, the public and private sectors in Chicago incorporated the team more and more into their efforts to project a diverse, wholesome, and winning image of the city. By the new millennium, local newspapers, business associations, and government agencies had gone out of their way to stamp Chicago with the imprimatur of Jordan and his teammates.

Using the image of the Bulls to promote Chicago as a recreational paradise made sense. Jordan's talent and the team's unparalleled success during the 1990s offered a truly unique attraction for outsiders contemplating where to visit next. This proved an asset for local elites obsessed with ensuring that Chicago competed effectively in the mad dash for new spending and investment among cities that had been gutted by deindustrialization. While the team's local economic impact eluded precise measurement, journalists offered numerous examples of the team changing peoples' minds about the city and attracting tourists. One of the most stunning stories involved Japanese travelers who paid several thousands of dollars each for a "Michael Jordan Tour" of Chicago. In 1996, tour director Patrick Marume told USA Today's Jerry Bonkowski that participants typically spent $300 each on Jordan souvenirs while in the city.

Such examples indicate that it was Jordan's star power and the sustained success of the Bulls on the court, rather than massive public subsidies for a new arena, that provided the appeal. In their quest for taxpayer-funded stadiums, team owners and their political allies often argued that a new facility, in and of itself, would accelerate growth by promoting increased tourism. The history of the Bulls during the late 1980s and 1990s shows that in terms of any sort of positive economic impact at the local level, team quality — a variable out of the control of policy makers — played a much more important role than the mere existence of a new venue.

This is not to say that the Bulls saved Chicago from economic ruin. Any direct impact the team had on local tourism and entertainment spending proved miniscule compared to the city's overall economy. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that the larger effort to reengineer Chicago as a new capital of leisure — an effort in which the promotion of the Bulls by local elites played a supporting role — helped return the city to a path of robust growth. This growth, however, was distributed very unevenly. During the 1990s, Chicago's leadership funneled the overwhelming majority of new public and private investment into blocks in and around downtown, otherwise known as the Loop, which they desperately wanted to resurrect as the nerve center of an expanded entertainment infrastructure. Indeed, by 2000, the Loop had been reborn.

This rebirth did wonders for the profits of local real estate moguls, tourist industry executives, and business service firms active in the Loop, not to mention the lifestyles of urban professionals who coveted trendy downtown hangouts; but the same could not be said for Chicago's poorer neighborhoods, especially the predominantly African American and Latino ones on the city's South and West Sides. The investment poured into downtown rarely spilled over into these other areas, and the people who resided there found themselves largely excluded from the redevelopment overseen by Mayor Daley. At the start of the new millennium, economic inequality, racist policing, and segregated, underfunded schools remained deeply entrenched in Chicago. They remain so today. To be clear, this chapter is not about blaming the Chicago Bulls franchise for these problems. As subsequent chapters show, decisions by the team's executives exacerbated many of those problems, but here the focus is on how politicians, the press, and other businesses in Chicago used the Bulls' cachet to help implement a local version of exclusionary capitalism in the New Gilded Age.

Chicago's elites justified their singular focus on investing in neighborhoods in and around the Loop by painting it as the only realistic option available to them. Other cities were aggressively marketing revamped downtowns in a bid for new tourist spending and business investment. The Second City had to compete by responding in kind, so the story goes. This argument, however, overlooks how the administration of Harold Washington, the mayor of Chicago from 1983 to 1987 and the first African American to hold the office, offered a real alternative to the one-sided, Loop-centric model of growth. Through creative budgeting, a relatively confrontational stance toward big business, and a genuine effort to expand democratic participation in local government, Washington and his allies challenged local elites by prioritizing balanced development across the city. Not all of Washington's agenda came to fruition before his sudden death in 1987, but enough of it did to suggest that Richard M. Daley's obsession with an entertainment and leisure renaissance in and around the Loop was driven more by the politics of class than by the politics of necessity.

In this context, the press and other local elites highlighted the Bulls as a much-needed source of local "community." As the Tribune's Bob Greene put it in 1996, "People who may believe they have nothing in common with other people of different ethnic, racial, geographic or age-defined groups find community via the Bulls." The decision by local newspapers and other media to argue aggressively that the team united disparate parts of a socially fractured city represented an attempt to resolve the tension between persistent inequality and local elites' claims that the city had put its checkered past behind it. More than diverting attention from the impact of exclusionary capitalism in Chicago, these efforts supplanted definitions of community rooted in people working together for basic economic and social well-being with superficial definitions based on shared interest in a sports team.

Before the Stampede: Politics, Economics, and Reputation in Pre-Championship Chicago

By 1990, many people inside and outside Chicago viewed the city as a segregated dystopia with few prospects for growth. Decades of deindustrialization, paired with official economic development policy that favored certain areas of the city while ignoring others, made it difficult to argue otherwise. Like many other Rust Belt cities, Chicago lost staggering numbers of manufacturing jobs after World War II to nearby suburbs, Southern states, and foreign countries. Between 1950 and 1990, Chicago's population plummeted by more than 837,000, and the number of residents working in manufacturing plunged by about 62 percent (table 1.1).

Richard J. Daley, mayor from 1955 to 1976 (not to be confused with his son and later mayor, Richard M.), managed the early stages of this decline by supporting a progrowth coalition bent on bolstering Chicago's economy with expanded office and residential development in the Loop. The Chicago Central Area Committee (CCAC), a booster and planning organization representing the interests of real estate, financial, and architectural firms, enjoyed privileged access to the mayor's office, and during the 1950s, the group helped build a consensus within the local private sector around a Loop-centered growth model. In support of this vision, Daley used his influence over the allocation of federal urban renewal dollars and zoning law to incentivize investment downtown. This approach placed the needs of outlying neighborhoods relatively low on the city's list of priorities, but it helped avert the wholesale gutting of the central business district suffered by other Rust Belt cities.

The federal government helped pick up the slack in neighborhoods Daley neglected by increasing the amount of aid it provided to cities like Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s. This meant that, even after lavishing the Loop with funding, the Daley administration often had enough left over to maintain a relatively high level of investment in working- and middle-class neighborhoods. The leftovers helped sustain robust city services and the closely related practice of employment patronage. The latter involved doling out city jobs to Daley's relatives and constituents, which allowed him and his political "machine," or the patchwork of political offices and organizations in Chicago and Cook County dominated by the local Democratic Party, to maintain voters' loyalty. Increased revenues from the federal government also helped fund urban social programs like public housing. Chicago was no utopia during the reign of Richard J. Daley, but the expansion of federal aid made local growth more inclusive than it otherwise would have been, in turn placing some important limits on the expansion of poverty and economic inequality.

However, local officials' decision making when it came to economic development and social-welfare spending exacerbated racial segregation. Convinced that the presence of low-income and working-class African Americans in and around the Loop would deter investment, Daley and his private-sector allies oversaw several massive developments during the 1950s and 1960s that forced thousands of blacks from the area. Projects like Sandburg Village on the Near North Side and the University of Illinois's Circle Campus on the Near West Side also functioned as buffers between downtown revitalization and nearby African American neighborhoods. Local officials simultaneously directed the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to locate new public housing projects, intended to absorb low-income African Americans displaced by downtown development, in segregated neighborhoods outside the Loop. In the words of historian Paul Street, officials designed the new CHA high-rises "to prevent the horizontal spread of black Chicago by thrusting black families into the sky."

This model of development ensured that, even in an era of relatively inclusive capitalism, black Chicago faced deteriorating economic prospects. The migration of whites and well-paying factory jobs to the suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s converged with pervasive discrimination in the suburban housing market to trap most African Americans in severely segregated neighborhoods where work was disappearing. By 1970, approximately one in five of Chicago's black families lived below the poverty line; and African American families, who accounted for one-third of the population, constituted 58 percent of all families in the city officially living in poverty. The economic crises of the 1970s, which accelerated central city deindustrialization and prompted the revolt of American business against the pillars of inclusive postwar capitalism like unionization and expanded social-welfare programs, widened the economic gap between African Americans and whites in the Windy City. Unemployment among the city's African American population leapt from 7 to 20 percent between 1969 and 1989, whereas among whites it crept from 3.1 to 5.4 percent.

Widely circulated images of intensifying poverty among African Americans made whites anxious about living, working, or playing in cities like Chicago. Urban planner Robert Beauregard notes that in the popular — that is, white, middle-class — American psyche of the 1960s and 1970s, inner-city blacks came to symbolize "physical deterioration ... crime, poverty, poor schools, and unemployment," as well as social unrest. Many whites responded by abandoning Chicago proper for the suburbs, eroding the local tax base and further isolating the city's African American population. By the time Richard J. Daley died in 1976, the combination of deindustrialization and white anxiety had cemented Chicago's reputation as a bad place to live and do business. In 1975, Harper's magazine ran an article by Arthur Louis that ranked the fifty largest U.S. cities on the basis of quality-of-life variables such as crime, health care, housing, and recreation. Chicago came in third worst overall, better than only St. Louis and Newark. During the 1970s, the annual growth rate of the Chicago area's total personal income, a popular measure of economic expansion, lagged behind the metropolitan United States as a whole (fig. 1.1). And while Chicago averted a catastrophic fiscal crisis on the order of the one that hit New York in the mid-1970s, it did so only as a result of Richard J. Daley's ability to ignore the needs of low-income communities and cut spending at will — two practices made possible by the intractable power of Daley's Democratic Party machine.

Admittedly, Chicago never enjoyed a pristine image. In 1961, sociologist Anselm Strauss noted that mention of the city conjured up visions of "crime, vice, urban disorganization ... represented by 'Capone', 'gangsters' ... by the well known slums and the black belt." However, for decades after World War II, an "imagery of enterprise" and "stupendous growth" counterbalanced this view. For many, according to Strauss, notions of Chicago as "Hog Butcher of the World" and the "City of Big Shoulders" somehow justified the vice and corruption. During the first half of his tenure, Richard J. Daley maintained the city's status as the "City That Works" with a bevy of new infrastructural projects like the O'Hare Airport expansion.17 But by the time Michael Bilandic became mayor upon Daley's death in 1976, that entrepreneurial reputation had receded, leaving behind stories of scandal, violence, and racism.


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Table of Contents

1 Bullish on Image: Basketball and the Promotion of Postindustrial Chicago
2 “Normally, Heroes Cost You Money”: Bulls Fans in the New Gilded Age
3 The Bulls as “Good Business”: The United Center and Redeveloping Chicago’s Near West Side
4 Anchor or Shipwreck? The United Center and Economic Development in West Haven
5 “Peanut Envy”: The United Center’s War against Sidewalk Vendors
6 “Nothing but Net Profits”: Public Dollars and Tax Policy at the United Center

Appendix A: Logistic Regression Analysis of 1993 General Social Survey Data
Appendix B: City of Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois State Campaign Contributions by United Center Ownership and Executives, 1980–2016
Appendix C: United Center Property-Tax Savings
Appendix D: United Center Amusement-Tax Savings

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