CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel is racking up numbers that his former boss, President Barack Obama, would covet. Since Emanuel took office in May 2011, Chicago boasts the fastest job creation among the biggest U.S. cities.
As chief executive of the nation’s third-largest city, though, Emanuel must answer for another figure as well: the murder rate, up 27 percent this year. The contrast has produced a jarring mix of headlines. “Six Shot in 15 Minutes” and “Smartphone maker will bring all 3,000 jobs to Merchandise Mart,” read a couple within two days of each other last month.
The news that Motorola Mobility Inc. would leave the suburbs for the city — the biggest shift since Sears, Roebuck & Co. went the other direction in 1992 — is a “game changer,” Emanuel, 52, said in an interview. It’s also a reminder of how the political challenges for a big-city mayor don’t rest entirely on the economy, even in a year when the job climate is shaping the presidential campaign.
“It’s become two cities,” said John McCarron, an urban affairs writer and adjunct professor of journalism at DePaul University in Chicago. “One is booming, and the other one is becoming more violent and more desperate and more disassociated from the economy of the city and the region.”
Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, got help last month from another top aide who left the White House to return to Chicago. Austan Goolsbee, the president’s former economic adviser now back at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, issued a paper showing that since May 2011, Chicago improved the most among the 10 largest U.S. cities in unemployment rate and employment ratio, a measure of job creation.
Motorola Mobility, which Google acquired in May, said July 26 that it would move its headquarters from the northern suburb of Libertyville to the Merchandise Mart along the Chicago River. It was the Emanuel administration’s 32nd jobs announcement, the biggest in a series of corporate commitments to bring a total of more than 20,000 jobs to Chicago.
“It’s not like the economy overall in the country was going so great that Chicago is just riding a wave,” Emanuel said in his City Hall office. “We are making Chicago, which is a goal of mine, the digital mecca of the Midwest.”
Emanuel touts the quality of the city’s workforce and his administration’s efforts to improve Chicago’s financial condition as a way to lure Ford, GE Capital, United Continental Holdings and other companies.
Still, the numbers show clear divisions. The job growth is mostly downtown while the vast majority of homicides this year — a total of 308 through July 31, compared with 243 in the same period in 2011 — have occurred in poorer areas, on the south and west sides. There have been no murders this year in District 1, which includes the city’s Loop business district.
In one shooting July 23 on the southeast side, a 17-year- old high school student and a 34-year-old mother of three were killed when gunfire ripped through Merrill Park. (Some residents call it “Murder Park” because of the gang turf wars that plague it.)
“Rahm only cares about downtown Chicago — that’s his ’hood,” said Harold Raddle, 46, a construction worker who lives near the park. “You can put all the jobs you want downtown. What good is it going to do for your community? There’s no killings downtown or shootings. The minute there are, I guarantee you they’ll stop it just like that.”
Emanuel rejects that claim, as well as comparisons with other cities, including Detroit, where downtown development has risen along with neighborhood turmoil. Ford said last year it would add more than 1,000 workers to its Torrence Avenue plant on the city’s far southeast side.
Chicago is encouraging blue-collar as well as white-collar hiring, the mayor said. On the same day his office announced that Braintree, a provider of online payment systems, would add 150 downtown positions, Chicago hosted a jobs fair to hire 400 bus drivers for its public-transit system, he said.
“I don’t believe it’s an either-or,” Emanuel said. “We’re making sure all parts of our economy grow, and therefore all parts of our skilled workforce have a chance at it.”
The mayor also pointed to progress on the murder rate, emphasizing that the second quarter saw a decline in the frequency of homicides and that total crime is down 10 percent this year.
“We’re slowly getting our arms around it,” Emanuel said.
July murders in Chicago dropped to their lowest level in 25 years, according to figures released by the police department, and growth in the murder rate has slowed after a 66 percent spike in the first quarter. The city is closing liquor stores, demolishing abandoned buildings and targeting gangs.
“Tonight something could happen on the streets,” Emanuel said before tilting his left hand downward. “On the other hand, I know where the trend lines are going.”