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How the Olympics Destroy Cities

In Chicago, game boosters argue that Olympic construction, tourism and spillover business will bring relief to the city's long-suffering south side. Experience teaches a different lesson.
 
 
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You could see his lip curl, the beginning of a sneer. Mayor Richard M. Daley, head of Chicago's government for 18 years, was not pleased. His parade was getting rained on.

The U.S. Olympic Committee was in town, and the March weather was not cooperating. The suits were preparing to survey Washington Park, one of the proposed sites for the 2016 Olympics, on the city's south side.

The park, closed to the public for the VIP visit, had never been cleaner. No amount of preparation, though, would keep the visitors' feet from sinking into soggy turf.

It wasn't the image Daley wanted to project to the committee to help convince them to give the 2016 Summer Olympics to Chicago, and J.R. Fleming wasn't helping. A public-housing organizer and leader in an anti-Olympic coalition, he was yelling into a megaphone three feet away from Daley, Chicago Olympics Chief Patrick Ryan and National Olympic Committee members as they sat in a city bus, waiting to embark on their visit to Washington Park.

"Is the profit that important?" he taunted. "Don't bring the Olympics to Chicago. There's too much racial tension."

Despite Fleming's warnings, on April 14 the national committee announced that Chicago had beaten out Los Angeles as its candidate to host the 2016 Summer Games. Chicago will now compete against Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, Tokyo and a handful of other cities in its quest to bring its first Olympics since 1904, when Chicago lost the games to St. Louis, which was hosting the World's Fair.

That is, unless Fleming and a growing band of doubters can convince the International Olympic Committee to take the games somewhere else. Much like the fairs of yesteryear, the Olympics has become a force unto itself, able to transform a city dramatically. The ambition to host the games fits the agenda of a city leadership enamored of gigantic, splashy projects and overweening power.

Until eight labor-backed insurgents settled last year's living-wage battle by unseating incumbents in the spring elections, the city had one gravitational pull -- City Hall's fifth floor, the mayor's office. Daley's grip on power has been so absolute he promised revenge in 1999 when five of the city's 50 aldermen voted against his pick for fire chief.

Daley's autocratic "leadership style" and the international Olympic industry match perfectly. Both prefer to make decisions behind closed doors, obscure their sordid histories, send budgets through the wash to achieve the desired result and build playgrounds for the rich.

What the Olympics hath wrought

The toll the Olympic industry takes on host cities is made worse because it's so predictable. Their destructive impact is documented in an extensive study of the seven most recent cities (Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London) chosen to host the Summer Games. It was released in June by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The worst abuses COHRE documents have taken place under the most repressive regimes. Beijing will displace 1.5 million people to host the 2008 Games, as it doubles the already frenzied pace of its urban redevelopment. Often without notice, officials cut off electricity and water to convince residents to leave. If that's unsuccessful, garbage and sewage are allowed to pile up in entryways. Left without recourse, a few residents threatened suicide. Some succeed; others are arrested for creating public disturbances.

Beijing's brutality is hardly unique. COHRE details how South Korea's military dictatorship cleared out 720,000 people for the 1988 Seoul Games. Private security forces roamed the streets at night, using rape, beatings and arson to break community resistance.

But it doesn't take a one-party state to bring out the jackboots when the Olympics come to town. Atlanta gained notoriety among Olympic watchers when it declared the central business district a "sanitized corridor" and had police pre-print arrest citations, with the words "African-American," "Male," and "Homeless" already filled in. In the lead-up to the games the city arrested about 9,000 people, a "crime" that has significant implications because people with criminal records are not eligible for public housing. Some of the homeless were given one-way bus tickets out of town.

What mass-produced arrest citations and bulldozers don't accomplish the market's invisible hand usually does. Real-estate speculation and ballooning rents push out vulnerable populations with inescapable regularity. Barcelona, touted as the most successful recent games, registered a 240 percent increase in new house prices in the run-up to the Olympics.

In Chicago, the recent fate of public housing gives Fleming reason to fear the Olympics. "We've always called Mayor Daley Slobodan Milosevic," Fleming says. "The same thing is taking place -- except it's urban and economic cleansing. We're watching this city be re-segregated by forces of greed."

In 1999, Daley took back the Chicago Housing Authority from the federal government and subsequently destroyed entire blocks of the city's infamous public-housing towers, packing people off to shoddy rental units without tracking where those evicted went. If the relocation plan was next to nonexistent, the blueprint for the destroyed sites was all too clear. Townhouses starting at $500,000 now sit on the land that was once the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project.

Fleming and other housing advocates see the city's Olympic bid as a way to speed up gentrification on the city's mid-south side, the six mile gap between the middle-class island of Hyde Park and downtown. Between 2,500 and 6,000 condos and apartments would be converted from Daley's proposed 6,000-unit Olympic Village. No specifics have been released on what percentage will be affordable vs. market-rate, but Daley established a 10-percent rule in the affordable-housing law he pushed through the council in May. Using that as a guide suggests the games would net the city a whopping 600 affordable units at best, in a city where almost half of its 1.1 million households live in housing they cannot afford.

Who would be left to purchase the remaining thousands of market-rate condos that would flood the market following the games remains unclear. The Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois, which tracks real-estate transactions, says in each of the last three years between 800 and 1,100 were sold in the Loop.

Then things got messy

Toni Preckwinkle, the city councilor whose ward would absorb the Olympic Village, fought and lost a battle to raise the affordable housing rate to 15 percent. She says she will demand inclusion of the 15-percent rule, as well as provisions for hiring first among neighborhood residents, paying prevailing wages for construction work, and other requirements for community inclusion into the bid that Chicago will submit in September. Preckwinkle is assembling what's become known as a "Community-Benefits Agreement (CBA)," legally binding deals negotiated between developers and coalitions of local groups. Well-designed agreements are typically written into the contracts that developers sign with cities.

But some southside community leaders say Preckwinkle began discussions with bid officials before consulting neighborhood groups. They include the housing-rights group, Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), and the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), the largest grassroots group in the neighborhoods that bridge the four miles between the proposed Olympic Village and Washington Park. Neither Preckwinkle nor the bid committee have brought their plans before community groups, although KOCO Director Jay Travis says that bid officials visited a neighborhood meeting in May and apologized for their lack of transparency. "You don't really see a sincere attempt to remedy this sort of clandestine planning," she says.

The indifference the city and Olympic boosters have shown toward the people affected by their plans is troubling to Greg LeRoy, director of Good Jobs First, a national group that backs community-benefits agreements. LeRoy says no CBA worthy of the name scurries from public scrutiny.

"If it's completely top-down and secret, it's P.R.," LeRoy says. "If they didn't sit down and ask anybody, how do they know those are the real issues?"

A test case of how CBAs can go wrong is New York City's Atlantic Yards development. The developer of the massive basketball arena-cum-highrise project in Brooklyn went behind closed doors with the anti-poverty group ACORN to sign a "historic" deal. Two years later, its terms keep getting worse. (Since signatories to CBAs are obligated to support them, ACORN still approves of the agreement even though the percentage and definition of affordable housing continues to shrink.)

Forest City Ratner, the Atlantic Yards' development firm, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to other signatories, many of which were created just in time to approve the deal. Ratner's pet groups had black leaders, while existing community groups -- many with white leadership -- were shut out. Consequently, many neighborhood groups now view CBAs as a slick divide-and-conquer tool of real-estate interests.

"What's truly astonishing is that people don't even realize this particular script has been played again and again," says Patti Hagan of Prospect Heights Action Coalition, which agitates against the Atlantic Yards project. "They're being led around by the promise of a little bit of money."

Ebonee Stevenson, a leader in Chicago's fledgling Olympic CBA coalition, says the best CBAs are backed by heavyweights, like a central labor council, that can transcend petty neighborhood concerns. That leaves Chicago in a Catch-22, because unions have told Stevenson's group they're waiting until the Olympics look certain.

Olympic activists elsewhere say that's too late, because once the games are secured dissent is equated with treason, and leverage disappears.

"They'll bring out athletes with flowers in their hair," says Chris Shaw, a leader of 2010 Watch, based in Vancouver, which will host the Winter Games in 2010. "If you can't shift the frame you're fighting Santa Claus and motherhood."

Beyond the opaque approach to community involvement are more difficult questions. Applying community-benefits agreements only make sense if the sports development is actually going to bring economic benefits, says Chris Van Dyk, leader of Citizens for More Important Things, which has campaigned successfully against sport subsidies in the Seattle region. "The only thing to ask for is that they pay their own way, like any small business," he says.

Olympic critics doubt the community-benefit model can be easily adapted to a political environment sticky with sweetheart deals between both local and international actors. "The Olympics can't be reformed or changed or made into the thing you want it to be," Shaw says. "We're seeing a re-growth of activism in our poorest neighborhoods where people are realizing they got totally suckered by the people they trusted to watch out for their interests."

The COHRE report on the social impact of Olympic Games lauded Vancouver for signing multiple binding commitments protecting environment, housing and civil rights. But three years before the city's games, watchdog groups say the promises are melting away. Vancouver's Impact on Community Coalition gave the city's Olympic organizers a "D-" grade in a May report card, noting a rise in evictions, preference for destroying forests, and resistance to opening its books and meetings.

They make money, right?

In Chicago, boosters argue that Olympic construction, tourism and spillover business will bring relief to the city's long-suffering south side. Experience teaches a different lesson.

Lake Forest College sports economist Robert Baade mulched a mountain of data after the Atlanta Olympics, revealing that the city and state could actually have lost jobs in the long-term, because Olympic mania captured public and private dollars that could have had more sustained economic impact. (Forty percent of Games-related jobs vanished after the two-week party left town.)

"I'm not against the games per se, but don't try to sell it as an economic bonanza," Baade says. "Prior to a mega-event, people tend to stay away. Prices for virtually everything are higher than they otherwise would be. And we know from research around the world that residents leave a city hosting a mega-event. They take their money and spend it elsewhere."

And University of South Florida economist Philip Porter discovered that in Atlanta the kind of tourist income games backers always promise didn't materialize. Hotel vacancies, retail sales, and airport use all stayed essentially the same despite the Olympics. Since the surplus rarely materializes, debt surely follows.

Olympic committees fix their budgets by deleting the costs of infrastructure projects from their balance sheets, because keeping them in makes the games look like not such a great deal. Recent host cities have woken up after the games with wretched hangovers. Athens is swimming in $9 billion of debt, Sydney took on $3.2 billion, and the vaunted Barcelona Games stuck taxpayers with a $1.4 billion tab. The 2012 London Games has already spent twice its budget, and estimates for Beijing's bonanza come in around $40 billion.

Still, these big projects create the "legacy" used to entice otherwise reluctant groups to support Olympic bids. Bigger airports, convention centers, cultural facilities, new roads and trains are the usual mix of enticements. Best of all for developers, the International Olympic Committee's unforgiving deadlines create an artificial rush to build, pushing social and environmental assessments to the wayside.

City leaders have promised the Olympics will bring Chicago its first new train line in two decades, a long-coveted circle line to connect the radial spokes that emanate from downtown. But the route favored by the Daley administration ignores the wide swaths of Chicago's west and south sides without train service. Known as the "yuppie line" among transit activists, it is the buckle in the Daley administration's belt of gentrifying neighborhoods circling downtown.

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, a University of Toronto sociologist who has written three books on the Olympics, says games-related development projects stomp on democratic rights. "Citizens may not have wanted it right there, at that site, at that time," she says. "They may have had different priorities but they had to pay up."

Allowing something as important as the Olympics to come before the voters would break with Daley's legacy of government by fiat. Five years ago, when Soldier Field, home to the Bears football franchise, was renovated at a cost of $632 million, taxpayers kicked in two- thirds of the renovation's cost, but weren't granted a referendum to voice their opinion on the matter.

The renovation gutted the stadium, built in 1924, landing what appears to be an alien craft atop its neoclassical colonnades. Those were left intact because tearing down the entire stadium would have required a public vote, says University of Chicago sports economist Allen Sanderson.

"The sense was, 'If we go to a referendum we might lose," he says, "so let's take a half loaf instead of no loaf.' "

But the renovation proved shortsighted. Because the new Solider Field cannot accommodate the 80,000 seats needed to host an Olympics, the city will be forced to finance a "temporary" stadium. Early official estimates have put its cost at $366 million, but that number is considered so low they've been forced to stipulate that the cost could rise due to inflation.

Capital, altius, fortius

The games provide the kind of grand excuse dreamed of by the interests who hold Daley close to recast the city in their image -- they couldn't be happier. The Olympics would boost business-service providers that, according to Dick Simpson, a former alderman who researches city politics at the University of Illinois-Chicago, have steadily increased their campaign contributions during Daley's reign.

The other local winner would be developers, one of whom complained to the Chicago Sun-Times that the neighborhood, a majority African-American community with one of the city's lowest per-capita income rates, had no "pet service providers."

What the Olympics could do to other public services is reason enough to oppose them, says James Pfluecke, an organizer with the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. "It's going to drain every penny from every corner," he says.

Besides starving out other services, hosting the Olympics leaves a city with a flotilla of white elephants. Within months of the 2000 Games, one of Sydney's privately financed stadiums needed $20 million in public money to rejuvenate the stadium area, which by virtue of its distance from central Sydney is losing out to the old stadium complex. Montreal, host to the 1976 Games, converted its velodrome -- a circular track for bicycle racing -- into a biosphere, not exactly residents' first development priority. As the games grow ever larger, they demand more extensive and specialized accommodations that have little post-Game public use.

"I've been able to restrain the urge to go luging," says Steve Pace, who led an Olympic watchdog group in Salt Lake City in the '90s. "So have 99.5 percent of the state's residents."

The air of inevitability isn't as thick as games boosters would have you believe. In an anti-sprawl mood, Colorado voters rejected the 1976 Denver Winter Games after it was awarded them. Local opposition in Toronto, Berlin and Nagoya, Japan, is credited with preventing the Olympics from landing on those cities.

Not that the International Olympic Committee would admit it. The IOC's official report after being greeted by 15,000 angry Berliners declared that "whilst vocal opposition to the bid exists, this is a minority group."

Arrogance and executive fiat aren't gong to quell Chicago's Olympic doubters. While the battle is just beginning, the resistance is already starting to stiffen.

"Given the power around the table," says Ebonee Stevenson, "words mean nothing."

Mischa Gaus is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

 
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