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4/1/03 Eric Zorn

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X's mark spot where Daley went too far

Published April 1, 2003
Eric Zorn, Chciago Tribune

If someone will please hand me a pre-emptive tissue, I can begin spitting into the wind. Ah, thank you.

Meigs Field. Mayor Daley. What a disgrace. Achh--ptooey.

At a time when several hundred thousand of our men and women are halfway around the world ostensibly fighting for freedom and democracy, Chicago's mayor treated his citizens to an exercise in autocracy so brazen that it was downright amusing.

A midnight demolition raid on the city's own airport! Operation Tick-Tack-Toe pulled off without warning and under police guard; excavators digging up numerous large X's all in a row down the main runway to render it unusable. By the dawn's early light it was clear that the fitful 55-year history of Merrill C. Meigs Field was over.

"To do this any other way would have been needlessly contentious," the mayor explained at a news conference Monday morning.

The public can be so pesky! Hearings. Compromise proposals. Impact studies. That whole messy governmental process thing that's really just a formality in Chicago these days anyway.

The Daley administration went through all the motions with the hideous Soldier Field rehab project, pretending to weigh its merits in front of the Plan Commission, the City Council, a Park District committee and the full park board. And what did it get--aside from the "Yes, boss" go-ahead? Needless contention, that's what.

Truth is, all such contention in Chicago has become needless contention. Millennium Park. Airport contracts. Median planters. Wrought-iron fences. Critics and doubters are flecked with gobs of their own blown-back expectorant.

Not that I'm sure Daley's wrong to want to close Meigs Field. I suspect I'm like a lot of people who seldom if ever used Meigs. The little lakefront airport struck me as both kind of cool and kind of ugly, not exactly what I'd do with 91 acres of choice waterfront parkland if they anointed me the next Daniel Burnham, but then again it was a business amenity that boosted our local economy.

Seven years ago, when Meigs was padlocked as part of some gambit in the Chicago-Springfield chess match, I proposed a compromise use of the land: turn the runways into fairways and build a 3,500-yard, 9-hole golf course on the site. Breathtaking views. Water hazards on nearly every hole.

If I'd had Daleylike power, our city today would boast "one of the most picturesque golf courses in the entire world" in the estimation then of Dick Nugent, the Long Grove-based designer of Kemper Lakes, George Dunne National, Harborside International and more than 100 other notable layouts.

Daley said the possibility that terrorists would use small planes to attack buildings and crowds near the lake prompted him to want to close Meigs. And he ordered the demolition done under cover of night in order to be sure that the Friends of Meigs Field and others who want to keep the airport open wouldn't have the effrontery, the brass, the gall to take advantage of our society's dispute-resolution mechanism and go to court to try to block it.

The move "makes us feel like a safer city," Daley said.

But are we now a safer city? Pro-Meigs forces argue no, that the little airport handled important medical and rescue flights and helped control and secure the airspace over the city, and that the threat posed by Meigs is so speculative that the demolition is an act of paranoia. You think maybe this was worth a discussion?

If the country and the world were not fixated on the war in Iraq, this sneak attack on the wee airport and ominous symbolism of all those X's in the runway would have made Chicago a national laughingstock. As it is, Operation Tick-Tack-Toe will simply, quietly, go down in local lore as one of the most spectacular, highhanded and, therefore, entertaining exercises of political power in our history.

Daley has done many good things for the city, no question. But when you have a mayor who gets 80 percent of the vote and an invertebrate City Council, certain democratic formalities tend to disappear.

Rachel Goodstein, president of the Friends of Meigs Field, said late Monday that her group and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association are exploring possible legal action to undo Daley's destruction.

Call it Operation Kleenex.

 

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