Are Politics Local?

Statue outside of Catholic Charities

After attending Open House Chicago and reviewing the readings for this week, I agree with the base premise of the New York Times article “All Politics is Local? The Debate and the Graphs” by Andrew Gelman that elections have become increasingly nationalized and “politics is less local than it used to be”. However, I believe that in Chicago, politics remain more local than in other parts of the country due to the development and importance of the neighborhoods. The construction of ethnic neighborhoods around parishes greatly influenced Chicago Catholic politics and continue to do so because of the political activism of those in the Catholic hierarchy and because of the segregation that remains in Chicago, hacking the city into separate racial and ethnic enclaves.

Local groups have always been important to combat national issues. Many Irish Catholics advocated for prohibition, and although it was a national issue, separate groups in different cities across America utilized their own methods and support systems to mobilize support for the law. In addition, supporters believed in the alcohol ban because of the effects that it had on their own individual communities. In Chicago in particular, city politics have fed into the national discussion beyond simple support for national issues due to the relationship between Richard J. Daley and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Daley was a positive influence in helping both get elected, and had significant power in Chicago, but also possessed a national voice many city mayors lacked. During President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reelection presidential campaign, the Kelly- Nash Democratic political machine helped get him elected and strongly voiced their support for him throughout his presidency during the war. Patrick Kennedy voices in his article “Chicago’s Irish Americans and the Candidacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932-1944” that “Boston’s Irish-dominated political machine had collapsed by the 1930s, while Chicago’s was on the rise” (11). The Irish vote was tightly controlled by the Kelly-Nash machine, and other ethnic groups were included to consolidate the power, as well as working to gain support from other Catholics and labor unions. Chicago’s politics remained more locally based then in other cities because of the white ethnics’ control of the vote.

St. Stanislaus Kostka in West Town

During Open House Chicago, I was able to visit St. Stanislaus Kostka which embodies Chicago Catholic politics and the importance of the ethnic neighborhood divides. After the church was built, the area around the building was called Stanislawowo, thus demonstrating the power of the parish and the importance it held, and holds, in the daily life of parishioners. For most of the parishes, the lay people live in the surrounding area, and as many of the Catholic churches were built by a certain ethnic group, each neighborhood is a separate ethnic group, at least partially drawn by parish lines. Polish-Americans built St. Stanislaus Kostka, and the church obviously caters to the Polish population in West Town because it still holds services in Polish and has the signs of the cross written in Polish in the church. This centralized and localized Chicago politics and provided political power to Catholics as opposed to Protestants because Protestants often travel to attend worship services while Catholics typically worship near where they live. As one of the most Catholic cities in America, Catholics have and still hold significant political power, former- Mayor Daley as an example. The Catholic bishops and priests in Chicago are not an exception, and have supported parishioners and themselves have actively participated in local and national politics. Albert Meyer and Cardinal Stritch, as well as Father Pfleger, advocate for political action from their congregations. The first two “permitted priests and laypeople to address controversial social and political issues” (Skerret, et al. 7). Therefore, lay people and Catholic religious were active in Chicago politics rather than shying away from the tough issues.

The facade of St. John Cantius

Another example of local Chicago politics is St. John Cantius, another Polish Church that was built in 1898 and is reminiscent of the architecture of Krakow. This church is the closest to downtown of the “Polish Cathedrals” and at the time of completion, was the largest house of worship in Chicago. The area surrounding the church is still dominated by Polish immigrants and their descendants. St. John Cantius is also an example of a parish that is connected both to local politics and a strong local faith community, but also grappling with larger issues in the Catholic Church post-Vatican II. To this day, Latin masses are offered each week, and because of the Polish base, there are strong connections to Pope John Paul II.

The stunning interior of St. John Cantius

The political opinions of church members, including in St. John Cantius is largely formed from the community and the church teachings, much as how it was during the 1930s. Because of the fragmented ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago, according to John Buenker in “Dynamics of Chicago Ethnic Politics 1900-1930”, “nationality groups could establish strong control over a local area and expand outward through alliances and residential mobility until they became the major force in the city and party” (17). The ethnic group with the highest population, or strongest alliance with other smaller ethnicities, could essentially beat the political system and improve their group’s political, educational, and financial position. The ability to game the system by emphasizing ethnic roots, helped, and continue to help many Chicago politicians win elections at every level of the government. In addition, during that time period, politicians aiming to win over smaller ethnic groups to their political base often aided voters with small gifts such as paying a month’s rent or buying clothes for a family. These small favors allowed political machines to be built on Chicago’s ethnic enclaves, particularly among Irish Catholics who dominated politics although less than in cities such as Boston or New York. Local politics at both the aldermanic level and at the city level, were strongly intertwined with both Catholicism and ethnicity.

Selfies at St. John Cantius
The outside of City Hall which is lined with the American and the Chicago flags

As a non-Chicagoan, the obsession of those from the Chicagoland area with the Chicago flag baffles me. I have no idea what the St. Louis flag looks like although I’ve lived there for 17 years, while after my first semester at Loyola I could recognize the Chicago flag. This is one example of the importance of local politics to the city of Chicago; a city that, in my opinion, is more involved at the local level than others in America. While at City Hall, I learned that the blue stripes on the flag are for Lake Michigan and the Chicago River and the white is divided into three parts to represent the North side, the West side, and the South side. In addition, there is art at the entrance that depicts the essential services that the government supposedly provides: playgrounds, education, a water system, and the park system. From my view, Chicago appears to dominate Illinois politics. In national elections, Illinois is solidly blue every election because of the size of the city despite the fact that Chicago is a blue enclave in a majority red state. In addition, the power of the Chicago Mayor seems on par with the power of the Governor of Illinois, unlike in most other states, and on a national level, the Chicago Mayor may have a stronger presence, as evidenced by the ability of those outside of Chicago to have at least name-recognition of Rahm Emanuel.

Me, sitting in the Mayor’s seat at City Hall.

It is likely that Mayor Richard J. Daley had an impact in growing the importance of Chicago as a dominant city in America as well as the power of the Chicago mayor’s office. He was a democratic mayor when the Kelly-Nash political machine was still powerful, and he made achievements in improving infrastructure although social services remained segregated and often failed those who most needed it. Daley began his political career in ward politics and remained the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party while he was mayor. He won the mayoral campaign because of his successful campaigning in Chicago neighborhoods. Daley was hugely important in delivering Illinois to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson while they were running for office. And although he was successful in this endeavor, partly due to the Chicago Democratic machine, Daley had a larger focus on the local elections that were occurring at the same time, such as state attorney. As the author remarked in Chicago: “in Chicago, national elections are always subordinate to local ones” (27). These held true in the past, and appears to still be true today.

The Church was unafraid to oppose Daley, even though he was a Catholic. Daley’s fight for urban renewal including public housing, street improvement, and expressways, was highly criticized by white ethnics who feared African-Americans would be displaced and move into their neighborhoods. This opposition was proven in the 1963 mayoral election as Daley ran against a Republican, Adamowski; Chicago’s Polish-American population, many Southwest Side Irish, and several of the white ethnic neighborhoods on the Southwest Side voted for Adamowski, making this election to be more difficult for Daley. A new highway system, one that divided neighborhoods, was one of the most apparent achievements of the Daley years; it also had the additional benefit of binding his political base together. One consequence was that “the Kennedy Expressway resulted in the removal of some four hundred Polish American families in the parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka” (Daley’s City 19). However, the community and Polish-American politicians did successfully rally to move the construction as to not demolish their parish. This grassroots activism led by Polish-American politicians and clergy, demonstrates the involvement of the Catholic Church and its members in local politics in Chicago.

The fears of the white ethnics continued into the 1970s, with an increasing focus on revitalizing neighborhoods, both by the communities and at the national level. Rev. Geno Baroni advocated for white ethnics at the national level through his position as Assistant Secretary for Neighbourhoods at the HUD during the Carter Administration (Merton). He admired the mobilization efforts of black people and copied their methods as well as connected with them on occasion to amplify their voices. White ethnics thought it important to emphasize that they are different from other white people in America, therefore, they don’t have all of the privileges or support that others do. One thing that made them different to some extent was their Catholic faith. Although there were many white ethnics who were Protestant or held another faith tradition, a large population were Catholic, and so that was an important part of their identity. In the 1970s, many white ethnics did not think that they liberal agenda included them. This led to activism at the more local level in order to form links between different white ethnic communities and try to improve their neighborhoods at the grassroots level rather than through the state or national Democratic Party.

The chapel in the St. Vincent Center of Catholic Charities

Catholic Charities is one example of an organization that supported Catholics and tried to work in the gap between the government and the people. In Chicago, the St. Vincent Center began as a Hospital and Infant Asylum in 1881. Since 1917, Catholic Charities has worked to serve the poor as an accredited social service agency working in Cook and Lake Counties. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul are an example of Catholic women who saw a gap in help and so stepped in to provide care to those mothers and children who needed it. Today, services include refugee resettlement, HIV/AIDS awareness, care for substance abuse, homelessness, veteran services, and more. While the services offered in the 21st century extend far beyond simply service to poor mothers and their children, the mission remains largely the same.

Stained Glass at Holy Name Cathedral

The last site I visited during Open House Chicago was the Holy Name Cathedral. I found this Cathedral quite different from the other two that I saw because it was not built by and for and serves a particular ethnic population. Located in the heart of downtown, it is a more unassuming building from the outside, but the inside is absolutely stunning. Although it has since been renovated, it is apparent that this Church has had a long history and served a large population of Chicago Catholics.

Hairy Who exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago

Finally, I was able to attend the Hairy Who exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Read a quick bio of what the Hairy Who artist collective was here . The six artists involved were all graduates of the Art Institute of Chicago, thus their art was largely influenced by Chicago artists and a similar education. The first exhibition by the collective was in 1966 at the Hyde Park Art Center and included unique methods to advertise the show, such as writing a comic book. The importance of the city of Chicago in the education and artwork of the Hairy Who collective led me to believe that 1960s youth art was quite local, at least in Chicago. All of their exhibitions were in Chicago except for one. In addition, the artists focused on current political issues, particularly in Chicago, while also breaking down stereotypes and gender roles. Frankly, it is hard to draw a strong conclusion on whether 1960s youth art was local after viewing this one exhibit, but in my opinion, how the Hairy Who created their art shows as well as their backgrounds all based in Chicago along with interest in exploring political issues through their art lead me to believe that the art was local.


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