Once again, the whole world was watching. But Chicago didn’t devolve into 1968 redux. It wasn’t the combustible World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, either.
By that barometer, Chicago’s turn as host of the NATO summit could be declared a success.
Protests got rowdy but not wildly out of hand. Security was tight but the city wasn’t on lockdown, allowing the business of the summit to proceed. Commuters were inconvenienced but by and large could get where they needed to go — and many decided where they needed to go was nowhere near downtown.
In the end, the summit proved a one-weekend blip on the radar of a major urban metropolis used to crowds, conventions, dignitaries and hoopla.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel hailed it as a “milestone” for the city on par with other history-making events.
“By hosting NATO and the NATO summit, we have reinforced, reaffirmed and revitalized Chicago’s role on the world stage,” Emanuel declared Monday, his first public comments in four days. “While Chicago has the title of second city, because of the NATO summit, we’ve shown the world that we are a world-class, first-class city.”
It will be weeks or even months before anyone can hit a total button on the economic costs or benefits of the gathering to the city.
David Vite, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said all the face time Chicago was getting on TV around the world could lead to a payoff in the long term. But Vite also noted that retail activity appeared to slow to a crawl in the central city.
“While we don’t have any numbers … for 72 hours it was not a great business weekend,” Vite said.
The business slump during the NATO summit weekend came as no surprise to downtown restaurant owners, but things weren’t much better in outlying neighborhoods well removed from the action. “Brutal, that would be my word,” said Drew Goss, co-owner of West Town Tavern on Chicago Avenue in Logan Square.
For nearly a year leading up to the summit, Emanuel promised it would raise the city’s global profile in an era of international trade and tourism.
Chicago’s existing global profile was underscored by two of the targets that anti-NATO protesters chose to focus their ire on Monday: The international headquarters of aerospace giant Boeing and the re-election headquarters of the leader of the free world, President Barack Obama.
“The image of Chicago was good already before we arrived,” observed NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Monday.
Chicago’s residents didn’t get a chance to weigh in on whether they wanted to host the world — Emanuel simply announced the event was coming after lobbying the White House to let him hold the summit in Obama’s hometown.
With no formal role during the summit, Emanuel played good-will ambassador. After a year in office where he has commanded the media spotlight, the mayor largely stepped aside and watched the party he organized from the corner of the room.
Not so his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, who was a constant presence alongside his officers at the scene of demonstrations looking every bit the part of a take-charge law enforcement official.
During a Sunday protest near McCormick Place that turned into a tense standoff between protesters and police, McCarthy was captured on television cameras helping an officer who had fallen get back on his feet, patting him on the back and encouraging him to rejoin the scrum. For McCarthy, being out front was probably a job requirement, but one that carried risk if the protests went south.
The mayor on Monday issued a special thank you to police for doing a “tremendous job under very stressful situations” over the course of the weekend. He said he went to thank many of them personally on the street, shaking 400 to 500 hands.
The weekend served as the official capstone to Emanuel’s first year in office, an anniversary party of sorts thrown by the federal government and private donors that between them picked up the $55 million tab. It’ll be some time before it’s clear whether that amount is sufficient to cover the city’s costs, though the mayor has long promised it would be.