The Chicago Prize is a cruel joke disguised as philanthropy. The Prize launched in April 2019 and asked Chicago neighborhoods to produce full project proposals to improve park space, build affordable housing, and create jobs in the neighborhood. After a series of judgings, one neighborhood wins $10 million to make their urban planning dreams a reality, and the other neighborhoods go home. The money from the Chicago Prize comes from billionaires Penny Pritzker and Bryan Traubert, who could easily pay for all of the proposals instead of making poor neighborhoods fight each other. We should not settle for taking whatever improvements billionaires decide to fund. We should be able to choose for ourselves what kind of neighborhoods we want to live in.
After soliciting proposals from neighborhoods all across the South and West sides of Chicago, the Prize selected 6 finalists from South Chicago, North Lawndale, Auburn Gresham, Austin, Englewood, and Little Village. I would highly recommend reading all of them, as all 6 proposals are fantastic. Op-eds arguing for South Chicago and North Lawndale are brilliant and heartfelt—and correct. South Chicago desperately needs the 80 units of affordable housing proposed in their Chicago Prize project. The North Lawndale proposal to build affordable housing with wrap-around services would be a critical boon to the neighborhood, which has a higher than average rate of homelessness. Auburn Gresham won the $10 million prize, which is fantastic. The development of a full service health center and a green jobs program will revitalize the community; we should all be very happy for them. The problem is that all the proposals should be implemented. The Chicago Prize turns urban planning into a zero-sum game, where Auburn Gresham’s win means a loss for the other five neighborhoods. This is wrong. We don’t need to pit poor communities against each other like this. Especially considering the history of segregation in Chicago’s neighborhoods, this game pits poor Black and Latinx communities against each other.
The system that turns entire neighborhoods into “winners” and “losers” is bad enough. But who makes the decision? Who chooses the winner? The winner of the Chicago Prize is decided by the billionaires who offered the $10 million prize, Penny Pritzker and her husband Bryan Taubert. These projects are major investments in urban planning; undertaking any of them represents a major change to the community. So why doesn’t the City Council weigh in? Billionaires make unilateral decisions about Chicago’s landscape and the future of our neighborhoods, while proposals from democratically elected alders about their own neighborhoods get stalled in committee. The Chicago Prize is a deeply undemocratic way to do urban planning and manage our city’s affairs.
The answer we will hear is that urban planning decisions have to be made with private philanthropic money, because the city is so broke. Don’t fall for this answer. The city is only out of money for projects that would benefit the poor, but they love throwing money towards developments for the rich. The city gave $1.6 billion towards Lincoln Yards, a “luxury neighborhood” on the Northwest side. If that money went towards making all six Chicago Prize finalists a reality, to the tune of $60 million, then they could have still given $1.54 billion to this new luxury neighborhood. Improving these poor neighborhoods is a drop in the bucket; choosing not to fund them is a political choice.
And if the city is too broke, it’s because the “philanthropists” behind projects like the Chicago Prize stole too much money. Penny Pritzker (Governor Pritzker’s older sister) has a long history in Chicago politics, well before the Chicago Prize began. She is an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune whom Rahm Emanuel appointed to the school board in 2011. During her tenure, Hyatt received $5.2 million towards their Hyde Park location. The Hyde Park Hyatt exists in part because the billionaires in local politics used their position to leverage money out of the city. The $10 million prize becomes even more of a slap in the face when you realize that Penny Pritzker is barely giving back more than what she took.
The Chicago Prize brought out the best in our neighborhoods and created some wonderful proposals. All of them should be done, and maybe all of them could be done if the city prioritized the needs of the poor over the accumulation of the wealthy. But everything about it is wrong. Billionaires should not make us fight for the crumbs they offer. Our neighborhoods need real investment, not the leftovers from those enemies who have been looting our city for years.