In 2017, the City of Chicago has approximately 22 colleges and universities serving just under 60,000 students everyday. The near south and west Loop stays bustling with students from various schools, Hyde Park gets its hum from the University of Chicago and across the city students set a consistent tone. While that may be true, as far as the average Chicagoan can tell, there’s one school in town: DePaul.
This week marks the opening of the school’s $193 million Wintrust Arena in the South Loop, the latest and starkest example of the city’s habit for kowtowing to the Daly’s alma mater. The arena’s opening was accompanied by the slogan, “Bringing Successful Basketball Back to Chicago,” a furtherance of the hubris the private, catholic university of bout 25,000 continues to exhibit as “Chicago’s University”.
The issues that lie within the previous paragraph are many. The most glaring is the fact that the basketball arena was primarily funded using Tax Increment Funding meant for community developments. While this is poorly-used tax money in any regard, its doubly so when applied to beleaguered college sporting program, especially one that is private and boasting one of the highest per-semester tuitions in the city. Prior to opening the arena near McCormick Place, the Blue Demons played their home games in Rosemont at the Allstate Arena. For the average student living near the main campus in North Center/Lincoln Park, the ride to Allstate would be on average around 30 minutes. For them to cross the city to the new arena is about the same, give or take five minutes. Of course, it is distinctly more inclusive to the section of students who live downtown.
Also, let’s back up for a moment and re-evaluate the accompanying slogan: “Bringing Successful Basketball back to Chicago”. The Depaul Blue Demons PR department was really reaching with that one. Long regarded as one of the worst teams in the city, if not the state, Depaul’s Men’s team hasn’t made it to post-season play since making the NIT in 2007 and is enjoying a 13-year absence from the NCAA Tournament as well. Last year they were 9-23, 9-22 in 2015 and they manager to string together 12 wins in 2014. If that’s successful basketball, the Bulls might just have a chance this year. If they’re bringing anything back to the city, it’s women’s basketball. The ladies of Depaul have reached the NCAA Tournament every year since 2003 and last year made it to the Sweet Sixteen. The Sky of the WNBA, who move in this year as well from Allstate, have similarly made the playoffs every year since 2013, going to the championship game in 2014. Ads so far have seemed to focus on the men, but perhaps the marketing plan needs some tweaking.
The terrible premise for the stadium aside, it’s yet another glossy money grab by the city’s elite. Let’s face it, Depaul has been a Chicago insitution since the Daly’s got their diplomas and it appears that distinction will carry on long after those certificates cease to matter. The plans for the stadium were announced in 2013, days before Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 49 public schools, the largest school closure in American history.
To be sure, there are plenty of places to host college basketball games in the city. The University of Illinois-Chicago’s 6,972-capacity UIC Pavilion on the corner of Roosevelt and Halsted serves both the men’s and women’s teams and could easily serve as a second home for a team that only averaged 2,900 attendees the last three years. In fact, the United Center even offered DePaul free rent to use the home of the Chicago Bull’s as a space to call their own, but the Blue Demons said no to the tune of almost $200 million on a quest to “bring basketball back to the city”. I wasn’t aware it ever left, and I’m pretty sure the UC is well-within city boundaries.
The real problem here is on that has persisted throughout much of the city’s history: the mis-use of funds for special interest groups that do little to benefit the larger populace. For instance, successful basketball has never left Chicago. CPS’s basketball teams are often some of the highest-rated in the country and descendants of the neighborhoods regularly find themselves on rosters across college, pro and overseas. Despite this, many high schools, like Morgan Park, who had to migrate some of their games such as the much-anticipated rivalry with Simeon to larger gyms because theirs, built in 1916 was inadequate to host. Spending $193 million on the Wintrust Arena, an oversized cathedral to a disappointing collegiate program is a simple slap in the face to a populace that’s become accustomed to the disrespect.
If anything else, the continued nods to Depaul are a symbolic kissing of the ring by Emanuel, some sort of generations-old deference that is anything but objective in its meaning. There’s no reason that the Depaul Blue Demons should be moving into a new arena anywhere really. Teams and schools are usually rewarded for performance, but true to the nature of its hometown, the team and school will instead benefit from the perpetual cronyism and back room deals that have seen Emanuel turn the Chicago into his own personal Sim City project. The Wintrust Arena is simply the latest in a series of unilateral moves by the Mayor to get closer to his Dubai-esque vision.
Whatever the future may hold, it appears obvious which school continues to be the favorite of the man with the city’s top honor. Over the weekend, a series of murals of famous Depaul alumni (or ‘D-Men’) were unveiled at the Fullerton Red Line station.
President Obama arrives at the Wintrust Arena Nov. 1 as part of his Obama Foundation Summit with Chance The Rapper, Gloria Estefan and The National set to perform.