The state of the city is much sounder than some people may think, Mayor Daniel Biss told the crowd gathered for the annual speech Friday, May 20, because while it’s been a year of great highs – as well as lows.
“I’ve been the mayor for a year,” Biss said to the luncheon crowd gathered at the PalmHouse, 619 Howard St. “It has been an incredible education, a remarkable journey. There have been times of real joy and times of real pain in our community. Times of, you’ll be shocked to learn, even great frustration.”
Talking for nearly 40 minutes, Biss was funny, passionate and interesting. He announced that Northwestern University’s outgoing President Morton Schapiro when he arrived in Evanston in 2009 gave the city a firetruck to show how the university valued its relationship with the city. Now that he is leaving in August, Schapiro is giving the city a goodbye gift – another fire truck.
Biss reviewed the good, telling all that Evanston was recently voted 2021 “All-America City” by the National Civic League, one of only 10 cities in the country to receive that designation per year. Bloomberg Philanthropies named Evanston one of 10 new cities to achieve its What Works Cities Certification, for its use of data to drive decisions. And the list went on. (You can read more here in the city’s annual report.)
But neither did he shy away from the deeply serious issues the community faces.
As he spoke of the struggles here at home, he reminded everyone how many of the problems Evanston faces must be looked at through an historical lens as well as the broader picture of what the country is facing.
“We have made a lot of progress on issues that are significant to this community and beyond,” he said.
This led to one of the most poignant moments in his speech, as Biss talked about the passage of reparations by the City Council and the 16 people who were recently chosen to receive money for housing.
He said, the effort represented “a small step by any measure. And yet,” he continued, “the demonstration of our capacity to take that tangible step and make the promise to own our responsibility for repairing the harm we have done. It’s a game changer in terms of what expectations we have set for ourselves. And what kind of bar we have set for other communities that want to truly grapple with their past, not just the complacency in, but the advancement of, institutional racism.”
Then he asked former Fifth Ward Council member Robin Rue Simmons to stand and thanked her for her “remarkable leadership,” adding, “We would not be here if not for you, Robin.” The applause went on for over 45 seconds and did not stop until there was a standing ovation as well as a few tears from Simmons.
Most of the time, Biss framed his stories using “we,” “us” and “our” with one glaring exception, when he said, “I had been mayor for less than two months … when we learned that there had been unspeakable acts of violence on our lakefront.”
He referred to a report commissioned by the city and conducted by the Evanston law firm Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter about the handling of the sexual abuse of young female lifeguards. The report was scathing, which Biss said was an appropriate response. He vowed the city would implement all nine of the recommendations made “and leave no stone unturned.”
He brought up the toll the pandemic has taken on Evanston, the loss of life as well as the impact to businesses and the mental health crisis it has exacerbated. There is a better way to handle this, he said, rather than 911 calls to the police, which he called “an absurd use of resources.”
He then talked about The Living Room and Resource Center at Turning Point in Skokie as “a successful model” which “puts people on the path to security by not allowing the cycle to continue.”
He talked about public safety, reminding people that there has been “an increase in violent crime across our whole country.” And he said he gets very worried, when he gets notes that suggest we have to choose between public safety and racial justice. He said, there is no racial justice without safety and no safety without racial justice.
He was gracious even before he took the podium, going outside to talk to protesters who were picketing the event to air their grievances over the City Council candidate supported for city manager. He talked with and listened to the two men who were leading the effort, which they said they appreciated.
Biss’s generosity of spirit continued when he started his speech, telling everyone with unbridled passion, “It is just such a gift to be together in person.” He thanked everyone in the room and the whole community for compliance with vaccine and masking protocols and encouragement. “It has really saved lives.”
He kept going, spending more than seven minutes thanking people. Not just the Chamber of Commerce members who host this event, and not only the sponsors, which were NorthShore University Health Systems, Rotary and (full disclosure) the RoundTable as well. But he named his colleagues in the room, the other elected officials. He thanked his staff from the police to the interim City Manager to the health and human services department. He thanked the venue. He had the whole room applauding the two former mayors attending, Jay Lytle and Steve Hagerty.
When he finished, he returned to how he started by thanking his City Council colleagues. First, he deftly referred to the meetings by saying “they can just be difficult.” But he said, there is passion and commitment. And he asked everyone in the room to remember something, “I’m asking you to remember, we have nine people on the City Council who ran for office for one reason only … to make our community better. … That is a remarkable asset.”
To listen to the full speech, click here.