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Chicago becomes 'behavior cops'

Don Babwin / AP | July 25 2006

CHICAGO -- If you're a cell phone using, goose liver eating, cigarette smoking, fast food loving person, Chicago might not be your kind of town.

In this city that once winked at Prohibition, members of the City Council are cracking down on behaviors they deem unhealthy, dangerous or just plain annoying. They've taken aim at everything from noisy street musicians to captive elephants to fatty foods like fried chicken and french fries.

A proposal that would restrict fast-food chains from cooking with artery-clogging trans fat oils got a public airing this week, and in the last year alone aldermen have banned smoking in nearly all public places and the use of cell phones while driving. In April, Chicago became the first U.S. city to outlaw the sale of foie gras, a goose liver delicacy.

Critics, including the mayor, wonder if the City Council has suddenly deemed itself the behavior police.

"We have children getting killed by gang leaders and dope dealers," an angry Mayor Richard M. Daley said when the foie gras ordinance passed. "We have real issues here in this city. And we're dealing with foie gras? Let's get some priorities."

Aldermen say they are addressing real problems and protecting their constituents. And they dispute that the proposals are diverting their attention from major issues like a city budget crunch.

"We vote on literally hundreds if not thousands of ordinances in the City Council," said Alderman Joe Moore, who led the effort to ban foie gras after learning about what animal rights activists say is inhumane way geese are treated for their livers. "The fact that there may be greater wrongs to address doesn't mean we cannot also address what we might also view as lesser wrongs."

But some people think the proposals have allowed aldermen to avoid coming up with solutions to the city's bigger problems.

"How about worrying about the price of gas, taxes, helping homeless people?" asked Wayne Johnson, an insurance analyst, who was eating his own fried chicken lunch at a downtown food court recently.

Alderman Burton Natarus, who has sponsored a host of noise ordinances aimed at turning down the volume on street musicians, construction workers, boom boxes and motorcycles, agrees with some critics who argue the council is sticking its nose where it doesn't belong.

"I think we are trying to control people's behavior too much," said Natarus, who regrets voting for the foie gras ban. "We are trying to itty bitty regulate every facet of somebody's life."

The latest target is trans fat, found in oils used to fry food like chicken. An ordinance discussed this week would limit use of such oils by fast food chains that operate in the city.

Like the foie gras ban, the trans fat proposal has earned Daley's scorn.

"Is the City Council going to plan our menus?" he asked.

When the trans fat idea first came up, the Chicago Sun-Times weighed in with an editorial facetiously referring to the council's "special Committee to rid Chicago of Everything That is Bad for Us," and wondering if it was "only a matter of time before they propose ordinances against certain cell phone ring-tones, secondhand barbecue smoke and bug zappers."

Some observers say aldermen, who have for so long done what Daley wanted them to, are feeling emboldened to act on their own because Daley has been weakened by a City Hall scandal that has snared some of his top aides.

Others wonder if the proposals have more to do with a changing city, one that is no longer the home of blue collar industries like the steel mills and stockyards, but rather of upscale enclaves and trendy businesses.

"This is the legislation of refinement," said Perry Duis, a University of Illinois-Chicago historian who has written extensively on Chicago. "This is a city of Starbucks rather than the steel mill."

Whatever it is, more than a few people around the city want it to stop.

"I'm a big boy," said Kerry Dunaway as he munched on fried chicken downtown recently. "I can take care of myself."

 

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