Magazine article Reason

What's the Matter with Chicago and Seattle and New York and Boston ...? We Rank the Worst Nanny-State Cities in America

Magazine article Reason

What's the Matter with Chicago and Seattle and New York and Boston ...? We Rank the Worst Nanny-State Cities in America

Article excerpt


ON MAY 15, 2008, a goose graced the right side of the Chicago Sun-Times' front page, poking its beak into the paper's masthead, over the headline "Back on the Menu." The day before, the Chicago Board of Aldermen had repealed the city's notorious foie gras ban, a 2006 ordinance that came to symbolize the City of Broad Shoulders' transformation into the country's biggest wet nurse of a metropolis.

Legalizing goose liver pate was a rare step away from an odious national trend. From the People's Republic of Cambridge to the west Texas town of El Paso, a paternalist wave has been sweeping the country. Two decades of healthy economies and dropping crime rates have given many city councils the luxury of worrying about less urgent issues, from the last wisps of secondhand smoke to the discomfort of fatted geese. So even as self-styled progressives in Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston take a more relaxed approach to sex and pot, they've adopted increasingly restrictive laws regarding alcohol, tobacco, and junk food. It may be easier to smoke a joint today than it was 20 years ago (except in New York City--see below), but it's getting much more difficult to enjoy a legal cigarette.

To find the best and worst cities for exercising personal freedom, reason ranked the 35 most populous municipalities in the United States in eight areas: alcohol, tobacco, sex, guns, gambling, drugs, freedom of movement, and a catch-all category of food and "other." Within each category, we looked at criteria ranging from helmet laws to restrictions on alcohol sales to how aggressively police target recreational activities such as drug use, prostitution, and gambling. (We used proxies in some areas--figuring, for example, that a high number of prostitutes advertising openly on Craigslist suggests lax enforcement in that area.) The higher a city's score, the more restrictive it is. The rankings are presented from worst to best. After each city's entry, we've included how that city stacked up against the other 34 in each of the eight major categories.

35. Chicago

The Windy City finished in the bottom half of all eight categories. Chicago's litany of meddlesome laws range from a tax on bottled water to a ban on serving alcohol at all-nude strip clubs. Local gun controls and a public smoking ban are among the most restrictive in the country. (That smoky Chicago blues joint of yore is now just a movie cliche.) The city is second only to New York in the use of surveillance cameras in public spaces and has more red light cameras than any metropolis in the country.

Shortly after taking office in 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley blew the dust off an ancient ordinance allowing individual city precincts to vote themselves dry. Today, nearly one quarter of Chicago's precincts are alcohol-free; the number of Chicago taverns has dropped from some 7,000 in the late 1940s to just over 1,300 today.

The place Robert Frost once praised for being "stormy, husky, brawling" and "a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities" has itself gone soft, even soggy, like the last bites of a chili-and-cheese-soaked sausage dog. "That reputation is long gone," says Doug Sohn, owner of Hot Dougs, the city's locally famous purveyor of encased meats. Sohn has the distinction of being the only restaurateur in Chicago to be fined for violating the foie gras ban, a citation that may have had something to do with his decision to name a duck meat and foie gras sausage sandwich after the alderman who sponsored the prohibition.

But the repeal of the foie gras ban doesn't herald a freer future. The same week Chicago reversed the ban, the Board of Aldermen considered a law that would require all pet owners to sterilize their dogs and cats, an overreaction to a pit bull attack on a woman one month earlier. And after a year in which the city's notoriously rough-around-the-edges police department endured a series of high-profile shootings, beatings, and allegations of corruption, the city council considered a bill that would . …

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