The biggest figure in Chicago these days isn't Barack Obama. The night he stood in Grant Park - a stately curtain of Michigan Avenue buildings behind him, thousands of Chicagoans in front of him, cheering his victory, seems like a long time ago. Nor is it Mayor Rahm Emanuel, though Obama's former chief-of-staff has made a big impression since taking office in January. More on that in a minute. The biggest figure belongs to Marilyn Monroe.
The biggest figure in Chicago these days isn't Barack Obama. The night he stood in Grant Park - a stately curtain of Michigan Avenue buildings behind him, thousands of Chicagoans in front of him, cheering his victory, seems like a long time ago.
Nor is it Mayor Rahm Emanuel, though Obama's former chief-of-staff has made a big impression since taking office in January. More on that in a minute.
The biggest figure belongs to Marilyn Monroe.
She towers over a plaza next to the Chicago River, her skirt blown up by the subway wind in that scene from "Some Like it Hot." Everyone wants their picture taken with "Forever Marilyn," a Seward Johnson sculpture on view through next spring. They wrap their arms around Marilyn's ankles. They peek up at her panties like second-graders in the schoolyard.
Marilyn may be the biggest monument to a star in Chicago, but she's not alone. Ernie Banks, the great shortstop known as "Mr. Cub," is celebrated in bronze outside Wrigley Field, and so is Harry Caray, conducting his "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" singalong. Michael Jordan soars outside the United Center.
Americans don't seem to erect statues to politicians, statesmen and generals anymore. We celebrate our culture, which is another way of celebrating ourselves.
Chicagoans have been celebrating themselves in statuary for more than a century, and there are plenty of famous figures decorating its impressive parks. Many reflect ethnic pride - a tribute to Goethe, the great writer and thinker, was erected near Lincoln Park in 1913 by German-Americans, Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who fought with Washington and led a Polish revolt, astride his horse near the Field Museum. Others celebrate progress in general, and America's westward expansion in particular.
But the public art works that excite Americans today celebrate celebrity, fandom and our own reflections. At Chicago's Millennium Park, a gorgeous new public space, the centerpiece is "Cloud Gate," a huge work of curved reflective steel locals call "The Bean" that puts a twist on the cityscape - and on the people looking at it.
The new mayor of this great city is a former ballet dancer, but his performance so far shows more muscle than art. Rahm Emanuel, noted for his foul mouth and his mastery of detail, is concentrating on the more prosaic task of restoring the city's finances. And that means wrestling with the powerful public employee unions.
In his first 100 days as mayor, Emanuel threatened to fire 650 city workers if unions didn't agree to work-rule changes, canceled a 4 percent raise for teachers, and redeployed hundreds of police officers as beat cops. This week he announced plans to fix up crumbling mass transit facilities by thinning out the transit authority's managerial ranks.
But Emanuel's biggest battle is against the city's largest union for a cause that goes beyond dollars and cents. He is intent on adding 90 minutes to the school day - every day, in every school.
And he's winning. The mayor offered a 2-percent raise to teachers and up to $150,000 per school if the teachers in that school voted to adopt a longer school day this year. The teachers' union resisted, but majorities of the faculty at nine schools took Emanuel's offer.
Next year, every school will have to add the extra time. The union is still resisting, but Emanuel isn't giving in. The union chief complained that she got an expletive-filled earful in a private meeting with the mayor, then acknowledged she responded back in kind. This is Chicago, Carl Sandberg's "City of the Big Shoulders" - and sharp elbows.
A lot of leaders talk about a longer school day, and most efforts are stalled by educational inertia and status quo rationales: We can't afford it, it will mess up bus schedules, school sports and after school jobs. Those with an aversion to public education whine that "more of the same" can't be the answer.
You can get into a long argument about what schools do with the time they have now and wade deep into pedagogical theory. But putting art, music and physical education back into the curriculum, foolishly removed in the push for more time on academics, is a no-brainer. And while some, mostly well-off, students benefit greatly from after-school clubs and private lessons, most kids get out of school around 2 p.m. and spend most of their waking hours entertaining themselves with electronics.
It's hard for anyone to argue that more time spent practicing an activity is irrelevant to mastery of it, or that working harder and longer at something has no impact on achievement. America needs its children to be the best educated in the world. We won't get there by giving them less time in school than students in other countries.
Obviously, educational success requires more than just time in school. If Emanuel gets the extra time in school, he'll have to make sure the schools use it to dramatically improve the education levels - and future prospects - of more than 400,000 students.
If Rahm Emanuel can pull that off, Chicagoans may even erect a statue to honor him.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.