The builders

Whether they're creating a skyscraper or local institution, they make the city work.
By TOC Staff Photographs by Chris Strong |

Richard M. Daley


From shepherding the creation of the downtown theater district and Millennium Park to luring Lollapalooza and seeding the city with free fests, one could argue the younger Daley has made a bigger impact on Chicago’s culture than his father, Richard J. And now the mayor hopes to dwarf those achievements by landing the 2016 Olympics. What’s the highlight of his Chicago career so far? “Being elected mayor in 1989,” he says with a laugh before adding, “The great moment of my life, as always, is meeting the people of Chicago, whether you just arrived last week…or you lived here all your life. What really makes Chicago is its people, its friendliness and that ‘I will’ spirit of saying that we can do it.” If Chicago’s Olympic bid succeeds, it’ll do more than spur infrastructure improvements, Daley says, outlining his vision for “more skate parks and more extreme sports in the city.” Who knew the mayor was such a fan of the half-pipe?—Frank Sennett


Jesse Jackson Jr.


Jackson Jr. has been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1995, but the past year has launched him into an even larger national role as cochair of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But naming his cultural hero brings him back to his younger days, citing famed South Side DJ Hi-Fi White, who lured acts like the Temptations to the long-gone High Chaparral. “He was a very entertaining and very engaging guy, and he helped reduce homophobia in the black community, because he was out there.”—Jonathan Messinger

Jackson Jr. is up for reelection in November against Republican Anthony Williams.


Bobby Rush


Though his life has taken him from the Army to the Black Panther Party to the U.S. House, Rush, a cancer survivor, finds inspiration close to home. “As I look around and think about all the people I met, I would have to say my Chicago hero is my wife,” he says. “She epitomizes not only the beauty of Chicago, but also the toughness of Chicago.”—Scott Smith

Rush is up for reelection this year against Republican Antoine Members.


Lou Conte

Founder, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Conte was a guileless teenager from downstate Taylorville in 1959 when he saw a production of The Music Man at the Shubert (now Bank of America) Theatre. Seeing that show “was a defining moment for me,” Conte recalls. “I had no idea such things went on. It was truly magical.” In fact, it changed his life—he moved to New York and became a Broadway dancer and choreographer shortly thereafter. In 1972, he returned to the Midwest and established the Lou Conte Dance Studio on Hubbard Street. Soon he and a handful of his best students started performing at community and senior centers as Hubbard Street Dance Company, setting the stage for the touring troupe that pretty much defines “Chicago dance” to the rest of the world.—Asimina Chremos

Check out for info about Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performances and classes at Lou Conte Dance Studio.


Modesto Tico Valle

Executive director, Center on Halsted

The cutting of fabric has become a symbolic journey in the life of Old Town native–turned–AIDS/HIV activist Valle. When Valle saw firsthand the panoply of lives cut and stitched together to form the AIDS Quilt in 1987 in Washington, D.C., he decided to devote his life to activism. Twenty years later, in June 2007, he came full circle as he cut the ribbon to open the new Center on Halsted, which, according to Valle, is the most comprehensive, not to mention the most ecofriendly, LGBT community center in the country. When not in Boystown, Valle enjoys hanging out at Navy Pier. “It speaks to the beauty of Chicago and [of] friends and families coming together for food, tours, music and beer.”—Jason A. Heidemann


James Cuno

Director and president, the Art Institute of Chicago

When Cuno took the reins at the AIC four years ago, he had a massive job to do: raise more than $200 million to complete the AIC’s Modern Wing. The antiquities expert was so successful at pulling together the cash, rumor has it the Met is trying to poach him. But Cuno puts the rumors to rest: “I’m looking forward to being here through the [2016] Olympics and well beyond.”—Madeline Nusser

The Modern Wing is set to open in May.


Stanley Tigerman


Tigerman, whose works include the Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (1055 W Roosevelt Rd), is synonymous with this city’s architecture, particularly on the vanguard of accessibility and greening. He founded Archeworks, a nonprofit design studio and school geared toward social concerns, in 1994. But there’s another famous Chicago architect he’s “not a fan of”: Daniel Burnham. Tigerman says Burnham’s Plan of Chicago “was European in origin, not democratic. Housing was of no interest.… I’m a fan of the grid of Chicago—where we all live, in the grid. It’s crucial to the understanding of the city.”—Brent DiCrescenzo

Current projects include Skokie’s Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.


Bettina Richards

Record-label owner

Thrill Jockey Records has made an indelible mark upon Chicago’s sonic landscape since Richards brought the label to Chicago from New York 13 years ago. Richards championed local heroes like Tortoise and the Sea and Cake long before they were familiar names. She credits venerable jazz saxophonist and Velvet Lounge proprietor Fred Anderson with further opening her ears: “Fred has taught me...that improvisation is a conversation—you must listen as much as you speak.”—Areif Sless-Kitain

Thrill Jockey drops new albums by the Sea and Cake and Pit Er Pat October 21.

Joe Shanahan

Club owner

Shanahan’s love affair with Chicago culture started with childhood trips downtown with his parents from their South Side home. “My mother would take me to the Art Institute; my father would take me to Wrigley Field,” he says. Since then, he’s become more curator than spectator as owner of Metro and Smart Bar, two venues that have grown into Chicago institutions over the past 25 years, thanks to Shanahan’s ability to bring in big-name acts like Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M. and Nirvana…before they were big names. “There is something to be said about the connection to the music community, and I’m so lucky to be in that position, between the fans and the bands.”—Scott Smith


Jerry Springer

Talk-show host

When Springer left his respectable career as a politician-turned-newsman in Cincinnati, his plan was to come to Chicago, host a talk show and become the new Phil Donahue. We needn’t point out he went down a different path. Nevertheless, he still has talk-show envy: His hero is that deity we call Oprah. “If you asked someone who lived in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1850s who was their hero—what if they didn’t mention Abraham Lincoln? You’d say, ‘What?’ So, [mine is] Oprah.”—David Tamarkin

Springer hosts The Jerry Springer Show every weekday on WPWR and America’s Got Talent every Wednesday on NBC.


Carol Marin

Political reporter

Marin got her start in news in Knoxville, Tennessee, but was born and raised in Chicago (“Garfield and Ashland… I root myself from there forward”) with political ambitions fueled by a supportive parent. “I was a student at the University of Illinois. I remember my mother saying to me, ‘Look at that Catherine Mackin on the floor, the first woman reporter [to work as a floor reporter at a national political convention]. Someday I can see you doing that!’ And I ended up doing it for my own hometown in Chicago [in 1980].”—Scott Smith

Marin reports for NBC 5, the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tonight.


Jeanne Gang


Beautiful, functional and green, Gang’s works carry the torch of the city of architects. But it’s the workers who construct her iconic structures whom she admires most. “It’s one of the best feelings—to go onto a job site and talk to the people who are physically making the buildings,” she says. “For example, on the Aqua tower, the concrete workers who are laying out and pouring the floors—[I’m impressed with] their knowledge of the materials. These are people who work every day with their hands.”—Brent DiCrescenzo

In the next two years, two of Studio Gang’s structures, the Aqua tower (summer 2009) and Solstice on the Park (September 2010), will continue Chicago’s redefinition of urban architecture.


Chris Ware


The most celebrated living graphic artist likes to note that Chicago rests directly between the filmmaking and publishing industries, which is a good place for graphic artists to live. That’s why so many great ones reside here, Ware says. Not that he ever sees them. “We all rarely see each other, because the city is so large and cold most of the year that getting together frequently seems more trouble than it’s worth. Maybe that’s fundamentally why I like living here; Chicago feels anything but urgent. It has a grim, refreshing isolation to it.”—David Tamarkin

Ware is working on two graphic novels, Rusty Brown and Building Stories.


Christie Hefner

Chairman & CEO, Playboy Enterprises

Countless Chicagoans have gone into the family business, but few can say their workdays might require them to be surrounded by naked women. “I don’t think Playboy would have been successfully started on either coast,” says Hefner of the media empire her father started in 1953. “I think of Chicago as a great entrepreneur city, a city that supports its own, that isn’t as jaded as New York and L.A. We’re all part of why Playboy was successful.”—Scott Smith


Ernie Banks

Mr. Cub

The 14-time All Star and Hall of Famer owns franchise records for games played and extra-base hits, and he ranks second in hits, home runs and RBI. Sadly, because he wore Cubbie blue during his entire career (1953–1971), he also holds the dubious Major League record for most games without a postseason appearance (2,528). But that never diminished his love for Wrigley. In fact, upon entering the bigs, Banks says he was so enamored with the Friendly Confines he pleaded with team owner P.K. Wrigley to let him live in the apartment that used to be inside the stadium. “I wanted to stay there whether there was a game or not.”—Tim McCormick