Chicago host committee welcomes chance for convention redemption Volunteers believe the memories of '68 are about to fade; DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION; CAMPAIGN 1996


CHICAGO -- It's all happening from the fourth floor of a government building that would be called nondescript if it weren't so shabby. "An American Celebration," the red-white-and-blue banners declare. "Chicago '96."

From this office, where phones jangle and volunteers scurry nonstop, Julie Thompson and thousands of volunteers are selling a city.

The Democrats are convening here, and Chicago sees this as its chance for convention redemption. This is the opportunity to replace the news photos of 1968 -- chanting protesters and club-swinging police officers outside the Democratic National Convention -- with pictures of a sparkling city throwing a party.

"We don't care at all about the politics," says Thompson, spokeswoman for the bipartisan, not-for-profit host committee, Chicago '96. "Our main reason for existence is tourism and economic development."

So forget the partisan debates. Thompson and the rest of the Chicago '96 staff are talking about Aretha Franklin, who sang in Grant Park on Friday night; about the welcome party "for 25,000 of our closest friends" Saturday night on Navy Pier; and about "the architecture, 29 miles of lakefront, 8,000 restaurants [and] 565 parks."

Volunteers spent three weekends stuffing souvenirs into 20,000 gift bags for the delegates and press releases into 20,000 press kits for journalists.

The navy blue tote bags are filled with items meant to show off the city, including Bulls stickers, White Sox pins, Frango mints (the Marshall Fields specialty), Sears Tower postcards, drink coupons and visitors guides.

Two thousand downtown street signs have new Chicago '96 logos affixed. Fifteen hundred banners hang from street poles.

Chicago has plenty of experience in staging political conventions. It has been host to 25, more than any other U.S. city. (Baltimore is second, with 10.) The first Chicago convention was the Republican conclave of 1865. The candidate was Abraham Lincoln.

But the last Chicago convention, the one that unraveled amid the tumult of the Vietnam War, is the one for which the city is remembered. Thompson believes those memories are about to fade.

"I think people half-expected Chicago to be in denial about '68 and be revisionist, and we are not," she says. "People say, 'How is Chicago going to redeem itself?' And we say, 'We have nothing to redeem ourselves for. It was a tumultuous time in U.S. history.' "

Christopher R. Reed, a history professor at Roosevelt University, says that "Mayor [Richard M.] Daley and the boys feel guilt about what happened in '68," when the current mayor's father presided over City Hall. "Part of it was his father's fault. And part of it was the times."

This year, the city is determined to show guests a fun, noncontroversial time. But not everything has gone exactly the way Chicago '96 wanted it to.

Earlier this summer, two women were assaulted in a hotel that will be the headquarters for the Democratic National Committee. Thompson found herself giving interview after interview to stress how safe the city will be for convention guests.

But other plans have been running smoothly, with businesses eager to capitalize on the event.

Restaurants are offering specials priced at $19.96. (Benihana of Tokyo: $19.96 for filet mignon or lobster tail, plus dessert.) Tour companies are selling everything from downtown walks, to behind-the-scenes visits to Comiskey Park, to looks at Chicago from an "African-American perspective."

For the collectors: a catalog of memorabilia, priced from $1.96 to more than $200. There's a Hamilton watch with a limited-edition Chicago logo, a Chicago '96 umbrella, a flying disk, and a tank top with a circa-1968 peace sign.

Chicago '96 has a budget of $25 million. That comes from corporate donations, plus $7 million from the state and $5 million from the city.

The paid staff overseeing this spectacle numbers just 11. "Mayor Daley runs a very tight ship," Thompson says. Careful budgeting accounts for the fact that Chicago '96 is housed not in a glamorous high-rise but in the same building that holds traffic court and other government offices.

The city is ready for 50,000 visitors -- 35,000 delegates and family members, and 15,000 members of the news media. The guests bTC are expected to spend $122 million.

"We like people to come and see our beautiful lake," says Alderman Burton Natarus, whose ward includes the Loop. "The only thing they'll be disappointed in is we don't have any vice. We have hardly any girlie shows. But our restaurants are great. Our museums are great. Our parks are great. I think people will love it."

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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