CHICAGO. — Chicago -- Mayor Richard M. Daley is enthusiastically backing a hotel-casino operators' scheme to erect -- right here in the heart of poet Carl Sandburg's ''city of the big shoulders'' -- a $2-billion ''family entertainment center.''
Its centerpiece will be four great gambling casinos.
Can it be so? Will we see a Las Vegas on Lake Michigan? A new identity for the ''stormy, husky, brawling'' city that Sandburg extolled as ''hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat, player with railroads and the nation's freight handler''?
Will some future bard write of a quite different Chicago: ''Town of the quick buck, stacker of chips, player with wheels, slot machine to the world, the nation's bookmaker''?
If it happens, it will be a sad passage. ''Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning,'' wrote Sandburg in 1916. Chicago, he proclaimed, was ''fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action -- bareheaded, shoveling, wrecking, planning, building, breaking, rebuilding.''
It was city-building and nation-building at their most exuberant. It's still a stirring vision, even if workers were often exploited, even if some factories left toxic chain letters to the future.
It's true the latest Mayor Daley would like to keep building Chicago. He wants a $10-billion new airport, a $1-billion Navy Pier reconstruction, a $1-billion McCormack Place expansion. Carl Sandburg and dad (the late Richard J.) would have understood that much.
But gambling casinos, too? What's the justification?
First, says Mr. Daley, it's because great cities like Chicago have come on terribly hard times. They're very much alone; they must fend for themselves. There's no national urban policy, no national effort to rekindle the economies of the great cities.
What will replace a shriveled manufacturing sector, the flight of jobs to suburbs? Chicago has hundreds of thousands of poor, made up of minority citizens and fresh immigrants. Something has to be done, says the mayor:
''People need jobs. If you don't provide them jobs going into the next century, what are we going to do, set everybody on relief (or) unemployment?''
So Mr. Daley and a triumvirate of big hotel-casino operators propose this massive entertainment center, 80 percent given over to theme-park like activities (the theme still undefined), but 20 percent to the big payoff, gambling.
There are obstacles: Gov. Jim Edgar doesn't like the idea, and the Illinois legislature so far has said ''no.'' But Mr. Daley thinks the economic logic will win them over:
''This is a theme park and a casino which will buy 10,000 construction jobs, 25,000 permanent jobs in Chicago.'' It's an opportunity ''any mayor would have to stand up and welcome.''
But what of moral scruples about gambling? Mr. Daley says they're antiquated and irrelevant in a state that now countenances riverboat gambling and multiple other games:
''How can you be against this if you're for off-track betting, you're for lotteries, you're for people running out to the racetracks, you're for bingo palaces, you're for charity games and riverboats? How can you say a land-based casino is worse?''
There are dissident voices. Some say most of the casino customers will be Chicago-area people, dropping in the casinos dollars that would otherwise go to productive local enterprises. A watchdog citizens' group, the Chicago Crime Commission, warns that casinos in the city would produce a ''renaissance of organized crime.''
Chicago Alderman Lawrence Bloom warns that round-the-clock gambling and glitzy consumption would profoundly alter Chicago's character, leading to a proliferation of casinos until Las Vegas on the Lake became a tawdry reality.
Mr. Bloom also questions the economics: Neither Chicago nor America as a whole will ''be technologically competitive in the global marketplace,'' he says, ''by focusing our energies on more and gaudier amusements.''
But then Mr. Daley argues: Can Chicago ''sit idle while other cities take up gambling to lure away the convention and tourist trade we have worked so hard to develop?''
Indeed, there's a perfidious domino effect to the wave of legalized gambling now sweeping the country. The Louisiana legislature has just approved a casino beside New Orleans' French Quarter. Lotteries have spread coast to coast, 27 Indian tribes are already running casinos in seven states.
Growing fiscal desperation at the state and local level makes gambling a more and more attractive lure for politicians unwilling to raise taxes or reform basic government operations.
John Giovenco, president of Hilton Hotels' gaming division, told the Chicago Tribune: ''In the next eight or ten years, there will be gaming in every major city in the United States in one form or another.''
What that means is that the gaming disease -- which already siphons off almost $300 billion of Americans' wealth and potential savings each year -- has now come to the cities in a very real way. The cities' immune systems have been rendered increasingly dysfunctional by the flight of capital, suburban growth and chaotic social conditions.
Until we have a new set of national pro-urban economic inducements, until the federal and state governments make a conscious decision to stop treating great cities (and by extension, their people) as disposable commodities, desperation moves like Chicago casinos will keep advancing.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.