Chicago: The Global City

Photo: (CC by/nc)

By Richard Longworth

At mid-century, Chicago was the “City of the Big Shoulders,” the mightiest industrial city of them all. Thirty years later, in the ‘80s, it was “Beirut by the Lake,” a troubled metropolis caught in economic decay and torn by racial politics. Along the way it’s been the “Second City” or the “City on the Make” or, as the first Mayor Daley had it, “The City That Works,” a name that stuck even at a time when it seemed the city stopped working.

The author:

Richard Longworth is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former senior correspondent at the Chicago Tribune.

Today, Chicago is a global city, anointed by rankings that invariably put it in the top ten of global cities worldwide, up there with Hong Kong and Singapore. Indeed our architects design whole cities in China and, in Dubai, the world’s tallest building. Our museums, theatres, symphony and universities are second to none. The Washington Post dubbed Chicago “the Milan of the Midwest,” Bernard-Henri Levy called it “this magical, beautiful city, perhaps the most beautiful in the United States,” and the Economist magazine devoted a special section to it called “A Success Story.”

Well, yes and no. If Chicago has come back from its Rust Belt torpor of the 1980s, its rebirth as the mid-continental metropolis is still a work in progress. The glitter and power are real, but so are the challenges – economic, fiscal, demographic, educational.

Meeting the 21st century

What can be said is that Chicago today is a laboratory of urban change, the very model of a city making the hard transition from industrial behemoth to global city – that is, from the 20th to the 21st century.

It may be America’s most interesting city, but not for the usual clichés: Al Capone’s era ended 80 years ago and even Michael Jordan has been gone for fourteen years: the Bulls are still healthy, the Mob less so. Rather, Chicago today is a thrusting but struggling city, part beautiful and part bleak, created for one era and coping with another, an experiment in civic transformation, dominating the American heartland even as it loses people and jobs.

Chicago is what it is because it’s where it is. Incorporated barely 180 years ago, it began life as a trading post at the foot of Lake Michigan, where the early trails from the east coast met the rivers flowing into the Mississippi and the American interior. The first railroad came through in 1848 and cemented Chicago’s supremacy among western cities. Coal trundled up from the Midwest and iron ore floated down the Great Lakes from the north, to be fused into the steel industry. Midwestern cattle created and fed the Chicago Stockyards and Midwestern crops created the mighty Chicago markets. Across the Midwest, towns and cities grew to feed the city’s thirst for coal and crops and livestock and wood. Literally, Chicago and the Midwest created each other.

The Great Fire of 1871 destroyed much of the center of Chicago. Undaunted, the city bounced back with more industry, more building, more jobs, more stores, higher buildings (it invented the skyscraper). Overcoming East Coast skeptics, it hosted a successful Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in 1893. Through the first half of the 20th century, it became the heart of American industry – and of labor strife. From the Haymarket riots in 1886 to the Pullman strike in 1894 to the Republic Steel massacre of 1937, capital and labor battled and burgeoned in equal measure.

Image: Justin Kern (CC by/nc/sa)

Magnet for immigrants & migrants

Chicago’s growing economy became a magnet for waves of immigrants from around the world, working hard jobs, building neighborhoods and churches and community institutions. The trains that crisscrossed Chicago for a half century now framed the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural South to the city’s stockyards and factories: They built a thriving Black Metropolis, rich in culture, commerce and politics – which decades later would give America its first black president.

In the postwar years, Chicago took this industrial civilization to a level of economic decency unmatched before or since, a sort of a working class middle class. Workers on blast furnaces and assembly lines, unschooled and semi-skilled, owned their own homes, a car or two, a cottage by the lake, took vacations, sent their kids to school. African-American remained locked in ghettoes, trapped by the de facto segregation of the day, but they had come north in search of work and they, too, found it in the mills of Chicago. The air reeked with the orange fumes from a thousand smokestacks: to Chicagoans, it smelled like bread on the table.

If you wanted work, buddy, Chicago had work for you.

And then it ended. The stockyards went west, to be closer to the cattle and to cheaper, non-union labor. Japanese competition overwhelmed the radio and TV factories. Imports and new technology doomed the steel mills and metal fabricators on the southeast side: today, what’s left of America’s integrated steel industry is clustered across the Indiana state line, around Gary. Chicago lost 153,000 manufacturing jobs in the ‘70s, and another 188,000 in the ‘80s. It lost people, too, about 800,000 of them between 1960 and 1990, many to the suburbs. As the people left, stores closed, tax revenue declined, city services shriveled. Chicagoans wondered if their rusting city and would survive.

Chicago Board of Trade. Image: Financial Engineering at Illinois (CC by/nc/sa)

From manufacturing to finance It has, as a global city. Some manufacturing remains, of course, but it doesn’t drive the city’s economy anymore. Instead, the major industries are business services, finance, global trading, hospitals, universities, tourism, communications. Some of this new economy is based on the old: the LaSalle Street markets, having pioneered trading in corn futures and pork bellies in the old, Invented currency and global derivative trading and, in the process, laid the foundation of the Loop’s revival. United and Abbott have made Chicago their headquarters home for decades; now Boeing and Groupon do as well.

Industry may have fled, but Chicago’s lawyers, accountants and consultants still knew how industry works and turned the city in a center of global business services. Old law firms, universities and hospitals exported their knowledge into the global economy. Again, location was vital: Chicago remained a transport hub, partially for air travel and rail freight but also for communications: because phone lines were laid along rail lines, Chicago is now the biggest Internet switching center in the western hemisphere. Unlike many industrial cities, Chicago always had a diversified economy, not totally dependent on cars, say, or steel: this diversity left the city with many economic arrows in its quiver.

Mayor Richard M. Daley, the old Mayor Daley’s son, inherited a city rising from the dead and enlisted a new generation of committed business leaders to launch a program of civic beautification, culminating in the spectacular Millennium Park, all aimed at drawing in the global citizens who could live anywhere but need to be where the action is. Chicago, which always had great theater and music, added great restaurants to its usual diet of hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. And it smelled better: with the factories went the pollution.

In the ‘90s, all this paid off. For the first time in 40 years, the city gained population, about 100,000 in the decade. It gained jobs, some 560,000 of them in the region as a whole. Educated young people flowed in: at one time, more young people with college degrees lived near the city’s center than in any other American city. No less than 60,000 college students go to school in the heart of the Loop. Under Daley, the city still had its one-party Machine politics and, to be sure, its corruption: even Millennium Park came in late and over budget but, in a city that seemed to be working again, nobody much cared.

Millennium Park. Image: Brian Koprowski (CC by/nc/sa)

But now questions are being asked. This new global economy embraces about one-third of all Chicagoans, the people moving into the new town houses and loft buildings near the Loop, or restoring old neighborhoods on the north and northwest sides. Another one-third are immigrants, largely Hispanic but including scores of nationalities, scrambling for their place, like waves of immigrants before them. Many of the rest are African-Americans still stuck in the ghettoes: the jobs that brought their grandparents north are long gone and so are the educated and middle-class African-Americans, freed by segregation’s end to move where they will. Will this new global era produce for this two-thirds of Chicago the jobs and the middle-class life–the economic decency–that the industrial era provided? No one really knows.

Photo by Seth Anderson (CC by/sa)

The city is just beginning to understand and absorb issues that have emerged in the past decade. There’s been a dip in population, led by African-Americans moving to the suburbs or south. As middle-class whites move to the city’s center, pressing poorer African-American and immigrant neighborhoods out to inner-ring suburbs, the city has taken on a European look, with a prosperous middle surrounded by a ring of poverty. The region lost 323,000 jobs during the 2000s. The quality of schools varies widely by neighborhood. The second Mayor Daley left the city with heavy debt, budget deficits and pension shortfalls that present a major challenge to his successor, Rahm Emanuel. The new mayor’s bravado may indicate a renewed confidence.

Chicago has always been a city with big ideas – it’s where the atom was first split. As we emerge from a world recession, many believe we have the assets to meet 21st century challenges: The highest-ranked business school in the country; two federal research centers; unique engagement between business and political leadership; and vibrant community institutions. Venture capital investments have increased and innovative companies are starting up here. We have the largest square footage of green roofs and more LEED certified buildings than any other city. We are investing in major water infrastructure projects. We’re redoing our transportation grid to speed train traffic through the region and bring in high-speed rail.

But no one knows if a global city can thrive – can produce as many good jobs – as an industrial city did. The city’s needs are clear – better schools, new infrastructure, more efficient transport, job creation. Chicago has recovered from its Rust Belt days and, even with its challenges, remains the envy of other old Midwestern industrial cities.

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