Washington D.C., not Chicago or LA, the real “second city” of the United States?

Perhaps Chicago should be worried about moving to #7 in a ranking of global cities: here is an argument that the real “second city” of the United States is not Chicago or Los Angeles but rather Washington D.C.

“I don’t think most people in the U.K.have any idea where Chicago is,” said Rowan Bridge, a BBC Radio producer who last year spent six months based in Washington D.C. “Most people in England think the United States consists of three cities — New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles — because they’re the ones that run the media, they’re the ones where the celebrities hang out, they’re the ones where the politicians are.”

Rosenthal notes that Chicago has long worried about its image, and it has never been a top global tourist destination, but a recent drop in international visitors highlights the challenge even a colossus like Chicago faces in getting its word out in a competitive global economy.

Reading this, it once again strikes me that the old urban hierarchy is being reordered by globalization and the dramatic expansion of the US federal government, to the disadvantage of Chicago and other cities. This, I believe, helps account for its recent struggle.

Joel Kotkin has tirelessly documented the remorseless rise of Washington, DC, rain or shine, in a manner defiant of business cycles. Washington, once a sort of commercial backwater, is now becoming much more a national capital of the type other countries have had…

So we have New York entrenched as America’s first city, and Washington, DC increasingly its new “Second City.” Los Angeles, which seems to have never quite recovered from the early 90s defense draw down, and Chicago with its 2000s malaise, seem to be the victims of DC’s rise. Another loser is Boston, which has seen its status as a financial hub decline and whose Route 128 corridor of tech, having first lost out to Silicon Valley, now appears to be losing out to NYC.

One way you could take this argument: politics and the power and money involved has increased in importance in recent decades. Hence, Washington D.C. has grown in importance because more is dependent on what takes place there. Interestingly, the rankings I discussed yesterday assign the lowest weight to the government: 30% is business activity, 30% is human capital, 15% for information exchange, 15% for cultural experience, and 10% for political engagement.

If that quote from Rowan Bridge accurately represents how people view the United States, what could Chicago do to stand out moving forward? Historically, Chicago has been known for several things. It was a true American boom city (particularly coming out of the Chicago Fire – this is clearly not the case today after population loss during the 2000s). It was and still is a transportation center as air, rail, truck, and ship traffic merge in the middle of the country. It has been known for financial innovations, such as selling and trading commodities, as well as architectural innovation (such as the International Style). Others have suggested it is “the most American city.” It has also been known for less noble things such as gangsters, segregation, corruption, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and more recently, budget deficits. Mayor Emanuel and other leaders have work to do to help Chicago tread water and maintain its place among global cities…

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