No, Chicago really is a global city

Aaron Renn writes in City Journal that the global city of Chicago faces several really tough issues:

The idea was to portray Chicago as a “global city,” and it was successful, to judge from the responses in the national media. As Millennium Park opened (a few years late) in the mid-2000s, The Economist celebrated Chicago as “a city buzzing with life, humming with prosperity, sparkling with new buildings, new sculptures, new parks, and generally exuding vitality.” The Washington Post dubbed Chicago “the Milan of the Midwest.” Newsweek added, “From a music scene powered by the underground footwork energy of juke to adventurous three-star restaurants, high-stepping fashion, and hot artists, Chicago is not only ‘the city that works,’ in Mayor Daley’s slogan, but also an exciting, excited city in which all these glittery worlds shine.”

But despite the chorus of praise, it’s becoming evident that the city took a serious turn for the worse during the first decade of the new century. The gleaming towers, swank restaurants, and smart shops remain, but Chicago is experiencing a steep decline quite different from that of many other large cities. It is a deeply troubled place, one increasingly falling behind its large urban brethren and presenting a host of challenges for new mayor Rahm Emanuel…

Chicago also needs something even harder to achieve: wholesale cultural change. It needs to end its obsession with being solely a global city, look for ways to reinvigorate its role as capital of the Midwest, and provide opportunities for its neglected middle and working classes, not just the elites. This means more focus on the basics of good governance and less focus on glamour. Chicago must also forge a culture of greater civic participation and debate. You can’t address your problems if everyone is terrified of stepping out of line and admitting that they exist. Here, at least, Emanuel can set the tone. In March, he publicly admitted that Chicago had suffered a “lost decade,” a promisingly candid assessment, and he has tapped former D.C. transportation chief Gabe Klein to run Chicago’s transportation department, rather than picking a Chicago insider. Continuing to welcome outsiders and dissident voices will help dilute the culture of clout.

Renn is rehashing issues that Chicago has faced for decade: corruption, clout, unions and pensions, aldermen, population loss, and fiscal concerns. Throw in the recent issues with crime (it’s worse than Afghanistan!) and things look bad.

But I would argue a bit with Renn’s premise: Chicago’s image as a global city is more than just an image or a veneer. For example, AT Kearney named Chicago the #7 global city in the world (five different dimensions) in 2011. When the premier of China came over to the US in 2011, he went two places: Washington, D.C. and Chicago to meet with Mayor Daley about business. A lot of this is tied to Chicago’s historic role as the finance capital of the heartland, the place where futures were invented and developed. It is also tied to Chicago’s ongoing transportation importance: as I’ve blogged about, something like 70% of Class I freight traffic in the US moves through the region (and there are multiple large intermodal facilities), it has many major highways, and the second busiest airport in the US. Chicago is known for its architecture (one of the homes of the International Style), its museums, and its place in American history as the first real boom city (later duplicated by Sunbelt cities).  Add in the beautiful lakefront parks (and I’m still surprised more big cities haven’t developed their waterfront space in similar ways), being a leader in rooftop green spaces, several world-class universities, and dozens of interesting neighborhoods. This doesn’t discount what Renn said about the city having financial difficulty but Chicago isn’t the only place with these concerns. There has been plenty of commentary lately about blue vs. red social models and places like California, NYC, and many other Rust Belt cities face similar concerns: how to balance large-scale social programs with pro-business attitudes. As I’ve suggested on the blog, I think Emanuel is more pro-business than many Republicans would give him credit for and he is definitely in the Clintonian mold: promote traditional Democratic interests but also push for big business and jobs.

Cities can rise and fall over time and perhaps Chicago is at a turning point. However, it is has weathered issues in the past, being perhaps the only Rust Belt city that did okay between 1960 and 2000, and may weather new problems in the future.

6 thoughts on “No, Chicago really is a global city

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