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…

Trying to figure out whether to support Mubarak or the people in Egypt is not the first time the US has been in this position

In the United States, part of the coverage of the happenings in Egypt involves how the United States should respond. As has been noted by many, the US is stuck in a difficult position: we have generously supported Mubarak but we also claim to be about freedom and democracy. How can we balance these two approaches, particularly when our larger strategic goals in the Middle East region are tied to Israel and Egypt’s long-term support of this country?

It would be helpful is this difficult position would be put in some historical context. This is not the first time this has happened for the United States (nor is it likely to be the last time). Since the end of World War Two when the United States emerged as a superpower, we have ended up in this position numerous times in countries around the world. Look at Iran. Look at Chile. This has occurred in recent years in Palestine – does the United States support open and democratic elections if it means that Hamas is voted into power? In order to further our strategic interests, we have ended up supporting dictators. Some commentators have said Egypt presents the same conundrum: support Mubarak or open it up to the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could come to power?

When American presidents speak about advancing freedom (President George W. Bush did this openly for years when talking about Afghanistan and Iraq), could people around the world take them seriously? On one hand, we claim to be a beacon of light in the world. On the other hand, we act in ways that seem at odds with the interests of “the people” in other countries.

All of this could lead to some interesting long-term discussions in the United States about approaching global politics.

(As an aside, it has been interesting to watch live coverage on the Internet from Al Jazeera English. I just heard an anchor openly argue with an official in Mubarak’s ruling party about whether the people in the streets were mobs or not – the official said they were looting and burning and creating disorder, the anchor kept saying that the protesters were peaceful and just wanted democratic elections. This perspective is quite different from coverage in the United States.)