Three possible reasons why the harsh national spotlight is on Chicago

Whet Moser proposes three reasons Chicago has received negative attention recently from the national media:

It’s a big, easy target. Chicago’s “Big Shoulders” image—it was the city that “built the American dream,” to use the historian Thomas Dyja’s words—makes any fall from that perch seem that much more momentous. “We were the future,” says the Northwestern professor Bill Savage.

The Obama factor. Chicago’s problems never used to be much of a national story (unless a governor got indicted). But after a skinny Chicagoan became president—a man whose team has included a Daley, our current mayor, and one of the country’s most powerful political advisers—the light of press attention shone more brightly. “When you look at what’s wrong [with the country],” says Savage, “you look at Chicago.”

It’s our turn. In the 1970s, New York City “was collapsing,” the Reader media critic Michael Miner points out. “The Summer of Sam, ‘Ford to New York: Drop Dead.’?” When Los Angeles hit hard times in the early 1990s, it “was just as much of a [media] whipping boy,” says Savage. Chicago is a logical third. It will be somebody else’s turn soon enough. Prepare yourself, Houston (which is projected to surpass Chicago in population by 2030): You may be next.

Some thoughts about each of these proposed reasons:

#1: Out of the three reasons listed above, I find this one the least plausible. Yes, Chicago was once the new American city (see the late 1800s) but it has been eclipsed by Los Angeles (perhaps Hollywood and the generally glitter of the city limits negative attention?) and Chicago has been suffering from the same kinds of problems as today (loss of manufacturing jobs, poverty, crime, inequality) since at least the 1970s if not all the way back in the early 1900s with the Black Belt and immigrant experience. Chicago may have once been the future (also see the 1893 Columbian Exposition) but that future disappeared a long time ago (and perhaps Chicagoans hold on to that 1893 fair a little too closely as well). This might be a longer story about Chicago representing the problems of the Rust Belt – a cycle of loss, rebirth (1990-2006 or so in Chicago), then problems again – than about the loss of a future.

#2: Chicago has never had a president so linked to the city. And, while Obama spent much of his adult life in Chicago, he isn’t originally from the city. While the Daleys are well known, their rule was much more provincial.

#3: This suggests that such negative attention is cyclical, either because different cities experience trouble at different times or there is a sort of revolving set of cities that receive attention. Houston might be next if people first learn about its growth and changes.

Plus, has Chicago received more negative attention recently than Detroit?

Infrastructure improvements needed but the will is lacking

The hidden backbone of any community is its infrastructure: the roads, sewers, electricity lines, and more that make the basics of life possible. But it appears that there might be a perception issue among Americans: even though there are a number of experts calling for infrastructure improvements (read The Infrastructurist for more information), Americans either don’t see it is a priority or don’t want to commit extra money to projects (I’ve moved around some of the text from the article):

Infrastructure spending in the U.S. stands at 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product – half what it was in 1960 — compared with approximately 9 percent in China and 5 percent for Europe, according to the government report.

“During recessions it is common for state and local governments to cut back on capital projects — such as building schools, roads and parks — in order to meet balanced budget requirements,” the report concluded. “However, the need for improved and expanded infrastructure is just as great during a downturn as it is during a boom.”

“My sense is things have changed,” said Andrew Goetz, a University of Denver professor and an expert on transportation policy. “People now tend to see any project as a waste of money, and that’s just wrong.”

“I call it the Bridge to Nowhere syndrome,” he added. “High-profile projects get publicized and they become a symbol for any infrastructure project that’s out there, and even the ones that are justified get tarnished by the same charge.”

So how can the negative perception of infrastructure be changed? I don’t think many people would argue that it is unnecessary (particularly if it affects their personal travel or services) but there are stories of cost overruns, delays, and projects that seem unnecessary. This should be thought of as a social problem – and the American public needs some convincing, particularly in lean economic times.