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?