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Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Chicago: A Declaration of Independence

One might fear the degree to which the city had declared its independence from nature, but at the same time one could hardly help feeling wonder at its audacity.

Other cities soon had railroads and elevators and refrigerator cars as well, but it was Chicago that first revealed the importance of such things to the West.

- William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis

As promised, I commence my year of looking back at the Burnham Plan of Chicago on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. To set the stage, let us first take a look at Chicago – its present, past and future. And the fundamental challenge it faces that no one is talking about.

Change and Success in Chicago

Chicago is arguably America’s greatest modern day success story. From the troubled remains of a faded Rust Belt colossus, Chicago reinvented itself as a global city. Within just the last 15 years, the transformation of the city has been incredible to behold. Over 100 new skyscrapers pierce the skyline dating from the last decade. I visited Chicago as a kid in the 1970′s and took a picture from the Sears Skydeck to the northeast with my Instamatic. Looking at that photo today, it’s like the city is missing. The incredible growth in that period is undeniable.

The quantity of quality on display and available for consumption in the Chicago has blossomed beyond belief. There’s a stunning array of sophisticated and inventive restaurants, a far cry from even the mid-90′s when Chicago magazine proudly proclaimed Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba one of the city’s ten best. The city’s cultural institutions are top notch and innumerable galleries dot the urban core. The world’s design leaders have planted their flag in the city, with almost any high end furniture brand in the world readily available. Cutting edge fashion isn’t just available for purchase in Chicago – it’s being made there. Strips of decayed industrial areas have been reclaimed as shiny new shopping districts. A thriving in-city Home Depot does business where not too long ago hookers walked the streets in broad daylight – one of many major retail developments. A condo boom of epic proportions, probably the greatest of any city in America, turned vast tracts of the city into upscale playgrounds. The extent of this last matter simply cannot be understated. When I moved to Lincoln Park in 1992, people would look at you funny if you lived west of Racine. Today, condos sprout almost throughout the city, from the South Loop to Humboldt Park to Albany Park. Thousands upon thousands of units selling for hundreds of thousands each have been added to the city’s inventory each year. The Chicago of today is a far cry of the Chicago of 1992, when, upon occasion of a job interview, the company bragged about how Chicago was now an outpost of that uber-hip coffee shop chain Starbucks.

Global Chicago

How did this happen? Globalization happened. Globalization transformed Chicago. Just as the fall of the industrial age felled the Chicago of yesterday, the rise of globalization created the Chicago of today, the global city of Chicago. There are many theories of global cities, but the best known is probably Saskia Sassen’s. The Cliff Notes version goes something like this. As businesses became more globalized and more virtualized, this created demand for new types of financial products and producer services – notably in the law, accounting, consultancy, and marketing areas – to help businesses service and control these far flung networks. These financial and producer services are subject to clustering economics, and end up concentrated in a relatively small number of cities around the world. These global cities serve as control nodes for various global networks and key production sites for these services.

Chicago is one of these cities. Its legacy as a financial hub and business services center left it perfectly positioned. Thus it has made the transition to the global economy in a way that no other Midwestern city can claim, rising as high as #8 on some lists of top global cities. Where once Chicago was the king of the Midwest, ruling its agro-industrial hinterland from its lordly domain, today it turns its back to a Midwest increasingly failing or at best falling behind. In effect, Chicago has declared independence from the Midwest, and from its own past, betting that its future is better served articulating itself with the global economy and the league of global cities than in trying to hold on to a past or a region that seems increasingly obsolete.

A Tale of Two Cities

The way globalization has disconnected cities from their traditional hinterlands has been well-commented upon. Richard Longworth noted it in his recent book. Sassen speaks of how cities have become un-moored from their own city regions. Indeed, globalization is ripping cities themselves asunder, as the spate of articles in the last year talking about the Europeanization of American cities or a “great inversion” gives evidence – that is, a booming, prosperous core surrounded by an impoverished periphery.

Chicago has seen this too. There are increasingly two Chicago’s. One is the global city of Chicago, consisting of its urban core and selected upscale and business suburbs. This is where globalization’s winners live, work, and play. This is the land of the shiny skyscrapers and smart shops. This is the place where the nation’s highest sales tax, the nation’s highest real estate transfer tax and an ever greater array of fees designed to part residents from their money are complained about, but are more annoyance than threat. This is the Chicago tourists, conventioneers, and business travelers see.

Then there’s the other Chicago, made up of the impoverished minority neighborhoods, the traditional white ethnic enclaves, many inner ring burbs and outer exurbs. While some of them are populated with new immigrants who bubble with entrepreneurial zeal, others are home to the middle and working classes who are ever more squeezed in a Chicago that no longer seems to have a home for them. Even many locals of the other Chicago rarely see these places, except as glimpses caught from the freeway or a Metra train.

Put these two Chicago’s together and you get a metro area that, despite its impressive core, has rather unimpressive aggregate statistics. Last year the Chicago MSA grew by only 0.7% in population, less than the national average. While some central cities are seeing strong central city growth – much maligned Atlanta is up almost 17% since the last official Census, and it’s a local topic of conversation as to whether the city might flip from majority black to majority white – Chicago has flatlined. The Census Bureau estimates that the city’s population has actually declined since 2000 to the tune of 62,700 people. More ominously, Chicago is suffering out migration. While it remains in immigrant magnet, the influx of new international arrivals is more than offset by the departure of domestic migrants. Last year alone, the Chicago MSA had net domestic out-migration of 57,000 – about the same raw number of people as left Detroit. This is a pace of almost 600,000 people per decade choosing to leave Chicago. Chicago even has a problem with its Midwestern balance of trade in people. Between 2000 and 2005, it lost a net of about 7,000 to Indianapolis. The creative class is flocking, but it looks more and more like everyone else is leaving. This is where the argument about Chicago as success story starts to break down. Success for whom?

Public Policy Favors Global Chicago

In a manner counter-intuitive to common perception for a city and state controlled by Democrats, Chicago’s public policy actually favors the successful Chicago over the failing one. It has pursued a high tax, high service strategy to provide ever increasing public amenities to its upscale residents. The city built Millennium Park, de-converted State St. from a busway, spent hundreds of millions on a revamped Wacker Drive, has implemented many miles of streetscape improvements, with median planters, new streetlights, etc., has installed miles and miles of bike lanes and bike racks, and much more. The CTA is frequently derided (though I think the CTA is getting much better), but is an anomalous blip. Even where the city was not directly involved, we’ve seen an immense investment in public infrastructure, cultural facilities, etc.

The intellectual edifice for this is provided by people like Richard Florida and his Creative Class theory. Starting with the well known fact that any business needs a qualified labor force, his analysis suggests that cities are in a war for talent, trying to lure that fickle and demanding group of workers who constitute the essential labor force of the new economy. I’ve expressed sympathy to this notion in the past, noting the problems that smaller Midwestern cities have had in luring the educated to want to live in them. Yet I’m troubled as well. Florida’s theories are like a left wing version of trickle down economics. But instead of supply side stimulus to business, the idea is to provide financial favors to artists, designers, and other members of the favored quarter of the intelligentsia in the belief that this will fuel the economic fires of a city in the globalized economy. The working classes, the non-creatives, form a sort of lumpen-proletariat in this worldview. They’re a hopeless case that it is nevertheless the duty of the creative class to figure out how to help. Even a more descriptive reporter like Richard Longworth notes that globalization needs lots of highly skilled workers, and lots of high school drop out type labor, but not much in between. This means that the middle class dream that Chicago once offered the immigrants who came to its shores will end up out of reach for many. They can be globalization’s coolie class, but not much more.

Clearly I am troubled by policies that cater only to the most privileged in society. But in a sense, what choice did Chicago have? It is easy to point at places like Kansas City or Charlotte or Atlanta and talk about their low cost of living, low taxes, booming job market, etc. But could Chicago have adopted policies to implement a similar environment? Clearly it could not. Its geography, history, and culture conspire to ensure it never could. Chicago will always have relatively bad traffic congestion, tax levels, housing prices, etc. Its selling point has always been that among cities that have those things, it was the big city that was more liveable in terms of them. Just as smaller cities sell the “big city amenities at with low costs and a great quality of life”, Chicago sold the same product at a higher level in the urban order (“almost as good as New York but so liveable and cheap”). While Chicago likes to act like it is a notch above those smaller cities, I’m always amazed how similar it is in a way. For example, just this month in CS, a luxury shopping and lifestyle magazine for the city, someone starts out an article with “When I mentioned Chicago to people on the coasts, their eyes widened with horror at everything they’d heard about the winters. Or they expressed disbelief that one cannot, in fact, see the other side of the lake. Or they tried to mask boredom as I explained that yes, the city is at times quite windy, but the nickname actually refers to a long history of bloviating politicians.” The details are different, but this article could have been written in Columbus, Ohio or almost any other Midwestern city. The narrative arc is identical. The desperation to seem like a member of the club is palpable, often in direct proportion to how much the author studiously avoids trying to act like it.

With cities like New York, London, etc. pouring huge amounts of money into civic upgrades, Chicago would have had to respond, if nothing else to retain its relative standing. And take a look around. Other than success on the dirt cheap, which again Chicago could never offer, it is difficult to find a successful model of a Midwestern city for Chicago to emulate. The global city approach, while certainly having its downsides, is as at least a model one can point to as having some success. Most others don’t even preserve the urban core, except as a regional civic gathering place sustained on enormous quantities of tax subsidies.

Beyond this, Chicago has always been a gambler’s city, one that wasn’t afraid to dream big, bet big, and double down when the pressure got tough. That’s one tradition the city has stuck to. And I believe Chicago has decided to make a very big bet indeed. Namely, that it is now growing beyond that Mini-Me version of New York into an elite global city in its own right. One where business feels compelled to plant its flag, one where people will pay any price, bear any burden for the privilege of living there, playing there, doing business there, etc. By raising sales taxes to 10.25% in the face of a declining economy, quadrupling parking meter rates in the teeth of a recession, Chicago is sending a powerful message about where it thinks it is. Time will tell if the city is right, but let it never be said that the city hasn’t put down the marker.

Chicago’s Challenges

But the critique of Chicago as an increasingly two-tier city and as a city whose taxes are too high is old hat. Many have made it. And the leadership of the city has clearly examined the issues in depth and made their decisions.

No, I’m not here just to recapitulate the standard critique of the global city. Rather, I intend to talk about two other ares where Chicago has also declared independence from its past. Two areas where Chicago faces a more subtle but more serious challenge.

Chicago is Out of Ideas

First is that, as I’ve noted before, Chicago is out of ideas. The second is Chicago’s declaration of independence from its own essential character in favor of an international homogenized global city goo.

Chicago is out of ideas. This concept might seem crazy, as Chicago is constantly coming up with new things to pursue, such as the Olympics in 2016. But there’s a fundamental problem. Sassen’s theory as outlined above actually makes the case. If the globalized economy needs global cities to function, then in a sense Chicago is an artifact of that economy. Its success is less a result of anything it did to get ready for the future than a matter of blind luck that it was in the right place at the right time. The best illustration of this is to look at other global cities and see if many of them share the same story arc. And they do. In Sassen’s book “The Global City” she notes the glum position of New York, London, and Tokyo in the 1970′s – similar to Chicago’s own Rust Belt malaise of the same era. Recently, those cities have all been booming much as Chicago has. Coincidence? Did all of those cities just happen to turn themselves around at the same time? Or did some outside force act on all of them in a way that caused their renaissance, perhaps in the same way outside forces destroyed the traditional Rust Belt economy? It seems more likely the latter, and that these global cities are simply an emergent property of the global economic network more than the product of any great decisions they themselves made. Much as the needs of Chicago and Detroit created the rest of the rural areas, small towns, and small industrial cities of the Midwest, the needs of globalization created Chicago. It is now no longer the actor, but acted upon. It is the artifact, not the architect.

I argue that there’s a big difference between the Chicago of today and the Chicago of yesterday. It’s not just the level of success, it’s the type of success. Chicago was successful in the agro-industrial era. It’s also successful in the globalization era. But Chicago dominated the agro-industrial area. What’s more, it was the architect of the age. Chicago wasn’t just the capital fo the Midwest, it was the orderer. To a great extent, it created the Midwest. Though Chicago had enormous natural favor and was definitely in the right place at the right time in the 19th century, it wasn’t just a passive recipient of outside forces in becoming what it was in that day. Time and time again, Chicago didn’t just see the world it faced, it understood what it meant. It understood how to position itself to take advantage of what the industrial age meant to America. And that understanding made Chicago the greatest city of its age.

Lots of cities had success in that era. But there was only one Chicago. It was Chicago to which people came to see the embodiment of that era. Again, it can often seem like Chicago was a city of destiny, but it was no such thing. When we see success or failure, it is easy to Monday morning quarterback and suggest that this was obvious all along. But at the time it was no such thing. Cincinnati was the original “hog butcher for the world”, the original Porkopolis. It was the Queen City of the Midwest, ruling its age completely in a manner that only Chicago would ever equal or exceed. St. Louis too once had its pretentions to be the principal city of the west, its Gateway Arch as much monument to those failed ambitions as anything. But only Chicago succeeded.

In Chicago’s heyday, there really was a tangible hierarchy of cities. New York was America’s fiancial capital. Chicago was its interior colossus, which ruled a vast hinterland. Today, scholars well versed in central place theory draw maps of a “dominance hierarchy” of global cities, but these seem to be descriptive only of scale, not actual power relationships. For example, one commonly cited study used branch office locations of companies headquartered in London as a measure of importance in the global economy. As the dominant city of the interior of the world’s largest economy, it makes sense that these London firms would plant their flags in Chicago. But what does that really tell us?

I guess what I’m saying is this. Chicago is a passive beneficiary of the forces of globalization. It’s a first class passenger on the ship to be sure. But it’s not the captain. We’re in the early days of globalization. By analogy to the industrial age, we’re somewhere around the 1830′s. This means the winners are yet to be chosen. In 1830 the railroad had yet to really make its mark. Who knows what globalization might bring.

But I do know this. Nobody ever became #1 by simply copying what other people are doing. But that’s exactly what Chicago is doing now. All of the ideas it has implemented were pioneered elsewhere. Now that’s not to say that the person who invents an idea is always the one to profit from it. Far from it. But simply copying what other people are already doing, and often doing it better or at larger scale, ultimately gets you nowhere. Look at what Chicago has done. Bike lanes, fashion, art, green buildings, restaurants, condos, etc. All of them have already been done as well or better in other places. All of them. There is nothing you can point to in this globalized era that one can say, “Chicago did this”.

In the agro-industrial age, if you wanted to know where to go to find out what it meant to be an industrial metropolis, you went to Chicago. Where do you go in the global era? Somewhere in Asia, the Middle East? Where ever that might be, it sure isn’t Chicago.

This is the imperative facing the city, to find out how to do for the global age what it did for the agro-industrial era. To find out how to become the epicenter. The globalization era, as with the industrial era, will one day fade and give way to something new, at which point its cities will have to reinvent themselves yet again. There’s nothing new in that. But that’s not the challenge that faces Chicago. Rather, in the global era itself, the true winners are yet to be chosen. Chicago seems to be indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation about all the accouterments of the global city it has successfully gathered to itself rather than figuring out what it needs to do to win the game.

There’s certainly reason to believe that Chicago might in fact be in longer term danger. It’s not an accident that I drew the comparison between Chicago in the global era and hinterland cities in the industrial era. Those cities were created to serve certain specialized functions. But the minute those functions were no longer needed, they were tossed overboard like yesterday’s news. Will the same happen to Chicago? No, Chicago will never become Flint, Michigan. But Chicago is in sense specializing in only what globalization demands of it, much like those earlier hinterland cities. Remember when Chicago aspired to be the “Silicon Prairie” and put its hope in Flip Flipowski? Where are those dreams now? Chicago is nowhere in high tech beyond legacy employers. Dittos for biotech and the life sciences economy. In effect, Chicago is a one industry town – finance. The smart shops, swank restaurants, ritzy condos, and fancy galleries were all, in a sense paid for with finance money. In a post-bubble era, what will become of this? We’ll see. I actually happen to think that the current crisis might strengthen Chicago’s relative position, but that doesn’t mean that Chicago has moved beyond being a shadow city of globalizaton.

Again, the winners haven’t been chosen. The field is wide open. I believe there’s an opportunity out there for a city like Chicago to step up and grab the reins, to find out what it takes to differentiate itself, to truly understand the forces of globalization and what they mean, and to uniquely position itself for success. Unfortunately, I don’t see any evidence that Chicago is doing this. Rather, it seems to be engaging in a fairly standard game of keeping up with the Joneses. Does this mean Chicago will fail? Of course not. Heck, even 150+ years after its Porkopolis days, Cincinnati is still a solid place. But it certainly could wake up one day and ask, “Hey, how did we get passed by? Why didn’t we end up in the top ten like we thought we would?”

To avoid that, Chicago needs to take the right kind of risk. It needs to stop following the trends and start creating them. It needs to not just create them, but understand what they mean, just as it understood what the railroad, the futures exchange, the skyscraper, and yes, urban planning, meant.

That’s great, you might say, but what does it mean practically? What are the ideas? Well, since I am The Urbanophile, I have some thoughts. I won’t profess to have all the answers, but I can at least give some idea of the problem space. That is part of what I’ll explore over this series of postings.

Strengthening a Unique Sense of Place

The first I’ll cover in this one. And it’s the second of my problems with Chicago today. This one revolves around the character of a city. So many Midwest places flail around looking for a brand image or identity. Not Chicago. In fact, the identity and stories of Chicago overflow the page. They are too numerous to be written in but a mere blog posting. Yet, what is Chicago doing but declaring independence from these as well. This, I believe, is a mistake.

To me the trend of the Europeanization of the American city as in Chicago is but a facet of the overall homogenization of the global city. Global markets demand standardized commodities that can be graded and traded. This includes cities. This forces cities increasingly into a standard model of what one expects. I’ve repeatedly noted in this blog the example of the Wallpaper guides to world cities. These travel guides, ostensibly a guide for the modern, sophisticated urban traveler to the best of each locale, often seem identical except for the name on the spine. One modern boutique hotel, one swank restaurant or bar, one fashion outlet, is much the same as another in any city you visit around the world. The frosting might be different, but the cake is the same. And once you’re commoditized, you’re done.

So it is too with Chicago. I noted in my review of the city’s street lighting what appears to be a deliberate downplaying of the city’s rough-edged, masculine past in favor of a feminized, generic, even suburban motif. You see this repeated throughout. Ask yourself what more than anything epitomizes Chicago. To me, it is none other than Mayor Daley himself. Listen to him speak. Barack Obama he is not. But character he has, lots of it, and what’s more, a fanatical dedication to making Chicago the best city it can possibly be. Is there a lot of corruption in Daley’s Chicago? No dobut. Does Mayor Daley desire to have maximum power over politics in his city? Of course. But nevertheless I get the impression of a guy who every morning wakes up and asks himself, “What can we do today to make Chicago a greater city?” This is a quality of leadership all too lacking in most Midwestern cities. The character of Chicago and the character of Mayor Daley himself seem to me to have so much in common.

Ironically, under Mayor Daley, the city has pursued a policy of abandoning its past, of abandoning the image of the city as evidenced by the mayor himself. You walk down Michigan Ave., through Millenium Park, around the newly thriving neighborhoods, and you expect that city to be led by a Dr. Smooth type character, not a blunt, plainspoken man like the Mayor. But if only the Mayor saw the value in a city that presented a face like his own. A city not ashamed but proud of its rough and tumble edge, of the fact that it was where generations of ne’er-do-wells and hustlers came to wear out their shoe leather trying to make it big, a city that both Al Capone and Paddy Bauler thought not ready for reform, a city that drew generations of farm boys off to its earthly delights, a city from Bridgeport not River North. That’s Chicago. Not a genteel, refined metropolis, not a swank, sophisticated type of town, not a city on a hill. No, but a city of dreams nevertheless, where people came to get rich, to reinvent themselves, to change the course of world history. That’s Chicago.

No, Chicago will never be the Chicago of Cyrus McCormick and Philip Amour and Aaron Montgomery Ward and all the rest. You can’t live off the past. That’s nostalgia and there’s no more corrosive force known to mankind. But you can know who you are, what you stand for, what your heritage is, and how it fits into the future. Not a clinging to the past, but letting your essential character be a guidepost to the future.

The fifth Frank Gehry titantium Bilbao clone, the n-th swank restaurant or shop, the latest in Italian furniture – ultimately none of them will make Chicago Chicago. It’s going to take the real city, an expression of its own terroir and primal identity to do that.

I happen to think Chicago can do it. If it changes course and gets way from following the trends to creating its own future. If it steps up and makes sure the world knows that Chicago, and not just yet another generic world city, is in the house, ready to step up and claim its rightful place.

The real declaration of independence that needs to take place is that of Chicago from the trends of globalization. Chicago will only realize its potential for greatness if it is willing to let go of its insecurity and desire to be a member of the club, and dares once again to think of itself as it did back in the days of the Burnham Plan as a city destined to be the greatest in the world, a city proud of its unique self and not afraid to boldly chart its own course into the great unknown of the future, confident in its capacity to prove victorious and triumphant.

More on Chicago

Reconnecting the Hinterland Series

Part 1A: Metropolitan Linkages
Part 1B: High Speed Rail
Part 2A: Onshore Outsourcing
Part 2B: On Innovation

Economic Development
Chicago: Corporate Headquarters and the Global City
The Financial Crisis: Good for Chicago?

Architecture and Design
The Streetlights of Chicago
High Mast High Jinks in Chicago
Pride of Place
Modern Wing Exterior
Modern Wing Nichols Bridgeway

23 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development, Globalization, Public Policy, Strategic Planning
Cities: Chicago

23 Responses to “Chicago: A Declaration of Independence”

  1. Mike Doyle says:

    This is quite a well thought-out post. Wanting to get to the punch line as quickly as possible, I read from end to beginning, working backwards paragraph by paragraph. In the end (or is it at the beginning now?), I just don’t buy Saskia Sassen’s 1991 globalization arguments. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    Firstly, I don’t see there truly being “two Chicagos”. I view my town as one that has rebuilt and rescued a declining core. You could levy a claim that any city with a smart downtown and impoverished suburbs is “disconnected from its hinterland” as you say, and you might be right. But you’d be describing every modern-era city with a functioning downtown that’s ever existed. In those terms, I don’t see how this is a newly arisen artifact of contemporary globalization.

    I also bridled a wee bit at the “upscale residents” description of the city. One thing I learned about Chicago when I moved here from New York six years ago (patented aside: you couldn’t pay me to go back there) is that unlike my east-coast hometown, everyone in Chicago feels an ownership of the city’s downtown. Millennium Park, the rebuilt Wacker Drive, miles of median planters, new streetlights (which, unlike the old ones that always seemed to be hidden behind foliage, thankfully shed adequate light on the sidewalks) the renovated State Street–all are enjoyed by rich and poor Chicagoans alike, and in fact were created for them both, as well. Everyone comes and plays downtown in this town, not just “globalization’s winners”. We may be racially polarized and the monetary gap between haves and have nots may be gaping, but our common areas are used by everyone.

    I also don’t think certain recent policy decisions represent a haughty “where it thinks it is” on the globalization totem pole attitude on the part of the city. Our parking meter rates are skyrocketing due to budgetary desperation: the city has a huge budget deficit and thus signed a long-term concession contract with a private company in return for much needed cash. Cook County’s sales tax is 10.25% because a neophyte (some would say idiot) county executive rammed the rate through in lieu of actually doing a careful audit of county needs–and the change was widely opposed both within the city (and City Hall) and throughout suburban Cook County.

    Nor do I believe the city’s population necessarily to be declining. Intercensal estimates almost always trend lower–they leave out institutional populations. I have a healthy suspicion when the actual 2010 Census occurs, Chicago will break the 3 million mark once again. (I also have no doubt we’re already there unofficially, anyway, thanks to our illegal resident population.)

    Sassen claims that the will of the global economy turned around cities like London, New York, and Tokyo (and by extrapolation, Chicago) from the nadir of the 1970s. But those turnarounds weren’t borne of blind luck. A lot of thoughtful, soul-searching urban planning and civic leadership was involved in remaking those metropoli–it isn’t as if the global economy waved a magic wand and transformed these places overnight. And if the civic will hadn’t been there to allow those transformations to happen, they might not have.

    I do agree that right now Chicago appears to be forging ahead at all costs to remake its image in the mirror of the global economy, with relatively short shrift given to what has come before. But that’s always been the way in Chicago. In Constructing Chicago, Daniel Bluestone remarks repeatedly how the Chicago of the 1800s and early 1900s was constantly turning its back–or trying to–on the built environment, civic history, and social mores in support of economic progress.

    Rarely has a decade gone by in the past 150 years that Chicago would not have been markedly changed–and in some instances substantially remade–from the beginning of ten years’ time to the end. If you consider the skyline, or the state of neighborhoods, or the state of local industry, or the mix of political power across racial and ethnic groups even in the past 10, 20, and 30 years and today, at each of those points you would be considering what would look like a different Chicago.

    I think that’s just the basic nature of the place: we’re always reaching forward at the exepense of not looking back too closely. Chicagoans rarely protest this mad dash towards the future (in this town, the phrase, “That’s the price of progress,” is almost a municipal mantra) unless civic pride is injured. That would explain the Marshall Field’s name-change uproar, but the relative calm on the part of the non-elected populace to the idea of a Children’s Museum in Grant Park.

    I agree that Chicago is chasing the global status quo to “keep up with the Joneses” and stay competitive in terms of major financial, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) business, as well as adopting technologies and policies (green roofs, bike lanes, contactless fare cards, congestion charges) that were proven elsewhere. None of those are bad things in and of themselves. Together they lead to a higher quality of life for Chicagoans, and making livability and even civic beauty municipal priorities is a brave stance on the part of any major city.

    Moreover, in the United States it can be argued Chicago has successfully rolled more of these wise-planning initiatives than has any other city, and they’ve largely worked and as a result, helped bolster the local economy. That’s the same strategy the Japanese used in the industrial era to become the powerhouse nation they did: adopt, mimic, and reproduce technology invented or created elsewhere to literally build a new (in their case national) economy.

    True, if Chicago’s positioning tactics fail, the city won’t be able to rely on its FIRE economy as centrally as it does now. But I wonder whether you underestimate the pull of Chicago as a tourist center. Tourism is big business in the Windy City–as such, it’s a cornerstone of the local economy. Given the iconic status of Chicago, its pull is likely somewhat eternal and irrespective of the vagaries of the local economy. Much like New York, or London, or Paris, it’s very possible people will come for a visit anyway.

    For me, the key question is one of positioning. Sassen supposes that the global economy is based on a natural grouping of FIRE power (pun intended) in a few key cities. I’m not so sure absolute power like that is what’s coming to pass or is even possible in a truly globalized economy.

    It seems to me the point of the global era is that the epicenter isn’t anywhere, it’s everywhere. As finance rises and falls, so follows the global economy. In those terms, Asian cities like Tokyo or Shanghai, where you surmise the current epicenter to me, are no more immune to worldwide economic shifts than is Chicago. The decentrallized global economy leads the way and all cities follow, no matter their relative economic might.

    That is, you can’t be top dog because the global system, itself, is top dog. It’s a shifting playing field where decisions are made in mid-air. In fact, there’s really no touching down at all. There can’t be, or we start to ground the borderless economy with fetters to specific places.

    It’s really relative might, not absolute power, that cities are seeking in the contemporary economy. No city needs to “win” the globalization trophy, just to survive and prosper. That seems to be the strategy Chicago is taking (and for the most part always has taken): strive to be the best Chicago it can be, for the benefit of Chicagoans who live here. Whether nineteenth-century grain traffic on barges and railroads, twentieth-century meat packing, or twenty-first century cultural tourism, the aim has always been to maintain or improve the local standard of living, not to usurp that of another city.

    I really don’t think the Daley administration or rank-and-file Chicagoans care much whether we’re the top dog in the city pecking order. I also doubt the citizens of other cities care particularly. More to the point, I don’t think anyone cared back in the industrial era, either. Then as now, cities that came out on top did so because they were trying to succeed within their own municipal borders. Barring political will (Imperialism, colonialization, etc.), national or worldwide economic domination can be seen as a byproduct of trying to do well at home, not the other way around. And in those terms, I think Chicago understands very well what it means to position itself in a global era.

    Ultimately, I think the whole concept of Saskia Sassen’s “control nodes” needs re-examining. I think to analyze the potential for success in this global era, you have to change the frame of analysis, and this is what Sassen missed back in 1991 when she scribed about global cities. Even if industrial-era cities were caught up in jockeying to be best-in-class, that’s just not possible for long in a global economy. This era is all about having just enough edge to edge out your competitors–nothing less would do, but anything more is just a waste of resources. The question is no longer, “Who’s gonna be top dog this century,” but “Who’s got the edge right now?”

    Seen through that more contemporary lens, I think Chicago is doing just fine.

  2. saskia sassen says:

    Urbanophile: great piece!

    let me add a couple of items that really matter in my view and too often get overlooked.

    One is that (in my view) Chicago’s past as a heavy industrial, heavy agro, etc center is what has fed its current specialized services/knowledge economy. if you are a steel mill that wants to develop its national and globla operations, you go to chicago, you don’t go to NY. Chicago has extricated a knowledge economy from its depp material economic strength. So this is an interesting time for Chicago, becasue we are going to see more infrasturcutre development, more of an emphasis on manufacturing (one of hte few positive exports we have right now), the greening of at least some of our economy will also demand material economies. Chicago is well positioned. it is much better positioned than New York. In brief, the deep economic history of a city matters a lot in today’s global eocnomy. (some of this developed in pieces on my website: http://www.columbia.edu/~sjs2/

    No matte rhow many times i have said it, somehow it does not get picked up, but my global city analysis emphasizes the specialized DIFFERENCES of cities. What globalization homogenizes is standards –for manufactuirng, for financial reporting, etc. I added to this, that it homogenizes standards for the making of the state-of-the-art built environment of cities. That gives the sense of all cities becoming the asame, no matter how original the architecture. But it does NOT mean that how that standardized built environment gets used, is the same. In the Global City i emphasized the very different functions NY, L and T had in the emergent global economy.

    Second critical point: because the specialized differences of cities matter, cities compete far less with each other than is commonly argued. (Yes, new inventions such as Dubai, Quatar and Bahrain compete with each other. There is no deep economic history feeding those places.)

    Further, the value of these differences also explained why as the globaleocnomy expanded (for good or for bad!) the number of global cities (major and minor) grew, so today we have about 70 major and minor global cities. Again, this global city component is one component of each ofthese cities ((except in places such as Dubai, where that is what there is). But it is a component with large shadow effects ont he rest of these cities.

    I have been reading your posts on and off, and you are really good. don’t know who you are, but enjoy reading your posts. so here is my first comment to you, partly also a response to past posts. saskia sassen

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great posts… the reason I so thoroughly enjoy this blog! The thoughts and insights on Chicago surpass by far anything I’ve read in the Trib or other local publications in quite some time. There’s a great deal to ponder in what you and the respondents have written.

    If I had to summarize Chicago’s success in an elevator speech, I would say that Chicago’s rise as a legitimate, world class city has been fueled by it’s improved cultural curb appeal.

    I recall that in his early years Mayor Daley swung for the fences with some high profile projects–new stadiums, a downtown circulator system among them–that didn’t did not happen for various reasons (my theory is he had not yet rolled up his political power).

    Instead, he turned to smaller scale public improvements like the streetscape enhancements you mentioned that have so visibly changed the city’s image and identity. I believe the streetscape improvements in particular helped stimulate private market investment in neighborhoods that had not seen change in decades. You mentioned Racine as the great wall… when I moved here 10 years before you, it was Halsted. In many respects, Daley has been completing and/or strengthening key elements of the Burnham Plan.

    These improvements along with other cultural advancements large and small
    have changed the face of the city and made it a more livable and impressive place to live and visit. A simple example is the huge increase in sidewalk dining, which was prohibited by zoning in the early 1980s. Today, sidewalk dining abounds, and is one of the many features that makes Chicago in the warmer months is a truly great place to live and experience the best of American urban living. And, though the winter weather still sucks, but the “indoor season” is much more tolerable due the excellent dining, art and theater options that have increased significantly over the past two decades.

    This not downplay the economic or global impacts. It’s just that Chicago’s cultural successes have caught the attention of many outside the Midwest and earned their respect and admiration on a wide scale (Millennium Park is signature manifestation of this advancement to date).

    There is a lesson in this for all other Midwestern cities, and you have said as much in your blog many times. Cultural investments (of all sorts) are self sustaining.

    For example, New Orleans’ renowned culture built around “laissez les bons temps rouler” with its focus on food, music, art– along with its unique urban form–probably saved a city that many standard quality of life indicators suggested should have been allowed to perish.

    If St. Louis, Indianapolis, Kansas City or Des Moines were flattened in storms that threatened to become regular occurrences, would there be a great national clamor to rebuild? I’m not 100% sure, but I’m guessing not. That is the power of a abiding cultural legacy.

    Chicago has not just fostered and leveraged its unique culture. It has built on other key dimensions as well–history, geography and climate chief among them–to create a unique image and identity that separates itself from other Midwestern places. But it is the cultural achievements that have made those outside the Midwest sit up and take notice.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Dr. Sassen,

    Thanks so much for contributions and the kind words.

    Obviously I can’t do justice to your work in a blog posting. I encourage everyone to read “The Global City” for themselves. It is essential material for anyone wishing to engage on the topic of urban futures in the globalized economy. While it is not light reading by any measure, it is definitely accessible to the generally educated reader and requires no advanced degrees or special knowledge to understand.

    You are of course right on both of your points. I probably over-emphasized the competitive aspect of this. I certainly don’t think that Chicago is direct competition with other cities for some league trophy. I guess I am ultimately talking about relative general economic success, international prominence, and perception of the city as an exemplar of urban success. But Chicago’s success does not have to come at anyone’s expense.

    I do worry about the durability of this specialized knowledge as cities get further away from the underlying activity that originated it. Clearly there is a track record that this can persist for extended periods in some cases. Chicago is still the center of commodities trading though it hasn’t processed commodities itself on any scale for a long time, for example. However, the trends I see in my own industry make me wonder if it won’t eventually be lost in some cases. I’m possibly over-extrapolating from a single data point, however.

    As for me, there’s no reason you would know me. I have no credentials in this space, no academic qualifications and, alas, do not work in this field. My CV in urban affairs? You’re reading it.

    Thanks again,

    Aaron M. Renn (“The Urbanophile”)

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Mike, I appreciate the comments. I always welcome different points of view from intelligent people. It’s how I refine all of my ideas. Here are some thoughts.

    Firstly, I clearly exaggerate some of the points in order to make them more visible. So things aren’t totally as black/white I might sometimes make them sound.

    Second, you’re right that there will never be another era like the industrial age, and never another city like Chicago to dominate it all again. The world economy is a network, and there will never be a single dominant city. I do think, however, that there will be differences in relative prominence and success, and that we will one day look back and find a small group of cities that we talk about as defining or exemplifying the globalized age. I’d like Chicago to be one of those cities. It’s successful now, but I think that we’re still in the early innings.

    Third, regarding budget gaps, there are two ways to close them. Raising revenue is only one of them. Believe it not, you can sometimes cut spending too. I’m not saying that Chicago is deliberately deciding to believe it is so elite costs don’t matter, but its actions are definitely consistent with that and that’s the clear implicit direction.

    Fourth, challenging the Census figures is the new national pastime. We’ll see what the results are in 2010. I can say this, some of the migration data is based on IRS tax returns, so is pretty hard and factual stuff. As for me, I’m going with the standard sources (the Census, the BLS, etc).

    Fifth, of course Chicago did some things right. Perhaps “blind luck” isn’t the best term (there’s that exaggeration to make things visible). But I think it is pretty clear that absent the outside forces of globalization, Chicago would not have turned itself around.

    Possibly more to come later. Thanks for sharing.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 12:59, thank you for your comments and compliments as well. One thing of the great parts of blogging is having thoughtful people contribute their own ideas.

    Chicago shaped my thinking about sense of place and “curb appeal” enormously. Even prior to the recent improvements, Chicago had an incredible sense of place. You could drop me off in any corner of the city, places I’d never seen, and I could probably recognize Chicago.

    Beyond that, the appearance of the city was great. Chicago has almost no on street powerlines – a rarity in US cities. It has curbs and sidewalks on every street (excepting some WPA streets on the far northwest side). It has wonderful, tree lined residential streets with wide parkways separating the sidewalk from the street, often landscaped by adjacent homeowners. Its sidewalks are wider than the 5′ standard you see elsewhere. It has incredible street lighting, iconic street signage, and more. The streets of the city themselves actually brand the place. (My article on the streetlights suggests I think we might be moving backwards here, however).

    I definitely think actual physical curb appeal (beyond the cultural aspects) has a lot to do with the city. Chicago is not, as some believe, a concrete jungle. It’s residential streets and neighborhood commercial districts are far nicer and more inviting than those of almost any city I’ve been to.

  7. Anonymous says:

    As much as you mention weather as a handicap for the Midwest vs. the New South and southwest, it is interesting that it is absent from this commentary. Normally you say “Chicago doesn’t have good weather as part of its natural attraction.” In other words, wouldn’t you say that Chicago managed to succeed in spite of the harsh winter, when they could have chosen just any other “global city” with better climate?

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 2:32, I actually am usually the one who says that Midwestern cities fall back on weather as a crutch to explain their poor performance. Though after last week, I’m inclined to start thinking that way…

    You are correct that Chicago shows that you can have a fairly extreme climate and still prosper as a city, “global city” or otherwise. Minneapolis is also a successful city with even harsher weather. The Scandinavian capitals such as Stockholm aren’t exactly sunny either.

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    Mike, I wanted to share from further thoughts.

    As a Chicago/New Yorker, I’m not sure you appreciate the degree of Europeanization that has occurred in many places. Outside of, say, New York, what you typically found in a US city is a small CBD that was maintained as a “safe” area and civic gathering space for the community, but it was often surrounded by a largely impoverished inner city. Non-Europeanized Cincinnati basically fits this mold perfectly. The downtown is more or less surrounded by a ring of blight. Even OTR, possibly the top focus neighborhood for revitalization in that city for the last 15 years, is far from gentrified.

    Chicago was that way to some extent as well, though it had a finger of north lakefront that was affluent. Today you now have a city where the land area that is largely inhabited by affluent people has probably expanded 5-10x since the old days. This has displaced a significant number of lower income and ethnic residents. It’s also happening in places like Atlanta. The core zone has expanded to the point where it incorporates a good deal of the old central city. We see further evidence in the decaying inner ring suburbs and the fact that more poor people now live in the suburbs than in the inner city. (To me, the hinterlands aren’t the suburbs, they are the regions outside the metro areas that were traditionally the basis of raw materials and commodities trades. In Chicago this is almost the Midwest as a whole).

    And while it may be true that the poor benefit from things like fancy streetscapes, one can ask whether or not this is a product they would have made an independent buying decision in favor of. I suspect many would rather have more money in their pockets.

    Chicago is definitely a tourist magnet. This is, I suppose, its second industry.

    Your points regarding Chicago’s history and its willingness to jettison the past will probably have to wait until a future posting to address. But I will say that from everything I’ve read, Chicago was always measuring itself against other cities and was always extremely competitive against them.

  10. thundermutt says:

    Urbanophile, I’ve read and re-read this post a couple of times and the germ of an idea has come to me.

    The US’ rising world-class cities, Chicago and Atlanta, share an important attribute: the two busiest hub airports in North America.

    They have been busy air hubs for longer than they have been considered world-class, since the 1970′s. This leads me to wonder if their rise is at least partly based upon being 20th-century international transit hubs and not upon being out ahead of the 21st-century trends.

    Your take?

  11. Anonymous says:

    This book http://www.randomhouse.com/crown/devilinthewhitecity/home.html is well-researched and has an excellent bibliography and footnotes.

    Among other things, its primary sources appear to demonstrate that Chicago’s leaders in the Burnham era aspired to be the US’ “first city” in (what they perceived to be) a competition with NYC.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Book title is “Devil in the White City”. Sorry.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Wow, what a ridiculously homeristic piece.

    Chicago is the most corrupt city in the United States with a level of taxation in no way in accordance with the quality and amount of services that are provided.

    Add to this a decline in population over the past few decades and a crumbling, inadequate public transit system and I see a city that is deluded into thinking it is much more than it really is.

    Pride is greatest before the fall.

  14. Mike Doyle says:

    Aaron, your point is taken that civic leaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries were overtly trying to position Chicago as America’s “First City” in competition with New York.

    However, I do understand city models beyond New York and Chicago, in particular due to the proximity of my hometown to Philadelphia, PA. I always wondered why Philly, as famous a city as it was, never could shake its latter-1900s decline into a powerful, vibrant core surrounded by slums.

    To this day, even a casual visit to quite wondrous Center City will make you keenly aware of the underinvested, in some cases decrepit (and in some cases dangerous) slums that lie immediately north (across Spring Garden) and west (across the Schuylkill River just beyond University City), as well as the down-at-heel working class neighborhoods lying south of South Street.

    The middle class and young professionals who don’t live in Center City tend to live in outer-ring northwestern neighborhoods accessible primarily by regional rail (as opposed to subway/el and bus lines the rest of the city uses). Before moving to Chicago I considered Philadelphia, but just don’t like the transportation segregation that exists there, much less Center City’s feel of an island surrounded by places I would seldom visit.

    In those terms, Cincinnati’s downtown feels familiar to me (for that matter, so does Milwaukee’s). Mind you, I think at this point in the game any city that stays that way is suffering from a marked lack of civic leadership. Case in point: the ongoing consternation in both Cincy and Milwaukee over transit improvements that never seem to get off the ground (e.g. Cincinnati Streetcar, repeated calls for light rail in Milwaukee).

  15. The Urbanophile says:

    thunder, regarding the transport hub matter, there might be something there. This strikes me as the type of problem that would be amenable to some level of quantitative analysis. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or resources to do that.

    However, the world is littered with places that were transport centers to a degree which ultimate fell to nothing. St. Louis lost its air hub, and is still the second largest rail hub in the nation and has two major rivers, for example. Did the transport make the city or the city the transport?

    Again, it’s an interesting hypothesis, but one I can only speculate about for now.

  16. The Urbanophile says:

    Mike, Philly is an interesting story. It actually started falling behind in the early days of the country. It was the leading city of the land prior to being passed up by New York. It makes you wonder. What happened to Philadelphia that made it the St. Louis of the east coast?

  17. Alon Levy says:

    According to Ed Glaeser, Philadelphia’s problem was that it lay too far inland, so it was a worse port than New York – in particular, it had a harder time getting British books, so it lost the battle for the US publishing industry. In addition, both Philly and Boston had a reputation for revolutionary ideals, whereas New York was in British hands throughout the War of Independence; thus, British entrepreneurs were more willing to invest in New York.

    Mind you, Philly was still the third largest city in the US and tenth largest in the world in 1900. The real decline only started after WW2.

    Also, I don’t buy that New York is Europeanized. It has a large wealthy core, consisting of Manhattan south of Harlem and small parts of Brooklyn, surrounded by very poor areas. For example, in 2000, Harlem had 19% unemployment and 37% poverty. Even Chinatown and the Lower East Side suffer from povrety and overcrowding. Almost all of Brooklyn and the Bronx, and the secondary downtowns like Yonkers and Newark, are really poor. Hudson County and most of Queens are middle class. It’s only beyond them that you get rich areas, like most of Westchester, Long Island, Fairfield County, and Bergen County. Where New York is different is that its urban core is somewhat larger, and that its richest parts are generally richer than the richest suburbs. But that’s a difference of degree, not kind.

  18. thundermutt says:

    Urbanophile,

    Re: Philadelphia, simple. The capital of the US was moved away in 1790.

    If it had been the seat of Federal power for all the years since, does anyone really doubt that it would be a world city?

    Until the rise of Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, and Las Vegas, virtually all of the US’ important cities were on navigable waterways, the Great Lakes or oceans; the most important were where two of them met. Those cities had an early start on industrialization because basic commodities could easily be shipped there. Fewer of those cities became rail hubs; fewer still, air hubs.

    There might be a really good case for transportation networks defining, determining, and reinforcing cities’ success up to the Internet age.

  19. thundermutt says:

    Forgot the close: look at that list of “rising” cities again.

    Air hubs all, though Las Vegas is a special case. It has direct air flights from almost every major city in North America simply because of its specialization as a worldwide entertainment hub.

  20. Anonymous says:

    New York, Boston, Philly, DC, Detroit, Chicago surely are important cities

    Atlanta, Dallas, Denver are important but not in the same class as the above

    Las Vegas….an important city? upcoming city? More like a symbol of much that is wrong with the current economy.

    Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, were major rail hubs long before they became air hubs.

    Chicago remains a major rail and air hub; Atlanta a major air hub (who’s growth is more closely tied to DL/EA selection of ATL as hubs in the 50-60′s); STL remains a major rail hub. Las Vegas may have flights to many cities but it is not a hub and in fact a very low margin destination for the airlines that serve it. Much like Orlando.

  21. Alon Levy says:

    Philadelphia was the capital of the US in the 1790s. It was only in 1800 that the capital was moved to Washington DC. And yet, New York grew much faster: in the 1790s New York had 83% population increase, Philly 45%.

    Dallas and Atlanta are air hubs, but Phoenix and Denver aren’t. Air hubs can easily go elsewhere, as Denver discovered when Continental pulled the plug on it. Besides, St. Louis is a major air hub as well, but is so depressed it’s one of the few tax recipient metro areas in the US.

    Detroit isn’t an important city. I’d say a closed list of global cities in the US is NY, LA, Chicago, SF/Silicon Valley, DC; a closed list of semi-global cities is Boston, Dallas, Philly, Atlanta, Houston, Miami.

  22. Richard Longworth says:

    Urbanophile………
    A typically solid post, and I look forward to the rest of this Burnham series.

    I agree with Saskia Sassen that you’ve underrated the differences between global cities. I also think you may underrate the radical change, from industrial cities to global cities, and the new geographic space in which cities find themselves today.

    In the industrial era, cities were rooted in one place, and served geographically-defined markets. Chicago was one of many industrial cities in the American Midwest — the biggest, to be sure, but not that much bigger than, say, Detroit or Cleveland. It can be said that these cities were homogeneous, in that they existed to produce things, differing only in the products in which they specialized. Life in these cities, for the managerial classes and working classes, was much the same in terms of amenities, activities, wages, etc. But the cities themselves were very different in the way they were governed.

    OK, fast-forward a few decades into the global era. This is a market and an economy that is no longer place-anchored but which spans the globe. Chicago is one of several global cities — not the biggest nor the smallest. These cities are economically homogeneous, in that they exist to produce things — often services these days — to serve that market. But the services they produce are often different, even unique to one city. As Sassen points out, this uniqueness often springs from the city’s past. Los Angeles does entertainment, San Francisco does high tech, Chicago does business services. (London and NY, as the two big apples in this ranking, do lots of things.) As you point out, life in these cities is often homogenized, with similar stores and institutions providing similar goods and services. But as I mentioned earlier, life in the great American industrial cities also varied little from city to city. Which was not to say that the cities themselves did not differ, in their governance and other measures, and they continue to differ today: in many aspects, Chicago, London, New York and Shanghai are radically different places.

    So I’d argue that the problem isn’t finding some singular place for Chicago that makes it different in all respects from other cities, but in filling its niche in the global economy so successfully that it competes in that economy. This is hard work and requires constant innovation.

    Your point that Chicago can do more than immitate other cities with their Gehrys and bike lanes is well taken. By all means, let’s be as creative as possible and lead the world where we can, especially in architecture. But in the meantime, we have to earn our living, which is a chore that hasn’t changed a bit since the industrial age.

  23. The Urbanophile says:

    Richard, thanks for the contribution!

    I’ve said from my very first post that as a blogger, I have to offer a unique perspective that you can’t get from “regular” sources. Otherwise, why read? Plus I’m a natural contrarian. This leads me to stake out provocative positions against the conventional wisdom, often which are as much designed to stimulate consideration as to advocate a particular policy. Not that they don’t have some truth, but that they need some chiseling on.

    I think post has some of that. And to me Chicago does seem a bit too self-congratulatory. I don’t see a lot of hard questioning going on, and see more surfing the wave than much else.

    I certainly don’t disagree with what you say. I would, however, add that it is still early innings in globalization and we don’t know yet where things will land. It’s an unstable environment to be sure.

    And I think the fundamental challenge for the Midwest is to figure out how to create an environment that somehow replicates some of the economic structure of the old model you rightly note is gone. That is, how can we recapture some of the “hinterland economics” model? Perhaps that’s impossible, but I’ve had a couple people suggest intriguing thoughts, which will be a focus of my upcoming series. In effect, I’m working on your Midwest program with this too.

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