Saturday, January 17th, 2009
“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.“
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.
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.
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