Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Open Thread: World Class Chicago

I got a suggestion to do more open discussion threads, so thought I’d try this one out. I’d love to have your contributions on things you think are truly world class about Chicago. That is, things that are either arguably the best in the world, or reasonably competitive with the best the world has to offer. I’ll start with a few examples of my own:

  • Music scene. Chicago’s indie rock community, record labels, and performance venues have long been ranked among the world’s best.
  • Live theater. Beyond Broadway type shows, Chicago has one of the world’s most robust theater scenes for sure.
  • Food. Lots of cities have great food scenes these days. I don’t think you can argue Chicago is #1 in the world or anything, but it certainly has nothing to be embarrassed about.
  • Architecture. While this is no longer the Chicago of Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Daniel Burnham, the city is still a major international architectural design hub, with important specialties like supertall skyscraper design.
  • Orchestra. The Chicago Symphony is one of the world’s top orchestras.
  • Derivatives. Chicago is still the world’s largest futures market as far as I know. This by itself makes Chicago a leading global financial center.

What are your ideas? Please try to be honest and realistic. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with (or how you disagree with my nominations). If you’d rather just share particular Chicago strengths or unique attributes, feel free and please note them as such.

While I said cities shouldn’t fall into an asset trap, certainly identifying your strengths and leveraging what you have are an important part of civic development. I am hoping we can brainstorm a good list of these for Chicago.

Topics: Globalization
Cities: Chicago

33 Responses to “Open Thread: World Class Chicago”

  1. Charlie says:

    Don’t forget that Chicago, in addition to a reasonably good music scene, has a flourishing sports culture. There is no better venue on earth to watch a baseball game than Wrigley Field, and the surrounding neighborhood is quite possibly the best 20-something neighborhood in America… certainly the best in the midwest.

    I’m from Indianapolis, and Broad Ripple is a somewhat comparable neighborhood, but falls short by an order of magnitude from Wrigleyville.

  2. Danny says:

    Well you stole all the good ones!

    One thing I might mention is freight transportation. I have a map of UPS freight time estimates from Idaho (where I currently live). It is color coded by the number of days it would take to get somewhere from eastern Idaho. Interestingly it takes less time to get to Chicago than it does to get to St Louis, Minneapolis, or even Sioux Falls.

    The “Hub” nature of Chicago is a HUGE asset to Chicago. Even if only 10% (pulling this number out of thin air) of the freight that goes there has Chicago as its final destination, Chicago still benefits because of the existence of its freight hub. This is very similar to Singapore: The city-state could never have been a leader in Entrepot trade if it wasn’t first a leader in Transshipment.

    I know some people might be unimpressed by a 1-2 day advantage in shipping times, but it is only because they don’t really understand how logistics in supply chains affects costs. A consistent 1-2 day advantage in shipping times can literally be the difference between an extremely profitable company and a bankrupt company. I’ve seen it…on more than one occasion.

  3. Sam says:

    Having grown up an hour north of Boston I won’t say that any city has a better sports culture, but Chicago is a close second. Two baseball teams, football, hockey and basketball — and all well-supported by fans. Like Boston, too, fandom extends well beyond what you would think is the key demographic. During one visit in 2004, I had a discussion with a soccer mom about Derrek Lee’s shot at MVP status and the heartbreaking playoff experiences we had both had the year before, as Cubs and Red Sox fans.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    1. Chicago (like Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Toronto) has the world’s best supply of freshwater.
    2. It has a wonderful shoreline and lakefront park system (even if beach walks in February are ill-advised). The section in The Loop is certainly world class.
    3. It has (for a little while longer) North America’s tallest skyscraper.
    4. It’s a leader in air transport: HQ of Boeing and third-busiest airport in the world.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Chicago is a great city for many reasons. Having been there for many years trading derivatives and other financial instruments, the City prefers change over the status quo.

    In addition to the above comments (great music and entertainment, beautiful architecture, great museums, a great and wide variety of restaurants, shops, and beaches swarming with active, outgoing people!), the mayor now wants to make ChiTown #1 in cycling. One of my favorite rides after a rough day in the pits was the path along LSD. Not only is the path next to Lake MI outstanding, but so are a wide web of paths and great boulevards away from the Lake.,1

    Live in the burbs, no problem, no car needed to get to work. Fast, timely and clean trains allow a quick, productive ride to the Loop.

    Chicago rocks, most other midwest cities suck (to be kind). Chicago never turned its back on fostering and supporting change… and it shows.

  6. Anton says:

    1. The Art Institute! Actually the Museum campus and the whole museum system is world class in my opinion
    2. Universities (UofC, Northwestern….)
    3. Lakefront park system
    4. Modern architecture/skyscrapers
    5. Diversity of people/cultures/immigrants
    6. Deep-dish pizza!

  7. Joel says:

    I think Chicago has one of the best promenades in North America. Michigan Avenue from Oak St. south to Roosevelt. A good two miles. There are few comparably scenic walks that are as full of people.

  8. Drew Austin says:

    I second the above comments on Chicago’s freshwater supply and freight rail infrastructure. Having become more familiar with the water supply issues in New York and LA, this strikes me much more than it used to. Also, looking toward a future where lower-energy transportation modes stand to gain in importance, Chicago’s rail and interior waterway access are major assets.

  9. Eric says:

    I was going to mention UNIVERSITIES as well, Chicago and NWU together are about as good of a one-two punch as you will find behind MIT/Harvard.

    Not sure this meets the prominence threshold, but Chicago dominates as a DATA HUB and internet backbone. Three of the top 10 largest data centers in the world are in Chicago. This is related to its general hub-status and demand from trading activity. There’ some positive feedback here: traders need fast connections so they build them; more trade comes because this is where the fast connections are.

    COMEDY is huge as well. It’s hard to throw a beer bottle in comedy circles without hitting someone who found their voice in Chicago. Just to name a few of today’s most significant, Steve Carell, Tine Fey, Conan O’brien, Stephen Colbert.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    I think the most important asset Chicago has is economic diversity. This means that its boom-bust cycles are at least in theory less pronounced than those of monocultures like New York, Houston, and the Bay Area.

  11. Chris Barnett says:

    Eric, re comedy: also the Belushi brothers. Which brings to mind…

    Aaron mentioned Indie Rock, no one has mentioned the historic and world-class depth of blues and jazz in Chicago.

  12. The Chicago blues scene is the stuff of legends. Blues greats like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, and many others all had a hand in it.

  13. wkg in bham says:

    What timing. I stated reading “Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” yesterday. This book is about the Columbian Exposition and a serial killer. Although I have only read 75 pages so far, the book is fascinating. It contains extensive background about Chicago at the time (1885-1895). Recommend to all.

    Chicago criminal history has to be in the running for “best of class”.

  14. Political criminal history as well. Machine Politics, patronage, and graft in Chicago, now that’s also the stuff of legend.

  15. Joel Elvery says:

    People in Chicago have a “can do” spirit that is the core of why Chicago is great. It is a powerful combination of good work ethic and optimism. There is this general attitude of “It’ll happen if we put in the work, so lets put in the work” that I have found lacking in other places.

  16. Attrill says:

    I think Chicago benefits from it’s history and the way it is laid out – it is much more flexible to adaptation than other cities it’s size. Very few cities are able to support a full public transit system and also be

    Older cities like Boston and NYC are much denser, and have a harder time accommodating cars. Chicago has alleys and a greater number of double lane streets that make it more reasonable to own a car (in most of the city).
    Newer cities like Houston and Phoenix aren’t dense enough to support a full public transit system. Chicago has a solid rail system, and the streets are wide enough to support buses that can actually move through the traffic. The end result is that you have the choice to live with or without a car – something that isn’t truly a choice in other cities.

    Chicago also has a lot of old industrial areas that provide a lot of land in the central city area for future development. There a loads of areas adjacent to the loop that are prime for development (and served by public transit) as well as long corridors that radiate out from the loop (Elston, Kinzie, Stevenson, etc.). I can’t think of any other American city that has as much flexibility as Chicago does.

  17. binary says:

    a) Chicago has stuff to do.
    b) You can afford doing it.

    ‘Nuff said.

  18. the urban politician says:

    Attrill hits on an interesting point, although I guess we veering off the topic of what is “world class” about Chicago

    I find it interesting that Chicago accommodates the car as well as the pedestrian/transit user as well as it does. Sure it pays the price (picture perfect streetscapes pockmarked with garages/parking lots here and there, bad congestion), but it goes along with a greater theme about Chicago: it is a very accommodating city.

    In just the same fashion that it is so economically diverse, it is also transportationally diverse. It’s the ultimate “hedging” city, which is perfect because it is the very same city that invented the financial derivative.

    A perfect streetscape full of street fronting stores will be interrupted by a big box store with a huge parking lot. And then, when you’re about to ask “what was the city thinking?” you’ll once again find mixed-use, urban streetscapes, sometimes even more recently constructed ones, just past it. Chicago is all-inclusive, and some people may not like that (ie hard core urbanists), but I can’t help but think that this type of a built environment only keeps the city more stable than it could have been, especially in a such a car-addicted society such as ours.

  19. Jack says:

    This may be too specific, but the main branch Chicago River downtown is the only combined downtown architetural canyon / riverscape like that in the world (that I know of), with the skyscrapers coming practically right up to the water on both sides, minus Wacker Drive of course. If you see a shot of the river and its bridges downtown in a movie, you should instantly know that’s Chicago, even if you’ve never actually been there. But I don’t know if an urban river can be “world class.” Does anyone know of other cities with that kind of an immediate downtown/river setup?

  20. Wad says:

    Jack, it takes civic and private investment to make a “world class” urban river, but the results have often paid off in an attractive landscape.

    U.S. cities are relatively young, and river banks converted to urban amenities are fairly recent historically. For a relatively long time, waterfronts were functional activities, mainly for trade and commerce. These tend to be gritty and ugly.

    As land values begin to rise, these waterways may not be price-competitive and the residents are wealthy enough to reclaim the space as recreational.

    Some examples beside Chicago are Portland and Cincinnati, though it mainly oriented its river around stadia. Milwaukee has begun lakefront development, which I’ve learned from this site. The next best example to Chicago would be San Antonio, whose River Walk is often the case study for other cities’ river reclamation.

  21. Robert Munson says:

    An interesting discussion. I want to thank Aaron for the short introduction and, as it turns out, leaving us lots of good stuff to talk about. Such is the richness of Chicago. And hopefully, my suggestion doesn’t start a food fight in Aaron’s absence.

    But… one world-class factor not mentioned so far is Chicago’s Mayor.

    Richard M. Daley was a brilliant urban chemist who understood the city’s ingredients and had the skills to re-mix and re-make those ingredients into Chicago’s Renaissance.

    Of course, it is easy to disagree with some of his actions. But as one who left Chicago in its rapid decline in the 1970s and then returned during Daley’s ascent in the 1990s, I can tell you that comparing those two decades of decline to the recent two decades of progress makes his leadership seem like political genius.

    Despite its decline, Chicago still had assets. But many more needed to be remade and new ones built. Daley knew what ingredients to focus on and how to leverage them so Chicago’s bounce-back could surpass others and even make it a global center.

    That transformation is far from over. And with sustainability as our goal, the work may not be over in our lifetimes. But for today, Mayor Daley is world-class.

  22. the urban politician says:

    Gotta agree with Robert here.

    Daley has his faults, for sure. I have pointed them out many times.

    But he has been quite a figure, hasn’t he? Chicago has benefitted greatly from his mayorality, for sure, but I agree with those who say that his time has come. I am glad he chose to bow out with dignity.

  23. Wad says:

    Alon, in post No. 10, I’m curious as to why you think New York, Houston and the Bay Area are monocultural regions.

    Those three are the alpha regions of finance, energy and information technology, respectively, but none of those three have their economic fortunes tied to a single industry or sector.

    All of them have many other economic activities that can offset a shock to their apex function.

    A monoculture would be a Detroit, Pittsburgh, Honolulu or Las Vegas, where their primary economic function is the only game in town.

    Worse, what about the “sunset belt,” those many Sunbelt cities that relied primarily on economic momentum to ride into prosperity? They have an uncertain future, as these once fast-growing cities had their fortunes contingent upon 1990s and mid-2000s economic growth patterns. Either the recession is just the economy catching its wind ready for another sprint, which is good for them; or the economic paradigm has shifted to a post-bubble “new normal,” which means the party’s over.

  24. DBR96A says:

    Pittsburgh hasn’t been “monoculture” since the 1980’s. Detroit will eventually diversify itself. Las Vegas is the one I worry about most.

  25. wkg in bham says:

    Re Urban Rivers: Most cities near on a river are on fairly big rivers (e.g. St. Louis). Mimai has a small river running through it that is fairly well built up. Don’t think that it is viewed as an attraction.

    Re “sunset belt” cities: I think most Florida cities will see hard times. But Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte boast very diverse economies. Atlanta and Dallas aren’t noted for doing much of any one thing – just a lot of everything. In addition they do not have excessive legacy costs to deal with.

  26. Thanks for the great comments. Keep them coming.

    Chicago is fortunate to be on a minor river which can be controlled enough to permit immediately adjacent development. Flooding along major rivers usually inhibits development significantly.

  27. Alon Levy says:

    Wad, you’re right that New York and Houston are not Detroit. But they’re not Paris or Tokyo or Chicago, either. The majority of income earned in Manhattan is in the finance industry. Houston is not much more diverse.

  28. M. R. Traska says:

    Two things. First, derivatives aren’t necessarily the most important part of our commodities markets. The Chicago Board of Trade and its agricultural futures are still hugely important for farmers for their original purpose, which has never gone away: they allow farmers and ranchers to get a financial hedge against disasters that affect their ability to keep producing those agricultural goods. Farmers’ and ranchers’ risk is handed off to speculators, who absorb that risk. For this reason, our Board of Trade and its futures contracts will continue to be important, not just to Illinois farmers, the Midwest, or the U.S. economy, but to the world economy.

    Second, hello — has everybody forgotten that Chicago, not New York or DC, is the center of most of the powers that be in the health care industry?? Based here are the AMA, AHA, the Joint Commission, a whole bunch of medical specialty societies, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, a whole big medical education community, and two of the best schools in the nation (U. Chicago and Northwestern) when it comes to health care administration and health policy. National health care policy may be officially made in DC, but it gets hashed out and lived, in large part, right here. A number of important health care industry publications are based here. The thought processes behind much of health policy are discussed here. And none of you guys thought to remember that just as we’re finally attempting (albeit badly) health system reform??? For shame. On that subject, we’re damned important to the nation.

  29. the urban politician says:

    Great points MR, but you forgot to add the American Dental Association, also based in Chicago

  30. M. R. Traska says:

    Yes, yes, the ADA too, and many others I didn’t name. Mea culpa. But the point is the same.

  31. Chicago Dan says:

    I’d like to point out our fine city has it’s fare share of design, advertising and pre/post production firms. Being in the industry myself, I wouldn’t mind a few more, but we do have some noteworthy agencies, Leo Burnett being the largest.

    I’d like to see some tax incentives to the entertainment industry to get more films and tv shows shot here, which I think is in the works, assuming the recession didn’t kill it.

  32. Wad says:

    Chicago Dan,

    The recession has been good to filming, at the very least for L.A. — the home of TV and movie production.

    It may seem like a no-brainer to say that, but before the recession, Southern California was bemoaning “runaway production” in Canada, and even places like Michigan.

    Runaway production was happening because everybody wanted filming. Other areas were offering generous tax breaks and assorted subsidies to attract production. They did work, in the short term.

    The trouble is that the subsidies didn’t create a knowledge hive, or as Jane Jacobs called it, a web of interconnected businesses. Production companies were only interested as long as the subsidies flowed. When the recession hit, many areas eliminated or cut back their production subsidies. This resulted in a comparative advantage for production to stay in place in Southern California, where the production knowledge hive is still in place.

  33. Derek says:

    One great thing about Chicago is the amount of schools it has to offer. Whether it is art school, med school or law school Chicago has everything. I think the total number is in the eighties. Some are world-renowned and some not so much, but either way there is a niche for everyone.

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