Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Gaps in Chicago’s Global City Fabric

The is the last of three installments on Chicago as a global city, and is also part of my “State of Chicago” series.

Chicago is definitely in a global city in any definition, but if you parse apart its economy, the global city part is smaller than is generally believed, and in any case is too small to carry the city, region, and state alone. Chicago is in many respects a regional capital like Atlanta, with an economy still tied heavily to its regional hinterland.

I’d also like to point out that Chicago is completely missing various pieces of the global city puzzle. I don’t want to make these out to be bigger than they are, but if civic boosters can cite things like the legitimately top rank culinary scene as evidence for Chicago’s robustness, then I think it’s fair to look at the other side.

The biggest issue by far is Chicago’s weakness as a media center. Chicago has never really been a huge media center, even domestically much less internationally. With the changes in the media business over the last decade or so, whatever stature Chicago had as a media center has basically been wiped out.

I outlined this a while back in a piece over at New Geography called “The Collapse of Chicago Media.”

Some folks criticized the piece because I did not mention items like Chicago Magazine or the local NPR station. So perhaps I should clarify. I’m not suggesting that Chicago lacks the same sort of local media every other decent sized city has. Of course it does. But rather that Chicago is not a national center of media importance.

This is vitally important when it comes to getting a city’s message out. The global media is saturated with information about New York, LA, Washington, and even the Bay Area when it comes to tech. But there’s seldom much global coverage of Chicago. That explains why Chicago needs to bring in events like the NATO summit to generate exposure. You expect smaller cities like Indianapolis to need to do things like host Super Bowls to get major media coverage, but for a city that aspires to be prominent on the global stage, the lack of media is a major challenge.

I should note that I omitted mentioning “Superstation” WGN which still is carried around the country I believe, as well as some smaller outfits like Journatic. I probably should also have mentioned magazines like Ebony and Jet. But I believe the point still stands.

Beyond media, fashion is another area of weakness. Crain’s Chicago Business ran a story called “Runway Doesn’t Lead to Local Fashion Scene” that noted how, despite producing quality fashion design graduates, the city has yet to create a fashion industry or scene.

The piece quotes someone saying that the Midwest is a “kind of a sweats and flip-flops society. Until the mainstream keys in, Chicago’s fashion scene is not going to be created.” You seldom see Chicago datelines on photos in fashion blogs like the Sartorialist or Facehunter. Without a fashion culture locally, it’s hard to see a fashion industry taking root. If Chicago is a 10 out of 10 on food, it’s probably more like a 5 out of 10 on fashion.

I could perhaps cite some other areas, but these are two where the verdict is pretty clear. Again, for smaller regional or national cities, none of these is a big deal. Even for Chicago in terms of the quality of life for its residents, it probably doesn’t make a huge difference (though Chicago could perhaps use stronger media that isn’t just obsessed with local and hyperlocal). But when you stake your claim to be one of the top global cities in the world, these sorts of gaps in the story add up.

Topics: Civic Branding, Globalization
Cities: Chicago

52 Responses to “Gaps in Chicago’s Global City Fabric”

  1. Peter says:

    Chicago the whitest city in American? WTF

  2. SPQR says:

    I’d hardly say Chicago is the whitest city in America, let alone that it is the most American because of such an attribute.

    The clusters of ethnic areas you find in Chicago may be, in part, the remnants of an earlier era when racial segregation was indeed the norm and when the patronage system under Daley Sr. and others, reinforced such divisions, with each group getting its share of the spoils, as it were. The construction of large public housing blocks (Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini Green) did little to foster integration.

    You do find in Chicago, even to this day, distinct areas of the city predominated by specific ethnic groups, not only African-American, but also Hispanic (Mexican and Puerto Rican mostly), Polish, South Asian (Indian, Pakistani), Korean (a sizable but nearly invisible Chicago enclave), Chinese, Italian, Arab, Greek, Jewish, Serbian, and so on. I suspect the political practice of gerrymandering along ethnic lines contributes to perpetuating this situation.

    But such clusters are not exclusive to Chicago by any measure. Large portions of the south and west sides of Chicago are solidly black and struggling with crime and poverty. Families who are able are moving out to other parts of the city, to the suburbs, and to other states. In fact, black population in Chicago is declining.

    In any case, only about a third of the city’s population is “white.” How this might affect Chicago’s status as a “global” city escapes me.

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