I’ve written a lot about the two Chicagos, one successful, one struggling. Obviously that’s a problem, but from the standpoint of a lot of Midwest cities that’s a nice problem to have as they have more broadly struggled to reinvent themselves for the new economy. While most Midwest cities have areas of relative affluence, mostly in favored quarter suburbs, very few of them have managed to pull off any type of material urban core revival. Although incomplete and not inclusive, Chicago has many square miles of thriving neighborhoods. How did this happen?
There are a lot of reasons, but I want to highlight one thing about Chicago that seems to me to be different from other cities: the unusually strong commitment of the corporate community to Chicago. I’ve written before about the decline of civic leadership culture resulting from structural economic change. And while Chicago has experienced many of the same things – the fortunes of its businesses and executives are seldom actually linked to the success of Chicago as a whole, for example – corporate leadership has retained an usually strong civic commitment.
One way this has manifested itself is in defending corporate headquarters, especially through mergers. When Bank One of Columbus, Ohio bought first Chicago, First Chicago agreed to be bought, but insisted that the HQ be in Chicago. IIRC, Jamie Dimon was Bank One’s CEO at the time and took over the merged entity. (You can argue that with somewhere around 15,000 JP Morgan employees, Columbus still got the better end of the bargain, but the symbolism of the headquarters was important). Similarly, in the Continental-United merger, United was ok with Continental’s CEO taking over, but the merged airline had to be based in Chicago. When AON insurance reincorporated its HQ in London and moved 50 employees there (a fairly minor move in the grand scheme of things), the Chicago directors on the board, although they agreed with the business logic I suspect, decided to abstain from the approval vote.
You might throw out a name like Dan Gilbert as an old school industrial titan who’s a booster for his hometown of Detroit, but he’s of recent vintage. Clearly in other cities corporations and their chieftains are involved in various civic ventures, but my anecdotal observation is that there’s something different in Chicago.
A Well-Heeled Followup
In follow-up to my recent article on Chicago’s active pursuit of elite oriented urbanism, this week provided yet another clear example of it. In a shrewd move designed I suspect mostly to embarrass Rahm Emanuel by making him put his cards on the table, a south side alderman proposed implementing a $25/year bicycle registration fee.
Let’s put aside the merits of such a fee. I’m not categorically opposed to it as it regularizes and in a sense institutionalizes and officializes bicycles as a transport mode on par with the car, one able to stand on its own two feet. However, it’s also very clear that most of these proposals are simply gratuitous provocations designed to annoy bicyclists and cause them pain. I would probably say this is just trying to nickle and dime bike owners and would by unlikely to push one myself.
In this case, knowing bicycles are a priority of Rahm, the proposal is appears to be intended to force Rahm to reject it, while continuing to move forward with a raft of other fee increases he wants, including a $0.75/pack cigarette tax hike.
What I want you to consider is Rahm’s own stated rationale for why he rejects the bike tax:
Two years ago the city of Chicago was ranked 10th in protected bike lanes and 15th for startups. IBM did a survey. We moved to 5th in protected bike lanes – and are making more progress – and we moved from 15th to 10th, according to IBM, worldwide on startups. Now the two are not correlated, but it’s not an accident that Google and Motorola chose to move their headquarters to where the first protected bike lane went, and where there’s a mass transit stop. This is why transportation is so essential, not just to move people, but recruiting companies. So as it relates to her tax, she can propose it. It’s her idea. But I argue that’s not the right way to go [slight cleanup for flow]
A high school buddy of mine once said ZZ Top would never be a band accused of hidden sexual lyrics, because they’re not hidden. Similarly, it doesn’t take any parsing or inference to understand Rahm’s strategy to cater to the high end. He’s very transparent about it. It’s how he publicly justifies his decisions. Again, the point I want to make here is that, actual impacts on rich and poor and the wisdom of the tax aside, Rahm Emanuel defends his position by explicit appeals to its impact on the elite.
Here we have a guy who’s basically saying that if the city imposes a $25/year fee on the well-paid employees of one of the world’s largest and most profitable tech companies, firms like that might not choose Chicago. What does that say about how attractive he thinks Chicago is as a place to do business that companies might be so easily discouraged from choosing it?
Apparently high end residents and businesses can’t even have the most minor of inconveniences imposed, while the city piles on regressive “sin taxes” on a population that is addicted to tobacco and disproportionately low income. That’s Chicago’s policy in a nutshell.