This article is part of the State of Chicago.
Before I say anything else I want to give a shout out of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. I’ve been pounding on the idea that Chicago has been overly focused on “global” at the expense of its traditional domestic and regional role as “Capital of the Midwest,” a role which, like it or not, still greatly shapes the city’s economic fortunes.
As recently as May, the Guardian (UK) was saying that, regarding luring the NATO summit to Chicago, “Emanuel is motivated by a desire to reposition the city from the capital of the midwest to a global player.” However, just this week Rahm again got some nice international press in the Guardian, and was quoted as saying, “We are the capital of the midwest, but we also gather people from all over the country. We are a city of immigrants, from America and the rest of the world.”
Interesting shift. And I really thought this last piece hit the right tone. It makes a clear statement of Chicago’s principal role, while not ignoring its role as a global destination for people (and investment, and tourism, and more). I really haven’t seen a complete statement from Rahm on how he sees Chicago role in the future, and I don’t want to read too much into this. But it sounds positive. I’m glad to see the mayor looking beyond global only to a more broad conception of Chicago.
Today I want to look at the other side of my last piece, namely the strengths Chicago has today. If you think about the current challenges in comparison to the ones in the 70s and early 80s, well, there is no comparison. Back then, in an era when big cities were in decline across the board, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to think that Chicago could head the direction of Detroit. Today that seems like a remote possibility given that there are so many strengths that the city has to partially offset its demographic and economic weakness.
This is partially intended to be a collaborative, open thread post. If you’ve got other items to share, please do, and I may promote some of the comments to the main article if warranted.
- The first strength is that today big cities seem to be back in favor. While that doesn’t mean small cities aren’t also doing well, today is nothing like the 1970s for big cities. Thus Chicago has a bit of “wind at its back.”
- Chicago is a true urban environment with genuine density, walkabilty, transit, and a thriving core. This is pretty rare in America and produces a compelling, differentiated product. Chicago’s infrastructure may be creaky, with a large tab for repairs, but at least that’s feasible in comparison to the retrofits some people are trying to take on in other places to try to create urbanism where it doesn’t exist.
- Chicago is the capital of the Midwest, and the entire American interior really. As the only traditional big city in the region, it has a gigantic catchment area for drawing people and providing services. For those who want or need an urban environment and are in the center of the country, Chicago is really the only game in town.
- Chicago’s core is extremely powerful. It has America’s second largest downtown business district and is one of the rare downtowns that is actually remaining strong as a bona fide commercial center. Anecdotally I’ve read more stories of businesses relocating from the suburbs to downtown in Chicago than anywhere else. The city is seeing even corporate headquarters return to downtown. The so-called “Loop U” has brought 60,000 students downtown and invigorated street life. The tourism draw remains powerful.
- At 9.5 million people, Chicago has the scale for basically anything and everything.
- Chicago does have aspects of global city to it: the finance center functions, globally exported professional services, and significant international connectivity for both passengers and freight. I don’t think this is sufficient to carry the region, but the city is certainly better with it than without it.
- While the city does not have a high value “calling card” industry, there are various specialization in Chicago: derivatives, architecture, some segments of professional services (like privatization contracts), logistics, and various cultural items. (And of course a broadly diversified economy comes with its own advantages).
- Chicago has significant accumulations of high end talent, and the educated classes have not abandoned the city. It also has bond fide top tier educational institutions like the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.
- Chicago is a beautiful city with high quality of place. It has a magnificent lakefront setting and an iconic skyline of course. It is well-known for its architecture. But it also has a lot of other things like tree-lined streets that can surprise people expecting a concrete jungle (Chicago’s residential streets are more pleasant than any other larger Midwest city I’ve visited), no power lines on city streets (not even arterials), alleys to avoid on-street trash and other issues, etc.
- Chicago is still to a great extent the “city that works.” While crime gets a lot of attention and needs to be addressed and the CTA is a bit rickety, most city services are provided at pretty high levels and effectively, whether that be garbage collection or the best street lighting of any city I’ve ever seen.
- Chicago is a legitimate center of high culture, with a world class symphony and opera company, a thriving theater scene, a well-known music scene, excellence in the culinary arts, etc.
- Chicago has another larger than life, well connected, celebrity mayor. While this might have its downsides like too much focus on elite sectors of the community, it has huge advantages. Rahm can pick up the phone and call any CEO he wants, a vast array of political leaders, etc. That’s one reason he’s been able to get so many large corporate job announcements. I see a lot of cities with Average Joe type mayors and you can really see the difference having a high horsepower guy in the corner office makes.
- Chicago is on Lake Michigan, and so has access to ample supplies of fresh water (though several suburbs reliant on ground water have possible issues). Hoisted from comment by Eric.
That’s a good list to get us started. Comments and contributions welcome.