This post is part of the State of Chicago series.
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 a mere blog posting.
Yet Chicago has in effect decided to jettison that powerful, historic brand identity in favor of a type of global city genericism. This, I believe, is a mistake.
One trend you can’t help but notice if you travel is the increasing homogenization of the urban culture and standard of urban development. 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 globally elite locale, often seem identical except for the name on the spine. One modern boutique hotel, one swank restaurant or bar, one fashion outlet, one bike share program, one piece of starchitecture 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.
It’s truly incredible. Travel anywhere in the world in mention that you’re from Chicago, and immediately the other person will mime a couple of pistols with their fingers and say, “Bang! Bang!” This is a sore spot with many local leaders, who hate the notion that it is still known more for gangsters than glitter. The city over the years has so tried to suppress its Al Capone heritage that it has obliterated many historic sites related to the mob. It’s like the city that wants to pretend it doesn’t exist.
This sadly makes Chicago like all too many smaller cities that suppress their strongest brand assets out of embarrassment and a desire to be taken seriously by members of the cool kids club. Go talk to urban boosters in Indianapolis, and you probably won’t hear much about the Indy 500, for example. So too it is with Chicago. It’s as if to prove it’s a member of the club – i.e., is exactly like every other cool city – Chicago has to ignore its gritty past and essential culture.
A friend of mine likes to say that “Chicago is a city that runs on testosterone.” It’s a rugged, manly city, a place where it was said high culture was just the ransom rich men paid to their wives. A place where people wore their shoe leather out trying to make a buck. The land of the hustler. A place of bellowing blast furnaces and brawny immigrants. A place where pedigree didn’t matter and crazy newcomers, dreamers, schemers, and gamblers could win or lose big. A place with audacious ambition and a relentless determination to demolish rivals, whether that be Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Milwaukee. A place that once dreamed to dethroning New York. A place of limitless imagination and inventiveness that brought us everything from the skyscraper to the futures market. A place with music like the blues made for and by the hard luck working man. And yes, a place of gangsters and crooked politicians.
None of that is part of new Chicago, at least not the image the city wants to portray. The iconic architecture remains, but it has been drained of its cultural content. Listen to what the city tries to project of itself and see what it says. It says that Chicago has become just another way-station along the global city parade. Starchitecture (no longer architecture made in Chicago for the most part), microbrews and microroasts, culinary delights, high culture, boutique hotels, great shopping, bike infrastructure, digital startups (the exact same type every other “hub” is bragging about), music festivals by and for the high end educated hipster, global conferences, etc. Almost every box is checked, with a few exceptions like fashion and media as I highlighted earlier.
All of this is good in a way and proof of a transformation in Chicago that is in many ways for the better. But something has been lost along the way. These items are all disconnected from the city in which they happen to reside. It’s as if they descended on the place out of the heavens like that flying saucer on top of Soldier Field. Drawing Room mixologist Charles Joly may have a Chicago flag tattooed on his arm, but his bar could be located anywhere.
Saskia Sassen has written that the economies of global cities are not generic but are inherently linked to their histories. Chicago in the past was a great center of manufacturing, for example, and today is expert at providing global services to manufacturers. But where in underlying economic reality there may be distinctiveness, on the surface there is more homogenization. This may explain why people tend to assume all global cities are alike. To a visitor staying in the central core, the experience may well be quite similar in many ways.
What’s more, the aspiration seems to be generic. The idea, again, is to demonstrate that you are part of the club by focusing on replicating all the same stuff everybody else is already doing and talking about yourself in much the same way. I’ve seen little in Chicago’s branding or global city rhetoric that is much different from anywhere else.
Yet the differences remain, especially outside the rarefied precincts of the global elite. And much of that continues to inspire embarrassment to this day. Corruption and cronyism seem to continue unabated, for example.
Yet there is good as well. Ask yourself what more than anything epitomizes Chicago. To me, it is none other than former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Listen to him speak. Barack Obama he is not. But character he had, lots of it, and what’s more, a fanatical dedication to making Chicago the best city it could possibly be. Was there a lot of corruption in Daley’s Chicago? No doubt. Did he desire to have maximum power over politics in his city? Of course. But nevertheless I get the impression of, as I said in my last piece, a guy who every morning wakes up and asked 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 pursued that policy I mentioned of abandoning its past, of abandoning the image of the city as evidenced by the mayor himself. You walk down Michigan Ave., through Millennium 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 he had seen 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 the Gold Coast. 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 titanium 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 here, and determined to claim its rightful place.
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 itself and not afraid to boldly chart its own course into the great unknown of the future.
Is Rahm Emanuel is the person who can pull this off? He’s from the North Shore. He was a ballet dancer. He’s a man clearly most comfortable dealing with the elite. Yet he’s also got a rougher side. He’s supposedly Captain F-Bomb. He hates to lose. He mailed some dead fish to a someone once to show his displeasure with some polling. I’d say there’s more than a streak of authentic Chicago in there.
Maybe the bigger question is whether he wants any change of course. The NATO Summit play suggests not. But it’s still early.
I would strongly urge the city to rethink its brand and what it wants to be in the marketplace. Bottle up some that classic Chicago heritage and apply it liberally. This is a huge opportunity in the marketplace. With the vast bulk of cities trying to convince you they are all the same, this is in opportunity for Chicago to seize the advantage and stride forth with classic boldness and braggadocio, making other cities take real notice for a change. Want to actually put Chicago on the brand consciousness map? That’s the way to do it.
In short, it’s time to stop aspiring to global city goo and instead give the world a punch in the face with a little old school Chicago.
This article contains material that was published in previous posts.
Pardon the naÃ¯vetÃ©, but what do the mayor and “the city” writ large do to project a certain brand or not? It’s not so obvious to me, as a Chicago resident but not a Business Leader or anything like that, who mostly avoids the Loop and the Near North Side, what this entails, or that the city even has a brand beyond the diverse manifestations in its neighborhoods. You mention bike-friendliness as a branding move; from my point of view it’s simply making it easier for me to get around. What kind of public works projects, what design aspirations, what mayoral actions or priorities would project the Al Capone Heritage or whatever you want to call it above generic cityness?
Roland S says
Yeah, I agree with F. I know you don’t claim to have the answers, but I’m struggling to come up with a non-cheesy way to apply this thinking. It’s dangerous stuff… too much of it, and we end up with Navy Pier or Portillo’s.
Here in New Orleans, we have that opposite problem. We’re lost in a provincial and futile desire to reclaim the past. For example, the city insists on replicating old streetcar designs at tremendous cost, even though they could capture the best qualities of the old cars in a modern vehicle and create something truly unique. New Orleanians were given an embarrassment of riches in the form of culture and now there’s almost no will to innovate. And, of course, the city is banking its future on eds and meds in addition to tourism.
^^^F: I think Aaron is suggesting that Chicago could embrace a public works design motif, for example, that is distinctively muscular and industrial. Instead of decorative streetlights or landscaped medians, maybe have something made of steel that conveys that strong image. If anyone has watched the TV show “Boss” on the Starz channel, I think they do a good job of conveying that muscular image of the city.
However, I agree with Aaron that globalization pushes cities toward standardization and that more than anything has been what the city is reacting to. Problem is, I wonder if the city can be both connected globally and distinct in its branding.
the urban politician says
Too much nostalgia in this piece. Practically no specifics.
Chicago doesn’t express its “terroir” as the muscular industial city any more because………..it’s not a muscular industrial city any more.
This is really about economics.
There are not really that many factories, and NO stockyards left.
The city consists mostly of gentrified neighborhoods, ghettos, and a lot of heavily ethnic neighborhoods.
But most of those people don’t work in steel plants, nor do they slaughter animals. They fix cars, build & renovate houses, work in supermarkets, own small shops or businesses, or operate out of a cubicle in a glass highrise.
It is not the new homogenous Chicago that is fake. Instead, any attempt to pretend that the old Chicago is still there–now THAT would be fake.
It’s not even correct to attribute Chicago’s 19th-Century success to its then-masculine culture. Industry didn’t develop in Chicago because of a Carl Sandburg poem, but because Chicago was a place you could build a successful business–largely because of transportation. Chicago’s culture was a result of that success, not its cause, and was later romanticized by people who realized they could do nothing to change it.
The factories are indeed still here but you might not recognize them since they are often way out in romeoville or elk grove and often contain more robots than people. The new factory workers program in c-code telling the system how to run, stack, palletize, load, lift, etc. it’s definitely a new city looking for an identity but relax it will find itself, it always does. It’s a city pretty much in the center of the country and NAFTA trade flows, it’s not going to go anywhere. Chicago’s fortunes and identity will reflect America’s identity as it typically has since its inception.
“Travel anywhere in the world in mention that you’re from Chicago, and immediately the other person will mime a couple of pistols with their fingers and say, “Bang! Bang!”
Oh my. Perhaps among the 85 and older crowd….in Russia.
Mr. Renn, I look so forward to your multi-post series regarding your new home Rhode Island aka the red-headed stepchild of the East Coast. Should be quite riveting.
Honestly, I fee an element of jealousy and regret in each one of these posts.
Move on….or possibly come back. Chicago won’t hold it against you. 🙂
Civis Romanus Sum says
Racaille: “Oh my. Perhaps among the 85 and older crowd….in Russia”
Funny you should say that. One of the “over 85 crowd in Russia,” the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), depicted Chicago as an electrified, hyper-modern fantasy metropolis in his epic poem “The 150 Million.” He also misidentified it as the capital of the United States (Woodrow Wilson lives there).
Of course he knew better; but he was really associating the city with the most advanced forms of capitalism and industry in the world. Before there was Al Capone, that’s what Chicago was best known for.
Racaille: “Oh my. Perhaps among the 85 and older crowd….in Russia.”
Actually, a middle-aged Turkish man in Berlin did this to me in June.
Carl Wohlt says
Aaron, I think the powers that be are well served by your efforts to keep a discussion about the Chicago brand alive. I could bore you to tears about the differences between “branding,” “image” and “identity,” but the real issue here is differentiating Chicago in the national and global markets. And it seems to me that the city is missing a couple of easy layups.
The first revolves around Chicago’s legacy as a center of distinctive innovation and design, most visibly manifest in its architectural legacy. Not that the city in general does not celebrate its architecture — it does. But the overall theme of innovation has not been connected to a broader narrative that celebrates design and innovation in general, a narrative that is still very present in companies like Motorola and ITW. Chicago should be positioned as a sort of Milan of the U.S., a gritty, hard edged industrial center that also has a distinctive sense of style and refinement. Designers and innovators around the globe should want to come to Chicago for their education and the opportunity to launch new businesses.
The other obvious layup relates to its overall geography. States such as Florida, Texas and Arizona may own winter, but Chicago should own summer. It’s not only the capital of the Midwest, it’s the the capital of America’s true Third Coast, the Great Lakes, and the Great Lakes are a great place to hang in the summer. In the depths of oppressive summer heat, there should be billboards in Miami, Orlando, Houston and Tucson that say “Cooler Near the Lake.” It’s almost unbelievable to me that at this late date the rest of the country doesn’t understand that Chicago is one of the world’s great “summer cities.” Of course, Milwaukee, Detroit, Minneapolis and surrounding Great Lakes states in general should be capitalizing on this geographic advantage as well. But Chicago has a distinct advantage as a major transportation hub and its overall cultural mojo.
There are other significant strategies to consider — Chicago’s dominating position in the “Breadbasket of America” is an example — but design / innovation and owning summer would be good places to start when it comes to clearly differentiating Chicago from other U.S. and international cities.
Matthew Hall says
Culture and economics do not have a one-way relationship. Those who started Chicago had cultural ideals and experiences. These guided them in organizing and building chicago in a particular way. Nothing is inevitable, not even Chicago.
Bravo Aaron! All you stuffed shirts poo-pooing this inspired piece from someone who cares about the city and knows that every once in a while you have to cut through the facts, figures and academic non-sense to stir up some emotion about a beloved city will watch things change before your eyes because, believe it or not, strong pointed enthusiastic rhetoric causes more change than stats and graphs. Nice to know there’s a soul out there. . .
Civis Romanus Sum says
Carl Wohlt: “Chicago should be positioned as a sort of Milan of the U.S., a gritty, hard edged industrial center that also has a distinctive sense of style and refinement.”
Yes, absolutely. The Milan analogy has occurred to me many times. Not so sure about “the capital of summer” though – it’s getting uncomfortably hot and sticky here.
Masculine culture? Considering the rise of women and the “feminine,” along with the decline of traditional working class men and manufacturing employment, perhaps that should be reconsidered.
I would be far more concerned about exploding crime (the gang banger and not the gangster is more appropriate for Chicago now) and the failing public school system than some rebranding strategy.
the urban politician says
You have some good ideas in your post, never crossed my mind.
I think that is something that Chicago’s leadership can perhaps look further into. Chicago (and many great lakes cities) are some of the funnest places in the country when the weather is nice, and that is because they really pack them in (festivals, concerts, etc) during the summer.
Just looking at Milwaukee, Chicago, and everything in between, you could spend every weekend from late May through September attending shows, concerts, parties, festivals, fireworks without a break.
The “masculinity” you refer to is something that really bothers me about living in Chicago. I’m a writer, and Chicago’s literary history is heavily weighted towards male writers, “masculine” works, and “masculine” genres (noir, mystery) (in quotes because of course these are not things that only interest men or are only written by men, but they do have an overall masculine flavor). Many of the public artworks are also quite “masculine” in a way–the Picasso, the flamingo–big shapes, hard edges. The industrialism, the gangsters–it all seems kind of boring to me and, more importantly for the city, outdated. It’s still a city that works, but the workers aren’t all men anymore.
I wish Chicago would rebrand itself by really concentrating on transportation. We’re still the Amtrak hub and have good airports, but the local and regional transportation is aging. We’ve got the bones for it–including a great terrain for biking–but the investment required to really update the transit and make it cutting-edge instead of adequate but rickety makes this unlikely.
Matt D says
I do like the example of Milan as an ideal comparison for Chicago. That would probably be a good city typeology, and makes sense for Chicago going forward.
But I think the marketing of Chicago as a summer vacation retreat is a bit strange. Chicago doesn’t have particularly good summer weather, and Lake Michigan isn’t really that impressive compared with the coasts. The beaches, in particular, are mediocre.
I don’t think too many people would trade the Hamptons or Santa Barbara for North Ave. beach. If you really prefer the Great Lakes, go to Charlevoix or Harbor Springs or something. Chicago beaches aren’t very clean, scenic, or elite. They’re freshwater beaches for the masses.
the urban politician says
Matt, by merely focusing on beaches you are missing the point by a mile.
I don’t think anyone here contends that Chicago has superior beaches over other places. In fact, much of Lake Michigan isn’t even safe for swimming.
Cities in cold climates, especially Chicago and nearby cities, REALLY celebrate when the weather gets warm. They pack it in. From neighborhood festivals to live shows, art shows, concerts, ethnic festivals, etc etc the Chicago region really comes to life in the warmer months in a way that I just haven’t seen elsewhere. Add in Milwaukee and you’re really talking about a loaded schedule.
I have lived in New York, and New York’s neighborhood street fairs are a complete joke compared to what I’m talking about.
I think marketing Chicago as a summer destination is a great idea, but the way that this is branded is crucial. If you start throwing “Miller Lite” or “Bud Lite” in there you run the risk of it turning cheesy, kind of like Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break.
The Milan comparison is interesting as well, but I must admit I’ve never been to that city so I’m at a disadvantage in regards to that particular discussion.
John Morris says
@ Matt D said
“But I think the marketing of Chicago as a summer vacation retreat is a bit strange. Chicago doesn’t have particularly good summer weather, and Lake Michigan isn’t really that impressive compared with the coasts. The beaches, in particular, are mediocre.”
This brings us back again to a core problem Chicago seems to have-too much concern about relating to the coasts- and far too little concern with what it’s value might be to the more immediate region and the midwest.
Obviously, lots of average folks in Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana are not flying to the coast regulary and might love the big urban/ beach combo Chicago can offer.
I also agree with the Milan comparison.
You touched on several critical points but your most valid comment summed up Chicago in a nutshell…
You mentioned former Mayor Daley and his poor speaking abilities. Daley is clearly a reflection of Chicago’s “poor educational system.” Or shall we say, “lack of educational system.” This is the city’s greatest downfall to date. Daley was looked up to as an intelligent man in the eyes of indigenous Chicagoans for nearly 25 years! Chicago cannot become anything of substance until this problem is fixed.
I agree with you Aaron. This problem can be changed. Luckily Mayor Emanuel has spent much of his life outside of Illinois unlike Daley, who never really left the streets of Bridgeport. Mayor Emanuel is bringing an entirely different mindset to the Chicagoland area. Chicagoans should be thankful to have a Mayor who is bringing new ideas to the region. However, the indigenous Chicagoans do not recognize it and it’ll take an entire generation to benefit from the change of past culture.
My only concern with Rahm is he intends to run the city like Washington D,C. runs the country. That is by instilling fear in the minds of its citizens and incorporating excessive regulations on its residents. Rahm wants Chicago to be a nanny-state. The Midwest already suffers from having a guarded and overly protected mindset and this will only fester those beliefs. Chicago must become a more free-spirited and free-thinking society. Intelligent people can police themselves without government interference. Education will open the people’s minds. Something the people of Chicagoland have NEVER had the chance to experience.
The best thing to happen to Chicago in recent years is that it became a city that attracted out of state transplants. These transplants brought new ideas to the city and they are not afraid to challenge the status-quo. They hold inept Chicagoans accountable for their historically corrupt ways and are forcing long over-due change in the city. Transplants have raised the bar in Chicago across the board. The “Chicago way” is dying! In order to keep the educated class in the region, Chicago will now have to cater to their needs. Otherwise, the city will collapse. If Chicago could find a balance between its history and it’s new found glory, the attitude of the city could be reformed with confidence and the highest self-esteem. This reform would most importantly allow Chicago to stop seeking approval from the rest of the world and recreate its own identity in a positive way.
Chicago is in a position to be one of the greatest American cities ever. But ONLY if it changes the poor culture of education that has lagged since the very beginning of time.
I think it will eventually happen.
I really like this piece. I really hate seeing the city destroying itself by eminent domaining neighborhoods built by Chicagoans only to replace them with developments built by politically connected development companies with investors that have nothing to do with the city (such as in the case of Maxwell St).
But that’s just it. If you want to see Chicago be the most Chicagoish place it can be, then the best thing it can do is go full laissez faire — because that is what will again draw manufacturing jobs to the region in an era with more inter-city competition than ever before. And that philosophy is what shows in every bit of the pre-depression construction in the city. Chicago was arguably the most laissez faire place in the most laissez faire nation in the world. The residents of this city, and Americans at the time in general, built their own neighborhoods from the ground up. Places were characterized by the efforts of large numbers of small-time local developers catering to local tastes. It’s fascinating to consider that the South side world’s fair era apartment houses were built primarily by local investors and developers — that would never happen these days.
The new approach to development, creating homogenous pre-cast superblocks, results from a complete reworking of the real estate industry. At the federal level, FDR nationalized lending, especially in real estate, and his FHA did enormous damage to the old bottom up way of doing things by nationalizing the mortgage industry. Wilson’s Federal Reserve and the regulations that followed resulted in more and more bank centralization and fewer local lending models and practices.
At the local level, modern development is awash in regulation, from zoning codes designed to force reviews for exemptions to building codes that make buildings built in 1900 — and which have been standing for a century — illegal to build now to an approval process that bribes the neighbors for approving development, introducing huge new costs. Local regulations have in many cases made the old method of development, and smaller scale developments, increasingly only possible in areas with cheap land prices.
It seems logical that to make Chicago the most Chicagoish place it can be, it makes sense to follow the economic models that produced the earlier cityscape. You cannot mandate taste, but it is increasingly clear that much of the public prefers old buildings to new. Failing complete system reform at all levels of government (gee, how hard could that be?), however, it makes a lot of sense to replace the aldermanic privilege system with a new system, perhaps of very small conservation districts similar to that in Oakland-Kenwood.
Reforms are needed all over Chicago just to make it “the city that works” again. Unions have to be driven from the public sector, but unfortunately until budget crises are even more fully under foot this is not an area of realistic near future progress. The city must drive away the prospect of bond market vengeance. The city must loosen the grip of unions in order to improve educational outcomes, it must greatly decrease the regulatory burden on businesses, and it must start effectively dealing with crime.
But there are some common sense things that should be done right away. End protectionist policies, such as that preventing share taxis from operating on the South Side — it will immediately greatly improve the quality of life there and the attractiveness of staying in the city. Until the city is ready to break free of the power structures protecting their interests via the status quo, I fear the competition. Indeed that isn’t a very Chicagoan feeling.
Moe / Cody,
Do your homework. Read some Sinclair Lewis, find why Jane Addam’s Hull House came to be. Chicago’s great Columbian Exposition and White City were built to in response to the toxic, horrible living conditions that largely laissez fare economics that had created Chicago up to that point — which in turn led to the City Beautiful movement and the founding of urban planning as a profession. As for unions, read up on why Chicago was a center of union activism. Guess what? Haymarket didn’t happen because workers were cranky about shabby lunchrooms.
Aaron, looks like the Koch brothers have discovered “Urbanophile!”