Sunday, March 19, 2006

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The Economist surveys Chicago

This week's Economist has its first survey of Chicago since 1980. As John Grimond writes, there have been a few changes during those years:

Appearances often deceive, but, in one respect at least, the visitor's first impression of Chicago is likely to be correct: this is a city buzzing with life, humming with prosperity, sparkling with new buildings, new sculptures, new parks, and generally exuding vitality. The Loop, the central area defined by a ring of overhead railway tracks, has not gone the way of so many other big cities' business districts—soulless by day and deserted at night. It bustles with shoppers as well as office workers. Students live there. So, increasingly, do gays, young couples and older ones whose children have grown up and fled the nest. Farther north, and south, old warehouses and factories have become home to artists, professionals and trendy young families. Not far to the east locals and tourists alike throng Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile, a stretch of shops as swanky as any to be found on Fifth Avenue in New York or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Chicago is undoubtedly back.

Back, that is, from what many feared would be the scrapheap. In 1980, when The Economist last published a survey of Chicago, it found a city whose “façade of downtown prosperity” masked a creaking political machine, the erosion of its economic base and some of the most serious racial problems in America. There followed an intensely painful decade of industrial decline and political instability during which jobs, people and companies all left Chicago while politicians bickered and racial antagonisms flared or festered. Other cities with similar manufacturing economies, similar white flight and similar problems of race and class looked on in dismay. If Chicago, the capital of the Midwest, the city of big shoulders, the city that works, that toddlin' town (few places have generated so much braggadocio), were to descend into rust-bound decay, what chance was there for Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St Louis, Detroit and a score of smaller places?

Chicago's revival should not be judged merely by the manifest sparkle of the Loop and such districts as River North, the Gold Coast and Streeterville. A more telling indicator is the growth of population recorded in the most recent (2000) census: an increase of 4.0% for the city since 1990 (compared with 3.9% for Minneapolis, and losses of 5.4% for Cleveland, 7.5% for Detroit and 9.6% for Pittsburgh). Other signs of economic vigour include the arrival of Boeing, which moved its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in 2001, the growth of the futures and derivatives markets embodied in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Board of Trade, and the decision to expand O'Hare to ensure it keeps its place as the busiest (depending on the measurement) airport in the country....

So Chicago seems to have weathered its period of deindustrialisation and emerged looking pretty robust. Other cities still groping for life after manufacturing death and trying to restore hope to their citizens and to the benighted neighbourhoods in which they live would do well to see what they can learn from Chicago's experience. This survey will try to do the work for them. It will examine an American success story. Is it as good as it seems? How much of it depends on Chicago's peculiar circumstances? How much could be repeated elsewhere

The survey suggests four reasons for Chicago's rebirth:
1) Geographical advantages unique to Chicago (Lake Michigan, being the largest city in the Midwest);

2) Immigration:

Though Latinos are individually poorer than other Chicagoans, their collective household income of $20 billion a year makes up nearly 10% of the six-county area's total. The sales-tax revenues generated in the shops of Little Village's 26th Street are, it is said, greater than those of any other retail corridor in Chicago but Magnificent Mile. Latinos are also a driving force in the region's property market.

Since 1990, the growth in the number of Latino workers has just about matched the growth in jobs in the region. And the numerical match has paralleled a geographical one: many Latinos go straight to the jobs, which are mostly in the suburbs, bypassing the inner city altogether. Thus one person in five in the six-county area is now a Latino, making a living, likely as not, as a gardener, labourer, office cleaner or waiter. In the 1990s, the Latino population doubled in each of the five suburban counties around Chicago.

3) Civic-minded businessmen:
Too much can be made of planning in Chicago: in many ways the city is a monument to the creativity of chaos. But the influence of business is hard to exaggerate. The people who run the place could, and sometimes do, fit into one room. Some are politicians; some are academics; some are heads of museums or hospitals or outfits like the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations or the MacArthur Foundation. But most are in business.

Indeed, if you are the boss of a big business anywhere in the Chicago area, you are expected to take an active part in the civic life of the city. Accordingly, the same names appear over and over again on the boards of universities, hospitals, museums, orchestras, opera companies and local charities. More to the point, business is almost always an active participant in any public endeavour, from school reform to the creation of Millennium Park, the brand new $475m park-cum-auditorium-cum-ice-rink-cum-fountain-cum-you-name-it just north of the Art Institute.

4) Richard Daley's focus on public housing, schools, and greenery.
Go check it out. Grimond makes way too much of Chicago's success at landing corporate eadquarters' like Boeing -- and I was surprised he never mentioned Ed Glaeser's work on the economics of Northern cities. Still, it's interesting reading.

posted by Dan on 03.19.06 at 09:18 AM


Although she is generally considered a figure of ridicule, I personally think a lot of the credit for getting the _process_ started has to go to Jane Byrne. Not because she accomplished much, because she didn't. But she was the first person in a long time (including Richard J. at the end of his reign) to not be down-in-the-mouth about Chicago; to stand up and say, "we can fix this. we can make things better". Did she succeed herself? For the most part no, although IIRC she was responsible for getting Chicagofest rolling which was a key event in getting people back downtown on weekends. But her attitude laid the groundwork for Washington and Richie M. to get things moving later.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 03.19.06 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

The article scares me. It seems now Chicago has nowhere to go but down. A lot of what is good about Chicago has happened since the infamous WSJ article in (I think) August of 1984 that called Chicago "Beirut on the lake". Things have been improving ever since. A strong argument can be made that Richard M. Daley is carrying on the legacy of Harold Washington, not his father's. Harold (I don't think anyone called him Mayor Washington) was really getting into the job and enjoying it. He had very competent administrators. Harold was getting warm receptions in white neighborhoods during his second term. Unfortunately, those receptions included a lot of food which he never turned down. He was enjoying life (and pierogi, soul food, kielbasa, etc) and was over 300 pounds. At the time of his death, his biggest critics were people like Lu Palmer and the black empowerment movement. They did not want reform - they wanted the same machine with blacks replacing the Irish. Harold reached out to everyone. I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. The day after his election, one of my neighbors, a Ukranian immigrant, was cleaning his shotgun. He thought that blacks would be coming into the neighborhood to take his house. That is not meant to be funny. The racial tension and fear, stoked by the Vrdolyak 29, was palpable. When Washington died, that same neighbor said he was a good man and he was going to church to light a candle for him. I think Daley learned a lot from Washington.

posted by: Martin on 03.19.06 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

Now if we can only figure out a way to rescue the University of Chicago from its decay.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 03.19.06 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

I grew up in Chicago and was a senior in HS when the Economist did its Chicago survey (my first encounter with the Economist, with which I retain a like-despise relationship).

Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I LIKED the decrepit, shop-worn, Rust Belt Chicago. I HATE the new, tourist-friendly, Harley-Davidson Cafe, ESPNZone, BLAH BLAH BLAH Chicago. Back then Chicago had a soul; now it's just another in a long line of Times Square Wannabes. Yuck.

I knew the city was doomed the day I say Daley the Younger on television, alongside the river, just after the Sun-Times building had been shuttered for Trump (Trump, yet!!), announce that, henceforth, the Business of Chicago would be Tourism.

Eegad, methought; you truly can't go home again. Were it not for the Green Mill and Miller's Pub, I wouldn't even be able to stomach the annual pilgrimage. Oh, for the days of the Cafe Bohemia (and if you know what that means, I'll credit you in fine postmodern style with being an "authentic" Chicagoan, odderwize youze'r just anudder terist t'me).

posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on 03.19.06 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

I came to an east coast city that was just undergoing urban renemwal of the typeof Old town in the early 80's I saw all the potential and stayed. The place never lived up to its potential.
The real reason is not just the ineptitude and provincialism of an east coast city vs its neighbors. Much of It really is leadership of the individual nature that moves mulitiple movers and shakers to compete. The other part is as the regional population of the Midwest looked for jobs and housing Chicago was the place. It was happening when I left. Three people I worked with were from a town in Michigan. All my visits back long before interest rates dropped throuhg the floor Chicago was growing. Nothing like a confluence of good things.

posted by: Robert M on 03.19.06 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

Now if only the Blackhawks and Bulls can participate in this revival...

posted by: Usel on 03.19.06 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

Hold off on the self-congratulation. Not just Chicago but across the US, growth is largely driven by Mexican immigration, that is to say, by an undeniably hardworking but also extremely uneducated, largely unskilled populace that, in contrast to other immigrant groups, does not push its children to succeed in school.

How valuable is population growth if driven by a rapidly swelling proletariat of largely illiterate domestics? Granted, the ready availability of such jobs in the US spares us the creation of French-style mass unemployment among a sullen and unassimilated immigrant underclass.

OTOH, is it really helpful to the economy that one-third or more of the schoolchildren in our metro areas are now semi- or illiterate campesinos' kids who score "below proficiency" on statewide exams at rates of 80% or more? (for the grim results, see the California State Dept of Education school reports database:
Select "County," then the appropriate School District, eg Santa Clara or San Fran or LA, and then sort by "Ethnicity" and under it, "Hispanic/Latino." Finally, hit the blue button at top of screen, "VIEW REPORT", to see the percent of hispanic, which means for the most part Mexican campesino, kids who are below the (already-low) level of "Proficient." Caution: results don't do this on a full stomach...

Would it not make more sense to impose some intelligent curbs on immigration by people who have no advanced skills and/or cannot read? And perhaps to lift entirely all (non-security-related) curbs on immigration by people from any nation who have an advanced technical or scientific degree.

posted by: thibaud on 03.19.06 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

"but I LIKED the decrepit, shop-worn, Rust Belt Chicago. I HATE the new, tourist-friendly, Harley-Davidson Cafe, ESPNZone, BLAH BLAH BLAH Chicago."

Clearly you do not have 20+ yr old daughters living in both Chicago and New York. I lived in Chicago from 1965 to 1972 and New York from 1975 to 1985. Both cities are an order of magnitude cleaner and nicer than they were 30 years ago.

If you want to be terrified, depressed, and miserable, please feel free to find some third world hell-hole like the banlieus of Paris to live in. But, what ever you do, please go away and leave the rest of in peace.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 03.19.06 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

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