From The Economist print edition
Chicago has come through deindustrialisation looking shiny and confident, says John Grimond. Can other rustbelt cities do the same?
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.
Just as significant have been some of the events that have not happened. For 21 years after 1955, Chicago was run by Richard Daley senior, a machine politician of the old school whose style was already looking anachronistic when his police enthusiastically beat up dissenters (as well as journalists and bystanders) at the Democratic convention in 1968. By the time of his death in 1976, he looked like a throwback to an earlier age. Despotism, however, was then replaced by factionalism and racism, and when Chicago got its first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983, he was rendered all but impotent by the implacable hostility of 29 of the council's 50 aldermen. The squabbling earned the city the title of “Beirut on the lake”.
Since 1989, though, relative harmony has reigned under a second Mayor Richard Daley, who has skilfully modernised his father's approach to government, embracing rather than suppressing opponents and working with prominent businessmen to improve life in the city. Although the whiff of scandal has latterly been swirling through the ranks of his administration, most of the headlines have been about policy decisions, not political deadlock. And no wonder: many of the decisions, especially those concerning housing, education and the environment, have been bold, earning the mayor plenty of criticism but probably more approval.
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? And what happens next?
*The greater Chicago area consists of six Illinois counties: Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will. The city itself lies entirely within Cook county, but makes up little more than half its population. The Census Bureau's Chicago-Naperville-Joliet metropolitan area includes parts of Indiana and Wisconsin. In this survey, the term Chicago means the city alone.