Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

How Chicago Can Stay On Top

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    NEWSLETTERS

    In 1980, the Chicago Tribune’s Richard C. Longworth wrote this city’s epitaph. The steel mills were closing. The wealthy had fled to the suburbs. The Loop was a grotty district of peep shows and gin mills where no respectable citizen ventured after five o’clock. Chicago, Longworth concluded, was headed for the same civic scrap heap as Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit.

    “Chicago’s basic problem is that it is losing industries, stores and jobs,” Longworth wrote in a series entitled “Chicago: City on the Brink.” “Because of this, it is losing tax money. Because of this, it won’t be able to support itself, to pay for the services of a going city. And because of this, it will lose more industries, stores, jobs and taxes…The cycle here been going on for 30 years. There is no reason to think it will reverse when the present recession ends. According to available evidence and many experts, there is no reason to think it will ever turn around.”
    Thirty-three years later, Longworth, now a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and author of Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, is happy to admit it didn't turn out that way. Chicago did turn around, transforming itself into one of the world’s ten most influential metropolises: an Alpha World City. We are an international business hub, a cultural center renowned for our theater and restaurants, a destination for college graduates from all over the Midwest -- a winner in the era of globalization. I asked Longworth and two other Chicagoans who witnessed the city’s rise how we can maintain our Alpha status.
    Chicago’s current challenge, says Longworth, is that only a third of its population enjoys the prosperity that comes with globalization -- and that third lives in wealthy lakefront neighborhoods isolated from the rest of the city. Maintaining the infrastructure necessary for global business -- the airports, the public transit system, the great universities, the fiber-optic network -- requires raising taxes and user fees, which may Manhattanize the city by driving out the middle class. 
    “The kind of people we want are the kind of people who want to live anywhere,” Longworth said. “How do you do this without making the city too expensive for kids of steelworkers, for artists and musicians, teachers, cops, average people? This is typical of global cities everywhere: New York, Shanghai, Los Angeles. Globalization rewards its high flyers and really punishes everyone else.”
    Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a quintessential global Chicagoan, but without a middle class as a stabilizing political force, the city’s have-nots could elect a populist mayor who is uninterested in a global agenda.
    Paul O’Connor, a former director of World Business Chicago, believes Chicago needs to concentrate the region’s growth in the central city. Between now and 2040, Chicago is the only metropolitan area in the developing world that will become a megacity, passing the 10 million mark in population. The city itself could reach 3.5 million, equaling its all-time high of the 1950s. But they’ll be more concentrated than they were in the 20th Century, so Chicago has to add train lines and build a wastewater system designed for a dense population along the lakefront.
    “Younger people are giving the finger to cars,” O’Connor said. “They want to be able to walk to coffee and have the Iowa State bar within stumbling distance.”
    Gery Chico, who was Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of staff during the city’s rise to global status, agrees that Chicago has to preserve its middle class. The best way to do that is with a strong school system that includes charters, baccalaureates, military academies, as well as Catholic and private schools. Because it’s a regional hub, Chicago can poach bright graduates from other states, with no public investment of its own. But Chico disagrees with the notion that the city’s high schools are less important than its universities, because they don’t produce the creative, intellectual types that global businesses covet.
    “Global entities look at this when making decisions as to where to locate,” Chico says. “Everybody in college comes from someplace. Even if you’re a newly transplanted executive, you’re going to send your kids somewhere.”
    Chicago will remain a global city for the foreseeable future. The question is whether it will belong only to the global citizens, or whether it will be a city where anyone can afford to live.