Chicago’s first Golden Age lasted 36 years, from the Columbian Exposition of 1893, to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the beginning of the Great Depression, in 1929. In those three-and-a-half decades, Chicago was the fastest-growing city in the world, increasing its population from 1 million to 3.3 million, as immigrants swarmed in from Europe and the Deep South to work in our slaughterhouses and steel mills. Chicago was a literary capital, home to Carl Sandburg and Poetry magazine, setting of influential social realism novels such as Sister Carrie and The Jungle. It was an architectural capital, birthplace of the skyscraper. An engineering capital, as we dug the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which guaranteed fresh water for the city’s growth. And a musical capital, with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver playing in the city’s speakeasies.
After that, the city stagnated until the early 1990s. At that point, Chicago got a few breaks. The crack wars ended, making big cities safer places to live. A Democratic president was sworn into office and reversed decades of federal indifference to urban America. Most importantly, economic globalization took after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Globalization sucked the life out of the rest of the industrial Midwest, but allowed Chicago to establish itself as a regional financial and business capital. As young people had fled the farms for Chicago in the late 19th Century, they fled the used-up factory towns for Chicago in the late 20th Century. Also, the Chicago Bulls won six NBA championships. Michael Jordan, the greatest global athlete, helped repair the city’s international image by replacing Al Capone as our most famous resident.
In the 1990s, Chicago gained 100,000 people. That was unique among Midwestern cities, and it reversed four decades of decline. The Loop, which was a pretty skeezy place in the 1980s, became a neighborhood of multi-million dollar condos, as the rich returned to the city from the suburbs. Chicago’s theater scene and restaurants won international renown, which was a lot different from the days when a big night out was going to Lawry’s before seeing the Broadway touring production of The King and I. No less an aristocrat than Sen. John Kerry declared “I could live here,” while running for president in 2004.
That was Chicago’s Second Golden Age. It culminated on Nov. 4, 2008, when Barack Obama made his victory speech in Grant Park, and ended the next fall, when the city was eliminated in the first round of voting to host the 2016 Olympics, thus quashing our bid to establish ourselves as a global city. The following year, the census found we’d lost 200,000 people, wiping out the gains of the 1990s. The Chicago of 2012 is broke -- too broke to hire all the police officers we need to deal with a rising murder, too broke to keep lifeguards on the beaches from sunup to sundown. And the measures we’ve taken to deal with our lack of funds -- cutting library hours, writing more tickets for speeding, rolling right turns on red and parking violations -- are making the city a less appealing place to live.
Chicago is still a great city, but it’s no longer a city on its way up. Our Second Golden Age is over.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!