Why the Great American City Is Obsolete

The Great American City is obsolete.

I’ve felt that for a long time, but I felt it even more after the City Council passed a budget that cuts services and raises fees just to keep Chicago solvent. We can no longer afford 126 separate municipalities in Cook County, with 126 mayors, 126 police chiefs, 126 fire department and 126 library systems. It’s time to wipe all those boundaries off the map, and bring all of Cook County under a single local government.
It’s not an untried idea. Indianapolis did it, bringing all of Marion County under a single system called Unigov. Maryland has always done it this way, administering local services on a county-wide basis. It wouldn’t be the most populous city in America -- with 5.2 million people, we’d still be 3 million behind New York. (But we would be the Second City again.) And at 945 square miles, we wouldn’t be that much more expansive than Jacksonville, Fla., which is currently the largest city, by area, in the United States.

In the early 20th Century, Chicago was the fastest-growing, most dynamic city in the world. But Chicago’s borders stopped expanding in 1928. That was the end of the city’s Golden Age, and the beginning of a civic stagnation that lasted until the 1990s. Because while Chicago stopped growing, Chicagoland didn’t. Its people began spreading across the prairie, filling almost every square mile of Cook County.

This is now an almost entirely urban county. According to the Cook County Farm Bureau (yes, it sounds like an oxymoron), the county has a rural population of 4,498, living on fewer than 200 farms, which cover less than 10,000 acres. Suburbia is no longer the countryside of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Suburbia is the metropolis. When you cross the border from Chicago to Evanston or Franklin Park or Evergreen Park or Burnham, nothing changes but the street signs.

And when folks from Northbrook or Blue Island go out of town, do they not tell strangers, “I’m from Chicago”? We’re one community now.

Conservatives should love this idea, because it will result in lower taxes and less government. Liberals should love it, because it will result in revenue sharing between wealthy areas, such as Kenilworth, and poor areas, such as Roseland. And Rahm Emanuel should love it because he’ll be able to show people his boyhood home and say, “I grew up right here in the city of Chicago.”

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!

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