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Chicago: The City of Big Shoulders Slumps

Things are not pretty in the Windy City these days:

But despite the chorus of praise, it’s becoming evident that the city took a serious turn for the worse during the first decade of the new century. The gleaming towers, swank restaurants, and smart shops remain, but Chicago is experiencing a steep decline quite different from that of many other large cities. It is a deeply troubled place, one increasingly falling behind its large urban brethren and presenting a host of challenges for new mayor Rahm Emanuel.

As a descendant of people who helped to make Chicago into this country’s “Second City” I find this very sad.  The further I went back into both my family business’ 108 years in Chicago (1852-1960) and our time yachting and shipbuilding on Lake Michigan the more I came to understand how Chicago got where it was and some sense how it declined after that.

It’s easy to forget it now, but Chicago, from its beginnings through the Civil War and the Great Fire until about World War I was this country’s premier boom town.  It grew to become at one point in the 1890’s one of the world’s largest cities; the 1892 Columbian Exposition was one of the nineteenth century’s signature world’s fairs.  Going through the maps and photos, a vibrant city with suburban style recognisable even today emerges.

Right: my great-grandparents’ home in Buena Park, sometime around the turn of the last century.

So how did we get to the morass we have in Illinois in general and Chicago in particular we have today?  It’s hard to verbalise it, but somewhere along the way the entrepreneurs who lead the building of the place engendered a great deal of resentment among the various immigrant groups who came to do the work in Chicago.  The result has been a running class warfare that has poisoned Chicago and Illinois politics from the Haymarket Riots of 1886 through the rise of both Saul Alinsky in the streets and the various and sundry machines in City Hall which have, as power centralising schemes of both fascistic and socialistic kinds do, ended up producing an opposite result from the egalitarian goal.

Below: my family business’ first recorded advertisement, in 1863.  Meeting your customers’ needs is crucial for the success of any business.

The result, of course, is that many businesses, especially small ones which struggle to navigate the Byzantine paths of Illinois law, leave, as we did in 1960.  Now Chicago struggles with keeping up not only with places like Houston and Dallas/Ft. Worth (which have preserved Chicago’s early dynamic better than Chicago did) but more “traditional” cities like New York or even a place like Los Angeles, ensconced in a People’s Republic with its own problems.

And that leads me to the general relevance of this situation: it’s no secret that Barack Obama knows the “Chicago style” and uses it.  It’s true that spreading this around to the entire country would end flights like ours and the many other businesses and people who have left Chicago for better opportunities, save for outright emigration.  But would we have a better country as a result?  Chicago’s experience tells us no.

One thing in the City Journal article amused me:

A prominent civic leader suggests that the city should avoid branding itself as part of the Midwest.

Although the reality is that Chicago is the commercial centre of America’s Heartland, Chicagoans traditionally consider themselves as a world apart from the “cornfield” that surrounds them.  This suggestion has long roots in Chicago snobbery, but it’s probably not very helpful in bringing the city’s greatness back.  Chicago, like any other place on this earth, needs to connect with the world at large in a meaningful way, but it doesn’t need to forget its immediate hinterland either, which still has the potential for greatness, kazoo concerts notwithstanding.


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