Barry Weisberg on the soul of Chicago

October 12, 2010

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(Photo by Oriez on Wikimedia Commons)
Above is an aerial view of downtown Chicago.

As part of Worldview’s Global Cities: Challenges and Choices series, contributor Barry Weisberg takes the end of the Daley era as an opportunity to reflect on the soul of Chicago and the challenges ahead.

The rise of Chicago as a global city is the result of both its remarkable achievements and its equally significant failures. The decision of Mayor Richard M. Daley not to seek reelection, after twenty one years as Mayor, offers an opportunity to examine both the contradictions of the global city and the particular soul of Chicago. 

The September-October issue of Foreign Policy magazine focuses on the global city. Produced by the Chicago Council on World Affairs and A. T. Kearney, the study ranks Chicago as sixth among global cities, behind Hong Kong, Paris, Tokyo, London and New York. The term “global city” emerged in the descriptive work of Saskia Sassen in 1991, identifying the global status of a hand full of cities regarding trade, banking, finance, innovation, etc. Today many city leaders have concluded that integration into the global economy should be the brand of the city. But looking at Chicago, there are numerous reasons to doubt the wisdom of this conclusion. 

Unlike New York or London, Chicago transformed itself from a local manufacturing center into a global city in a generation. Many commentators, such as Neal Peirce, present a one dimensional summary of the Daley initiatives: improved livability; creation of a modern financial center; a climate action plan; the demolition of public housing; the take over of the public schools; the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and an aggressive global outreach. But this transformation from rust belt to post deindustrialization also resulted in a growth of inequality, declining wages for unskilled workers and neglected neighborhoods. The transition from “brawns to brains” escalated the existing class and racial cleavage. 

When I first was invited to China in 1971, children in a primary school in Nanjing asked me, in English, where I lived. Answering Chicago, the children immediately clasped their hands as if they were firing a machine gun. Not understanding, I asked what they were doing. The teacher said, Al Capone! What is the soul of Chicago? Is it the Global City Ranking? Is it the birth of modern urban renewal, the skyscraper, activists such as Jane Adams and Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the emergence of urban sociology, and literary titans such as Saul Bellow, the splitting of the atom or the model global city status it has recently achieved? What about the gentrification policies designed to achieve accumulation by dispossession? What about the extraordinary violence against youth? 

Chicago is a contradiction in constant transition. The narrow focus on global city status is an ideology that hides far more about a city than it reveals. That is because cities reflect contending interests within globalization. These include issues such as growth vs. equality, the global vs. the local, or city center vs. neighborhoods. It has been the success of Chicago as a global city that produced the polarization and marginalization of today. 

What is the hallmark of the urban age? Is the soul of the global city its sky scrappers or slums? Is it the downtown renovation or the cutbacks in services to poor neighborhoods to accommodate the resulting debt? Is it the unchecked tentacles of urban input and output or its capacity to recognize and manage the ecological footprint? Chicago offers a stunning lakefront centered in Millennium Park but at the cost of extreme inequality, segregation and violence against youth. 

The challenge for global cities in general, and Chicago in particular, is to find alternatives to the corporate-labor growth coalition promoting the global city strategy. The heart of this complex issue is not to move from a manufacturing to an export oriented economy that increases global footprint and global dependence, but to achieve greater equality and a reduced footprint within a regional context of increased self-reliance. 

Barry Weisberg’s commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.