Sister cities: Chicago's international family

From Bogota to Moscow, the city's diplomatic network is 28 cities strong. How do cities make the cut?

July 15, 2014

by Alexandra Salomon and Kate Klocksin

We use the word “sister” when we talk about our siblings or sometimes our best friends, people who are so close they might as well be family. But what does it mean to call a city a sister?

Maybe you've seen a TV news bite announce reps from a sister city are in Chicago to drum up business or support a new cultural venture. Or, maybe someone tipped you off that the showy row of flags at O'Hare International Airport hail from Chicago's sister cities.

Chicagoan Kelly Pedersen has been wondering what this phenomenon’s all about, so he converted his long-standing curiosity into this question:

Chicago currently has 28 "sister cities" around the globe. What is the process of determining a "sister city", and what are the benefits?

We looked into the nearly 60-year history of citizen diplomacy with Chicago’s sister cities. It turns out Chicago has the most active sister city program in the country, and it receives at least one request every week from someone hoping to join its global family.

How did the program start?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower kicked things off in 1956, when he developed a White House conference on citizen diplomacy. The idea was to help mend relationships among former combatants in WWII and the Korean War by creating people-to-people exchanges, says Leroy Allala, executive director of Chicago Sister Cities International. The non-profit organization manages the sister city program for Chicago.

The city signed its first agreement with Warsaw, Poland, in 1960. Allala says it made sense “that most of our early sister city partnerships were with cities in places like Europe and Japan, countries that had been impacted by World War II.”  

With 28 agreements in hand, Chicago has the largest sister city program in the United States, Allala says. The city’s network spans the globe from Accra, Ghana, to Milan, Italy. Los Angeles has 25 sister cities, but it doesn’t run as many programs or exchanges as Chicago, Allala says. He adds that Laredo, Texas, has also challenged Chicago on its claim but that’s because “they are on the border with Mexico. Every time they send an ambulance to a border town, they sign a sister city agreement. That’s not really what sister cities is about.”

Mayors Richard J. Daley, Jane Byrne and Harold Washington all signed sister city agreements while they were in office, but the program really took off under Mayor Richard M. Daley, who signed 21 of Chicago’s 28 sister city agreements.

Expanding Chicago’s family: Who makes the cut?

Eileen Hubbell was the director of protocol and director of international relations under Mayor Richard M. Daley. As she recalls it, the organic process “is really often compared  to a marriage and every agreement has its own love story, if you will. And there are a number of factors that come into play. There have been times over the years when Chicago was pursued and other times when we were doing the pursuing.”  

When Daley came into office there were seven sister cities and by the time he left office, there were 28. He also signed an executive order in 1990 to create a volunteer board of directors for Chicago Sister Cities International that would focus on expanding sister city relationships. Hubble says Daley felt strongly that the relationships should mean something, and he believed that “you just don’t sign a piece of paper and forget about it.”

Hubble says Mayor Daley worked with the city’s ethnic communities, business leaders and civic institutions to identify potential cities. “He really made it known that Chicago was a global city, that we needed to build on that, and that everyone was welcome at the table to build on that initiative,” she says.

Cindy Mitchell was the first chair of the committee involved with Casablanca, Morocco. She agrees that Mayor Daley was eager to promote Chicago overseas and went after many potential sister cities. “There were some turn-downs but not too many,” she says. “I truly believe — and I may be very naive — that it was not political, that he genuinely enjoyed these kind of relationships. I think he enjoyed visiting these countries and getting to know their mayors.”

So at times Chicago approached a potential sister, but in some cases they approached Chicago. An example of the latter would be when the mayor of Hamburg, Germany, proposed a sister city agreement. His cause gained support from Alderman Gene Schulter, who was of German heritage. Chicago signed that partnership in 1994.

Map: Chicago's sister cities, 2014

Source: Chicago Sister Cities International

In other instances, Chicago’s ethnic communities took the initiative. In 1991 a group of leaders from Chicago’s Ukrainian community wanted to demonstrate support for Ukraine, which had just gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Under the Iron Curtain, Ukrainians hadn’t really been allowed to travel, but in the early ‘90s they began visiting Chicago. At the same time, many Chicago-based companies were exploring investment in Ukraine, says Marta Farion. She was part of the group of Ukrainian Americans who felt the best way to support a newly-independent Ukraine would be through a sister city agreement.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to help give people some hope by making Kiev a sister city and open up a door for person-to-person exchange,’” says Farion.

The group presented the idea to Mayor Daley, who agreed. Farion’s husband, Ihor, then hand-carried a letter to the mayor of Kiev asking to partner with Chicago. Kiev agreed later that year.

Chicago uses a loose set of criteria to determine whether a city would be a good fit as a sister city. Among them is the potential partner’s size; Chicago, Allala says, would never partner with a small village of just 1,000 people, for example.

Another criterion: whether Chicago and the potential partner already have strong cultural connections. This came to play in the selection of Warsaw in 1960, says Allala. “Chicago is known to have the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw,” he says. “So we consider ourselves very much a Polish city and I’m sure at that time considered Chicago and Warsaw to be a natural fit.”

Through the years, Chicago has also considered cities that reside near a body of water or that are also viewed as ‘second cities’ in their home country, Allala says.

Another factor taken into account is whether Chicago has a local community that will take ownership of the relationship and ensure that it won’t just lay dormant. According to Sam Scott, the Board Chairman of Chicago Sister Cities International, “It’s very important that we have representation from a city or a country here.”

The ultimate decision on whether to establish an agreement, however, rests with the mayors of both cities. When they agree, they sign a formal document and hold a special signing ceremony to mark the occasion.

Can a sister city agreement be terminated?

Chicago has never terminated a sister city agreement, but that’s not to say things have always been tension-free. Farion says when the Chinese government massacred pro-democracy protesters in Beijing at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Sister Cities’ board considered ending Chicago’s agreements with Shenyang and Shanghai as a sign of protest.

But ultimately, Farion says, the board decided to pull back because “the whole role of the sister city program is to improve relations between people. It is not a government-to-government relationship; it is a people-to-people relationship.”

Earlier this year, a City Council committee passed a resolution asking Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to suspend the sister city agreement with Moscow. Mayor Rahm Emanuel opposed that resolution, and aldermen approved a substitute resolution declaring the city’s “solidarity with the Ukrainian community.”

Sam Scott testified before the city council supporting the continuation of the relationship with Moscow.

As Allala puts it: “Signing a sister city agreement is like a marriage, but we don’t have divorce in our world.”

Other U.S. cities have terminated agreements, however. According to Megha Swamy, a public relations specialist for Sister Cities International, this doesn't happen very often. The group doesn't have official numbers, but it's aware of this happening at least once in the past five years. In 2013, the city council in Lansing, Michigan, voted 7-0 to adopt a resolution calling for an end to its sister city ties with St. Petersburg, Russia, because of legislation passed there which banning expressions of “homosexual propaganda.” The law criminalizes “public action aimed at propagandising sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transgenderism among minors.”

Sister Cities International says the organization does not encourage termination of agreements.

What are the benefits?

Among the benefits of the Sister Cities program, according to Scott, is “a pride in ownership of various immigrant communities in the city.” He adds, “I think it’s very good for people to be able to stand up and say: I am whatever I happen to be, proud of it, and Sister Cities helps to promote that.”

Sister cities committees organize numerous activities, including student exchange programs. Sullivan High School in the Rogers Park neighborhood has an ongoing “sister school” relationship with Gymnasium Altona, a high school in Hamburg, Germany. Sullivan Principal Chad Adams says that he wants to see the students’ worlds expand, and that travel benefits students. The school values this exchange program, Adams says, because of the long-term effect “that kids’ minds are more global, and they’re more thoughtful about humanity.”

Justine Ogbevire, a Sullivan student, was part of a student trip to Hamburg this May. “I feel like it was a huge breather. ...  I feel like my mind is open,” she says. The overseas flight was her first time traveling on an airplane. She was nervous during takeoff but ultimately concluded “airplanes are not that scary.”

According to Sam Scott, a sister city relationship can also have economic benefits. “It’s amazing how well culture and education tie together with business,” he says. “You facilitate the dialogue around the business opportunity over some of the other issues.”

Leroy Allala says partnerships have expanded economic development within Chicago’s Sister Cities network, and have also promoted Chicago as a place to do business: “In addition to the great culture, education, arts, and tourism, business is also happening. So that’s another benefit of the program.”

Sometimes the agreements have literally altered how the city looks. Case in point: the window sills of the Chicago Cultural Center. Mayor Daley got the idea for them after a visit to Hamburg. That German city's bridges are lined with flower boxes, says Rolf Achilles, a member of the Hamburg committee for Chicago Sister Cities International. He was on the trip with Daley when he got the idea to do something similar in Chicago. Achilles says a group of engineers worked for more than a year in Chicago, trying to find a way to put the flower boxes on Chicago’s movable bridges. But, he says, they couldn’t find a way to make them work when the bridges would be raised, so Daley settled on the windows of the city’s buildings instead.

Eileen Hubbell says the reason Chinese is taught in some Chicago public schools is also because of our sister cities program. She says when Mayor Daley made a trip to visit Shenyang and Shanghai, where he saw Chinese kids studying English. She says Daley came to the conclusion that he didn’t want “our kids here to be left behind.”

What’s next?

No sister city agreement has been signed since Mayor Rahm Emanuel entered office in 2011. Chicago Sister Cities International is currently evaluating its selection process.

The program was recently moved out of the Department of Cultural Affairs and placed under the direction of World Business Chicago.

“World Business Chicago is very much business oriented. Sister Cities is more culturally and educationally oriented. The two work very very well together,” says Scott. “So we’ve been working on a strategic plan. ... And we’ll start looking at how we grow the Sister Cities program going forward to benefit both the cultural and educational piece as well as immigration and tourism for sister cities, tie that together with the growth of business opportunity.”

If you’re wondering which city is most likely to be Chicago's next partner, we couldn’t get anyone to provide a specific name. However, Sam Scott says they are looking to grow in South America. Rumor has it that Sao Paolo, Brazil, has been hoping to become part of the Chicago family. We’ll just have to wait and see.  

Our question comes from: Kelly Pedersen

Kelly Pedersen of Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood has a long-standing interest in international relations. Although there’s a lot of negative news in the international arena, Kelly says “my interests lie in looking  for instances where an outcome is positive, or some ground is gained toward cultural, or economic, or diplomatic resolutions.” Naturally, the Sister Cities program caught Kelly’s attention. He wondered, for example, how our sister cities are chosen. Kelly noticed that some of our Sister Cities were in countries with large immigrant populations in Chicago such as Warsaw, Poland; Galway, Ireland; and Milan, Italy.

Eventually, Kelly decided “there has to be more to the process than just having a sizable cultural representation: I wonder what else is involved?” So, he teamed up with Curious City to find some answers.

Corrections: An early draft of this story misspelled a source's name. The correct spelling is Eileen Hubbell. An early draft of this story suggested a major event would occur later this summer. The next major sister cities event, the Consular Ball, is set for December of this year. 

Alexandra Salomon is a producer for Worldview, WBEZ’s daily global affairs program. Follow her @AlexandraSalomo.

Katie Klocksin is a freelance radio producer. Follow her: @KatieKlocksin.