Chicago Survey

Chicago is arguably one of the most-studied places in the world. The origins of this examination likely began with the world’s interest in Chicago’s rapid growth following the Great Fire over 100 years ago, and the subsequent phoenix-like re-birth. Serious sociological study of neighborhoods began with Jane Addams’ documentation of immigrant enclaves here and with the venturing of the University of Chicago’s social scientists outward from Hyde Park. This tradition continues today by social scientists, political scientists, and economists of every stripe. At least two periodic conferences that I know of examine Chicago. Some one-time Chicago self-examinations coming up this year are in celebration of the 97th anniversary of the publication of the great Burnham Plan of Chicago.

And so, any journalist setting out to survey Chicago’s position and prospects is favored in having many people to interview and much source material to draw on. The downside is that, in drawing conclusions and implications, there are also many experts peering over the journalist’s shoulder prepared with well-informed critique. Such a journalist, then, will either be highly accomplished, or else should have a great store of hubris.

Journalist Johnny Grimond of The Economist has just written the first survey of Chicago and its surrounding area for that well-respected magazine since 1980. For the most part, the survey article is about all that could be hoped for by the denizens and students of Chicago. In some respects, it is a love letter to Chicagoans. The prism of comparison of Chicago today to the Chicago of 1980 reveals a city that has moved on from economic despair and survived a period of profound economic restructuring and political turmoil. In this perspective, its achievements are remarkable. Unlike other industrial belt cities, Chicago has survived the greater region’s manufacturing decline and replaced it with high-level service functions and urban livability. Moreover, in doing so, much of its success has emanated from a revived central core outward, rather than becoming solely a suburban ring economy.

Rather than further re-hash the survey article’s findings, I suggest you have a look at it and perhaps contribute your opinions about it here. In my opinion, it will be shame if The Economist‘s survey does not provoke a broader dialog among Chicagoans about the future and what, if anything, to do about it. What do you think are Grimond’s errors of commission and omission in assessing Chicagoland and its prospects? Is Chicago poised for prosperity, or has it merely experienced a short-lived respite from long-term decline?

At the end, Johnny Grimond notes a few possibilities for further success, namely further development of its professional services sectors and better commercialization of its educational and technological assets. However, Grimond is somewhat pessimistic in observing that the Daley era may be coming to an end, with nastier politics ahead and no evident leadership handoff in sight. And like its counterparts, Chicago has not cracked the puzzle of easing inner-city poverty and upward mobility. And so, he concludes that “Chicago’s current success may be about as good as it gets.… Chicago, like almost all America’s older cities, still faces the prospect of decline, or at best stasis, unless it can find the elixir of urban life—how to grow richer without growing bigger.”

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Chicago Survey”

  1. The comments in this blog are quite thought provoking and point to challenges facing cities like Chicago. To really develop a sustainable future will require significant insight into emerging business and social opportunities. The difficulties appear to stem from a closed mindedness with respect to introduction of new ideas. Old political processes are slow to change and suffer from the complacency within the constituency. The fear is that this circumstance creates the opportunity for a lack of vision to anticipate future trends and respond accordingly. Chicago in particular has resisted stepping into more dynamic industries and social programs and instead relied on older more established processes. The opportunities with these approaches are beginning to reach a natural end and as Mr. Grimond points out there appears to be little alternative on the horizon to open new directions. The more readily Chicago’s residents become aware of the urgency of these issues the greater the liklihood that creative solutions will be developed. In the least this is the hope.

  2. There was a something of defeatism in The Economist survey. Does Grimmond really believe that a 50% high school graduation rate is “as it gets”? Does Grimond really believe that the garbage-strewn streets on the south and west sides are “as good as it gets”? Our highways are once again gridlocked due to a “consturction” project, and we still don’t have an express train to O’Hare or a functioning downtown airport.

    Grimond summarizes that “disaster might loom if the council were to start challenging the mayor at every turn”. How about just challenging the mayor every now and then to keep the streets clean, airports and highways open, and schools tolerable? Would that be such a disaster?


  3. 1) The Economist should have someone look their maps over a bit more closely. The Sears tower is East of Wacker AND East of the river, and it should be West of both.

    2) Daley gets a bit too much credit for the Chicago upswing. We’ve lost jobs to the coasts, and have held onto jobs in the city only because much of the regional work has consolidated in Chicago. These are trends that the mayor garners little credit or blame for.

    3) What is certainly the case is that Daley, politically more savy than his father, is no less the autocrat. There is less dissent at city council meetings under Junior than under his father. Senior would have a few dissents under any vote taken by city council; Junior frequently has 50 – 0 votes. This man is as allergic to dissent as the current president is.

    4) Ultimately a city is fashioned by the struggles and the challenges it takes on, and the current mayor, autocratic as he is, is simply not capable of garnering enthusiastic majorities. Apathy has been his greatest friend, and when an issue becomes to controversial or when a scandal begins to brew, Daley fires a few people and backs off. Half a year later, the city bureaucracy will take up the issue on his behalf and implement the decision administratively, perhaps penalizing challengers in the process.

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