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Why the Smartest People in the Midwest All Move To Chicago

Edward McClelland explains how Chicago rose above the Rust Belt cities to become the undisputed star of the Midwest, in an excerpt from his new book, Nothin’ But Blue Skies.

(page 2 of 3)

Chicago was well prepared for the day when trading something became more profitable than making something. To begin with, Chicago always had a more diversified economy than its Midwestern rivals. Besides forging steel and slaughtering cattle, Chicago published books, wrote insurance, traded grain futures, and issued bank loans. As the headquarters of the Mercantile Exchange and the Board of Trade, it was the Midwest’s financial hub. Chiefly because of the University of Chicago, it was home to more Nobel laureates than any other city in the world. And because of Chicago’s geographic position as the roundhouse of America, O’Hare was the world’s busiest airport. That made it a convenient location for consulting businesses that flew employees all over the country.

Professional services were Chicago’s new “product.” In 1986, the city’s ad agencies, investment banks, law firms, benefits consultants, accountants, and management consultants employed 17,000 people; a dozen years later, they employed 60,000. Boeing announced it was moving its corporate headquarters to the Loop in the same month that Brach’s closed its West Side candy factory, an emblematic moment in Chicago’s transformation from a city that made things to a city that thought about things.

Daley 2.0 (Richard M. Daley) cared more than his father about the city’s image to outsiders. His patronage workers scrubbed graffiti off walls, tore down thousands of empty buildings, and towed abandoned cars. He planted pots of flowers on sidewalks and pedestrian overpasses and surrounded parks with black wrought-iron fences. Nelson Algren would not have recognized the city he compared to a woman with a broken nose, nor would Carl Sandburg have seen a stormy, husky, brawling City of Big Shoulders. But Chicago had to stop looking like an industrial city before it could become an international city.

As Chicago transformed itself from a city of factories to a global financial nexus, its class structure was transformed in exactly the way globalization’s enemies had predicted. “Many Chicagoans live better than ever, in safe housing in vibrant neighborhoods, surrounded by art and restaurants, with good public transport whisking them to exciting jobs in a dazzling city center that teems with visitors and workers from around the world,” wrote Richard C. Longworth in Caught in the Middle, his 2008 book on the modern Midwest. “And many Chicagoans live worse than ever.

“All this, the rich and the poor, is on display in Chicago. Once a broadly middle-class city, where factory workers owned their homes and shared in the dream, Chicago today is a class-ridden place, with lots of people at the top and lots of people at the bottom and not that much in between.”

In the late 1990s, Chicago had more murders than any American city, even more than New York or Los Angeles. One of the old housing projects of which Longworth wrote was Cabrini-Green, the setting for the 1970s sitcom Good Times. As Cabrini-Green was dismantled to make way for the outriders of the bourgeois white invasion, an old black man made an astute observation on how his new neighbors’ pursuit of professional achievement had isolated them personally. “I’ve never seen so many dogs,” he said.

Tom Tunney, the alderman who had helped gentrify the neighborhood near Wrigley Field, predicted, “In 25 years, the entire city is going to look like this. It’s going to be Manhattan-
ized. There’s nothing anybody can do about it. There’s too much demand for land in the city.”

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