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.

Illustration by The Heads of State

Illustration: The Heads of State

While Chicago certainly has its problems, in size and prestige it handily outshines all other Midwestern cities. Edward McClelland, a journalist who grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and has lived in Chicago since 1995, wondered why. How had his adopted city succeeded in becoming one of the world’s most influential metropolises while other once-bustling burgs declined? And how evenly will prosperity be shared going forward? He addresses those questions in his new book, Nothin’ but Blue Skies, excerpted here.

“What did Chicago do right?” a woman from Cleveland once asked me.

Why did Chicago not fulfill the obituary written for it in 1980, the year Wisconsin Steel closed and the Chicago Tribune announced that the city was “being eaten away by economic forces as powerful as those that thrust it out of the marshes a century ago”? Why did it become an alpha world city, in the same league as Paris, Mumbai, Shanghai, Frankfurt, and Sydney, while Cleveland became the Mistake on the Lake and Detroit became the destination for European art photographers documenting urban decay?

The woman’s real question was, How can Cleveland imitate Chicago’s success?

The answer is, Cleveland can’t.

Neither can Detroit or Milwaukee or Buffalo or Indianapolis. Not only is Chicago’s success inimitable, it comes at the expense of every other city in the region.

The North Side of Chicago is such a refuge for young economic migrants from my home state that its nickname is “Michago.” In 2000, a quarter of Michigan State University graduates left the state. By 2010, half were leaving, and the city with the most recent graduates was not East Lansing or Detroit but Chicago. Michigan’s universities once educated auto executives, engineers, and governors. Now their main purpose is giving Michigan’s brightest young people the credentials they need to get the hell out of the state.

In the 2000s, Michigan dropped from 30th to 35th in percentage of college graduates. Chicago is the drain into which the brains of the Middle West disappear. Moving there is not even an aspiration for ambitious Michiganders. It’s the accepted endpoint of one’s educational progression: grade school, middle school, high school, college, Chicago. Once, in a Lansing bookstore, I heard a clerk say with a sigh, “We’re all going to end up in Chicago.” An Iowa governor once traveled to Chicago just to beg his state’s young people to come home.

Every University of Michigan BS who moves to Chicago means one less engineer for Detroit. It’s another consequence of globalization, the same force that’s destroying the middle class: Just as money and education have become concentrated among fewer people, they’ve become concentrated among fewer cities. Chicago is one of the winners.

* * *

The Chicago to which I moved in 1995 was not the Chicago of 1980. It was not even the Chicago I’d visited in 1988, a few months after the death of Mayor Harold Washington. That city still hadn’t gotten over the Council Wars—years of conflict between Washington and white aldermen—which reminded everyone that Chicago was the most segregated city in America, as impossible to govern as Yugoslavia.

Most Chicagoans lived on streets that were no more diverse than Ireland’s or Nigeria’s, but they at least lived in the same city. Unlike Detroit, Chicago was never transformed by white flight into a black metropolis. There were several reasons for this. Chicago is a Roman Catholic city with strong parish allegiances. Its parochial schools prepared children for Notre Dame as well as any suburban academy did. Mayor Richard J. Daley enforced the law requiring police officers, firefighters, teachers, garbage collectors, and anyone else who drew a city paycheck to live within the city limits. It was essential to his political survival because those jobs had been granted in exchange for allegiance to the Democratic machine.

A pillar of Daley’s master plan for Chicago was to “reduce future losses of white families.” As long as those white families paid taxes and voted the Democratic ticket, Daley would try to keep the blacks out of their neighborhoods. When two black students tried to rent an apartment on Daley’s own block, he did nothing to stop the mob that protested their arrival. Instead, he arranged for the students’ lease to be canceled. Rather than allow pupils at overcrowded black schools to attend nearby white schools, he had them taught in trailers. Although the South and West Sides were “gone,” in the words of dispossessed whites, Daley’s policy of containment maintained ethnic enclaves on the city’s fringes.

Old Man Daley combined the tribal suspicions of an Irish tavern keeper with the municipal ambition of a Roman consul. Inheriting a downtown in which no skyscrapers had been built since the beginning of the Depression, he left it with the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center. “What prevented Chicago from going the way of Cleveland and Buffalo?” wrote Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor in American Pharaoh, their 2000 biography of Daley. “Much of the credit lies with Daley’s aggressive program for downtown redevelopment.”

During Old Man Daley’s reign in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, he never thought about Chicago’s relationship to the rest of the world. He didn’t have to. In those years, when America still made everything it needed, it was Rome and imperial Britain rolled into one.

* * *

 

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.”

* * *

 

In South Chicago, however, the Rust Belt era never really ended. The outside world hasn’t seen this neighborhood of abandoned steel mills since the Bluesmobile jumped the 95th Street Bridge in The Blues Brothers. Now even South Chicago sees its future in attracting the professional class.

U.S. Steel South Works was finished in 1992, when the structural mill and the last electrical furnaces shut down. South Works had been built in 1880, on 73 acres of lakefront property.
Gradually, the mill expanded atop its own excretions, piling slag into the shallows of Lake Michigan, until, like Holland reclaiming the sea, it had created a 573-acre peninsula of limestone, dolomite, and phosphorous.

Once U.S. Steel departed, this promontory of slag became the largest undeveloped plot of lakefront property in Chicago. Unlike other Great Lakes industrial cities, Chicago had preserved its shoreline; Daniel Burnham, the 19th-century architect, declared that the lakefront should be “forever free and clear.”

But the parks, marinas, and bathing beaches had ended at the gates of U.S. Steel, 10 miles south of the Loop. Dismantling South Works meant Chicago could extend its green belt to the Calumet River. It also meant South Chicago had a chance to revive itself with the element that had provided its original prosperity: water. In the late 19th century, water had been essential for floating in iron ore and floating out finished steel. By the late 20th century, as Burnham had foreseen, water had become a lifestyle amenity. Those downtown Chicago condos came with lake views—something Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, or Gary could not provide.

However, no one wants to live on slag, no matter how close to the water. Children can’t play on slag. Grass won’t grow in slag. To cover the Plutonian surface, the city floated in 168 barges full of muck from the bottom of Peoria Lake, a wide spot in the Illinois River, 150 miles southwest of Chicago. Arriving in Lake Michigan via a network of tributaries, locks, and canals, the barges docked in South Works’ old North Slip, the nautical chute that once received the thousand-foot-long Edwin H. Gott, the Queen Mary of the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Fleet. Dump trucks spread topsoil over several acres north and south of the slip—enough to build a park, but not enough to cover the entire site.

In 2009, the developer Daniel McCaffery received approval from City Hall to build apartments and a shopping center atop South Works’ slag. McCaffery had donated a lot of money to Mayor Daley. A decade earlier, the Hispanic Democratic Organization had broken every other law in the Illinois electoral code to elect Daley’s man to the City Council, because the mayor wanted to decide what would replace the mill and who would build it. The Daley family’s campaign to bring South Chicago under its political control had resulted in a lucrative concession for a well-connected Irish builder. Even in global Chicago, that’s how things work.

When built out over 30 years, Chicago Lakeside will be the site of 13,575 homes and 17.5 million square feet of stores and offices. The North Slip will become a sailboat marina; the rocky verge of the peninsula, a bathing beach.

I visited Chicago Lakeside’s marketing center in the old company credit union, the only one of South Works’ 160 buildings that hadn’t been rubbled. In the middle of the showroom floor, surrounded by Plexiglas panels, was a diorama of a quayside urban village. Model-railroad trees, in rows laid out by a Platonic arborist, followed the curve of a lengthened Lake Shore Drive. Two-inch-tall towers faced the water. I watched a four-minute promotional video narrated by the TV newsman Bill Kurtis. The only greenery was indoors. Outdoors, South Works was the most khaki landscape east of the 100th meridian.

Since U.S. Steel had let nature take its course on this unnatural peninsula, a few trees had risen out of the topsoil, but they were skinny, shapeless teenagers. Mostly, the brown dust grew brittle, coppery weeds that bent stiffly in the unbroken lake winds. Far off, a coal-burning plant on the Illinois-Indiana line, a soon-to-be-demolished remnant of smoggy industry, cast a locomotive cloud into the wind. Beyond, the blue silhouettes of the Indiana steel mills were piled atop the horizon-shaped curve of Lake Michigan.

Nasutsa Mabwa, the development’s project manager, took me for a ride around the site, her black SUV rumbling over roadbeds laid out in expectation of asphalt. Her mission, she said, was to restore the middle class to South Chicago by persuading people who could afford to live anywhere to move down to this poor, forgotten neighborhood. It was only a 20-minute drive from downtown.

“It’s going to uplift the entire South Side of Chicago,” Mabwa predicted. “No one else has the access to the water. There’s no land like this left. We’re kind of reinventing an image that has been tarnished, and you have the media fixated on shootings and crimes. There’s shootings all over Chicago. Of course we’re in it because it’s an opportunity for revenue. We’re not going to do it for free. But after you do all of your economics, you realize that, Wow, this is kind of a social transformation project. This is socioeconomic change. It was good, solid middle-class families, and now it’s just in big disrepair.” [For more plans to revive the South Side, see “Theaster Gates: The Rise of an Unconventional Art Star.”]

A daughter of Kenyan immigrants, Mabwa had even bigger plans for Lakeside than her bosses: She wanted to bring Barack Obama’s presidential library there. The University of Chicago, where Obama taught law, is only three miles away. It has an academic claim, but Lakeside has a historic claim, since Obama came to Chicago to work in neighborhoods impoverished by the steel mill closings. If the mills hadn’t failed, Obama would not have become president.

We drove past a desert-colored wall that paralleled the North Slip. The ore wall, where taconite and limestone were piled to await the furnaces, was like the Great Pyramid, an artifact that had outlived its makers. And like the smokestacks at the Waterfront, a mall in Homestead, Pennsylvania, the ore wall would be preserved as an industrial memento. It was also too big to tear down.

Excerpted from Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland (Bloomsbury Press, $26).
 

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