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.

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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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1 year ago
Posted by Edward McClelland

I will be reading from and signing "Nothin' but Blue Skies" on Tuesday, May 21 at 6 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 1 E. Jackson St., Chicago, and on Wednesday, May 22 at 7 p.m. at Anderson's Bookshop, 111 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville.

1 year ago
Posted by ianmac47

Calling Chicago an "alpha world city" is a bit of a stretch. "Alpha American City" might be more accurate, with comparisons to Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

1 year ago
Posted by dcanderson

actually, IANMAC47, calling Chicago an "alpha world city" is not a stretch at all. Chicago is, in fact, an alpha world city:


1 year ago
Posted by smersh

It is this type of blind boosterism that is just BAD for Chicago. This story has been rehashed a million times, and people never seem to get tired of hearing it.

Chicago was the city where humankind first split the atom, that made huge strides in blues and jazz, that produced all of those Nobel Laureates at the University of Chicago. It produced gutsy writers, the Studs Terkels, the Richard Wrights, the Ernest Hemingways of the world. Where are those who would give this city that creative spark that would GLOBALLY transform science, literature, and the arts today? People speak of the revolution in the entrepreneurial community here--it's a start, but it's not enough. Where are the big ideas; Chicago's entrepreneurial community is centered on deal of the day sites. The financial markets and innovations that have defined them are shrinking in the wake of today's economy (just ask any trader how spreads are these days). What are going to be the industries of the future for Chicago where people from all over the country, all over the world come to make it? Where people from Harvard and Princeton, Berkeley and Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, La Sorbonne come here to take their shot (Sorry, the world is a lot bigger than Michigan State, and Chicago badly needs a wider range of perspectives than those of frat boy accountants from around the Midwest). What about artists? How do we foster an environment here where those who actually CREATE and BUILD are celebrated, where they do not face ridicule simply because something is impractical, but are lauded for taking the chance to nurture a big idea?

I grew up here, I love this city, and I strongly agree with those who say that Chicago doesn't like to take an introspective look at itself and fix what's broken. If you're from that quaint little Midwestern farm town, I understand that Chicago may be a bit overwhelming for you, and you might think its the coolest place in the world. Not to be rude, but that perspective isn't the one we should be listening to in the conversation. The world is now a lot flatter than it used to be, and the cold reality is that if we really want to be a global city, the population needs to wake up and and realize that we are in a cutthroat fight, a global fight for talent, ideas, capital, jobs and culture. We need to find a niche where we can excel, and capture those trophies, not rest on our laurels.

1 year ago
Posted by Belmont100

The article, in short, is silly. Does someone at the magazine have an inferiority complex? Did a recent trip to NYC or SF tarnish their municipal pride?

First, the local economy. Chicagoland has higher unemployment than Metro Detroit. It has the second lowest job growth among the ten largest cities since 2010. The local economy is ok, but hardly good.

Second, the population. Second worst city population loss in the country, behind only Detroit, from 2000-2010. The metro area has grown, but still far behind national averages. And even the metro growth rate has plummeted since 2010. We're now last among the ten largest metros in % growth since 2010. Again, not a catastrophe, but hardly something to crow about.

Third, recruiting talent. It's not that easy. Chicago gets a ton of Midwest talent, but doesn't draw from a national base. It's easy to get someone from Indiana or Iowa, who thinks Indianapolis is a happening place. Good luck trying to recruit someone from NY or CA or even TX. They won't come here. They hear about the crime, corruption, weather, Midwest feel, and no thanks.

Chicago, in short, is a great city, but with significant shortcomings. These kinds of articles feed into the national rep. that Chicago has something of a chip on its shoulder and doth protest too much. It's not really world class, though it sure as hell tries.

1 year ago
Posted by Jack Johnson

Chicago has effectively become the capital of the American Midwest and the author is correct in pointing out that it has maintained itself pretty much at the expense of the rest of the Midwest. I don't believe we ever set out to do that; we were just in the right place. Frankly, it would be far better to be a few feet taller than healthy robust Midwestern cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland instead of just taller than our more depressed neighbors; let's hope we all begin to grow together in the future.

1 year ago
Posted by JimA in Chicago

Belmont100, your post is silly.

1. Wrong: unemployment 9.5 Chicago metro, 9.9 Detroit metro


2. And who left during 2000-2010? The poor. Who's moving to Chicago? People with money. All those gentrified neighborhoods aren't full of welfare mothers.

3. Chicago has been called the Mecca of the Midwest. We lure in much of the young talent with opportunities and without the high prices of SF or NY. Hey, while your making comparisons why not compare us to Paris or London? Because we're not equal, that's why. BFD. Compare NY to Paris or London, not us. Chicago metro is the 7th largest economy in the world.

BTW - the staff of the Onion just transferred from NY to Chicago.

1 year ago
Posted by ccs

As a lifelong Chicagoan born and raised on the southside I did not realize how blatantly a so called "World Class city" could starve off a portion of itself until I had an opportunity to live and work in other large cities. The southside is a commercial desert compared to the northside and downtown.It seems incredibly stupid that the powers that be(Daleys and Emanuel) would not invest equally in all sections of the city.However, if you have narrow minded racist mindsets about certain ethnic groups that are the foundation of your political ideologies it makes sense. In fact, Chicago has divested in business, affordable housing and education that has affected the living souls that reside in this section of the city. This type of action not only destabilizes communities but hurts the potential of what the city could really be.This is akin to self amputation of a limb because it is somewhat physically different than the other.(how counter productive) The message to poor and working class Blacks seems to be "find somewhere else to live, we don't want you here. Personally, I have never felt that I was part of the "city thats works" (For a few). The Chicago I live in has been nothing more than a "slammed door in the face to opportunities for upward mobility". Chicago is a perfect storm of corruption, racism, tribalism, segregation, dull minded politicians, arrogant elitist that suffer from delusions of granduer just to name a few. I am the anti-ambassador for Chicago. I will never promote Chicago as nothing more than what I know it to be; a cesspool of hate, bigotry and oppression. The title of former chicagoan sounds real nice. Peace

1 year ago
Posted by Belmont100

Jima, all wrong.

1. Chicago MSA's current unemployment rate in 1Q 2013 is higher than that of Detroit MSA. I don't care about the past; I'm talking about the most recently available numbers.

2. The idea that Chicago's population loss is due to the poor leaving is just plain wrong. Chicago's population loss is almost 100% middle class population loss. Chicago's poverty rate has basically remained the same for 20 years now. Chicago has significant losses among blacks and whites, primarily in the middle class. It has retained the rich and poor.

3. Yes, you are correct that Chicago is the king of the Midwest. No one disputes this. The issue is that it's the king of a sinking ship; the least desirable section of the country, and you can't get talent to come here from outside the Midwest (as has become painfully evident when my firm attempts to recruit from outside Big 10 country).

You're also right that the Onion is moving here, which is like 15 employees. You didn't mention that most of the staff refused to move, and resigned. It really is tough to get East Coast/West Coast talent to the Midwest, and the fact that you would cite a 15 employee company just shows how bad it's gotten.

1 year ago
Posted by Efuzz85

Just because Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee or Indianapolis can't BE Chicago, doesn't mean they can't be vibrant urban places, especially Milwaukee and Cincinnati, who will have a streetcar before Chicago will.

1 year ago
Posted by webdiva

Belmont100, now you're just cherry-picking numbers to suit your argument and comparing quarterly numbers to monthly ones. Apples and oranges. Stop thinking that you're fooling someone. The latest broken-down BLS figures for metro areas are for March and April 2013 -- that's more recent than 1Q-2013 (Jan-Feb-Mar), and that's what this link is for:


However, that chart includes Gary, IN and Lake County, IL-Kenosha, WI in the Chicago metro area. To get just the close-in Illinois part of that, you have to go to:


That second chart clearly shows that the percentage of unemployed in the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet area EXCLUDING Gary, Lake County, IL and Kenosha, WI was 9.4 percent in March and 9.3 percent in April (Gary was higher, Lake Co.-Kenosha was lower). During that same period, Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn's unemployment rate was 10.9 in March, 9.9 in April (suburban Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills had rates of 9.1 and 8.2, respectively).

Please note that these charts don't tell you what unemployment is just within the city limits -- and that's important, because even close-in metro stats can be misleading, and cities and suburbs in the same metro area don't share taxes or budgets. Bottom line: it really matters in which part of the metro area you live.

For comparison, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale had unemployment rates of 9.9 percent for March and 9.3 percent for April (Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine's rates were much lower); New York City-White Plains-Wayne had rates of 8.4 in March and 7.7 in April (Northern NJ was about the same, but the Newark area was worse); Boston-Cambridge-Quincy had rates of 5.3 and 5.2, respectively (whereas Brockton-Bridgewater-Easton's figures were much higher); in DC, Washington-Arlington-Alexandria had rates of 5.2 and 5.0, respectively -- they're REALLY incapable of feeling our pain in Washington -- and goddamn Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, WA had unemployment rates of 5.3 in March and 4.5 in April.

Metro Miami, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Omaha and Denver all had lower unemployment rates during March and April this year than metro Chicago and metro Detroit, as did most of the plains states, south and southwest.

Who had higher unemployment rates than Chicago in March and April this year? Mostly heavily rustbelt areas, casino towns, and agricultural areas that weren't growing anything much during March and April, plus a few odd others: Decatur, IL; Rockford; Michigan City-La Porte, IN; Terre Haute, IN; New Bedford, MA; Lawrence-Methuen-Salem, MA; Waterbury, CT; Vineland-Millville-Bridgeton, NJ; Ocean City, NJ; Atlantic City-Hammonton, NJ; Steubenville-Weirton, OH; Morristown, TN; Rocky Mount, NC; Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC; Palm Coast, FL (that includes Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center, which don't have much to do now that the space shuttles aren't flying anymore); Dalton, GA; Brownsville-Harlingen, TX (on the Mexican border); McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX (on the Mexican border); Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX; Pueblo, CO; Las Vegas-Paradise, NV; Reno-Sparks, NV; Carson City, NV; Bend, OR; Medford, OR; Yakima, WA; Longview, WA; the worst town to be in without work in all 50 states, Yuma, AZ (also near the Mexican border -- 25.9 percent unemployment in March and 30.3 percent in April!); plus the following areas in California, many of which are agricultural: El Centro (24.3 unemployment rate in March, 24.0 in April), Merced, Bakersfield-Delano, Chico, Stockton, Hanford-Corcoran, Redding, Madera-Chowchilla, Salinas, Santa Cruz-Watsonville, Yuba City, Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, Visalia-Porterville, Modesto, and San Bernardino-Riverside-Ontario, CA.

Providence-Fall River-Warwick, RI was worse than Chicago in March but slightly better than us in April.

Bear in mind that these unemployment stats have one huge flaw: they don't measure the number of workers who are unemployed and still looking for work but whose unemployment benefits have run out.

ps -- I don't imagine that the Chicago figure for May will be lower, given that the Sun-Times just dumped a whole bunch of people (again).

10 months ago
Posted by Greallmoo

I always hear about the depressed midwestern cities when compared with the northeast U.S. However, after living in the midwest for decades, and the northeast for nearly a decade it became clear to me that these two areas are more alike than not. Aside from New York City and perhaps Boston what other thriving cities are there in the northeast? Philadelphia is a mixed bag and the center city while resurgin is a relatively small area surrounded by some pretty rough areas. Thus, if the midwest only has Chicago, the northeast basically has New York City, and Boston is great but hardly a big city. We like to discount and diminish anything that isn't on the coasts. If Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Columbus or Indianapolis (of the four only Milwaukee's population is smaller than Boston's and not by much) were on the coast we'd be raving about how cool they are.

6 months ago
Posted by Chuy

Are you kidding me! The reason Chicago never went the way of the other rust belt cities is due to Chicago's gateway as an immigrant city to one of the largest waves which occurred during the 60's, 70's 80's, 90's and 2000's, of which mostly were of Mexican origin. The Little Village shopping strip in the Mexican community generates the 2nd most tax revenue after the Magnificent Mile. None of the other rust belt cities that are mentioned including the likes of St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo have recovered from the white flight exodus of decades ago. The one thing all of these failed rust belt cities have in common (besides white flight) is the lack of an immigrant population.

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