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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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).



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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