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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.

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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.

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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.

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