Still Not Detroit
See Illinois (unpublished)
When I sat down to write this, I had been immersed in things Chicago (“drowning in” might be a more accurate phrase) for a couple of years while writing a section of a larger book about the history and culture of the city and its hinterland, a section that was a sizable (350,000 words) in its own right. This essay concluded that book, which was never published.
I felt as if I’d already done a dozen of these “whither Chicago” pieces, but this was only the third. (The other two are here and here.) They were anything but boosterish. I had always loved the big-city-ness of Chicago but never warmed to its Chicago-ness. Nonetheless, I was never a Downstate Chicago basher and I still regarded what I saw as its decline with sadness. But while my portrait of the city as it was at that moment was well-enough drawn, my expectations of the city’s future that would prove unsound. Compared to the 2000 Chicago, Illinois’s ugly weed of a city has bloomed. Just goes to show, I guess.
In 1939, the authors of the Federal Writers Project's Illinois: A Descriptive Guide painted this lively picture of the Chicago of legend. The city was, they reported
. . . vibrant, noisy, every inch alive, the youngest of the world’s great cities, and has the optimism, exuberant and often rather self-assertive pride of youth. But here is more than youthful swagger—there is a legitimate sense of triumph for achievements in the past, a boundless self-confidence it faces the future, in the challenging ring of its civic motto, “I WILL!”
This is the way Chicagoans have always liked to think of their city. In Daniel Burnham’s day, the best urban thinkers were confident that the city's population by 1952 could reach 13,250,000. In fact, Chicago in 1950 counted only 3,600,000 citizens, and its population would never be higher.
Although the authors of the FWP guide did not realize it, Chicago had already enjoyed its Golden Age, which was that period bracketed by the Great Fire of 1871 and the triumph of the World Columbian Exposition in 1893. As was noted by publisher Henry Regnery in 1993, Chicago in less than thirty years had not only found the energy and resources to rebuild from the vast destruction of the Fire, but to found its major cultural institutions: the Public Library, the Art institute, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Newberry and Crerar Libraries, the University of Chicago, and the Field Museum. By the end of the decade of the Fair, with a population approaching two million, having become the railroad center of the country and a major manufacturing and distribution center, Chicago had truly become a great city.
Those exertions left the city exhausted. It had been the work largely of one generation of remarkable Chicagoans. When they began to die, so did the city, as it reeled from a succession of disasters that it could not overcome as it had overcome the Great Fire. The first of these calamities came immediately after the Fair, in the form of a crippling depression that put class violently against class; in an almost too-pat symbolism, the White City upon the fair’s closing was taken over by homeless men until it burned down. There followed gangsterism and the Great Depression, a massive influx of mostly poor Southern African Americans that the city was not able to assimilate socially or economically, and finally the collapse of its great industries in a cloud of rust.
In his masterful history of city-building, Carl Condit made this lament:
The city that emerged in mid-century presented a perfect paradox of brilliant technological and architectural achievement standing beside the failure to produce a decent human environment for the majority of its citizens. And this failure exists in the face of all the devices that were thought to be capable of producing the livable city that steadily eludes us.
People had been sneering at its corruption, its ugliness, its lack of Culture for a century, but of all the sour opinions that A. J. Liebling voiced about the city in his 1952 New Yorker series, the one that hurt most may have been his insistence that history was over in Chicago. “The great, howling, hurrying, hog-butchering, hog-mannered challenger for the empire of the world,” he reported, “some time around 1930 . . . stopped as suddenly as a front-running horse at the head of the stretch with a poor man’s last two dollars on its nose.”
Chicago has long been a big town, and for a while it was an important one beyond Illinois and the Midwest—not only a new city, but a new kind of city. Change was not something that happened to Chicagoans, it was something they did. Tom Geoghegan, lawyer, labor activist, recalled that Chicago in a 2003 interview. “Chicago used to be the West Coast,” he said. “We were California, we were Los Angeles, we were Las Vegas, all in one city . . . . through the 1920s and 1930s.” The British historian Asa Briggs called Chicago the great “shock city” of the 1890s. He meant that it portended the future, like Los Angeles after it, and Manchester, England, before, where it seemed that any possibility, any change was plausible.
Until the early decades of the 20th century, Chicago was where the future was invented. “During the 19th century, the thematic American struggle between "growth and control, restraint and opportunity, privatism and the public good" took place in the city. (Miller personifies it as a contest between Carter Harrison's and Daniel Burnham's visions of Chicago.) So is Chicago understood by much of the world; Italian sociologist Marco D’Eramo subtitled his 2002 book about Chicago “a history of our future.”
Historians have since confirmed the journalist’s judgment. Some say social discord and political crackdown during World War I sapped Chicago’s cultural vitality. Others point to the 1920s as the beginning of the end, a period when William Hale Thompson sullied Chicago’s reputation by pushing politics past roguery into buffoonery, and Prohibition’s gang wars bloodied it. Others insist that the City Of the Future became a city of the past during the Depression, which arguably hit Chicago harder than any other U.S. big city. Others thought the disease was social rather than economic; if, as Perry Duis notes, University of Chicago’s sociologists emphasized social dysfunction, deviance, and social divisions in the early 20th century, it was because there was so much of each to study.
Only occasionally alluded to in such autopsies was the fact that the city’s elites, after nearly a century of moving and shaking, began merely moving. Leaf through a list of the great individual achievers of its golden age and you will be struck by the extent to which the city had been the beneficiary of talent bred elsewhere, in Europe or the eastern U.S.; by the Depression the city ceased to be a net importer of talent and became a net exporter. Two of the men whose franchises most shaped American popular culture in the modern world—Ray Kroc and Walt Disney—were born in Oak Park and Chicago respectively but made their careers in California. Their example would be repeated many times.
But that insight merely displaces the question—why were talented people of the sort who once flocked to Chicago now going to other places to seek their futures? Chicago after all was still a city of national consequence; Graham Hutton, in the 1940s, could describe Chicago without exaggeration as a financial and commercial center; a warehouse, department store, mail-order house, granary, slaughter-house, and inland seaport to the nation. But a mere half-century later its prominence in all those fields was diminished, if not vanished. The city is no longer the nation’s theater for resolving larger social questions. As D’Eramo notes, “Because the epoch of railroad capitalism is definitely over, the study of Chicago is already a distinct species of archaeology: an archaeology of modernity.” Donald Miller in City of the Century—the 20th century, it should be noted—observed that today’s Chicago is not Chicago but Berlin; the present for both cities is in their pasts, and each is struggling to find a future to which is might be relevant.
Part of the answer was that the economy that had created Chicago by 1950 was dying. A new national economy based on cars rather than trains was creating new Chicagos for the age in places such as Los Angeles. Chicago was a great 19th century stranded in the 20th century.
Over the following half-century, Chicago’s great ambition has been, not to become the next New York, but to avoid becoming the next Detroit. It great factories closed one by one. Its main airport and convention center were no longer of world class. Chicago was no longer the city of big shoulders but the upturned palm, a reluctant servant to the new service economy.
The extent to which history has passed by Chicago was not apparent at first, and indeed is not apparent even today to many loyal Chicagoans. For its boosters, it will always be 1893. Bill Gleason rang the changes of the old Chicago in 1970 when it was still possible to believe as he put it, “Chicago does not lie there at the western turn of Lake Michigan waiting for things to happen. Chicago moves, moves, making things happen."
Chicago, cocky as ever under Daley’s leadership, confidently plunged forward with ambitious plans for urban development, symbolized in a building program that gave the city three of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. As Illinoisans moved into the last quarter of the twentieth century, they remained convinced that, with the Prairie State’s abundant natural sources, crucial location in the center of the nation’s transportation system, and steadily growing population, its future would be as successful as had been its past.
The 1974 revision of Illinois was even more off the mark. Chicago of the day was likened to “an enchanted city of legend.” The Sears Tower was going up—the tallest building in the world to house the biggest retailer in the world, accompanied by the biggest hype in the world—and the Illinois Central’s 83-acre lakefront rail yards were being developed into “a metropolis.” The town was planning to build a new crosstown expressway and tear down its Loop el, and people still talked without laughing of Mayor Daley plan to build an island airport in the lake. Ordinary boosterism gave way in the book to this marvelous flight of fancy: “Behind this glowing façade . . . barriers fallen from ghettos, and open housing giving access to miles of integrated apartments. New colleges without entrance bars. New towns where habitations are tailored to suit incomes. And jobs where applicants are hired without reference color or sex.”
The future, as anyone who knows the city knows, turned out rather differently. By 2000 Chicago was no longer home to the world’s tallest building, the Crosstown was never built (probably a good thing), the el was never torn down (definitely a good thing), and politicians have proposed putting a third airport in farm fields or in the Calumet’s wetlands—anywhere but in the lake. The rosy picture painted by the 1974 guide is all the more remarkable when one recalls that it was painted after riots had leveled the West Side, the Democratic Party convention of 1968 had brought shame on the city from around the world, white flight had gutted its working-class neighborhoods, and so many factory gates were clanging shut that it drowned out the noise of the els.
It was perhaps easier to see the rot from a distance, as Dave Etter did in his mournful rephrasing of Sandburg in the poem “Chicago,” from 1987.
City of the bent shoulders, the bum ticker, the bad back. City of the called third strike, the blocked punt. City of the ever-deferred dream. City of the shattered windshield, the loose wheel, the empty gas tank. City of I remember when, of once upon a time. City of not “I will,” but “I wish I could.”
The population of the City of Chicago reached its peak of almost 4 million in 1940, a time when eight of nine Chicagoland citizens lived in the city proper. The City of Chicago has since shriveled, bottoming out in 1990 at 2.78 million before growing very modestly in the 1990s to 2.9 million. It is no longer the youngest of the world’s great cities, and the city that was once the seventh largest city on the globe is no longer among the world’s twenty most populous cities. [In 2020 itwas not even in the top fifty.] Nor is it any longer even the New World’s second largest metropolis (fourth in 2000, with several cities gaining on it); it is merely the third in the U.S., and one of the slower growing at that. [By 2020, Chicago stood 14th on the list of largest cities in the Americas.]
The population of a city does not guarantee its importance in cultural or economic terms, of course; Paris is smaller than Chicago. But Chicago's slide in demographic status has occasioned a loss of optimism. Chicago has been largely supine in the face of events since the Depression—the closing of its factories, the closing or transfers of its Fortune 500 firms, the exodus of its middle class (black and white), the rise of suburbs and the resulting erosion of its political clout in Springfield and Washington. The “boundless self-confidence” that the Illinois authors heard in the 1930s, when it is voiced at all, sounds like mere bravado.
It is not only in the wider world that Chicago has lost status. In crucial ways, the contest between city and suburbs in northeastern Illinois is over, and the suburbs have won. Two-thirds of the region’s suburbanites work in other suburbs, not in Chicago. People who live in the city but work in the suburbs—once as rare as White Sox fans on the North Side—now number around a quarter-million. Of the 31 Chicagoland firms that appeared on Fortune magazine’s 2002 list of 500 top U.S. businesses, 18 were headquartered in the suburbs, including such giants as United Airlines (Elk Grove Village), McDonald’s (Oak Brook), Motorola (Schaumburg), and Abbott Laboratories (North Chicago).
Chicago’s hinterland has more jobs, more wealth, and faster growth. People reared in suburbs are now running many, if not most, city institutions and businesses and by doing so are imposing suburban values—honesty, efficiency, fairness safety—once as alien to Chicago as palm trees or penguins. The Chicago that the pleasure tourist knows—essentially the lakefront from Lincoln Park to Hyde Park—is patronized mainly by suburbanites delighted by the tidiness and prettiness that the second Daley has imposed on the city. If Dick Butkus was the personification of Chicago in the 1960s, today it is Oprah Winfrey.
To most visitors, of course, the suburbs are all but invisible, and indeed, the people who live in them will identify themselves as “Chicagoans” when venturing farther than 50 miles from Navy Pier. But Chicago is a suburbanized city, meaning not only that it has suburbs, but that the suburbs is where live most of the people who matter in it. This has been true for along time. Beginning in the 1850s and accelerating through the 1920s was a mass movement into the suburbs, with the result that Chicago’s “best people” started thinking only about making Chicago a fit place to make money rather than a fit place to live.
It is a point of some pain to today’s true-blue Chicagoan that so many of things they brag about were in fact gifts of the suburbs. Most of what the contemporary world knows as “Chicago” actors—Belushi, Murray, Cusack—are suburbanites by birth, upbringing, sensibility, or residence. Steppenwolf cofounder Gary Sinise, for example, who helped put Chicago theater on the map, was born in Blue Island and went to school in Highland Park. Carl Sandburg walked the streets as a reporter but for most of his time here lived in Maywood and Elmhurst (the latter stint in the old Torode House, 333 S. York St.). The greatest architect to apprentice in Chicagoland, Frank Lloyd Wright, was a designer of suburban houses who worked for a time in the city but fled to Oak Park to work as well as live. Jens Jensen served as general superintendent of the old West Parks system, and left behind a marvelous design for Chicago’s Columbus Park, but he spent most of his career rearranging the grounds of wealthy suburban clients.
City and suburbs have always danced a complicated dance. Frederick Law Olmsted’s concept of Riverside as a blend of the best of city and country contained the germ of today’s urbanized agglomeration. As a result of a cultural cross-fertilization—or mongrelization, depending on one’s view—the two realms have become steadily, if reluctantly, more alike. changed. One example of dozens was noted by historian Neil Harris, who noted that Chicagoland’s suburban malls were translations of the old big city department stores like Field’s, which were themselves idealized city centers. In much teh same way, destination retail centers in the city center such as Water Tower Place—a vertical mall—and a Marshall Field’s flagship store on State equipped with amenities such as food courts, were thus an urban retranslation of a suburban translation of an urban form.
It would be fatuous to suggest that meaningful differences no longer separate the city and its hinterland. Chicago remains the undisputed center of the region’s cultural life. Save for the Wright houses in Oak Park and the music in Ravinia in Highland Park, the must-go tourist destinations in the suburbs are mostly retail stores. Few suburbanites when abroad are quick to identify themselves as hailing from just outside, say, Elmhurst; they proudly pass as Chicagoans. And while many of the region’s leading artists and thinkers have joined its businessmen and professional men in the suburbs, they still work in the city and are still inspired by its energy and its connections to a wider world.
Nonetheless, Chicago and its suburbs are becoming more alike every year. There are strip malls marring Chicago old neighborhoods, and townhouses crowding some of its close-in suburbs. The preoccupations of Mayor Richard M. Daley in the first 14 years of his mayoralty—good schools, lots of parks, clean streets, flowers—also are quintessentially suburban. His paeans to privatization and efficiency make him sound more like a Wheaton city manager than the scion of a liberal Democrat big-city mayor.
The Chicago neighborhood of fond memory shares many traits with the suburban enclave. Many of them, after all, were once independent towns on the edge of urbanization. They are still alike in scale; the average population of Chicago's 77 official "neighborhoods" is 35,000, about the size of what many consider the ideal suburban city. The city neighborhoods also are largely self-contained in terms of class. They even have a tradition of self-defensive exclusionary local control; most of the energy expended in self-government in Chicago these days seems to go toward persuading those in power to keep their scattered-site housing or group homes or landfills out of our neighborhood.
If the Chicago neighborhood is more like a suburban town than is usually admitted, so are its suburbs becoming more urban. The larger suburban cities have long suffered city-type crime problems, chiefly gangs. They are becoming politically more complex; the influx of former city residents with different preoccupations and experiences, plus the locals’ own hometown experience of problems that only governments can solve, have diluted the once-pure Republicanism of the ‘burbs.
Culturally, the change is just as marked. Folks watch ballet in Schaumburg—in the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre which opened in 2000, part of a three-building complex complete with restaurants, offices, loft apartments, and Metra train station—an astonishingly urban presence in a city known for decades for its shopping mall. The suburbs used to be where ideas went to die, but no more. DePaul University—for decades the quintessential working-class urban university—now offers classes at six suburban sites. Roosevelt University, which used to describe itself as an urban university, has opened a campus in Schaumburg, and now that it has gone suburban it calls itself “an outstanding metropolitan university.”
Successful suburbs are doomed to become cities in any event. Demand pushes up land prices, and developers must cram more people onto each acre to make money; thus are spacious houses on their own yards replaced by apartment blocks, the mansion with townhouses. The older automobile suburbs are today experiencing what Chicago and its original suburbs-now-neighborhoods began to go through in the 1870s, and what the inner-ring suburbs went through a generation later. “Townhomes”—once about as welcome in postwar suburbs as gangs—are springing up in mature (read “landlocked”) suburbs like Park Ridge. Higher-density residential development—condo towers, even lofts—are ingredients in downtown redevelopments in Elmhurst, Lombard, Wheaton, Aurora, among many other communities, just as four-flats and apartment blocks sprouted around el stops and commuter rail in Chicago’s hoods a century earlier. Downtown Arlington Heights—which now is home to nearly 80,000 residents—boasts condo towers that reach up 15 stories. Deerfield, Oak Park, and a dozen other suburban towns are redeveloping their downtowns into mixed-use urban centers that offers new housing near commuter train stations and upscale shopping and restaurants—“urban” neighborhoods that vary only by being cleaner and safer and newer than their equivalents in the city.
So even though the city has staggered from its deathbed, the future, everyone agrees, belongs to the suburbs. The move out to something newer, something bigger, something better is a part of the history of Chicagoland families and firms beyond counting. The poor lived in the city because that’s where their jobs were, the rich because that’s where their money was, but neither much liked it, and opportunities to escape offered themselves, both took them.
A factory for Americans
Chicago remains an extraordinary city by Illinois standards, far and away the state’s most important, and usually the most interesting. But it no longer is a world phenomenon, or indeed a national one. Even while it grew huge, Chicago never was autonomous economically, less a rival to established cities than a creature of them, first for merchants and bankers in Philly and Baltimore, later New York and London.
As William Cronon explained in Nature’s Metropolis, the Chicago of old was a creation of the 19th century land frontier. It was fortuitously (if not uniquely) placed to serve as a depot conveniently located to funnel goods to and from the East and the burgeoning West. The 1920s saw the opening of a new frontier based on new transportation technologies—the truck and car, the interstate highway, the airplane—and new ways of organizing work. Business—and money and power and people—shifted to the suburbs. But while the machines that moved things were new, location still mattered, and Chicago’s location remained superb.
In the 1960s and since, an even newer frontier opened up in which things didn’t have to be moved at all, or rather, in which things of value could be almost instantaneously moved through space. People who cared began to worry whether, to the extent that location cease to matter in the economy, Chicago might cease to matter. The innovators who came up with the goods that could be moved—ideas—were not coming out of the farm sheds of the Midwest, where tinkerers once perfected the reapers and other gadgets on which Chicago had made its fortunes. Chicago’s universities, alas, were not strong in high-tech fields—the University of Illinois, the state’s preeminent technical hotbed, is 137 miles away—so the city lacks that crucial element that propelled Boston, Austin, and Silicon Valley to the head of the newest economic class. While the region boasts a high-tech corridor and bio-tech incubators and the like, there is no new Armour or Pullman or Sears—or more to the present need, no Gates or Packard or Jobs in sight.
But then, Chicago has been there and done that. Chicago’s bumptious youth is over. For some years the city has been working way through a early adulthood—an awkward stage for cities, no less than for people—as it tries to find a new role. As it matures, it has had to face and then accept the fact that its youthful dreams will not pan out, that it is likely to be no more than a pleasant, interesting regional capital of a backwater region.
Oddly, Chicago has not become just another Detroit. The new economy unexpectedly gave place a new significance—not as a place to build or ship things but as a venue for entertainment of the broader sort—tourism, culture, and conventioneering. Building on such strengths, the city beginning in the 1990s underwent a Renaissance of sorts. Not even Richie Daley, a man who loves his city as unreasonably as a father loves his child, would call Chicago of 2003 “an enchanted city of legend,” but it is becoming a more sane and civilized place to live and visit. City Hall finally learned that having a Chicago mailing address is no longer enough for businesses, and set about revamping building, tax, industrial development, and transit policies to accommodate business; it also endeavored, with less success, to fix the unholy mess that was the public schools.
The city has never looked better, and middle-class home-buyers are moving into the center of the city. No one is rioting, save after championship games of local sports teams, and happily that doesn’t happen very often. If the cops are still brutal, and its deal-makers still eminently corruptible, the city is politically stable, if a bit moribund, and race relations are less prickly.
Chicago also is seeing the invigorating effects, in its neighborhoods and on the census tally sheets, of a new wave of immigration that was robust enough to reverse decades of population loss. These new Chicagoans reminding the world—and other Chicagoans—that their city has always been a factory for making Americans. ●