Chicago’s Best of Times, Worst of Times

Once again, Aaron Renn posted a piece earlier today that sent me deep into thought.  In “A Tale of Two Cities” fashion, Lagging Chicago is beset with crime and economic problems every bit on par with what’s taking place in Detroit, but Global Chicago chugs along.  Referencing the fact that agribusiness giant is contemplating making Global Chicago its new headquarters, while Lagging Chicago recently saw the shooting of 13 people in a city park, Aaron goes on to say:

What does global city Chicago make of all this background? Apparently nothing. That’s not to say no one cares, but it would appear that none of the problems have affected the business climate or attractiveness of Chicago’s global city side at all. Even the prospect of a municipal financial trauma seems not to worry ADM.

Indeed, if you simply come to Chicago as a tourist, you’d probably never know there were any problems at all, at least if you don’t check the news. I was there a couple weeks ago and the Loop and North Side were pulsing with life. You would have thought I was in a boom town. And in a sense that’s right.

Some may say, “Aaron, weren’t you the one who said Chicago wasn’t a global city?” To which I’d respond, I’ve always said Chicago is a global city. I only think that the global city side of Chicago is not sufficient to carry the load for this gigantic region and state. It can’t even carry just the city, though to be fair if you broke off global city Chicago into a standalone municipality of 600-800,000 like San Francisco, Boston, and DC, it would be a very different story, at the municipal level at least.

The incredible analysis done by University of Chicago graduate student Daniel Hertz underscores this point.   He demonstrates how Chicago is at once safer than its ever been, and more dangerous.  Large parts of the North Side have homicide rates that rival that of perhaps the safest large city in North America, Toronto.  However, when he discusses the colorful maps that are the foundation of his analysis, stark differences in how homicides are distributed throughout the city are evident:

Over the last twenty years, at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed. The pattern of what’s blue and what’s red in each map is mostly the same; I count only three out of twenty-five districts that switched from one color to another. But the colors are much darker in the 2000s than they were in the 1990s. There have always been safer and more dangerous areas here, as there are everywhere; but the gap between them is way, way bigger now than it used to be.

 Lastly, a piece I read at Atlantic Cities last week gets at the heart of Chicago’s problem.  Two writers reflected on the recent spate of shootings, and come to wildly different conclusions:

Based on our reactions, you’d think that Kendall lived much closer to the shooting than I do. But that’s not the case. In fact, we’re both in Hyde Park, about 4 miles away from where it occurred on the city’s South Side. I can walk to the McDonald’s she mentioned.So why does Kendall feel personally targeted and I don’t? Well, Kendall is black and grew up here; I’m white, and didn’t.

In other words, welcome to Chicago, where segregation is almost a civic art form. Redlining has had a massive impact on the city, which despite improvements remains the most segregated in the nation. Segregation is so ingrained, and so much taken for granted, that people, or at least white people, don’t even notice it. A couple months ago, for example, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote an editorial in which he argued that, based on murders by population, Chicago isn’t actually all that violent a city. And he’s sort of right. Chicago can be thought of as a bunch of different cities, and some of them are quite safe. Unfortunately, some of them aren’t. And a lot of effort goes into making sure that the folks who have to live in the less safe parts of Chicago don’t trouble the sleep of the folks in the safe areas.

And then, a truly offensive comment I saw to the Daniel Hertz article summed up Chicago’s decade-long policy and the current state of affairs:

There are parts of Chicago that resemble a dystopian nightmare of crime, drugs, dilapidation and roving gangs of outlaw teens. The fact the city has been able to isolate the cancerous areas and shrink them is a great start. The next move is to start exporting it out.

Whereas postwar Detroit’s residents accepted a policy of retreat and withdrawal from the problems plaguing it, Chicagoans accepted a policy of containment.  Keep those problems over there, they said, and we’ll be fine.

And what, exactly, has that left us with?  Chicago as a metro area might be better understood as I describe it below.

There’s the New Chicago — a city of about 1.5 million people that anchors a metro area that holds about 5.6 million.*  Sweeping north and west from the confluence of the Chicago River with Lake Michigan, New Chicago is a global city in every aspect.  New Chicago remade itself and recovered well from the de-industrialization of the 1960s and ’70s.  The capital of the Midwest and the locus of a diversified economy, New Chicago is a transportation and business services hub, a global financial center and emerging tech center, with a strong desire to become the greenest and most sustainable city in America.  The City of New Chicago reached a peak population of 1.7 million in 1960 and dipped to 1.4 million by 1980, but has maintained a stable population since 1990 because it is an attractive place for the educated citizenry of the Midwestern hinterlands.

There’s the Old Chicago — a city of about 1.2 million that anchors a metro area of about 3.5 million.** Stretching southward and eastward from the Chicago River and extending into northwest Indiana, Old Chicago has struggled to recover from severe de-industrialization over the last 50 years. The City of Old Chicago has been plagued by high crime, high unemployment and general disinvestment since the 1970s; it reached its peak population of 2 million in 1950 and has lost 40 percent of its residents since then.

Rather than as one comprehensive region, Chicago may be better understood as the Boston and Detroit metros scrunched together.  We keep wondering when the prosperity of one will begin to benefit the other, but the legacy of containment may to too strong to allow it.


* I define the “City of New Chicago” as Chicago’s north and northwest community areas, and the New Chicago metro to also include North and West Cook County, and Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties.

** I define the “City of Old Chicago: as Chicago’s west, southwest and south community areas, and the Old Chicago metro to also include South Cook County, and Will, Lake (Indiana) and Porter (Indiana) counties.

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