Midwest Economy Blog

Chicago Survey

March 20, 2006

Chicago is arguably one of the most-studied places in the world. The origins of this examination likely began with the world’s interest in Chicago’s rapid growth following the Great Fire over 100 years ago, and the subsequent phoenix-like re-birth. Serious sociological study of neighborhoods began with Jane Addams’ documentation of immigrant enclaves here and with the venturing of the University of Chicago’s social scientists outward from Hyde Park. This tradition continues today by social scientists, political scientists, and economists of every stripe. At least two periodic conferences that I know of examine Chicago. Some one-time Chicago self-examinations coming up this year are in celebration of the 97th anniversary of the publication of the great Burnham Plan of Chicago.

And so, any journalist setting out to survey Chicago’s position and prospects is favored in having many people to interview and much source material to draw on. The downside is that, in drawing conclusions and implications, there are also many experts peering over the journalist’s shoulder prepared with well-informed critique. Such a journalist, then, will either be highly accomplished, or else should have a great store of hubris.

Journalist Johnny Grimond of The Economist has just written the first survey of Chicago and its surrounding area for that well-respected magazine since 1980. For the most part, the survey article is about all that could be hoped for by the denizens and students of Chicago. In some respects, it is a love letter to Chicagoans. The prism of comparison of Chicago today to the Chicago of 1980 reveals a city that has moved on from economic despair and survived a period of profound economic restructuring and political turmoil. In this perspective, its achievements are remarkable. Unlike other industrial belt cities, Chicago has survived the greater region’s manufacturing decline and replaced it with high-level service functions and urban livability. Moreover, in doing so, much of its success has emanated from a revived central core outward, rather than becoming solely a suburban ring economy.

Rather than further re-hash the survey article’s findings, I suggest you have a look at it and perhaps contribute your opinions about it here. In my opinion, it will be shame if The Economist‘s survey does not provoke a broader dialog among Chicagoans about the future and what, if anything, to do about it. What do you think are Grimond’s errors of commission and omission in assessing Chicagoland and its prospects? Is Chicago poised for prosperity, or has it merely experienced a short-lived respite from long-term decline?

At the end, Johnny Grimond notes a few possibilities for further success, namely further development of its professional services sectors and better commercialization of its educational and technological assets. However, Grimond is somewhat pessimistic in observing that the Daley era may be coming to an end, with nastier politics ahead and no evident leadership handoff in sight. And like its counterparts, Chicago has not cracked the puzzle of easing inner-city poverty and upward mobility. And so, he concludes that “Chicago’s current success may be about as good as it gets.… Chicago, like almost all America’s older cities, still faces the prospect of decline, or at best stasis, unless it can find the elixir of urban life—how to grow richer without growing bigger.”

What do you think?

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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