Municipal-level census estimates released last week show that Chicago, alone among the nation’s 20 largest cities, is losing population. The news provoked another round of local handwringing—and denial. Pessimists point to the exodus of residents, rampant crime, and the city’s disastrous finances; optimists cite a massive boom in population, jobs, and construction in Chicago’s central business area. Both are correct—but in ways very different from superficially similar divides in coastal cities. Chicago is in some ways the duck-billed platypus of American cities—a wild amalgam of unique traits that make it impossible to categorize.
When it comes to population estimates, municipal-level data is largely irrelevant, especially when comparing cities with one another. That Houston may soon outpace Chicago in municipal population doesn’t mean that much—the city of Houston includes vast tracts of suburbia, making for an apples-to-oranges comparison. Chicago’s metro area is much larger than Houston’s and will remain the third-largest in the country for years to come. Similarly, while Chicago has the most murders in America, its murder rate is lower than other major cities like St. Louis, Baltimore, and Detroit. Comparisons with Detroit, with its hollowed-out economy, particularly infuriate Chicagoans, who reside in what remains a major economic center. And Detroit’s population loss far exceeds Chicago’s.
But just because Chicago shouldn’t be compared to Detroit doesn’t mean that it should be compared with San Francisco. Simply put, Chicago is unique, in ways both good and bad. Outside New York, the Windy City has the only truly large-scale, transit-oriented, central business district in the country. It boasts the only globally important financial exchange (the CME Group) and the only complete slate of globally renowned cultural institutions. A small but telling example of Chicago’s stature among major American cities: the Windy City will soon get its own resident production of Hamilton: An American Musical. Other cities—including San Francisco and Boston—will only get limited runs of a touring production.
Chicago has unique negatives, too. The city’s financial problems are in a league of their own. Like many Midwestern cities, Chicago is suffering from a severe post-industrial hangover. The city’s economy might be robust, but it’s oriented mainly around average-value industries and serves mainly domestic and regional markets.
Most important, as an interior city, Chicago has a heartland state of mind. It draws even its upscale population base heavily from other Midwestern cities and towns. For the most part, Chicagoans hold degrees from Big Ten schools, not the Ivy League, and the city’s civic mindset reflects that. Its culture is more conservative than that of the coastal cities, and less cosmopolitan and ambitious. Chicago follows more than it leads. Indignant Chicagoans will no doubt reject that characterization, pointing to all the world-class work done in the city. True enough, but ambitious people can be found everywhere. Since Chicago is a huge city, it has a lot of them. But they aren’t the norm. Chicago’s social mindset is Midwestern at heart.
That’s not all bad. Television producer Dick Wolf (Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, Chicago Justice) chose the city specifically for its Midwestern character. “Chicago embodies unapologetic, old-fashioned values of right and wrong and how you should act,” he has said. Chicago is also unapologetically rough-edged and masculine, “a city that runs on testosterone,” as one local lawyer told me. It’s a city where current mayor Rahm Emanuel’s loss of half his middle finger “practically rendered him mute,” in the words of then-Senator Barack Obama. This gives Chicago a distinctive cultural feel.
How can Chicago make this tough-town image work for it instead of against it? The city ultimately must figure out how to build on its unique assets, its central location, and its cultural identity to overcome huge financial and public-safety challenges. Success will require acknowledging Chicago’s structural and cultural limitations. So far, city leaders have preferred instead to see Chicago as a competitor to America’s coastal cities. Until they start taking honest stock of both where Chicago is stronger and weaker than those cities—and look to its unique civic positioning—the city’s underlying problems will go unresolved.
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