Our Kind of Town

The Economist has a lengthy survey of Chicago in its current issue. As is often the case in this publication, no new ground is broken, ...
by | March 22, 2006

Chicago_1 The Economist has a lengthy survey of Chicago in its current issue. As is often the case in this publication, no new ground is broken, but readers are presented with a thorough examination of the city's state of affairs.

It's been a quarter-century since The Economist took a similar look at Chicago, and much has changed in the interim. Chicago in 1980 enjoyed a "facade of downtown prosperity" but looked like it would go the way of many rust-belt cities, with crime, bad schools and housing problems driving away its population.

But that's not what happened, and The Economist looks at the reasons why not.

Some of its success since that time have been driven by unique circumstances, but it has made important adaptations. Chicago remains by far the major railway terminus in this country, as well as a major air travel and convention center. Chicago has also become a major hub for telecommunications, "a different set of crossroads, the place where most of the advanced telecoms networks in the region connect to a single internet exchange point, the world's largest." The city has also become a major electronic records storage center.

Similarly, its old advantage as an agricultural products trading and shipping center has been updated thanks to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Board of Trade's pioneering work in derivatives. "The markets that once dealt in eggs and cheese now deal in futures and options," the magazine notes.

If you read the whole package, you'll get a sense of other factors that have helped Chicago to outpace rivals such as St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Among these are a robust culture of civic leadership from business that most other cities can only envy; a lively arts scene; its parks, beachline and architecture; its improved though far from perfect schools (the state gave Mayor Daley control of them a decade ago); and its attraction for immigrants. (The city is now home to more Hispanics than any other, save Los Angeles.)

Chicago "has succeeded better in reversing decline than anyone else," The Economist concludes.

The survey takes note of the scandals that have rocked Mayor Richard Daley's administration over the past couple of years, but doesn't dwell on them. Still, the magazine does suggest that the era of the Daleys may be drawing to a close -- meaning it will have a very different Chicago to survey 25 years from now.

Photo: Damon Ledet, via Flickr