I'm still not feeling very optimistic about Chicago
A great city that's in trouble as all cities take a blow
After spending more time in Chicago recently, a lot of people have been asking me if I’d like to revise the pessimistic outlook offered in my July 2022 post “I’m worried about Chicago.”
The short answer is: I’m still worried.
For the longer answer, keep reading.
But I think it’s clear from the tenor of responses that the post got and from the tone in which the question was asked that my prior post came across to a lot of people as dissing Chicago. And I sincerely didn’t mean it that way. I could have written an article like “The outlook for Central City X isn’t very good” about a whole bunch of Midwestern cities. But I don’t think observing that the outlook for St. Louis or Cleveland doesn’t look great would have been very interesting — people kind of already know that — and I also don’t think it makes a lot of sense to kick Cleveland, a city that really does have considerable virtues alongside its problems, while it’s down. The reason I’m worried about Chicago is that Chicago is pretty great and pre-Covid was managing to keep its head above water, even as other cities in the region were really struggling.
So just to be clear: I like Chicago. Chicago is the American city that I’ve visited the most times even though I don’t have any family or close friends who live there. I originally went for work but had enough fun that I went back a couple of subsequent times just to visit and always say “yes” to work-related Chicago trips. A major reason I agreed to the IOP fellowship opportunity is that I like Chicago!
This is why I worry — something you do about things you appreciate and admire and feel some connection to.
I should also say that, as should be seen from the fact that I was writing about this last summer, my concern is not specifically tied to Brandon Johnson or this year’s mayoral election. But my background condition of worry was part of my thinking about that campaign. Since I was staying in Hyde Park during this trip and talking to lots of students and professors, most of the people I spoke to about the election were Johnson voters in the first round and the vast majority were Johnson voters in the second round. Based on those conversations, I 100% understand people’s qualms with and reservations about Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas. But I also got the sense that both Lightfoot and Vallas were wrestling, in their different ways, with the problems of the city, whereas Johnson seemed like he was running Bill DeBlasio’s campaign from 10 years ago in a different city.
I hope I’m proven wrong about all of this. But I do think that part of proving me wrong is developing a sober appreciation for the situation.
Let’s say some nice things about Chicago
But first — Chicago!
Not everyone likes big cities, but I do. And if you like big-city urbanism, Chicago has it in spades. There is simply a lot of stuff there. If you look up “Best X in Chicago” lists, you find a good one for almost all X. There are two different distinctive local styles of pizza. If you live in D.C. long enough, you can sort of talk yourself into the idea that you’re living in a major metropolitan area, but then you stroll the Miracle Mile and realize we actually have nothing like that here in terms of high-gloss luxury urbanism. No other American city can compete with downtown Chicago in terms of its architectural marvels. And while there are certainly any number of older European cities that most people find charming, that only underscores how uniquely significant Chicago is as a center of American architecture. It stands head and shoulders above its peers in a way that no European city does.
In the early 21st century, Chicago also stood out compared to New York and many other major American cities for being cheap.
Affordability is nice in terms of “if you moved there, you wouldn’t need too much money.” But it also impacts a city’s entire culture and vibe. Part of the deal of big cities, ideally, is that they are hubs of art and culture and funky stuff as well as being hubs of business and industry. New York, when I was a kid, was like that, and I think Los Angeles and San Francisco were, too. But by the time I was an adult, that had really ceased to be the case. The northeastern and west coast cities were in effect luxury destinations, except for people who lucked into, by happenstance, a subsidized housing situation. But not Chicago. Chicago was a place where one could be a starving artist or a struggling musician. Chicago in the early 21st century spawned a lot of radical politics that I don’t agree with, but that’s part of a cool urban milieu because, again, Chicago was a place where you could get by as a weirdo radical.
The affordability was also a boon to the city’s staggering dining scene, which covered the full spectrum from cheap-ass taquerias in Mexican American neighborhoods to the mind-blowing fine dining experience at Alinea. The only way to really excel at all points like this is to have a combination of affordable rents and massive scale, which Chicago does.
This city has great cultural institutions, obviously — the Art Institute, the Field Museum. On this most recent trip I got to check out Science & Industry which is cool, and I’m a big Shedd Aquarium guy. I think it’s a little weird how invested Chicago is in having plentiful parks, given that the weather is trash most of the time, but on nice days they really are nice parks. I’m not a big live theatre guy, but I’m told it’s #2 in the country after New York for this.
Last but not least, I think a neat attribute of Chicagoland is the extent to which it carries the full spectrum of American neighborhood types. The Loop is one of the densest concentrations of jobs in the world, arguably even more so than midtown Manhattan depending on how you measure it. But the metro area then sprawls in an unconstrained landscape and offers a huge range of communities at different density levels, different architectural styles, different ethnic mixes, etc. It’s very cool.
If I think about the “One Billion Americans” vision, in a lot of respects the idea is to build up the other Rust Belt metros into something more like Chicago while filling in the cores of the Sun Belt metros to be something more like Chicago. At the time I was conceptualizing the book, I wouldn’t necessarily have framed it that way because in a lot of people’s minds, “Chicago” was just a byword for crime. But while the pre-Covid crime situation in Chicago was obviously not ideal, I did not personally mind it all that much — I grew up in New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s and am thus a little bit less personally worried about such things, even as I wish more progressives would take it seriously as a policy problem for American cities. The point is, Chicago is good!
All cities are facing big structural headwinds
Here’s the problem.
Pre-Covid, Chicago’s population was basically stable (growth in some neighborhoods, decline in others), which meant its relative share of the national population was falling. That’s fine — as I wrote in my April 12 post on depopulation, half of all places have to be below average. But it matters what the average is. National population growth had been on a long-term slowing trajectory for a while, but it’s now slowing more.
Birth rates continue their long-term decline.
Immigration has rebounded from its Covid low point, but it’s not bouncing back to its Bush-era level.
The death burden of Covid has fallen, but it hasn’t fallen to zero.
The death burden of car accidents, homicides, suicides, and drug overdoses has risen.
This means more and more places are at risk of “below average” meaning “below zero.”
At the same time, remote work has delivered a triple-whammy to cities’ tax bases, the most obvious of which has been a structural decline in the value of downtown office buildings. More insidious, though, is that even when people are still working in the office but only going in two to three times a week instead of five, that’s a blow to the downtown retail economy. And finally, all cities contain neighborhoods that are basically suburban in form but appeal to people who aren’t necessarily city lovers on the basis of commuting logistics. As those logistics become less important, the value of those neighborhoods falls.
These are the challenges facing every American city.
But expensive cities like D.C. have some cushion to absorb the blow.
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