Rethinking Brand Chicago


So many Midwest places flail around looking for a brand image or identity. Not Chicago. In fact, the identity and stories of Chicago overflow the page. They are too numerous to be written in a mere blog posting.

Yet Chicago has in effect decided to jettison that powerful, historic brand identity in favor of a type of global city genericism. This, I believe, is a mistake.

One trend you can’t help but notice if you travel is the increasing homogenization of the urban culture and standard of urban development. Global markets demand standardized commodities that can be graded and traded. This includes cities. This forces cities increasingly into a standard model of what one expects.

I’ve written in the past about the example of the Wallpaper guides to world cities. These travel guides, ostensibly a guide for the modern, sophisticated urban traveler to the best of each globally elite locale, often seem identical except for the name on the spine. One modern boutique hotel, one swank restaurant or bar, one fashion outlet, one bike share program, one piece of starchitecture is much the same as another in any city you visit around the world. The frosting might be different, but the cake is the same. And once you’re commoditized, you’re done.

So it is too with Chicago. I noted in my review of the city’s street lighting what appears to be a deliberate downplaying of the city’s rough-edged, masculine past in favor of a feminized, generic, even suburban motif. You see this repeated throughout.

It’s truly incredible. Travel anywhere in the world in mention that you’re from Chicago, and immediately the other person will mime a couple of pistols with their fingers and say, “Bang! Bang!” This is a sore spot with many local leaders, who hate the notion that it is still known more for gangsters than glitter. The city over the years has so tried to suppress its Al Capone heritage that it has obliterated many historic sites related to the mob. It’s like the city that wants to pretend it doesn’t exist.

This sadly makes Chicago like all too many smaller cities that suppress their strongest brand assets out of embarrassment and a desire to be taken seriously by members of the cool kids club. Go talk to urban boosters in Indianapolis, and you probably won’t hear much about the Indy 500, for example. So too it is with Chicago. It’s as if to prove it’s a member of the club – i.e., is exactly like every other cool city – Chicago has to ignore its gritty past and essential culture.

A friend of mine likes to say that “Chicago is a city that runs on testosterone.” It’s a rugged, manly city, a place where it was said high culture was just the ransom rich men paid to their waves. A place where people wore their shoe leather out trying to make a buck. The land of the hustler. A place of bellowing blast furnaces and brawny immigrants. A place where pedigree didn’t matter and crazy newcomers, dreamers, schemers, and gamblers could win or lose big. A place with audacious ambition and a relentless determination to demolish rivals, whether that be Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Milwaukee. A place that once dreamed to dethroning New York. A place of limitless imagination and inventiveness that brought us everything from the skyscraper to the futures market. A place with music like the blues made for and by the hard luck working man. And yes, a place of gangsters and crooked politicians.

None of that is part of new Chicago, at least not the image the city wants to portray. The iconic architecture remains, but it has been drained of its cultural content. Listen to what the city tries to project of itself and see what it says. It says that Chicago has become just another way-station along the global city parade. Starchitecture (no longer architecture made in Chicago for the most part), microbrews and microroasts, culinary delights, high culture, boutique hotels, great shopping, bike infrastructure, digital startups (the exact same type every other “hub” is bragging about), music festivals by and for the high end educated hipster, global conferences, etc. Almost every box is checked, with a few exceptions like fashion and media as I highlighted earlier.

All of this is good in a way and proof of a transformation in Chicago that is in many ways for the better. But something has been lost along the way. These items are all disconnected from the city in which they happen to reside. It’s as if they descended on the place out of the heavens like that flying saucer on top of Soldier Field. Drawing Room mixologist Charles Joly may have a Chicago flag tattooed on his arm, but his bar could be located anywhere.

Saskia Sassen has written that the economies of global cities are not generic but are inherently linked to their histories. Chicago in the past was a great center of manufacturing, for example, and today is expert at providing global services to manufacturers. But where in underlying economic reality there may be distinctiveness, on the surface there is more homogenization. This may explain why people tend to assume all global cities are alike. To a visitor staying in the central core, the experience may well be quite similar in many ways.

What’s more, the aspiration seems to be generic. The idea, again, is to demonstrate that you are part of the club by focusing on replicating all the same stuff everybody else is already doing and talking about yourself in much the same way. I’ve seen little in Chicago’s branding or global city rhetoric that is much different from anywhere else.

Yet the differences remain, especially outside the rarefied precincts of the global elite. And much of that continues to inspire embarrassment to this day. Corruption and cronyism seem to continue unabated, for example.

Yet there is good as well. Ask yourself what more than anything epitomizes Chicago. To me, it is none other than former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Listen to him speak. Barack Obama he is not. But character he had, lots of it, and what’s more, a fanatical dedication to making Chicago the best city it could possibly be. Was there a lot of corruption in Daley’s Chicago? No doubt. Did he desire to have maximum power over politics in his city? Of course. But nevertheless I get the impression of, as I said in my last piece, a guy who every morning wakes up and asked himself, “What can we do today to make Chicago a greater city?” This is a quality of leadership all too lacking in most Midwestern cities. The character of Chicago and the character of Mayor Daley himself seem to me to have so much in common.

Ironically, under Mayor Daley, the city pursued that policy I mentioned of abandoning its past, of abandoning the image of the city as evidenced by the mayor himself. You walk down Michigan Ave., through Millennium Park, around the newly thriving neighborhoods, and you expect that city to be led by a Dr. Smooth type character, not a blunt, plainspoken man like the Mayor. But if only he had seen the value in a city that presented a face like his own. A city not ashamed but proud of its rough and tumble edge, of the fact that it was where generations of ne’er-do-wells and hustlers came to wear out their shoe leather trying to make it big, a city that both Al Capone and Paddy Bauler thought not ready for reform, a city that drew generations of farm boys off to its earthly delights, a city from Bridgeport not the Gold Coast. That’s Chicago. Not a genteel, refined metropolis, not a swank, sophisticated type of town, not a city on a hill. No, but a city of dreams nevertheless, where people came to get rich, to reinvent themselves, to change the course of world history. That’s Chicago.

No, Chicago will never be the Chicago of Cyrus McCormick and Philip Amour and Aaron Montgomery Ward and all the rest. You can’t live off the past. That’s nostalgia and there’s no more corrosive force known to mankind. But you can know who you are, what you stand for, what your heritage is, and how it fits into the future. Not a clinging to the past, but letting your essential character be a guidepost to the future.

The fifth Frank Gehry titanium Bilbao clone, the n-th swank restaurant or shop, the latest in Italian furniture – ultimately none of them will make Chicago Chicago. It’s going to take the real city, an expression of its own terroir and primal identity to do that.

I happen to think Chicago can do it. If it changes course and gets way from following the trends to creating its own future. If it steps up and makes sure the world knows that Chicago, and not just yet another generic world city, is here, and determined to claim its rightful place.

Chicago will only realize its potential for greatness if it is willing to let go of its insecurity and desire to be a member of the club, and dares once again to think of itself as it did back in the days of the Burnham Plan as a city destined to be the greatest in the world, a city proud of itself and not afraid to boldly chart its own course into the great unknown of the future.

Is Rahm Emanuel is the person who can pull this off? He’s from the North Shore. He was a ballet dancer. He’s a man clearly most comfortable dealing with the elite. Yet he’s also got a rougher side. He’s supposedly Captain F-Bomb. He hates to lose. He mailed some dead fish to a someone once to show his displeasure with some polling. I’d say there’s more than a streak of authentic Chicago in there.

Maybe the bigger question is whether he wants any change of course. The NATO Summit play suggests not. But it’s still early.

I would strongly urge the city to rethink its brand and what it wants to be in the marketplace. Bottle up some that classic Chicago heritage and apply it liberally. This is a huge opportunity in the marketplace. With the vast bulk of cities trying to convince you they are all the same, this is in opportunity for Chicago to seize the advantage and stride forth with classic boldness and braggadocio, making other cities take real notice for a change. Want to actually put Chicago on the brand consciousness map? That’s the way to do it.

In short, it’s time to stop aspiring to global city goo and instead give the world a punch in the face with a little old school Chicago.

This is the fourth installment in my “State of Chicago” series. Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

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