The Sound and the Fury In Chicago

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The Second City syndrome is alive and well. An anti-Chicago essay masquerading as a book review in the New York Times provides the latest example of the truth of that.  Rachel Shteir, a former New Yorker now living in Chicago, notes the various ills in the Windy City that should come as a surprise to no one, least of all residents:

“Poor Chicago,” a friend of mine recently said. Given the number of urban apocalypses here, I couldn’t tell which problem she was referring to. Was it the Cubs never winning? The abominable weather? Meter parking costing more than anywhere else in America — up to $6.50 an hour — with the money flowing to a private company, thanks to the ex-mayor Richard M. Daley’s shortsighted 2008 deal? Or was it the fact that in 2012, of the largest American cities, Chicago had the second-highest murder rate and the ­second-highest combined sales tax, as well as the ninth-highest metro foreclosure rate in the country? That it’s the third-most racially segregated city and is located in the state with the most underfunded public-employee pension debt? Was my friend talking about how a real estate investor bought The Chicago Tribune and drove it into bankruptcy? Or how 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration, was shot dead near the president’s Kenwood home?"

Illustrating the rule that criticizing Chicago is something that is Simply Not Done, this piece sent locals into collective apoplexy. Huffington Post Chicago provides a roundup of the “epic backlash.”  The Atlantic Cities chimes in with its own roundup of “Everything You Need to Know About Why Chicago Is Furious With Rachel Shteir and The New York Times,” noting that “We don't have to wait for the angry letters to be printed in the next Book Review. The counter-manifestos are already here! In the past few days, it seems, everyone from Gary to Milwaukee has read Shteir's ‘Chicago Manuals’ piece, resulting in a groundswell of angry rebuttals.” An army of angry tweeters spoke out.  And even the mayor addressed the issue. Not a bad day’s work for a theater professor at Depaul (Shteir’s day job).

In a sense Shteir is right. I’ve long noticed that Chicago is basically an echo chamber of boosterism in which everyone is terrorized about deviating from the party line lest they be excommunicated from polite company, a fate that may well indeed await Shteir. And Chicago clearly has manifest problems as a city, many of which she notes, though many of her list such as the perennial disappointment of Cubs fans are clearly more snark than substance.

However, what Shteir and Chicago both miss is the real value proposition of the city. Taken on its own terms, Chicago is a simply fantastic place to live. It has a magnificent lakefront setting, a stunning skyline, fantastic cultural institutions, incredible opportunities to consume (from designer clothing to world class dining), and much more. It may be true that these great things largely benefit those from more affluent precincts with vast tracts of the city left behind in segregated, entrenched poverty, but it’s tough to name a place where that isn’t likewise true. Much of Brooklyn, for example, remains mired in poverty, but no one in New York seems to care and criticisms of it as such are simply shrugged off.

Chicago also has perhaps – at least in my view – the best blend of the best of the elite urban center with much of the best of cities further down the food chain. You can have genuinely walkable neighborhoods, take transit to work, and eat food that would be impressive in any city in the world while simultaneously having a spacious and affordable condo with parking that allows you to drive to a conveniently located Target or Costco to stock up when you need to. It’s car oriented when you need it and walkable when you need it, all at a reasonable price. Now that’s certainly something that many cities lower down in the hierarchy will also claim – big city amenities with a high quality of life. But Chicago is the most elite city in America that can plausibly make that claim.

What Chicago is not, despite its pretensions, a truly global tier one city like New York, London, or Paris. That is what the booster culture can’t abide. It is an article of faith that every Chicagoan must believe, or at least pretend to believe, that Chicago is worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as any city in the world. Even a critic like Shteir seems to evaluate it on that basis.

But the reality is that Chicago is a “1B” city like Frankfurt or Toronto not a “1A” city. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I happen to believe Chicago’s value proposition is arguably better than most of the 1A cities for everyone who isn’t in the 0.1%. But both local boosters and critics can’t look at Chicago for what it is, but rather what it isn’t and never will be. Chicago will never be New York. But neither will New York ever match the best of Chicago on the Windy City’s own terms with a comparable quality/price/ease mix.

In this sense, Chicago might be seen as the leader of a wave of other emerging would be 1A cities – Houston, Dallas, San Diego – that are making the cut from a second tier city. Being the leader and something of a role model for a wave of rising cities may not be bad positioning at all.

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.

Photo by Doug Siefken.



















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Strong Disagree with Mr. Renn's Assessment

I take strong exception to Mr. Renn's comments. As someone who now lives in Chicago - and was raised here - and lived in NYC for seven years, (and as someone who takes a great interest in urban planning), I think he completely missed the mark.

One of Chicago's postwar urban blunders (which continues through today) is its effort to balance having a true urban environment AND adapting to the needs of drivers. Rather than ending up with the best of both worlds, I believe we have the worst of both worlds.

The city's traffic is nightmarish. Simultaneously, the city is not remotely as pedestrian friendly as NYC. Strip malls, numerous curb cuts, and parking garages lead to an unsafe experience for pedestrians. Furthermore, these lead to an unsightly experience. Rather than looking at buildings and storefronts, we are treated to looking at blank walls storing autos or parking lots. In addition, our efforts to accommodate cars has provided drivers with a sense of entitlement. Drivers expect pedestrians to have to walk around cars, rather than thinking they are the ones who need to be patient. This is compounded by a city that makes no effort to ticket drivers who block crosswalks (rather, spending time and energy to ticket parked cars) plus overly polite Midwestern mentality who would never hit their fist on a car hood, and yell "I'm walking here!")

Contrary to Chicago, there are few mid-block curb cuts in residential neighborhoods in Manhattan (They are ubiquitious in Chicago's more densely populated residential neighborhoods) .

What Chicago should have done - particularly when the back to the city movement began in earnest more than a generation ago - is to outlaw strip malls in central locations, not require new residential construction to have parking minimum requirements (which inadvertently severely comprised the aesthetics of the design of buildings), and encourage pedestrian friendly design. (How many snout designed townhouses and tear downs can we possibly cram into this place?)

Big box stores also push smaller neighborhood stores out of business (because they are able to offer lower prices and more selection). It snowballs, and we all end up driving to Target, WalMart and Costco through traffic that puts Schaumburg to shame. We should have required big boxes to fit into the urban context (a correct example is the Home Depot on Halsted) rather than accomodating power malls on Elston Avenue.

This is where Chicago - IMHO - utterly fails as a city.

Read more: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20130429/BLOGS02/130429776/one-mo...
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There is only one NYC and one Chicago

Aaron--
Your response probably had to be written, just to prove that there is an adult in the room. And as usual, your analysis is objective and useful.

The NY Times may have stooped a bit too much to sensationalism to publish Shteir's piece.
And Chicagoans' responses might be a bit too defensive.

While Chicagoans' boisterous boosterism might be a bit much, New Yorkers also should be transcendent enough to have fun at their own expense; after all, New York remains the most important city in the world and their humor directed at improving New York can only improve the world.

Whenever a New Yorker comes at me with an invitation to joust, I just pull out the old joke: "New York is the greatest city in the world; but Chicago is the greatest city to live in America." If they can't accept that compromise, then I move on. Everyone should try this; it brings out the best in everyone.

"New York is the greatest

"New York is the greatest city in the world; but Chicago is the greatest city to live in America." Well put.

Perazzo series, number 3 on Chicago

"Toxic Government by Democrats: Chicago"

April 10, 2013 By John Perazzo

http://frontpagemag.com/2013/john-perazzo/toxic-government-by-democrats-...

"Editor’s note: The following is the third in a series of articles that will expose the misery of life in America’s poorest cities, all of which have one thing in common: they are controlled exclusively by Democrats. Each article presented by FrontPage will reveal how the production of mass urban poverty is much more than just a failure of leadership, but a means of political survival for the Left. To read the background pamphlet by David Horowitz and John Perazzo, “Government Versus The People,” click here......."

"......Chicago’s politicians, community activists, and religious leaders alike have largely eschewed the methods of Giuliani and Bloomberg. As a former Chicago deputy superintendent once observed: “We’d marvel at how the NYPD was getting mayoral support” during Giuliani’s tenure in office. “Mayor Daley is not a cop supporter,” he elaborated. “It’s no secret that he rules the police department with an iron fist.”

Due to the social, economic, and crime-related challenges faced by Chicagoans, more than 200,000 people moved out of the city during the first decade of the 21st century—an exodus exceeded in magnitude only by the former residents of Detroit......"

Do read the whole thing

As a person who works in

As a person who works in urban planning in Chicago, I certainly have run into people who are big boosters but, although Rachel Shteir raises some good points, I think her rant was just as inflated as some of the booster she has encountered. The overwhelmingly majority of residents, communities, and politicians that I meet with know and discuss, to great length, Chicago's problems. I can also say that the majority of residents south of Roosevelt Road do have a negative opinion of this city and know how severe the problems are here. Perhaps Rachel should occasionally venture outside of Lincoln Park. She will experience a whole different perspective of how the vast majority of Chicagoans view their city.

In other words, there's a

In other words, there's a place for the Chicago's of the world, and it's not something to be embarrassed about, but rather, something to champion.

Can Los Angeles be a Tier-1 city in its current state? Can its model, which is more closer to Houston then NYC, be a truly competitive 1A city? I honestly don't know. It seems the two currently running for mayor, are cut from the same cloth as they both come from the same think-tank that has regressed the city over the last couple of decades: City Council.

I am curious though, about the chorus who are offering their testimony's, of their faith in Chicago: Do you do so publicly, but deep down acknowledge the many issues that have hurt the city? My hunch is: NO! I have a feeling that they don't see the city for what it is... both its assets and the things keeping it from moving forward, and that like Portland or Austin, defend a romantic archetype of what they hope the city will become.

It matters whether a city is anti-growth or not

".....Can Los Angeles be a Tier-1 city in its current state?...."

Absolutely not. It's current state is anti-growth.

"....Can its model, which is more closer to Houston then NYC, be a truly competitive 1A city?...."

It WAS closer to Houston's until it went anti-growth. I say LA absolutely would have become a new model 1st-tier city had it continued to embrace growth, which at one time was even more rapid than Houston is now.

It will take Houston a long time, but it might get there eventually if it continues to grow like it is, and does not flip to anti-growth like LA and SF and every major city on the West Coast.

I would argue that no city has ever risen to 1st-tier status while embracing anti-growth policies. They might embrace these policies after having risen to 1st-tier status. Only time will tell whether it is possible to fall from 1st-tier status through anti-growth and exclusionary policies. Strong competition from the Houston-model cities will help towards any possible demise of 1st-tier cities. Moves towards national-level mandates of anti-growth policies are of course the ultimate anti-competitive, incumbency preservation measure.