Chicago is getting a bad press, to put it mildly. It may be time for the city to think about a makeover – in both substance and image – if it is going to be taken seriously as a global city.
What about the city becoming a pioneer in using the global economy as a tool for civic equity, to turn Chicago – now about as unequal as a city can be – into a place where the goal is not only growth, but economic decency?
More about this in a moment. But first, that bad press.
Jon Stewart of The Daily Show ripped the city’s voters for re-electing its abrasive mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Then Spike Lee announced he’s going to make a new movie on urban crime entitled “Chiraq.”
Well, maybe we’re not the flyover city after all. With entertainment titans on the two coasts disemboweling us in the same week, it’s nice to be noticed.
But most Chicagoans would just as soon forego the honor.
On the one hand, it’s not really fair. Stewart, who doesn’t live here, seems cross at the 56 percent of Chicago voters who exercised their democratic right to decide that Emanuel, for all his pugnacity, will be a better mayor than Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. And Chicago looks like Iraq only to someone who’s never been to Iraq.
But this is a Chicagoan’s thin-skinned reaction. The fact is that Chicago, for all its global status, has enormous problems. Its debt is the worst of any mayor city and its school system is tottering financially.
Most, there’s that chasm between the global Chicago – the glistening city tied into the global economy – and the wastelands of poverty, crime, bad schools and forlorn hopes where the economy, global or otherwise, barely exists. Many of these neighborhoods are solidly black, and it’s where Spike Lee proposes to film.
Chicagoans don’t need the movies to tell them that they’ve got troubles. But it stings when outsiders hold the city – which, let’s face it, is no Detroit – as a civic disaster.
Chicago’s problems are, at their heart, human ones – the degradation of human lives. But perception has its own reality, and the city’s image is crippling its ambitions to strut on the global stage.
OK, so what are we going to do about it?
An American scholar named Kris Hartley, working at universities in Korea and Singapore, has looked at this country and Chicago from abroad and, with the perspective of distance, has suggested something that doesn’t occur to most Chicagoans.
Instead of all that spending on Olympic bids and lakefront stadiums, Hartley says, “Chicago could stake its reputation on an alternative model” that stresses social equity, along the line of Scandinavian cities such as Stockholm.
What’s the purpose of being a global city anyway, Hartley asks. “Is it a means to an end, or the end? Is the goal to raise the quality of living for all Chicagoans, or is it to move into the rarefied atmosphere of global prestige?”
A city is more than a corporation and should have loftier goals, he says. As it is, global status mostly benefits a minority of a city’s citizens, leaving the rest worse off than they were in the industrial age.
At the least, a true Chicago commitment to equity would make Chicago unique among old industrial cities transitioning into global status. Some cities such as Portland, Ore., rank higher on the equality scale, but none are global cities, none have Chicago’s gritty industrial past, none carry Chicago’s historical baggage – and none have Chicago’s large and segregated black population.
Also, if we want to be like Stockholm, it helps to be embedded in a nation like Sweden that takes equity and fairness seriously. There’s only so much a generous-minded city can do in a mean-spirited nation.
That said, there’s a lot that a city such as Chicago can do on its own. Many ideas are floating around – affordable housing, better policing, urban farming, tax incentives for neighborhood businesses, especially better education.
Good ideas, all. Maybe they’d work if the city – the entire city – got serious about them. But for all the civic hand-wringing, it hasn’t.
Take schools. The city and its business community pays lip service to inner city schools and their students. But employers in Chicago’s global economy – the business leaders who could really make a difference – don’t mean it. Chicago inhales smart kids from all over the Midwest. These employers know it’s easier to hire these imports than to really raise standards and graduation rates for home-grown students.
These inner-city students, in short, aren’t needed and aren’t used. So they feel useless. So they drop out and, too often, take their revenge on a society that has discarded them, virtually at birth.
If global cities like Chicago want to become centers of equity, they have to put their money into it. This means their wealthy citizens and corporations putting jobs – real jobs – in inner cities, instead of spending their money electing their pals to political office. It means mayors like Emanuel recruiting businesses to Chicago, but only if they agree to set up shop in the neighborhoods, not the Loop. It means putting some serious venture capital into inner cities, so ambitious kids can start businesses on their own, instead of finding their futures on the street.
This would work, on two levels. A civic reputation for equity is better than being labeled Chiraq. And it would make the city – all of it – a better place to live.
Chicago isn’t Stockholm, but it can be better than it is. But first it must make fairness a civic priority, and mean it.