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Is Chicago global or miserable? Both

By Richard C. Longworth

Chicago is by any measure one of the world’s top ten global cities, a glamorous and glittering headquarters of the global economy. It also is one of the four most miserable cities in the country.

Well, which is it? Global or miserable?

Actually, both. Which tells us something about the global economy and the cities where its business is done.

Globalisation is a divisive force, between countries and cities and within countries and cities. It creates a new caste of global citizens — the well-educated, well-travelled, well-heeled movers and shakers who run the economy and who exist as comfortably out in the world as they do back home. And it also creates a class of global castoffs, the less-educated, less-skilled, less-connected and increasingly poorer residue of the industrial economy, left behind by a new economy that has galloped on without them.

This is why a city like Chicago can make everybody’s lists of global cities, and also rank fourth on a new list, published by Forbes magazine, of America’s “most miserable cities.”

This two-class divided society exists almost everywhere these days — in Shanghai, Paris, and Sao Paulo. But it flourishes especially vividly in Chicago, making it necessary to look at this city and how it can be both global and miserable at the same time.

The fact is that these civic rankings — most livable, most miserable, fattest, best places to retire, etc. — are totally subjective, owing more to the whim or relative sobriety of the journalists that compile them than to any scientific rigor. Magazines love to run them because they know they’ll get a rise out of local chauvinists. The sportswriter who compiled the “miserable” list for Forbes magazine got the rise he was looking for: the Chicago Tribune wrote a thin-skinned editorial, whining that Forbes is miserable, too, because people don’t read magazines any more.

But the Forbes listing got at a truth about global cities, whether it meant to or not. 

Chicago ranks near the top of global cities for several reasons — its corporate headquarters, its plugged-in consultants and other business services, its first-rate universities, its great artistic scene and restaurants, its airports and broadband, putting it at the crossroads of the global economy. All this is true.

Chicago also ranked near the top of that Forbes list, just behind Detroit, Flint, Michigan, and Rockford, Illinois. The city collected a bagful of bad marks for its violent crime, unemployment rate, foreclosures, taxes, plummeting home prices, long commute times, declining population, and, of course, its weather. All this, also, is true.

Many Chicagoans, those global citizens, would protest that Chicago, far from being “miserable,” is actually a great, affordable and entirely civilized place to life. Most are here because they want to be, and are willing to put up with a little snow to stay here.

Many other Chicagoans, those global cast-offs, would argue that Chicago belongs at the top of the “miserable” list, not Detroit, if only because they find it easier to get shot than to get a good job. Most would love to escape, if they could.

It sounds like they’re talking about two different cities. They are.

Global Chicago is home to perhaps one-third of Chicago’s residents, or about a million people. This doesn’t have much to do with the famous split between the “1 per cent” — the financial titans and CEOs — and the rest of us. Rather, this one-third embraces the corporate types, plus the big universities, plus people with decent jobs in globally-connected companies, plus the high-end chefs and boutique owners, plus entrepreneurs and lawyers and doctors and other professionals with the education and skills to swim in the global sea. No small number.

The rest of Chicago is home to some two-thirds of the city, or about 2 million people. Some of these the residents of inner city ghettoes, largely African-American, who were stranded when the city’s mills and factories collapsed and have been stuck in generational poverty ever since: these are the people whose grandchildren are being gunned down in the epidemic of murders that have turned parts of Chicago into shooting galleries. Without question, this is extreme misery.

But the misery these days extends beyond the ghettoes, to embrace the city’s vast bungalow belts and declining inner ring of suburbs where residents simply struggle to survive. They’re both educated and uneducated, but locked into a routine of driving forklift trucks, waiting tables in restaurants, standing behind cash registers at K-Mart, or wondering if they’ll ever work again. If they have a mortgage, their house is under water. If they have an education, they owe student loans that may never be repaid.

Some of these people lost their jobs to factory closings, to outsourcing, or to automation installed to enable their former employers to compete in the global economy. If they still have a job, their wages are depressed by the same global forces.

The great and growing gap between the global citizens and the global castoffs is visible everywhere, but perhaps nowhere so much as in the global cities. Many Chicagoans understand what’s going on but so far haven’t focused on meeting the challenge. The Forbes Misery List, as silly as it seems, should spur them into action.


This post was originally published by The Midwesterner

27 February 2013