By Richard C. Longworth
I’ve been asked to speak at a University of Chicago conference on the NATO summit in Chicago that just ended — both on what the summit meant for NATO and how Chicago itself survived and benefited from its big weekend in the global spotlight. Most of this blog posting deals with my comments on Chicago and how the capital of the Midwest took to a new role as the focus of the world.
Chicago set several goals for itself. First, it knew that the summit would draw protesters, so it was anxious to exorcise the ghosts of the 1968 Democratic convention. It wanted to strut big on the world stage and behave like a global city should behave. Mostly, it wanted to show itself off, on television and elsewhere, and in the process become more of a global tourist destination than it is now. I apologize to non-Chicago readers of this blog for this chauvinistic navel-gazing. But Chicago is in the middle of an historic transformation, from a Midwestern industrial powerhouse to a post-industrial global metropolis. It is paying real attention to the whole world for the first time and is very anxious about how it looks to that world. The decision to hold the summit here was part of that transformation, so it’s important to ask whether it worked.
If I had to put a headline on this, I‘d say that Chicago put on a good show but still needs work.
As an aside, I also bring a little historical perspective to this exercise, since I covered the 1968 Democratic convention here in Chicago and still vividly recall that civic disaster. Like many Chicagoans, I had wondered whether the NATO summit would be history repeating itself.
Chicago itself is almost a laboratory of urban change, a Midwestern city morphing from its industrial past to its global future. For all its continuing problems, it is the most successful Midwestern city in making this change. In its lakefront, its architecture, its nightlife and business services and general verve, it has a lot to brag about.
Photo by Jonathan Bradley
But the problem is that no one seems to notice. We remain the flyover city, still best known not for its economic clout or skyscrapers, but for Al Capone. Everyone who comes here for the first time looks at the city and says, “Wow, what a surprise! I didn’t know Chicago was like this.” Well, honestly, it’s been 140 years since the great Chicago fire. By now, we shouldn’t still be a surprise. We’re up there in the global rankings, both for power and for glitz, with places like Shanghai and Barcelona and Milan, non-capital cities that cut a swath in the world, but no one’s paying attention.
This was really Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal for the summits: not to put Chicago on the map (we’re already there) but to shine in the world’s spotlight, to show off the city, to prove that Chicago is one of the places where the world’s business is done. For the summit, the city advertised itself as the “global crossroads,” and this pretty well summed up its ambition.
So, how did we do? Pretty well, I’d say. Emanuel and the city rolled the dice on this summit, risking violence from protesters and a repeat of 1968. It looks now like they won.
First, the weather cooperated. The city really looked great. I don’t know what the TV cameras showed, but it couldn’t be bad.
More to the point, we went a long way toward burying those old 1968 memories. As I said, I was there. That was a different time, with different players. That era was consumed by a nation literally inflamed over Vietnam, plus a youth rebellion questioning the eternal verities of American society, and it all came together in Chicago. On the one hand were thousands upon thousands of impassioned protesters, backed by many other Americans who opposed the war. On the other hand was a paranoiac city government, absolutely hostile to everything that the protests symbolised, and a police force just spoiling for a fight, facing ranks of demonstrators only too willing to egg them on. It was explosive, and it exploded.
Chicago has taken a half century to live down the damage done not only in its public image but to its heart, its psyche, and its historic memory of that one chaotic week.
That was then. Over the past weekend, there were about 4000 protesters: fewer than predicted, most of them serious and well-behaved and not out to cause trouble. On the other side was a highly professional police force, operating under federal government guidelines, under orders to keep the peace in every sense. The city had exquisite intelligence on the protests and demonstrators. A few hundred demonstrators, the real trouble-makers, seem to have been anarchists here just to cause trouble and get on TV. If they got hit by a nightstick, it was only after they threw bottles of urine at the cops.
From what I can see, most Chicagoans feel the police acted with great restraint. The rest of the world didn’t really notice. Outside Chicago, it was a non-story, which is good.
Originally, Chicago also was to have hosted the G8 summit. The decision to move that summit to Camp David took out a lot of the steam.
Most protest is personal. Some is altruistic, of course, people truly outraged by American military activity around the world. But most protesters go into the street because they have a personal stake in the issues. In 1968, it was military, involving young people afraid of being sent to Vietnam. Today, it’s financial, involving young people with huge college debts or real worries about whether they’ll find a job. Without the G8 here, there wasn’t much to protest. Many of the demonstrations against the summit demanded that NATO and the United States get out of Afghanistan, without seeming to realise that the summit itself was devoted to doing just that.
All that said, I’m not sure Chicago is ready for prime time. The city was virtually deserted over the weekend and on into Monday. People afraid of violence simply stayed home. The city government and summit organisers didn’t help by assuring Chicagoans that all would be calm and that even the traffic would flow freely despite the official motorcades. It’s never smart for a government to tell people things that they’re pretty sure aren’t true.
It would have been better if the mayor had just declared Monday a holiday — NATO Monday, as it were. We already have seven official Monday holidays every year. We even have Casimir Pulaski Day on the first Monday of March. One more wouldn’t have undermined the city’s economy, and would have done wonders for popularising NATO in Chicago.
As it was, business was down anyway. Everybody — stores, cab drivers, restaurants — is complaining about the loss of business. The city claims that the presence of all the dignitaries and journalists, most on expense accounts, more than made up for this lost business, but this seems doubtful. It’s possible that the good publicity surrounding the summit will pay off big in later tourism. I hope this is true, but only time will tell.
If Chicago is going to cut a swath as a global city, big meetings and extravaganzas are probably necessary, but we need to learn how to handle them.
The obvious comparison is with New York, which hosts the United Nations General Assembly regularly, with all the visiting heads of state and the traffic jams that implies. I’m told that New York pretty much takes this in stride. Businesses down in that East Side neighborhood know that their customers will probably stay away for that time. But the same businesses do fine the rest of the year catering to the permanent UN employees and diplomats and visitors. Unfortunately, NATO spent a long weekend here and then left, leaving no permanent customers behind.
Chicago’s long-term benefit from the summit, or lack of it, is a story yet to be written. But the next time we do it, I hope we can give the impression that we do it all the time: that it’s no big deal.
This post was originally published at The Midwesterner
25 May 2012