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Departing Chicago?

A recent editorial cartoon depicted Illinois as an airport. In the departures gate were the 2016 Olympic Games, a variety of major trade shows that recently announced leaving Chicago, and Oprah Winfrey.    In the arrivals gate were prisoners being transferred from Gitmo.  Much of this is directed at Chicago specifically:  the “departures” noted are all from the city of Chicago, while the “arrival” denotes a town downstate.

Throughout mankind, cities have come and gone.  Only a few – Rome and Athens come to mind – have endured the Millennia.  Now I’m not advocating a viewpoint that Chicago has completely folded and turned into a pile of ashes, far from it.  As for this economic doldrum – maybe it can resurrect from the “ashes”?  Let’s take a look….

This is a vibrant – dare I say global – city. Chicago is located in a commanding geographical position that as long as North America is populated, it will never go away.

However, I’ve always thought of Chicago as being the epitome of the twentieth century – the early twentieth century.  It embodied the Industrial Revolution in the United States: its economy was a product of mechanized industry.  Yes, Chicago’s industry produced machines which created a sizeable market in itself.  Chicago’s machines cultivated an agricultural industry which was brought to the city’s markets by machines produced in Chicago.  The city’s physical layout – the skyscrapers and garden city suburbs fed by transportation devices – were shaped by machines.  The transportation devices brought people to Chicago; it became a crossroads of the world – a title that still holds true today.  Machines and industry brought people in Chicago together to socialize and do business – it became an organism of interurbanity.

The latter part of the nineteenth century put the foundations in place for the twentieth century.  Chicago’s economy truly made it the epitome of a twentieth century city.  For the first half, anyway.

To zero in on the garden city suburb reveals a clue as to what happened in the latter twentieth century.  The garden city suburb worked best when people moved back and forth between city and suburb by mass transit.  When the automobile supplanted mass transit, people didn’t socialize as they once did.  Further, by that time, GI’s returning from the Second World War had been exposed to warmer climes with beaches.  Those returning GI’s migrated to and established homes in places like… the Los Angeles Basin.

So, Los Angeles – built around freeways that serviced suburbs and all of the same kinds of inventions that built Chicago in addition to a new industry of motion picture entertainment – came to be one endless suburb.  Decidely individual, built to control and even limit social interaction.  Not what the garden city suburb had intended, but then, the garden city suburb never realized the extent of proliferation of individual motorcars.

So Chicago became old hat.  All at once.  Chicago was left to be an absolutely fabulous living museum of the early twentieth century.

Los Angeles eventually outgrew its own makings as well.  For quite some time, I was quite determined to believe that the prototypical US city of the twenty-first century was going to be Las Vegas – completely manmade and artificial; exceptionally self indulgent to boot.

The current real estate bust may not support the notion of Las Vegas becoming much more than an overgrown gambling and retirement mecca.

Which brings us back to Chicago.  It has the infrastructure to pick up where it left off and grow back.  One may even compare Chicago to Detroit, a city that has become a “doughnut” with very little left in its core.  Detroit has left behind some fabulous ruins in its wake.

But that’s another story.

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Posted in History, Pop Culture, Transit, Urban Planning.