The “Tottering Chicago?” Series – Part 4


Here is part 4 of “Tottering Chicago?” series. Today I discuss the third question I raised after reading That Tottering Town by William Voegeli, a review of the book What Next, Chicago? Notes from a pissed off native son by Matt Rosenberg. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here and part 3 is here.

Two weeks ago, when I wrote part 1, I included some poorly worded questions in this paragraph:

“So many questions arise when I examine the problems and solutions of Rosenberg and Voegeli. What does the data really say about what is happening in Chicago? Is population growth the best indicator to assess the health of a city? Can a non-Sun Belt city use a Sun Belt growth model? Do people really believe that today’s thriving coastal cities became so because they used a Sun Belt model of growth? Has New York City come out of its 70s/80s nadir because it “solved” violent crime and bad schools? Did Sun Belt cities grow after WWII because of what they did, or what the federal government and world trends did? What’s really waiting for Chicago, or any non-Coastal or non-Sun Belt city?

The questions in bold here are probably more rhetorical than real. I thought about it and came up with a new question that captures the point I was trying to make and provides a better springboard for an answer:

Did today’s thriving coastal cities (or any city you define as thriving) get there because of internal/local forces or external/global forces?

Most cities achieve a certain economic position because they are in the right place at the right time. If you read the stories of American cities, their reasons for existing are in response to various forces. Consider this short summary of American urban history:

In colonial and post-revolutionary America, the cities of the Northeast developed as ports collecting and distributing goods for trade with Europe (New York), refuges for persecuted religious groups (Boston), or a bit of both (Philadelphia). The early major cities in the South, such as Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah, were local trading and trading areas for goods, but also grew as trading markets for people in the slave economy of the South. The cities of the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley were defensive outposts established to provide protection for settlers (Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago) as well as ports for trade and travel. Western cities were mostly just a twinkle in the nation’s eyes, but most were founded by enterprising prospectors or pioneers (Phoenix, Seattle, Denver) or were former Spanish missions (San Francisco , Los Angeles, San Diego).

At the end of the 19e and early and early 20e centuries, American cities have made demographic and economic leaps. The cities of the northeast built on their trade and commercial history to become the financial centers of a rapidly growing nation. Geographical good fortune gave Midwestern cities a boost; those on the Great Lakes took advantage of their ports and position in the middle of the continent to become industrial powers; those in the interior regions took advantage of the fertile land and the expanding national rail network to become agricultural centers. In general, post-Civil War southern cities struggled to keep pace with northeast and midwest cities. Meanwhile, Western cities were rapidly taking off.

Then we come to the parts of American urban history that are more familiar to us. Fortunes changed after World War II for southern and western cities as the regions began to coalesce into the modern Sunbelt. Mid-century advances in technology—the Interstate highway system, the expansion of affordable air travel—brought America’s cities closer together than ever before. Sun Belt towns were poised to have a market climate, a strong business climate with little or no union interference, and affordability as selling points.

Even more recently, coastal towns were in the right place at the end of the 20e and start 21st centuries. Both the east and west coasts have long been favored by elite educational institutions. They were able to capitalize on a global economic system that valued highly skilled labor and the economic sectors that employed them (technology, finance, media, etc.) moved to center stage.

In each case, external forces, whether regional, national or global, have spurred their growth. In fact, some cities have been able to use the gains made during one economic cycle to serve as a springboard supporting the next external wave. Commerce and Commerce In the 1700s, New York City built the economic infrastructure to become the global financial center that it is. Having Harvard and MIT in Boston and Stanford and UC Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area gave both the intellectual clout to succeed in an era that rewards it. Seattle was lucky enough to have a native son who moved his tech company to his hometown, to have a non-native to set up another tech company there, and to have them both become tech powerhouses. Washington, DC became a global city because America became a global power, not the other way around. Cities capture the waves, they do not create them.

Read the rest of this article on the Corner Side Yard blog

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urban planning and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of Corner Side Yard, an urban planners blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes magazine’s online platform. Pete’s writing has been widely published in mainstream media and on the internet, including the feature article for the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has over twenty years of experience in planning, economic development and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

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