“While Chicago has the title of Second City, because of the NATO summit we’ve shown the world that we are a world-class, first-class city,” boasted Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, once the gathering of North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders was over in late May. The remark was prototypically Chicagoan: tinged with resentment of the doubters and sounding just a tad like someone trying to convince himself.
I have lived in Chicago almost all my life and like to say it is the most American of our nation’s big cities. In Manhattan, most residents don’t even own cars, which exiles them from a central chunk of our national experience. Los Angeles is a city of star-struck dreamers. Washington, D.C., is a company town fully marinated in politics. Chicago stands in the middle of America in every sense, its residents here for jobs and family, not dreams. The stockyards (where my grandfather worked as an immigrant) and the steel mills have given way to a service economy built around the corporate headquarters that cluster in proximity to O’Hare International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest, and the futures and options exchanges in the Loop, as Chicago’s downtown is called, because of the elevated tracks that circle overhead. Unlike some of the Midwest’s former manufacturing hubs—say Detroit or Cleveland—Chicago remains a city of thriving neighborhoods, due in no small part to the leadership of the former mayor, Richard M. Daley, who shored up the public schools and negotiated to keep jobs within the city in a relentless and successful effort to prevent the middle class from departing.
None of this is to gainsay problems. The housing projects Daley’s father built are gone, but not the poor, and the city’s generations-old street gangs are among the nation’s most violent. In recent years, city leaders exercised the same lack of fiscal discipline practiced in Greece, resulting in an annual revenue shortfall of nearly a billion dollars between the school and municipal budgets.
Mayor Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, persuaded the administration to stage the NATO summit here perhaps in part to salve the bruised feelings that followed the failure of Chicago’s all-out effort to secure the 2016 Olympics. This was another chance to elevate the president’s hometown to the world stage, a place where Chicago, by most measures, surely belongs. Its universities attract students and scholars from around the globe. Its cultural attractions—the symphony, the museums (like the Art Institute or Field Museum), its rich theater scene that sends major shows to Broadway every year, the brilliant public sculptures in Millennium Park—all rate global attention. Even the gastronomic scene now features a bevy of two and three-star Michelin restaurants. Chicago, with its utter flatness, has given leading architects (this city is the former home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe) a unique setting to create a remarkable vertical landscape. Those NATO visitors who arrived perhaps expecting a postindustrial wasteland instead confronted the muscular imposing beauty of the Loop’s towering skyline beside the oceanic breadth of the lake.
Predictably, the NATO meeting also brought the usual ragtag corps of protesters from across the nation, whose presence stimulated understandable fears of terrorism or a repeat of the chaos of, say, the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. Those prospects activated less-agreeable traits of my hometown, a tradition of brute authoritarianism and a fear of “the other” that once made Chicago the country’s most segregated city. Working overtime, the 12,000-member police department remained professional and impressively organized, avoiding any repetition of the infamous and indiscriminate head-bashings that accompanied the 1968 Democratic convention here. But the clampdown was extreme. Miles of highway near the meeting site were closed for 72 hours, and the expressway to the airport was also shut down periodically without warning. On Monday, the second day of the summit, the massive police presence and transport uncertainties led most downtown businesses to simply close their doors or operate with a skeleton staff, leaving the Loop a ghost town.
New York, by contrast, welcomes several times the number of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly every fall. Traffic on the east side is a nightmare, but no one seems to expect New Yorkers to just stay home. To truly act the part of a world city, Chicago still needs to take that role in stride, and welcome what comes with that status with more style and less anxiety.
Long short, we gotta believe it.