Can Chicago Make It As a Global City? GCP-00-2

Janet L. Abu-Lughod
Professor Emerita, Sociology, Northwestern University
Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, New York

Is Chicago an international city? Of course it is. It has been ever since the second half of the nineteenth century: (1) when it was British bond investments that funded the rail lines to open the prairies and the west to the New York port; (2) when midwest corn and wheat began to supply Europe’s bakeries; and (3) when new techniques of curing and refrigeration permitted the delivery of Chicago’s meat to distant and even foreign markets.

And talk about a cosmopolitan population! Recall that at the turn of the century, four-fifths of Chicago’s residents had either been born abroad or were the children of those who had. Attracting international capital, offering banking and financial services to tributary cities and towns, producing goods for export, and drawing diverse immigrant labor are all characteristics of a dominant global center.

Is Chicago now a global city? Of course it is. It has all the contemporary earmarks: high tech, producers’ services, the MERC, and the busiest airport in the country, even though its attractiveness to migrants now trails Los Angeles and New York.

Nonetheless, Chicago is a city that for half a century first denied and then succumbed to “rustbelt anxiety,” at best whistling in the dark. And especially after the census ignominiously demoted it to “third city,” it has been the object, inter alia, of a glossy (even hysterical) Chamber of Commerce report in 1992, boasting that, like any third world country or depressed American city, it was prepared for a race to the bottom: Comparing the city to its “rivals” (especially New York and Los Angeles), the Chamber propaganda stresses that Chicago has lower wages, congestion, lower rents for office space, lower utility rates, corporate and individual, and a more “cooperative” administration.

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