Smaller & Taller: Chicago Context

January 26, 2023

Last week 1833 Taller Communities were proposed. This week we look at Chicago’s current blinders: Inward-looking and slower-moving

Chicago loved to be big, bold, and brash: The Second City, but coming fast! Chicago was one of the top five largest cities in the world between 1892 and 1924. With a population growing from 1.3 to 3.4 million, many Chicago icons emerged with such positive energy.


That energy made Chicago a great city, inspiring awe around the world. Today after Trump we see that big, bold, and brash has its limitations. Chicago no longer ranks as an exciting global city, with our dwindling population registering right after Luanda, Angola, as the 42nd largest city in the world.

Sure the city population is smaller; however, Chicago is getting smaller in ways not characteristic of its past: Inward-looking and slower-moving. From adding speed bumps to our pot-holed streets, Magnificent Mile vacancies, and elementary school reading scores, Chicagoans are on a much slower trajectory.

The 2020 Jussie Smollett incident was a tragedy of an inward viewpoint: Self-centered and smug. While we all make mistakes, that broadcast to the country an unfortunate characteristic of Chicago: Parochialism. At its best, parochialism helps us refine our daily activities, yet at its worst, it prevents us from moving forward. Occasionally, comical as when Daley tore up Meigs Field, one bright spot of Second City parochialism is that increasing a focus on our place demonstrated the effect of bold ideas on the world, like establishing the Lakefront Parks.

It is risky to propose new ideas, often times laughable. Currently, following the crowd restrains us. Fear of taking a risk perpetuates obsolete practices. Being green these days requires no social or political risk: Who doesn’t want to save our planet? Centralized control of the green agenda doesn’t allow for variability of history and certainly not for the variability of place.

One quick example: The City of Chicago requests reduced water usage and increased centralized water flow control with metering programs. And yet, with so many cities around the Great Lakes sucking fresh water out of “our” ecosystem, it turns out Mother Nature has always been thirsty: The vast majority of water leaves Lake Michigan through evaporation.

Standing taller, while smaller, is more helpful when we tune in to our place. Chicago has many problems, but last on the list is access to fresh water. Chicagoans today have the advantage of hindsight: We can see past infrastructure successes and failures. More so, we can look around the world at other cities’ successes and failures.

The bigger surprise is a government outright lying to Chicagoans, as witnessed in this 2019 transportation report from Rahm Emanuel’s proprietorship: “Chicago is renowned for its world-class transportation system, but to maintain our leadership…”

Clearly the writers don’t ride the CTA, probably don’t know how Hong Kong funds its transit service, and haven’t ridden Shanghai’s decades-old MagLev Train, which is quiet with no wheels. It connects urbanites in the city center to their airport, a distance further than O’Hare to the Loop, in less than eight minutes. It makes highway traffic look like a toy under a Christmas Tree. Standing taller, Chicagoans would not allow ignorant transportation officials to propose spending our property taxes.

Standing tall refuses to accept baloney. The Olympic Committee revealed we are famous for still using a slow, 120-year-old transit system. At least in 1895, Schwinn was building "World Bicycles," innovating the era's most advanced local transportation technology. Chicago is shrinking relative to the global stage, similar to when Detroit shrunk on the national stage. Yet city advisors continue to compare Chicago with cities such as coastal Boston, which couldn’t be more different. Comparisons with other inland and former industrial cities would be more helpful. Chicago could learn a lot by exploring the last 40 years of governance in Detroit.

When they left, Citadel stood up and refused to accept the slow-moving actors who pretended to run the city and refused to see or were afraid to address hard problems. There are many complicated challenges to choose from, and no time like the present to speed up creative problem-solving. Standing taller we can adapt our place, in our time, to the universe around us.  Unfortunately, it requires an accurate reading of our situation, a refusing of the lies, and then accepting the tough reality that Chicago is smaller than we used to appear.

Here’s a story about a Kid who uncovers an expansive worldview from daily experiences. On a summer Sunday morning, waking up at home, high above the Chicago River, before an adventure into the streets:

I love the smell of bacon in the morning, and today my grandfather will walk me to the beach. Luckily my parents packed lunch for both of us, but I had to clean my room before we left. I was so excited to see the world with Leo PaPa that I spilled on my favorite drawing, which was ruined. Mom said I can visit her friend’s Village next weekend and make a new drawing.

Walking with grandpa is calming, and at the same time, the streets are filled with surprises. At the beach, we swam, we read, he napped while I watched the people, we built a sandcastle and had Spam Musubi from a food cart on the way home.

My grandpa is an old Cherokee, and while we were watching all the different people at the beach, he told me about a battle that goes on inside people. He said: “Kid, there is a battle between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.

One is Evil.

It is anger, envy, jealousy, doubt, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good.

It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, truth, compassion, and faith.”

I thought about it all the way home. Before I went to bed, I asked him

“Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied,

“The one you feed.”

Chicagoans are known to be Midwestern-friendly. And we can still make things better. Yet when we are slow and can’t figure it out quickly enough, Citadel and Art Institute docents no longer contribute to our cultural and economic well-being. Today we can stand tall and feed Chicago’s great institutions the message to use good judgment and take intelligent risks. We survived fires, bulls, and bears; we can try anything.

Next week we'll be thinking about Transit & Trading

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