Chicago: The World's Kind of Town?

Mayor Richard M. Daley shakes hands with Mayor Han Zhen of Shanghai, where Chicago has an economic development office.
Mayor Richard M. Daley shakes hands with Mayor Han Zhen of Shanghai, where Chicago has an economic development office. (By Eugene Hoshiko -- Associated Press)
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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

CHICAGO -- One might think Chicago already qualifies as a "global city."

But with the 2016 Olympic bid pending, Chicago civic leaders seem insecure about the city's image, still saddled with the reputation of its gritty industrial past -- the "city of Big Shoulders" and "hog butcher to the world," not to mention home of Al Capone. So, Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) and other city leaders are trying to make Chicago a global city.

To meet this goal, city officials have instituted Chinese and Arabic -- and soon, Russian -- language classes in the public schools; appointed a Chicago ambassador to China; hosted visiting dignitaries and artists; signed off on plans for the world's tallest residential building; hosted world-class wrestling and boxing championships; and even blanketed downtown with globe sculptures in a public art project on climate change.

"It's such a global economy, any city that stands still, loses," said Daley. "You have to have ambassadors of goodwill, going out there and promoting yourself."

The Chamber of Commerce and other city leaders invoked the need for global-city status as a reason for a nearly $300 million increase in taxes and fees proposed by Daley in October.

A fall report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggested boosting Chicago's global cachet through such measures as sponsoring trips to the city for foreign journalists and funding increased foreign travel for city officials and the mayor, who has been to China three times.

While the downtown parks and streetscapes are more beautiful than ever, the city is plagued by ongoing crises in its public schools, police department and public transportation system. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs report says the city "must overcome serious challenges, some of them legacies of its past industrial successes, to emerge as a truly first-tier global city."

"We're already improving our public schools, and our public transportation; when you look at it over years, we keep improving it," said Daley.

Last February, the city launched a public-private partnership called the Chicago China Development Corporation with an office in Shanghai meant to stimulate Chinese investment in Chicago and aid Chicago companies in China. It is run by former diplomat John C. Thomson.

Meanwhile, sales recently opened for the Chicago Spire, a sleek, corkscrew-like building by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, which is slated to be the world's tallest residential building.

But many community advocates say that in its haste to improve its global reputation, Chicago is forgetting many of its own residents -- the low-income workers who keep the city running. Opponents of the Olympic bid say the global showcase will mean poor residents on the city's South Side will be displaced.

"We can't be a global city if we're not taking care of the fundamentals," said Samir Goswami, associate policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. "If we expect people to work $7.50-an-hour jobs, we have to be able to house them as well. Most of the development money goes downtown, not to neighborhoods. If the city put half the energy it has put into getting the Olympics into solving the housing crisis, we'd be a lot further along."

The fate of the poor and the increasing polarization of wealth in global cities has been a topic of academic discussion among researchers such as Columbia University sociologist Saskia Sassen.

"It means displacements, growing inequality but, properly handled, also a new dynamism and a new set of opportunities," she said.

Sassen sees Chicago as already a top-tier global metropolis. She warned that promotion alone cannot make or maintain a global city, but Chicago's much-touted focus on "green" buildings, if it is carried through, could be groundbreaking.

"It has to really be done seriously; it needs to cross a threshold that will not be easy to cross in terms of environmentally sustainable construction and zero-emission buildings," she said. "It will be tough -- so tough that if Chicago succeeds it will have made history."

Demographer and urban consultant Rob Paral said that regardless of the city's current status, Chicago's leaders are smart in refusing to rest on their laurels.

"The global cities are all trying to keep their global-city status and enhance it at the same time," said Paral, a research fellow at the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. "Globalization is a race to stay in the top tier -- it's very different than it used to be. Chicago in the 19th century was just exploding all by itself, almost like magic. Now, if you want to continue on that path, it takes cooperation and planning."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company