How the Windy City has weathered change

Next week, Chicago will lose its venerable Fannie May stores - and take one more blow to its civic psyche.

In the crowded Fannie May store next door to the factory that churned out mint meltaways, trinidads, and other gooey creations for more than 80 years, George Michopoulos is contemplating piles of chocolate coins.

"This is the best candy," he says, eyes scanning the shelves.

Like the other shoppers loading up on sweets, he's come because Fannie May is closing. The factory has already stopped producing, and by sometime next week, the last box will be gone from the last pink-and-white-striped-awninged store. And with it, a Chicago institution.

To read the local papers - the number of articles and the shameless nostalgia for chocolate roses and marshmallow Easter eggs - you'd think Chicago had lost the Sears Tower. But though it hurts to lose another factory, and 650 production-side jobs, the real blow is to the city's psyche. It's one more local institution gone, following Frango mints' move to Pennsylvania in 1999 and Montgomery Ward's closure in 2001. Even the venerable Drury Lane Dinner Theater, just south of the city, is being torn down to make way for a Wal-Mart.

'Chicagoans love to sing the blues'

Like other towns, the city of broad shoulders has taken hits to its identity in the past few years. And Chicago, which has reveled in its rough-and-tumble, brawnier-than-thou image, may feel them more than most. But the real story, say local experts, is resilience.

"Chicagoans love the blues, and they love to sing the blues about themselves," says Paul O'Connor, director of World Business Chicago, a public-private economic development organization. "So many of these things like Fannie May are emotional body blows, but they're not substantative.... Historically, what really distinguishes Chicago is radical change."

The news about Fannie May, Frango, and the Brach's factory (relocated to Mexico) may surprise those who don't know that, in addition to its status as butcher of hogs, railroad mecca, and freight handler for the nation, Chicago is the candy capital of the world. M&Ms, Tootsie Rolls, and Red Hots fuel a $4 billion a year industry, according to Nicole Hanrahan, director of the nonprofit Candy Institute.

Pride in that status may help explain why the relatively small closures of the Fannie May and Frango factories elicited such an outcry. When Marshall Fields moved the Frango production, Mayor Richard Daley reacted angrily, holding up approval of a Target store requested by Dayton Hudson Corp., the parent company of Fields. This despite the fact that only 157 candy workers lost their jobs.

"The fact that the mayor chose to speak out reflects that these are a little bit of a blow to our ego, and maybe a diminishment of our character," says Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

In shifting image, a loss of rawness

The bigger economic losses have been the exodus of corporate headquarters like Amoco, Ameritech, and Bank One, and large layoffs by companies such as Motorola and United Airlines. The implosion of Arthur Andersen after the Enron scandal blew up cost the city thousands of jobs. The manufacturing downturn hit the city hard, as did Sept. 11 and its impact on travel.

But according to Mr. O'Connor and others, the city is weathering the hits well, and emerging with a more diverse economy. He points to Eurex, the computerized Swiss-German exchange that will open here next week, and to Chicago's importance as a world transportation hub - an asset whose value will only increase with globalization.

"So many of these things that look like disasters haven't played out as disasters," he says, adding that through it all, Chicago has clung to its character as a city where, "If your plumbing company makes a lot, you can sanitize that money into respectability in one generation."

Still, some of the old rawness may be leaving. Chicago's downtown has enjoyed a boom for two decades, drawing hordes of young, mobile professionals to the lakefront and the cultural scene. The Fannie May factory faced some pressures from rising real-estate values in the gentrifying West Side, and the city is losing some of its long-time residents.

"That's part of the transformation of Chicago," says Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing Magazine and author of "The Lost City," a book about Chicago in the 1950s. "You aren't going to have a big blue-collar industrial population anymore," he continues. "The Mike Ditka blue-collar white guy" - made famous on Saturday Night Live's "Da Bears" skit - "that guy's probably out in the suburbs now." On the other hand, he notes, Chicago has "been able to replace that with the image of a city that's exciting, and that tourists want to visit."

Chocolate coins and candy's toll

In the end, even Fannie May may not disappear. Utah-based Alpine Confections has bought the brands, the recipes, and 31 of 238 stores. But for Chicagoans, it will never be the same.

"As a little kid I remember this candy," says Mr. Michopoulos, the taxi driver who grew up in this West Side neighborhood and is eyeing the chocolate coins. "My aunt worked here 25 or 30 years. It's very sad."

Elaine Syrek is stocking up at the same store. "I heard about this when I was visiting my sister in Phoenix," says the no-nonsense legal secretary in large sunglasses. "My niece called me in tears." Ms. Syrek is, by her own admission, "not a big chocolate person" - but Fannie Mays are different.

She remembers the chocolate turkeys her godmother brought her when she was a kid, and she always stocks up on the candy before visiting Chicago transplants in other cities.

Today, she's buying maple-nut creams for her sister's kids, and caramels for herself. "Those," she says with a smile, "will go in the freezer."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to How the Windy City has weathered change
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today