Emanuel's Chicago is no longer 'Beirut by the lake'

As Rahm Emanuel takes office, he's stepping into a city that's been on the rise since the 1980s

Ann Hermes / Staff / File
Visitors walk past the entrance of Millennium Park between Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago on April 26. Outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was influential in gaining sponsorship and pushing the Millennium Park project forward in the late 1990s.

I was born in Chicago and spent some time in graduate school there. I spent a fair bit of time in the early 1990s watching Michael Jordan dunk and Frank Thomas hit homers. The people of Chicago are in deep thought about their mayorial transition from a Daley to a Dancer. We are supposed to swoon at the success of the Emanuel brothers but lets not forget the Daleys. The Mayor's understated brother is playing a key role in the Obama Administration.

Downtown Chicago's success since the mid-1980s is an important trend. The people of Detroit can wonder why they haven't enjoyed similar success. These two cities have roughly similar weather conditions. Chicago made a bet on a more diversified employment base and a larger bet on financial industries. Still, I believe that Chicago's perception of being a high quality of life city fed on itself.

As crime has fallen in major cities, richer people have been more comfortable living downtown. Chicago's embrace of being a "Green City" has helped it. As rich people live downtown, the "local amenities" improve and a snowball process feeds on itself. New York City has enjoyed a dynamic like this since the early 1980s and so has Boston and Chicago. These cold weather cities were run down and looking nasty and like Rocky they have gotten off the canvas and reinvented themselves.

What causal credit do their mayors deserve? Great man theories of city dynamics are hard to test but Chicago appears to have enjoyed a long period of good karma.

The Chicago power couple of President Obama and the First Lady represent a leading example of the rise of the Black elite educated upper class. Chicago has many more examples of the Obamas. Such success highlights that traditional racial divisions in big cities do not have to persist. The perception that the American Dream lives on and is available to all creates good will, civic engagement and more early life investments by young people and their parents as they become confident that free market success is achievable.

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