By Ben Schulman
Chicago. Global City.
A recent report from IBM heralded Chicago as one of the world’s top ten most competitive cities. Last year, the Global Economic Power Index, a listing of the world’s most economically powerful cities compiled by the Martin Prosperity Institute, ranked Chicago fourth, just below London and ahead of Paris. In 2012, the A.T. Kearney Global Cities Index, produced in partnership with The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, listed Chicago as the seventh most powerful global city.
Global City Chicago is shining.
[blocktext align=”right”]By rapidly reconfiguring the cityscape in an attempt to solidify its global status, Chicago risks eroding the specificity of what makes it Chicago.[/blocktext]Far removed from its buckle-on-the-Rust-Belt days, Chicago is flexing its building muscle to prove its global city ascendance. The infamous Chicago Spire, Santiago Calatrava’s 2000-foot residential tower whose plans crashed with the housing market in 2008, now may indeed be rising above Lake Michigan shores. Within the past year, a dozen luxury hotels have opened around the greater downtown, and according to an analysis by brokerage firm CBRE for Urban Land magazine, an additional 20% capacity on top of the city’s 34,000 downtown hotel rooms is expected by 2016. Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that Chicago’s Goose Island neighborhood, a marginally industrial pocket once known as “Little Hell” that sits adjacent to the vanquished Cabrini-Green public housing projects, will be home to the high-tech Digital Lab for Manufacturing, a partially federally-funded “world-class, first-of-its-kind manufacturing hub.” Indeed, as Crain’s Chicago Business has written, for those connected to the global core, now is a gilded time to be a Chicagoan.
Yet there’s a prickling undercurrent to all this Global City strutting. And it’s not only the tragic, well-documented bifurcated nature in which the city is going about its global business, leaving behind vast swaths of the South and West Sides in the Global City slag heap.
No, the troubling current to Chicago’s rapid fire Global City development is Global City development itself.
By rapidly reconfiguring the cityscape in an attempt to solidify its global status, Chicago risks eroding the specificity of what makes it Chicago.
The most vivid illustration of this is the demise of architect Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital. Goldberg, the architect of the better-known and regarded Marina City (more popularly known outside Chicago as the “Wilco Towers”) incorporated a soft form of brutalism in his cloverleaf and concrete design of the hospital, which came to life in 1975. The building, not an aesthetic pleaser to all, nonetheless represented Chicago’s place as a city where eclecticism and innovation could dance with pragmatism. Maybe too harsh-looking for a postcard, Prentice was a calling card for the city.
This sentiment was echoed in an open letter from a who’s who of architects including Jeanne Gang, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Frank Gehry to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in support of saving Prentice, which is owned and operated by Northwestern University. The letter championed Prentice as “a testament to the Chicago-led architectural innovation that sets this city apart.” It’s an ironic twist to the city’s global ambitions that its position as a cradle of architectural thought—one of the city’s hallmarks that allowed it to be even considered on the global stage—is now susceptible to the banal and sexless sort of plans that promise to be, like so many other plans in so many other places, a “world-class research and development enterprise that attracts innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Although far removed from Algren’s original context, Prentice, in a way, became Global City Chicago’s broken nose. And now the city is betting the house in the global city sweepstakes, hoping that the short-term gain of attaining “world-class” facilities and hoped-for talent will mitigate the potential long-term loss of its defined sense of place. This is a wishful form of thinking that fails to recognize and champion its true assets – a repudiation of what urban thinker Aaron Renn has called the “terroir of a city.”
Aspiring cities everywhere, whether they belong anywhere near the global conversation or not, have employed similar (if not the downright same) marketing, development, planning and spatial practices as attempts to capture what sociologist Manuel Castells calls the modern “flows of capital, flows of information, flows of technology, flows of organizational interactions, flows of images, sounds and symbols … of our economic, political, and symbolic life.” University of Hong Kong professor Laurence Wie Wu Liauw has written how the “convergence of the global contemporary city [has] produced generic ‘cities of sameness’ that results from relentless urban expansion subsuming the historical city.”
This convergence of commercial, communicative, technological, capital, and demographic flows results in a landscape of contemporary global city space that isn’t rooted in any given locality, but rather as an illusory siren to attract money and people tied to and of a global class.
That is the Achilles heel of Global City Chicago.
As Global City landscapes propagate everywhere, Chicago should focus on retaining its Chicagoness to remain relevant in the long run. Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital, whatever one’s aesthetic tastes, was a significant signifier of Chicago as idea, Chicago as brand, and Chicago as place. Not only does Global Chicago’s cannibalizing of itself further erode the city’s ability to maintain the viability of areas beyond its global core, but the dissolving of Prentice into the city of sameness also portends the potential irrelevancy of Global City Chicago.
By glass-sheathing its broken nose, Chicago is throwing away its comparative advantage: itself.