Why Chicago didn’t get buckled into Rust Belt, but still might

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Chicago has prospered as a regional capital even as other Midwest cities have struggled in recent decades, but now must surmount new challenges or it will decline as well, three authors said Thursday at a Society of Midland Authors program at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago.

“In a way, Chicago is a victor in the process of globalization, in which more jobs and more education are concentrated among fewer people and fewer places,” said Edward “Ted” McClelland, author of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland (Bloomsbury Press).

From left: Society of Midland Authors President Robert Loerzel, Edward Gordon, Edward McClelland and Larry Bennet

As a result, Chicago has “gathered college graduates from throughout the region” and if you visit Lake View or Lincoln Park, you’ll see a bar for each Big Ten university, said McClelland, whose other books include Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and The Making of a Black President. One of the chapters in his book comes from something he heard from a bookstore clerk in his hometown of Lansing, Mich.: “We’re all going to end up in Chicago.”

Larry Bennett, author of The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism (University of Chicago Press) and a political science professor at DePaul University, said his use of “The Third City” was not related to Chicago’s Second City nickname.

“To understand contemporary Chicago, I think it’s helpful to look at the history of the city and its development and to think of Chicago as a city that has gone through a number of phases,” Bennett said.

The First City ran roughly from the Civil War to the Great Depression, an era in which the city was “an astoundingly economically dynamic place,” he said.

The Second City was “a phase of industrial and neighborhood decline and tremendous racial polarization in the city,” he said.

The Third City that emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s was a “refurbished, global Chicago, which, like other global cities, has many very impressive physical places and buildings and thriving firms in the business, finance and corporate sectors.”

But Edward E. Gordon, author of Future Jobs: Solving the Employment and Skills Crisis (Praeger) and president of Imperial Consulting Corp., said Chicago’s resurgence is in danger of losing momentum or even reversing if more isn’t done to give its citizens the skills for 21st century jobs.

“Chicago is suffering from some of the same issues that the rest of the country is, and that is even though the unemployment rate is falling … the majority [of jobless people] don’t have the skills for the [good-paying jobs] that are available,” Gordon said.

He said we are now in a “Cyber-Mental Age” where digital technology has wiped out many low-paying and middle-paying jobs. The remaining jobs require a liberal arts education plus some form of post-secondary career component, he said.

“Quite frankly, [Chicago] is not ready for that,” Gordon said.

“What’s driving Chicago’s business today is technology. … We have some very exciting high-tech manufacturing going on here and the fact is that we don’t have the people,” he said.

Gordon also said that while young people from the region have indeed been lured to Chicago, the Illinois Innovation Index has just published a study showing there has been a net outflow of young people age 25 to 34 from the city over the past four years.

“The reason for that, quite frankly, is because of the education base of the city,” he said. “The population that lives here is not up to supporting the high-tech companies.”

He said the city must work harder to give its residents the skills they need to fill those jobs.

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