Is One Chicago Worth A Dozen New Yorks?

You and I may disagree with the maxim that one Chicago is worth a dozen New Yorks but it seems, at least, that author and historian Studs Terkel, 93, maintains otherwise, as evidenced by his recent interview with Financial Times. (Online edition of FT requires a paid subscription.)

I am happy but not surprised to see that Studs has some partiality with respect to Chicago and says what he thinks so very boldly, with not any bit of rust to cloud his clarity.

In fact, I've often wondered why Chicago receives so little attention in the products of American media and entertainment industries, which have traditionally focused their energies and stories on certain parts of Los Angeles and New York City, taking them to be the quintessential examples of the Americana.

My own impressions of Chicago are based on the few trips I have taken there in 1999, 2002 and 2005, all on business. I also went there in 1980 on the way to a student conference in Washington D.C. Of that trip, I remember the brick building with wood flooring where we spent the night with some friends. It was the first brick building I had laid my eyes on since leaving Tehran and coming to Ojai, California, in late February of 1979.

Twenty years later, in 1999, I was the chief architect for (and then briefly running) a DARPA-funded research project. A number of university professors from MIT, UIUC to OGI working on DARPA-funded distributed and operating systems research and a number of Silicon Valley professionals and researchers like myself had gathered for one day in the airport hotel where we were having our meetings. The organizer who was a professor at UIUC had chosen Chicago because, she said, "it is a great transportation hub."

I was there only for one night in the middle of a cold January but the trip to downtown on the train, the Vietnamese restaurant and the live Blues and Jazz back at one of the airport hotel restaurants stuck in my mind. Everyone was kind, the service was superb and people seemed to live real lives, not California dreams. That was just a month before I started working for Sun in Cupertino, California. In fact, I had my offer letter in my bag in Chicago.

Later, as a Sun employee, I visited a Goldman Sachs research group looking to build a highly available, highly performant platform for their asset pricing models based on actual, real-time market transactions in equities and derivatives. They wanted to explore how they could scale the computational system horizontally. It turned out, at least in my opinion, that either they had to go back to the drawing board and reconceive the financial models with some greater sensitivity to the issues of scaling or to spend more time to compartementalize the computation network into "islands" that could be scaled horizontally, and then connected to other "islands" of computation that are themselves so scaled. That was in 2002, and I got to see a bit of the city in the spring. It impressed me again with its hospitality and the realness of its people's attitudes.

Chicago, June 2005

Finally, I visited Chicago earlier this year during the Supercomm 2005 show. On this occasion, I had very little time to visit the city but a little walk landed me in a public library / community center, where children were getting ready for their auditions. The mix of colors and ethnicities spoke of a great city in relative balance.

So, I've only seen things that confirm Stud's claim and nothing yet that would undermine it, even if I might not verbalize it the bold way he has!

In the same interview, Studs talks about the importance of uniqueness to cities.

So Chicago was unique, it was the archetypal American city, it had these immigrants who did the hard work and the labour in all these steel and farm equipment plants. Actually every city had its uniqueness then. You'd get off the train and see this was Pittsbugh or this was Detroit. There'd be some landmark.

Studs complains that American cities are becoming more and more alike. With New Orleans destroyed, we can only expect one more city looking like the rest: "Today, you get off a plane . . . You can't tell one city from another," he says.

The importance of landmarks and architecture to navigation in the city can hardly be overemphasized.

To me (and also to Studs as he says later in his interview), Chicago is still a unique American city not like any other, and it is a city in which I, as a person raised in Tehran, would feel very comfortable living, just as comfortable as living in London or Berlin.

But Chicago has a uniqueness it maintains — "Second City". People still think of Chicago as the Athens of American architecture. But I think it also has an aspect of excitement to it, because of the work history to begin with: blue collar, getting a job.


Masood, Good comments on Chicago. I live 70 west and don't drive into the city as much as I did when teaching. My wife and I went in to see Body World this summer. Chicago is a very busy place. What I was interested in was the reference to Ojai, CA. (It was the first brick building I had laid my eyes on since leaving Tehran and coming to Ojai, California, in late February of 1979.) Did you live for a time in Ojai? I love that place! I spent two weeks this spring there giving a workshop. I understand it gets hot in the summer however. Best, Ralph

Posted by Ralph Hannon on September 14, 2005 at 12:38 PM PDT #

Yes, I lived in Ojai for about 4 months and part of the summer of 1979 when I first came to the U.S. Actually, in upper Ojai valley there were a few very old, brick and stone buildings around on some private properties. It does get hot there in the summers.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on September 14, 2005 at 03:04 PM PDT #

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