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Chicago Rising: What Obama’s Hometown Means for the Rest of America

New America Media, News Report, Andrés T. Tapia Posted: Nov 06, 2008

Editor's Note: Chicago has emerged as a potential new model for redefining American identity, writes NAM contributing writer Andrés Tapia. Tapia is a diversity leader based in Chicago.

CHICAGO – The more than a quarter-of-a-million people who flooded downtown Chicago to await the presidential election flowed into Grant Park, that long elegant park nestled between a grand Lake Michigan to the east and a legendary architectural skyline to the west. Their celebration was not only about the political victory of their hometown candidate but also a coming out party for this perennial Second City.

Barack Obama’s presidency will bring unprecedented attention to this often-overlooked U.S. city. His links to the highly effective urban planning six-term mayor Richard M. Daley, to University of Chicago faculty where he once taught, and to his network of powerful African-American powerbrokers will attract many influential outsiders to the Windy City. They will come to network, do business, and tour this blooming city that even aesthetically sophisticated Europeans call one of world’s most beautiful.

Obama’s victory crests but does not create Chicago’s rise. This city enters the Obama era with momentum. Mayor Daley had already lured Boeing to move its headquarters to Chicago a few years ago. As part of the allure he showcased the massive urban renaissance he had instigated. Downtown has seen the rise of more breathtaking architecturally innovative skyscrapers that create a high-rise canyon through which the Chicago River winds its way. Vintage buildings from Chicago architectural legends Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan have been sandblasted to show their resplandescent facades. Hundreds of miles of bike paths (where the mayor himself can often be seen riding) crisscross the city. Thousands of planters have been placed on sidewalks.

Many neighborhood parks have been revitalized. Major feeder highways have being expanded and resurfaced. O’Hare—the second busiest airport in the country—is adding new runways. The arts have experienced a renaissance from a thriving Broadway-style theater district to original drama houses like the Steppenwolf and the Goodman theaters to innovative dance companies. All this is built on a green city platform that aims to significantly reduce Chicago’s carbon footprint. Already Chicago leads all U.S. cities with its two million square feet of rooftop gardens.

In recognition of these advances, Chicago now stands as just one of four finalists, along with Tokyo, Rio, and Madrid, to host the 2016 Olympics.

While arguably Atlanta may be black America’s civil rights capital, Chicago can be seen as the capital of black business. Ebony and Jet magazines publish from here at Johnson Publishing. Billionaire Oprah Winfrey’s multimedia empire Harpo Productions beams its broadcasts to millions around the world from Washington Blvd. The black-owned Ariel Capital Management, with nearly $2 billion in assets, and Loop Capital Markets, which has been involved in $800 billion of underwritings, are powerful players in Chicago, providing financing for emerging and mainstream businesses.

Now add the Obama effect. With just his primary win, he got the Democratic National Committee to move its headquarters to the Chicago Loop. Ariel founder and CEO John Rogers is a close advisor of President-elect Obama. Several of his high-level appointments are expected to be Chicago-based business, community, and political leaders and technocrats.

The transformation from the “toddlin’ town” of Sinatra lyrics to a global power center is not just about a city on the rise.

Chicago also emerges as a potential new model for redefining American identity. If the mythology of the rugged frontier of the American West and the vibrant city of the coasts no longer capture the inclusive visions of a highly diverse America, Chicago offers an alternative. It is Midwestern and global. Cosmopolitan and down-home. Capitalistic but communal. Productive but not frantic.

And as I was swept up in that wildly diverse Grant Park multitude on Tuesday, it was evident that there was no age, racial/ethnic, religious, income, sexual orientation, or disabled group not represented.

Call it the global communal city. Like other Midwestern metros like Kansas City and Minneapolis, it has many of these characteristics that could hold the key to a less polarized way of looking at America’s problems.

This “city that works” has a secret for the success of its multicultural diverse self. Chicago’s first and, so far, only black mayor, the late Harold Washington, overcame a venomous racially polarized City Council by finding a way to build a multiethnic coalition that included the various black, Latino, Asian and white ethnic groups. His key was to ensure that all parties got a piece of the pie – a legacy Mayor Daley has perfected.

Early on, Mayor Washington’s approach was an unsophisticated but effective taking care of neighborhood concerns like potholes, playground equipment, and services like libraries. Since then, the ambitions and the strategies have become much more sophisticated. As civic governments have faced federal and state budget reductions, Chicago leaders have been brokering civic, community, and corporate partnerships to tackle the more vexing issues of healthcare, housing, and urban planning.

This has produced inspiring and effective stories such as the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which was able to distribute 46 million pounds of food during the last fiscal year to tens of thousands through state-of-the-art logistics that included refrigerated trucks, conveyor belts, and bar scanning. The jewel in downtown Chicago’s crown is the 25-acre Millennium Park that through corporate and foundation donations, combined with city funding, was created as a soothing and welcoming gathering place in the heart of downtown.

For 20 years, Leadership Greater Chicago (LGC) has created cohort groups from community, civic, legal, and corporate organizations that would otherwise never meet. Many of LGC’s members are part of the Chicago network of power brokers with links to Obama.

Like other major cities, Chicago still faces deep-seated problems. Chicago is paradoxically among the most diverse cities yet is the most segregated. Despite finally shedding an outdated image of a terrorized city at the mercy of Capone gangsters, modern drug-trafficking gangs make many neighborhoods unsafe. Chicago has one of the highest home foreclosures rates in the country. Daley’s six-term trajectory, with at least eight more years if Chicago were to get the Olympic nod, raises the specter of the potential for corruption in a city with more that its historical fair share of it.

But on Tuesday night at Grant Park and throughout the city, Chicagoans set aside the doom and gloom of global, national, and urban threats and took hold of a rising hope in a reinvented city.

As revelers cleared security to access the area in front of the stage where Obama was to give his acceptance speech, they sprinted with glee to secure their places. The last time politically motivated folks were seen sprinting in Grant Park, they were being pursued by police with billy clubs during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. That was then. With Barack Obama now as president, Chicago has now arrived.

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