Chicago Steps Out

Article excerpt

Byline: Raymond Sokolov

The Second City is finally hip. Now Rahm has to keep it rolling.

In the final days of the campaign that got him elected mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel crossed paths with Patricia Sandifer on the Blue Line of the city's transit system. Emanuel, a long-serving Washington insider, is leading a pack of high-powered Obama stalwarts back to the Windy City. Sandifer, who commutes to an administrator's job in a local law firm, is better known as Boss Lady in the world of juke, Chicago's lightning-fast dance/electronic-music craze.

Together, Emanuel and Sandifer represent Chicago at a crossroads. Careening toward bankruptcy after 22 years under Mayor Richard Daley, the city has lost 200,000 inhabitants in the past decade. The racial tensions of the past have lessened palpably, but no one would say the potential of a future resurgence of the bad old days has vanished. But Daley also leaves behind a glittering metropolis that Chicagoans rightly love and outsiders can only envy.

There's no talk here anymore about being the "Second City." When he coined that phrase 60 years ago, New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling was twitting Chicagoans for their obsession with not measuring up to New York. For even then, Chicago had most things a "first" city needs: the peerless setting on Lake Michigan, the unrivaled urban architecture, great cultural institutions. What was missing were fizz and edge. But especially in the last decade, Daley, for all his cronyism and budgetary denial, put a shine on a great but gray town. He built so many parks that Midwestern nurseries ran out of trees. His triumph, Millennium Park, is the dazzling emblem of a period that brought Chicago social harmony--along with booming tourism, e-commerce, and new kinds of culture.

Now, from a music scene powered by the underground footwork energy of juke to adventurous three-star restaurants, high-stepping fashion, and hot artists, Chicago is not only "the city that works," in Mayor Daley's slogan, but also an exciting, excited city in which all these glittery worlds shine. The sunburst arrived late. Chicago's moment was supposed to come in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama. But the exodus of local talent that followed him to Washington sapped some buzz, which just gave the city's already sparkling cultural side that much more time to jell. Now the political names are returning, and though the challenges may be daunting--the city's budget is a mess, and class struggles are breaking out in the surrounding states--Mayor-elect Emanuel will take over a city whose poise and elan are in flood state.

The zest that pervades Chicago now cannot be explained simply as a result of seed money invested in parks or a liberal openness on the part of a mayor toward resentful and hitherto barely suffered segments of the urban crowd. But a mayor can make a difference just by standing for something bigger than reelection and paying off people who either look like himself or carry his water.

Nevertheless, there is a mysterious spirit no one can objectively locate that forces the hand of a place or forces things to grow as in a hothouse. Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investment, has thought a lot about growth in the broker's way of talking about growth. She has an earthy explanation for the most ostentatious and politically unnecessary piece of glamorous expansion all over town: Why is Chicago the world's leader in cutting-edge food? Why is the city once known as hog butcher to the world now offering it a bacon martini at Moto? The cause, speculates the enthusiastic Hobson, is a matter of the "begats." One begats another that begats another.

But it takes a special kind of ease and openness for all this begetting to take place. And Chicago has lately come to see itself as a place whose inherent friendliness can now embrace all sorts of improbable invention and behavior. There is self-confidence, an upbeat feeling. …