Chicago: A City in Freefall
Water Tower Place, an eight-story, 758,000 sq. ft. high-end shopping mall in downtown Chicago, is in the news.
Once one of the biggest and most exciting malls in the Midwest, it quietly leaked that the owners are interested in renting out the top five of its eight floors “for purposes other than retail.”
Not just wealthy shoppers, but even browsing tourists, too, it seems, are staying away in droves.
Chicago could support such a luxury mall once. The Magnificent Mile was a thrilling destination for generations. What happened to Chicago’s iconic Michigan Boulevard? Or to back up even farther — what happened to Chicago?
The Second City. The Biggest Airport in the World. The City of Big Shoulders. Hog Butcher to the World.
Back when it was The City That Worked, Chicago had a lot of nicknames, and for good reason, before we lost them, one by one. We were known as a global corporate center, a transportation hub, a theatre district second only to New York, a restaurant destination second to none.
But Chicago has been other things too, all along. A machine town run by one corrupt party, the Democrats. A world-famous home of organized crime, from the mafiosi of the Prohibition Era to the drug gangs of today. A tax and regulatory hell where the government’s share of your income, both above board and under the table, was always painful.
So, living and working in Chicago — and by extension, in Chicagoland — has always been a challenge. As an employer, you had to charge more for your product, to cover the taxes and graft. As an employee, you had to be paid more, in salary and benefits, to cover the income tax and property tax, the sales tax and highway tolls. Everything adds up, making this an expensive place, not just for some of us, but for virtually all of us.
Still, it could be worthwhile. For a long time — over a century — the math could work, because the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.
Theaters could charge more for tickets, restaurants could charge more for dinner, office buildings could charge more for rent, all because of the cachet of being in Chicago.
Where else can you enjoy a different cuisine every meal for weeks? Where else can you see a different professional show every day, visit a different world-class museum or aquarium or art gallery every day?
And if you’re here on business, where else can you call on dozens of customers in the same downtown on the same business trip? You don’t need to fly to ten different airports; whatever your business may be, you have a week’s worth of clients to visit on the same expense report. Even Chicago’s high costs didn’t stop a visit from being cost-effective in the end.
But there’s a funny thing about this kind of math. It works...until it doesn’t.
Over the past couple of generations, other cities grew, even surpassing Chicago in size. Other cities learned how to cook more than one cuisine, build more than one theater, develop a variety of shopping and cultural options. Other cities built office complexes and skyscrapers to host world-class corporate headquarters.
There are now dozens of cities that boast all the same benefits as Chicago, without the negatives that Chicago has.
Chicago’s key negatives — the crooked politicians, the high taxes, the outrageous crime — have only continued to grow, often on purpose.
Chicago’s crooked politicians now have complete control over state government, rolling over the much more reasonable politicians of downstate (or outstate) Illinois. This has caused the tax and regulatory burden, already high, to skyrocket. They have mandated sanctuary city status, filling the city, county, and state with indigent illegals to swell the already unaffordable welfare rolls. They have taken a Safe-T Act approach to defanging the criminal justice system, increasing the crime problem exponentially by empowering and encouraging the criminal element.
In nearly every other arena of life, we see people and organizations in a competitive environment rise to the challenge. When a sports team gets better, its rivals do, too. They have to. When a restaurant or department store becomes more popular, its competitors across the street or across the mall quickly up their game as well, offering better value, better service, better quality, better ambiance — whatever it takes to win back the customers they’ve lost.
Only in politics do we see this apparent disinterest in results. Only in the sphere of state and local governments do we see politicians uninterested in the decline of their cities, the indigence of their population, the loss of opportunities for the generations to come.
In both Chicago and Springfield, the statistics virtually scream for a change in direction, and our politicians just whistle louder to themselves, hands over their ears, as they continue to do more of the things that caused the problems.
It’s not rocket science: cut tax rates, revoke sanctuary status, lock up the criminals. That’s all. Business will thrive again; tourists and shoppers will return. But the Chicago Democrat Machine just doesn’t do “solutions.”
If Chicago is to compete with the rest of the world, and become a happy destination again instead of the place that everyone flees, we need to replace our politicians...before there’s nothing left for this City of Big Shoulders to rebuild.
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international transportation professional and consultant. A onetime Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman, he has been writing a regular column for Illinois Review since 2009. Read his book on vote fraud (The Tales of Little Pavel) and his political satires on the current administration (Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volumes I and II).