Monday, April 2, 2012

The Fourth City

This article by Aaron Renn, and this one by Phil Rosenthal in the Chicago Tribune, illustrate the gap between how we Chicagoans feel about our city, and what the rest of the world thinks of us. We natives, those of us who at least on a good day love the place, think of Chicago as a beautiful, sophisticated, exhilarating city. The rest of the world, at least those who haven't actually been here, think of Al Capone, bad weather, deep dish pizza and Michael Jordan. Rosenthal cites an article on Chicago in the travel section of Los Angeles Times. The article began with this:

The first rule of business — any business — is this: Do what you do well. And what Chicago does well is drink.


They must have been thinking of this:

Now there's no reason to get all indignant about that. After all, what do Angelinos know about anything outside their own town? And let's be honest, what do most of us know about the second third and fourth most populated cities of most countries? Everyone knows Paris of course but unless we've been there, what do we really know about Marseille, Lyon or Toulouse? Not to mention Birmingham, Leeds or Sheffield.

When people outside of this country think about American cities, they think of New York City and Los Angeles. Why not? LA has Hollywood, for all intents and purposes, the world's capital of popular culture. And New York is well, New York, one of the great cities of the world. There's probably something in The Big Apple for everyone except for hardcore city haters.

Aaron Renn argues that Washington D.C., first in war, first in peace, and last in the National League, now comes in as the nation's third city in terms of its attractiveness to tourists. That's not too surprising since it's the nation's capital. D.C. is a great place to visit, lots of things to do for a visitor with its plethora of monuments, museums and historical sites devoted to the American Experience. It's a must see place for every American, but I question how well it plays for someone without a deeply rooted interest or understanding of what this country is all about.

From my experience, LA is a fabulous place to visit if you have at your disposal all of the following:
  • People to hang out with, 
  • a car, and 
  • LOTS of money.
Without any one of the three, Los Angeles, which I just visited for the umpteeth time, can be the lonliest, most depressing place imaginable. 

Now I'm not the biggest civic booster around, I'm as critical and cynical about Chicago as any native can be. But the truth is, I honestly can't remember ever meeting anyone, especially a non-American, who has visited this city and wasn't blown away by it. Perhaps it's the surprise factor. Chicago isn't on most people's radar; what they expect to find here are handrails that people grasp onto to prevent them from blowing away in the incredible wind, and of course, gangsters. For those of you who have never been here, here's a little secret; the handrails and mighty winds are urban legend. The gangsters are real, but you're not likely to run into one, unless you really want to. 

What people do find is a great urban experience, a unique city that offers a tremendous variety of attractions for visitors, no matter what their interest, or the size of their pocketbook. No it's not New York, but it does have much of what that city has to offer in terms of cultural, epicurian and entertainment amenities, without much of the hassle and expense that go along with the much larger city. And they tell me the people here are really friendly, at least by big city standards. If you can't have a good time in Chicago, you're simply not trying. (That slogan is mine and is available to the highest bidder.)

Boosterism aside, tourism, whether we like it or not, is an important part of our economy, not something to be taken lightly. Tourists on their own bring in a sizable chunk of change into the city's coffers, but less obvious are the business possibilities that come along with the good PR generated by foreigners returning home with positive stories about the Windy City. Still we can't rely on that alone to generate interest. That's why I supported wholeheartedly Mayor Richard M. Daley's attempt to bring the 2016 Olympics here. The kind of worldwide publicity the Games would have brought this city I believe would have been well worth the money spent and the hassles getting around town for the brief duration of the event. I found the protests against it to be foolish and short sighted. 

We are about to host the upcoming NATO summit in May and once again the whiners and naysayers are complaining about the hassles they'll have to endure for two whole days. But again, the publicity, even if it's just the image of the Wrigley Building behind a talking head in China or Myanmar, will help cement an image of Chicago in the minds of people who would otherwise never have given us a second thought. That publicity may not immediately pay rich dividends, but down the line you never know how familiarity (however subtle) of this city will effect tourism, and business prospects in the future.

I was just in Melbourne last month on a work trip. That city was never on my radar, unlike Sydney which was very familiar to me from the iconic images of its harbor and the 2000 Olympics. (True Melbourne also hosted the Games, but in 1956, a little before my time). Before my trip, had I chosen to travel to Australia on my own, I certainly would have visited Sydney, but probably not Melbourne, which would have been a shame as it's a fantastic city.

Go there if you can.

OK there's a plug from a satisfied customer. Now, for those of you reading this Down Under, or in Asia, Africa, or wherever, come to Chicago.

As they say: The water's fine, we'll leave the light on for you.

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