A couple of weeks ago, my day-job required me to fly to Chicago for a day to attend a meeting. I’d been to Chicago on business a couple of times before, but on those trips I was visiting companies that were located outside of the city, so I never got a chance to see the downtown commercial center known as The Loop. Like most Americans, I’m ignorant about the places in our country that I don’t actually live in, much less the rest of the world, so I was quite surprised to see an architectural treasure chest suddenly appear before me on the cab ride to the Hyatt on Wacker Drive, where my meeting was being held. Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know a lot more about the architecture of Chicago.
After my meeting at the hotel had ended, I had a couple of hours free before I needed to get back to the airport for my flight home, so I took a little walk around the general vicinity. Some of the buildings were quite captivating and I started feeling nostalgia for an era that I never actually lived in. I imagined that it was the 1950’s and the hustle and bustle around The Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower was comprised of men and women wearing hats. I had arrived in the city by train. I had my new Android-based smartphone with me, so I snapped a few pictures. I had just gotten the phone the week before, so I fumbled a lot with it, trying to figure out how to work the camera function. The results are rather mediocre and you can probably find much better pictures of these landmarks elsewhere on the internet, but at least I’ve documented my trip there.
On the ride to airport, in true Tom Friedman globe-trotting-blowhard fashion, I had a conversation with the cheerful and talkative cab driver. He started the conversation, just casual small talk, by asking me what brought me to Chicago. “A business strategy meeting I said.” The fact that I had no luggage and had flown out just for the day for “A business strategy meeting” in these difficult times is a dead giveaway that I’ve got a pretty good job. Admittedly, I do. He asked me what I did and I told him software. We spoke for a bit as he asked me about what I thought “the next big thing” would be.
As we drove along Grant Park, I told him that although I had been to Chicago before, this was the first time I had actually gotten to see some of it and I thought it was quite beautiful. I’m not naive enough to think that an entire city looks like the few blocks I walked around in the the commercial center and that like most places these days, the massive recession has hit hard. I’m very aware of how fortunate I am. My pretty good job has a lot to do with the sheer luck I happened to have in being where I was when the hammer fell two years ago. There’s a lot of guys like me out of the work.
“But how are things going here really?” I asked.
“Pretty bad,” he answered. “I’m glad I got this job. I lost my factory job a couple of years ago. I’m doing this to make ends meet. I’m taking an exam next month to be a corrections officer. Otherwise there’s no jobs.”
Interesting growth industry for a city like Chicago.
We passed by a massive old housing project. It looked like it had been abandoned for years. The windows and doors of all the buildings were boarded up, the grass had grown tall, and the entire complex was surrounded by a twenty foot high chain-link fence and no trespassing signs.
“What’s up with that?”
The cabbie shook his head. “They closed that down five years ago and were supposed to build mixed-income units. Nothing’s happened since then.”
The final miles to the airport were filled with businesses – former grocery stores, coffee shops, dry-cleaners, gas stations, pizza shops, real estate agencies, car dealerships – that had all been shuttered. The road to any city’s airport always seems to run through its metaphoric “Valley of Ashes,” but this one seemed deeper and wider than most.
At the airport, I paid the fare and tip, shook the cabbie’s hand, thanked him for the ride and wished him luck on his upcoming exam. As I look now at those pictures I took, I still think of that mid-western industrial giant in the middle of the last century. Those beautiful towers are the legacy an era when people worked in plants for a living wage, the unions protecting them were strong, the top tax rate was 91%, and CEO’s made forty times the lowest paid worker, not hundreds.
The forces that transformed that city into the despair of today are innumerable and complex, but the smart phone that I used to snap my pictures with tells one small part of the story. It’s a miraculous piece of technology whose capabilities were the stuff of science fiction when those buildings first reached toward the sky. It is also an artifact of that world-is-flat mentality that fellow cab-rider Friedman was hyperventilating just a few short years ago. It was manufactured in a Chinese sweatshop operated by a company under a contract with a multi-national corporation. Where is the headquarters of this multi-national corporation?
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