Chicago has never been a shining city on the hill. Growing quickly out of the prairie, fueled by raw commercial interests, the city has always been personified by braggarts, tough guys on the make–for every Jane Addams, a score of Paddy Baulers.

But today the city looks and feels different. Former factories and warehouses are now inhabited by white-collar professionals who vote for a mayor who puts flower boxes on the streets. The apparent transformation has led the organizers of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival to pose a somewhat impertinent question: Has the city had a sex change?

“Traditionally, the image of the city, and of its major buildings, could be called masculine,” says University of Chicago history professor Neil Harris, who claims Chicago’s great architecture “projected a rather aggressive, self-promoting, swaggering industrial vision to the world.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Harris says, the city “stank. It was dirty. The stockyards were a powerful presence, and soft coal was burned here, leaving soot everywhere.” But times have changed. “In recent years, some people have argued this city, like a number of others, has been gentrified, and it is increasingly known not as a brawling hog butcher but as a creator of culture,” a city where elegant stores have replaced the corner tavern. Harris says the question of whether the city has changed sexes is only meant to be a provocative entree to discuss the “set of changes that appear to make Chicago in 1990 a very different city than it was in 1920 and probably in 1950.”

Dominic Pacyga, a professor of history at Columbia College, says women have played an important role in this transformation. For instance, “Maggie Daley has had a tremendous impact on Richie,” he says. “His father was thinking about building tall buildings like the Prudential Building and the Sears Tower. Richie’s planting trees and planting flowers.” As to whether the city’s newer architecture can be classified as masculine or feminine, Pacyga demurs. “What would you call the State of Illinois Building? I don’t know if that’s feminine or masculine or just strange. I think the culture has changed.”

The discussion “Has Chicago Had a Sex Change?”–featuring Harris, Pacyga, Columbia University professor Joan Ockman, and Katerina Ruedi, head of UIC’s school of architecture–will take place from 3:30 to 5 this Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago. Admission is $5. For more information on the Chicago Humanities Festival, which this year explores the issues of gender, see the Section Two art listings or call 312-661-1028. –Jordan Marsh