Credit: Bobby Sims

You’ve done this.

You’ve flown out of O’Hare or Midway, and you’ve seen the towers of the Loop in the distance. You’ve seen the almost endless flatlands beneath, covered with sprawling subdivisions that slowly transform from small lots to large lots to farms. Heading west, the farmland becomes ranchland and later the Rocky Mountains. If you’re going south, you see the farmland touch the Appalachian foothills; those heading north see the farms become vast, rolling forests. Travelers heading east can see the expanse of Lake Michigan give way to more farmland, then mountains, then urban areas. In all directions, you can sense that Chicago is intimately connected to its midwestern hinterlands, a metropolis on the prairie.

Or is it?

WBEZ’s Curious City regularly researches questions asked by listeners. One recent segment investigated whether Chicagoans are true midwesterners. Many people on the street almost reflexively said no. Chicago’s urban, not rural; it’s no longer dominated by manufacturing; it’s progressive, not provincial; as a global city, Chicago has more in common with New York than it does with Des Moines, Iowa, or even Decatur, Illinois. These people believe that the Windy City is an island of cosmopolitanism in a sea of rural, inexpensive, stultifying friendliness.

The commenters weren’t entirely wrong. Chicago naturally shares a lot with our nation’s largest cities. However, Chicago is as midwestern as the corn that surrounds it. Even more, it’s the capital of the region. And we should embrace it.

It was clear that the Chicagoans who responded in this way to the question were likely making a commentary on the midwest in social, cultural, and value terms. To them, “midwest” evokes images of pastoral and rustic agricultural land dotted with small towns, or perhaps the postindustrial distressed larger cities in the region.

Yes, Chicago has diverged significantly from its troubled rust belt city peers lining the Great Lakes, and the small and midsize communities scattered from Ohio to the Great Plains. Chicago has made a pretty huge transition from its earlier position as a manufacturing behemoth to top-tier global city that is among the world’s leaders in finance, food processing, health care, professional services, and logistics. With 36 of the Fortune 500 corporations headquartered in our metro area, led by pharmacy retailer Walgreens, airplane manufacturer Boeing, and food processing giant Archer Daniels Midland, the economy has significantly diversified over the last 40 years or so.

Other cities in the midwest haven’t been as successful in the transition. Pittsburgh (technically not part of the midwest as it sits in the mid-Atlantic state of Pennsylvania, but often included in the region because of its rust belt manufacturing bona fides) may be the only other large metro in the region that has rebounded as well as Chicago. Indianapolis and Columbus are midwestern cities that have grown significantly over the last 40 years, but they were never burdened with the loss of an extensive manufacturing economy. As state capitals and homes to flagship universities, they’ve relied on a sun-belt-like approach to growth, promoting business friendliness and affordability. Indianapolis’s focus on low taxes and inexpensive quality of life is a big part of its appeal. Large cities like Buffalo (see Pittsburgh), Cleveland, Detroit, Saint Louis, and Milwaukee have recovered from manufacturing’s collapse, but not to the extent witnessed in Chicago.

But if you use “midwest” as a cultural identifier, you’re probably not thinking about our large cities. You’re probably thinking of our many midsize and small cities and the rural areas that have continued to struggle.

A recent study by the Economic Innovation Group compared economic and quality of life characteristics for several midsize midwestern metros, comparing South Bend, Indiana (home to former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who served as mayor from 2012 to 2020), and other similarly sized metros in the region with other metros throughout the country, examining the period between 2007 and 2016. South Bend, Grand Rapids, and Fort Wayne were the only metros that saw slight improvements in their indicators (among others, educational attainment and median household income) over the period; other cities like Toledo, Racine, and Peoria continued a downward slide that began well before the Great Recession. From the report’s conclusion: “Modest recoveries from the Great Recession pale in comparison to the forceful rebounds experienced across much of the rest of the country.”

The Curious City piece spoke with Richard Longworth, author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, a great book about economic decline in the midwest. He said Chicago’s economy used to be intimately tied to midwestern manufacturing and agriculture. The midwest’s small city manufacturers once sent products to Chicago for distribution across the nation. Farmers determined crop prices based on futures from the Chicago Board of Trade. The midwest’s entire economy went through Chicago, but globalization severed that tie.

But has Chicago really diverged—and recovered—to the extent that it’s completely shed its manufacturing legacy? You can stand in parts of Chicago and say it definitely has. You can stand in other parts of Chicago and say it absolutely has not.

Chicago’s social and economic stratification can be considered a characteristic of its midwestern-ness.

Some years ago on my blog and later on Twitter, I made a comment that I saw Chicago’s social and economic makeup being “one-third San Francisco and two-thirds Detroit.” That is, one-third of Chicago is a booming global city, and that the balance is still a struggling, not-fully-recovered rust belt relic. I received a lot of pushback from Chicagoans when I made that statement. I still stand by it.

This becomes clear when you analyze Chicago via its 77 community areas, defined by University of Chicago researchers in the 1920s. Researchers of all stripes have been collecting and analyzing socioeconomic data on the city using these areas since at least 1930. This method provides great historical data on the communities that make up the city—and it’s a resource few cities in America enjoy.

As a quintessential “city of neighborhoods,” Chicago is known for having neighborhood types that span the social and economic spectrum. There are dense, walkable, and affluent areas concentrated on the city’s north lakefront—think Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and Edgewater—and Loop. There are areas of single family homes and bungalows with solidly middle-class and working-class residents in much of the northwest and southwest sides: Jefferson Park, Garfield Ridge, and Beverly come to mind. There are also the west and south sides of the city, like Austin or Englewood, areas that have historically lagged in economic success relative to the rest of the city.

Take a slice of Chicago that extends from the northern edge at Rogers Park to the Near South Side, including McCormick Place and the surrounding area. Head inland from the lake toward the Chicago River, and include neighborhoods like Logan Square, Wicker Park/Bucktown, the Near West Side, Pilsen, Bridgeport, and Chinatown. That can be considered Chicago’s Booming Bubble. The rest of the city lies outside of that bubble in many ways, and data bears that out.

I collected data on Chicago at the community area level to see how the Booming Bubble compares with the balance of the city, using U.S. Census American Community Survey data from 2017. A distinct picture emerges. Just under 1 million of the city’s 2.7 million residents live in the Booming Bubble, more than one-third of the city’s inhabitants in about one-fifth of the city’s land area. On a per-square-mile basis, population in the Booming Bubble exceeds 20,000 per square mile, making it one of the densest areas in the nation outside of New York City. (New York’s density is nearly 28,000 per square mile, while Manhattan alone is an astounding 71,000 per square mile.) Outside of the Bubble, Chicago’s density is about 9,800 per square mile—similar to Los Angeles (8,500).

Demographically, the Booming Bubble differs from the rest of the city. Whites make up 56 percent of residents inside the Bubble; Latinos comprise 18 percent, Blacks and Asians represent around 12 percent each. That makeup is quite different outside the Bubble: Blacks make up 40 percent of the population, Latinos 35 percent, whites 20 percent, and Asians 3 percent.

The most significant divergence between the Booming Bubble and the balance of the city might be in terms of median household income. In 2017 the median household income within the Bubble was $68,186, nearly equal to that of the metro area overall and actually higher (when adjusted for cost of living) than for all of San Francisco. Beyond the Bubble, the median household income is $43,946, well below the metro area’s $68,403 median household income.

How does the Booming Bubble compare with the nation’s superstar cities? Very well. The Booming Bubble’s population, land area, and high density are indeed comparable to San Francisco; the Bubble area has 960,000 residents within its 48 square miles, while San Francisco overall has 880,000 residents in its 46-square-mile span. The Booming Bubble’s demographic profile is quite similar to Manhattan, which has slightly fewer whites (47 percent to the Bubble’s 56 percent) and more Latinos (26 percent to the Bubble’s 18 percent).

In terms of educational attainment, the Booming Bubble again compares very favorably with the superstar cities. In 2017, 57 percent of adults age 25 and up in the Booming Bubble had a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree. That’s equal to what’s found in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. (57 percent), and only slightly behind that of Seattle and Manhattan (61 percent).

On a cost-of-living adjusted basis, the Bubble’s median household income is equivalent to San Francisco; the 2017 San Francisco median household income of $110,816 equals $67,509 in Chicago, just slightly below the Bubble’s $68,186. The same goes for Seattle, where its $86,822 median household income adjusts to $66,396 in Chicago.

Bottom line: Chicago’s Booming Bubble does indeed live, work, earn, and spend very much like our nation’s most successful large cities.

If Chicago has a Booming Bubble, then by definition there’s an area that’s . . . not. How does the rest of the city compare with other midwest or rust belt cities? Again, very well, but its sheer size makes it difficult to make direct comparisons. However, trends emerge. The rest of the city beyond the Bubble holds nearly 1.8 million residents within 179 square miles, slightly bigger than Philadelphia (1.6 million, 140 square miles). In fact, it would take multiple versions of rust belt cities to equal beyond-the-Bubble Chicago in size—it’s more than twice the size of Detroit, three times larger than Baltimore, and nearly five times larger than Cleveland.

Demographically, the beyond-the-Bubble area makeup is more like Baltimore than the nearby Booming Bubble. In Chicago people of color make up 45 percent of residents within the Bubble, but 75 percent beyond it, comparable to the 73 percent witnessed in Baltimore. The Chicago city balance has a higher minority population percentage than Cleveland (67 percent), Philadelphia and Milwaukee (65 percent), and Saint Louis (56 percent).

Educational attainment in the rest of Chicago mirrors that of fellow rust belt cities. About 27 percent of beyond-the-Bubble Chicagoans age 25 and up have bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degrees, similar to Baltimore (30 percent) and Philadelphia (28 percent). The Chicago balance figure does exceed that for Cleveland (17 percent) and Detroit (15 percent).

As you might guess, the median household incomes of not-Bubble Chicago and rust belt cities compare favorably as well. The $43,946 median household income for beyond-the-Bubble Chicago is again comparable to Philadelphia ($43,861), yet is bested by Saint Louis ($57,602), Baltimore ($50,888), and Milwaukee ($49,287).

Maybe Chicago is best understood as Philadelphia, with Manhattan grafted on.

This doesn’t diminish Chicago’s midwestern character; it enhances it. Despite its attempts to socially and culturally detach itself from its midwestern peers, particularly among Great Lakes cities, it still has plenty in common with them. Scratch the surface and you can see that Chicago is still defined by the positive traits associated with the midwest—the accent, the friendliness, a love of heaping portions of food. Chicago’s midwestern-ness is also defined in not-so-positive midwestern traits—provincialism, relatively closed and hierarchical business and social networks, extreme segregation. The city shares these traits with its rust belt peers like Detroit and Cleveland, and with rural Iowa and Indiana too.

What Chicago can do to transform itself, and the region it comes from, is to once again embrace its role as the economic and cultural leader of the midwest. In the strictest sense, the 11 states of the midwest have nearly 57 million residents. If western New York, western Pennsylvania, and the Kentucky counties bordering the Ohio River are added, all areas that have more-than-passing similarities with the rest of the midwest, that number swells to more than 65 million. Chicago remains the economic and cultural hub sitting at the center of 20 percent of the nation’s population. Few cities have dominion over a region like Chicago has over the midwest. Chicago should strengthen its ties to its hinterlands and contribute to their comeback, not retreat from it. Doing otherwise would simply mean Chicago is denying its essence.  v