Jon Talton: Tales of Two Cities: What Chicago and Charlotte Say About the Future of America

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jon Talton is a journalist and author living in Seattle. He writes the “On the Economy” column for the Seattle Times and is proprietor of the blog Rogue Columnist.]

Sometimes disparate events bring portents (and sometimes not). I read the news about Chicago failing in its bid for the 2016 Olympics and the management malpractice at Bank of America and reached one conclusion: America will build no more great cities.

Chicago became a great city despite barriers that would seem formidable, especially its manic orientation toward commerce (as opposed to the Paris built by Haussmann) and its decades of racial strife and white flight. And yet a great, global city did arise, celebrated by poets, novelists and academics. Chicago had great bones because it came of age during a time of great architecture and civic design (its most celebrated, Daniel Burnham, said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood…”).

Blossoming before the car, it enjoyed urban concentration. Perhaps most it all, it bred a different class of robber barons, for all of Dreiser’s contempt for them. The Chicago business titans wanted to show their wealth by building a great city. By the time of city destabilization of the 1950s, a critical mass had been established that would even allow Chicago to build Millennium Park in 2004.

The best hope to show that America was capable of still building great cities might have been Bank of America’s hometown of Charlotte. The North Carolina city was a middling Southern metro until about 15 years ago. Then a combination of competing business leaders and a moment in history — rather like Chicago, albeit on a smaller scale — turned Charlotte into the nation’s second-largest banking center, drew a population larger than Seattle and seemed on the brink of showing how automobile-age America could still build a real city.

Chicago, of course, will remain a great city in what may well be a diminished and declining America. That Rio de Janerio would win the 2016 Olympics seems obvious to anyone who has been paying attention: Asia and Brazil are on the rise, which will inevitably send America into relative decline. Yet some trends threaten to send the United States into the absolute decline of empires: a hollowed-out economy replaced by financial plays, overstretched and costly military commitments, deep debt to the world. Also, government paralyzed by political gridlock over spending and incapable of making forward-leaning investments for the new century. And businesses yoked to capital markets that demand profits to an atomized world of untethered wealthy and anonymous shareholders rather than allow for city building...

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