Rupert Cornwell: At last! The cure for Chicago's inferiority complex has arrived

Out of America: No more 'Second City' – the president-elect's adopted home town has joined the big league now
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Not so long ago, about the only motorcades you'd come across in Chicago were the long funeral cortèges of police cars or fire trucks to honour a fellow officer, especially one who had fallen in the line of duty. Now the Windy City is getting used to another sort of cortège: the convoy of black vehicles with blacked-out windows, lights flashing and sirens wailing, slicing through blocked-off intersections, treating the local citizenry like a vanquished enemy.

This tribulation for Chicagoans will not last much longer. For one thing, come inauguration day on 20 January, Barack Obama will have moved to Washington, whose inhabitants put up with such disruptions on a permanent basis. Secretly though, Chicagoans relish the fuss. Motorcades may be a hassle. But they are also final, unmistakable proof that the city is in the big leagues. Obama may or may not change the ways of America, but he's already changed the way Chicago sees itself.

That unforgettable election night party in Grant Park was a start. It was a celebration of Obama, of course, but also of his adopted town. Chicago has produced much in its time, but never a US president who claimed it as home. And the city loved it. "It was amazing when it happened," one local resident remembered, "but the next day, when you got on a bus or subway, everyone still had a big grin on their faces." Or as Scott Turow, the lawyer, best-selling novelist and native Chicagoan put it: "It seems like there are three million people walking round here congratulating each other."

Right now, Chicago is America's hottest city. Pre-Obama, it was written about remarkably little – at least for a metropolis with three million inhabitants. For all its attributes, the city had an oddly provincial air. When out-of-town or foreign reporters came through, they would revisit the Al Capone era, or the era of Mayor Richard Daley and the infamous 1968 Democratic convention. Few bothered to chronicle Chicago's modern triumphs and disasters. The exception they might make was an interview with Studs Terkel, oral historian, guardian of America's past and listed Chicago monument, who died four days before Obama's victory.

Or take sport. Chicago is a fervid sports town – but one that never delivered the goods. Yes, the White Sox from the city's south side won baseball's World Series three years ago. But Chicago's one recent genuine claim to global sporting fame was when Michael Jordan threw hoops for the Chicago Bulls. Obama wears a White Sox cap when he delivers his daughters to school. But the Sox's exploits of 2005 are still overshadowed by those of 1919, when they threw the series in what remains America's biggest sporting scandal.

Rightly or wrongly, Chicago is perceived as a city of sporting failure. Its signature team has been not the Bulls, but the Cubs, baseball's eternal losers, beloved around the country precisely because they haven't won a World Series since 1908. This year the Cubs were reckoned to have their best chance in decades of breaking the jinx. Yet again, they collapsed at the crucial moment.

Cubs aside, Chicago has had a pretty good century. Much has been written about the city's inferiority complex – the resentment, real and imagined, that the place hasn't been given its due by a national media based on the East and West Coast. It referred to itself as "the Second City", acknowledging that New York was a good deal larger. But for some, second city meant second best.

Today, Chicago is America's third largest city, overtaken in population (and celebrity) by Los Angeles. By some measures it ranks no higher than fourth, if you count the pivotal national capital, Washington DC. Chicago has always wanted reassurance that it is a world-class city – even though its architecture, museums, universities and restaurants, not to mention the corporate headquarters and commodity exchanges clustered there, have long guaranteed that status and more.

Now there's Obama. These days, when the media talk about the "Chicago machine", they're not referring to mob operations of the Twenties and Thirties or the mayoral juggernauts of Daley or his son, who holds the job today. The "machine" that matters most is the one run by Obama in 2008 that put together America's best-run presidential campaign in a generation. In David Axelrod, a journalist on the Chicago Tribune before becoming Obama's top campaign adviser, the city has a political strategist to put the hottest shots in Washington to shame.

As media topics, the St Valentine's Day Massacre and the gunning down of John Dillinger in 1934 have been supplanted by Obama's favourite restaurants, by the neighbourhood where he worked as a community organiser, and the one near the University of Chicago where he lives – the latter now barricaded off by police. Soon there will be tours of Obama-related sites, and whatever other enterprise a relentless pursuit of the buck may generate. Everyone will want a piece of the action. Not for nothing did Mike Royko, the late newspaper columnist, suggest the city's motto should be changed from "Urbs in Horto" (City in a Garden) to "Ubi Est Mea?" (Where's Mine?).

But even Royko couldn't have imagined the goody that may now fall into his city's lap, courtesy of Obama's victory. Next October, the International Olympic Committee will decide where the 2016 summer games will be held. Chicago is one of four finalists, along with Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid.

Obama is already on the case. Barely two weeks after his victory, he delivered a formal statement of support for his home town. Political popularity is fickle. But if Obama retains even half his current global following, Chicago must be favourite for the prize. The place has hosted jamborees of every hue, from World's Fairs to more than two dozen national political conventions – but never an Olympics. Come 2016, any lingering "world-class" doubts could be laid to rest for ever.

Comments