Are Big Cities No Longer Necessary?

After the 2013 publication of my novella The Invitation—a dystopian satire of political correctness run amok in Chicago—I realized that I had inadvertently touched upon a larger issue. Call it an unintended consequence or a subconscious feat of misdirection, but it began to bother me that perhaps what I was really talking about amidst the madness of a society well on its way to a total meltdown was the idea of the city itself. Is Chicago, like other cities across the United States, past its prime? All cities change over time, but is there a tipping point when change feeds and accelerates entropy? Are big cities too big these days to be of any use? Are they even manageable?

I grew up in a factory district in 1960s Chicago. There were factories everywhere, in just about every neighborhood. Chicago was truly a blue-collar town. The Chicago Board of Trade, Merchandise Mart and the bigger banks could be found downtown, but there were no mega corporations, mega chain stores or anything else mega for that matter. Neighborhoods were self-sufficient. You worked locally, shopped at mom and pop stores, self-policed your street, knew your beat cop and attended the nearest school. Chicago attracted rural inhabitants (suburban expansion had yet to firmly take root) with the promise of work and higher wages in a multitude of businesses, many of them family-owned. If you were a native and there was a field or profession you wanted to pursue, but there were no real opportunities in the city, you moved to another big city.

Think of all those stories and movies of the country boy or girl who left the farm or small town for the excitement and adventures that only a city could provide. If you wanted to be a writer, you had to move to New York. If you wanted to be an actress, you had to move to Hollywood. If you wanted to be a musician, you played in the clubs known for showcasing and discovering new talent. If you wanted to be an architect, take your pick. Cities were once concentrations of the best and brightest and could be counted on for the latest innovations.

So how did we get here?

Technology, for one. Writers can write and publish from anywhere. Many actors and actresses don’t even live in Hollywood. Musicians can create, upload and reach a global audience with their compositions through YouTube, Vimeo and other outlets. Why live in a high-priced closet to practice your art? For the prestige? Add to this the Internet, Skype, email, commuter rail lines and other conveniences, businessmen and women and professionals of all stripes can live in the suburb or town of their choice. Entrepreneurs, once dependent on pleading their case to bankers, can now make bankers come to them.

Travel, certainly. We’re a mobile people, much more than our ancestors. We don’t even think about it; getting on a plane or hopping into a car is so second nature it’s just another way to get from here to there, and sometimes there turns out to be more appealing than here. Generations once bound to one place has become a relic of the past, and living in a city is no longer the sine qua non of one’s existence or credibility.

Then there are economic and social considerations. The factories of my youth, of course, are gone. Some have been torn down, leaving empty lots, while many have simply been left abandoned. Chains have killed mom and pop stores. The manufacturing economy has been replaced by a service economy. Wages have stagnated or decreased. Taxes and fees have doubled and tripled. Crime has become more savage. Schools have closed. Infrastructures are crumbling. Most major cities are running major deficits. As of this writing, Chicago is over $63 billion in debt and its credit rating has been reduced to junk status. One need not look past Detroit to see where this is going.

The museums, art galleries, concert halls and other venues that once defined the cultural life of big cities? These were built over a hundred years ago and reflected Western European values and experiences of the time. Those values have drastically changed. As demographics shift and places like Chicago continue to embrace sanctuary city policies that attract multitudes of immigrants with no knowledge of or appreciation for Western traditions, cultural institutions have had to rely on like-minded tourists and former city dwellers to survive, no matter how much they try to adapt to the demands of multiculturalism.

And what would any discussion of big city life be without mentioning the absolute failure of government? Political corruption and cronyism, deeply ingrained in city halls across the nation, are so brazen that they barely elicit much more than a yawn by the local media. Enriched pols are too busy running their wards and districts like kingdoms, and even if they somehow manage to screw up so badly that they’re actually sent to prison…no problem! When they get out they announce their intention reclaim their old job. And people will still vote for them.

Our cities are in retreat; in fact, there’s nothing a city used to do that cannot be done elsewhere. Neighborhoods have come to resemble economic and social war zones. Businesses and longtime residents, crushed by the demands of a ravenous system demanding more, are fleeing, leaving behind an ever-growing welfare state and insular cultures. In The Invitation, a dysfunctional Chicago has become so unwieldy and fractured that neighborhoods have been replaced by Ethnic Domains. In days past there were Irish neighborhoods, Polish neighborhoods, Japanese neighborhoods, etc., but the underlying assimilation of these groups into American life rallied even the most disparate groups around a common fidelity to their adopted homeland. My novella, in contrast, portrays these near-future domains as separate entities beholden to no culture but their own, an extreme Balkanization that renders a barely functioning city paralyzed in terms of achieving any collective goals. In writing this tale was I really that far off given what we’re witnessing on a daily basis?

The present course is unsustainable. The tipping point has been breached. The question is whether Chicago, like other big cities, can ever be relevant again.

What do you think? Do big cities still have a purpose?