Why the Rest of America Should Be More Like Chicago

Heading into the first salvos of winter weather, it's easy to bail on Chicago life as you're seemingly singularly focused on how much that flight deal to Barbados was that you saw in your spam email. But even at brutal wind chills, Chicago is still an amazing, old-world epicurean metropolis. Standing like a sentinel amongst cornfield country, it's a model city in so many ways. Here's how the rest of the country could benefit by taking a page from Chicago's playbook.

Elks National Memorial Building
Elks National Memorial Building | Courtesy of the CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE FOUNDATION

Our Beaux-Arts architecture will make anyone an aesthete

Chicago’s skyline looks like it was plucked from a neo-noir classic or some graphic novel. The city has always been an architectural vanguard with its stylistic buildings designed by avant-garde architects of the era including Frank Lloyd Wright and Burnham & Root. Just wander through the Jones College Prep Building, Mansueto Library, or the Poetry Foundation, and you’ll feel like you’re walking inside someone’s imagination. And its prized cityscape has also drawn in a record $600 million in film production between 2006 and 2010.

We have a smashing music heritage

Chicago’s early industrial contours incubated singular voices of music. Listening to a set at Buddy Guy's, Kingston Mines, or The Green Mill, you’ll hear the “Great Migration” contingents. Think: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Bo Diddley are just a few of the many storied musicians.

Chicago’s hustle and cacophony produced an original version of Dixieland Jazz, too, emerging with Nat King Cole, Benny Goodman, and Bud Freeman. Chicago’s soul also produced its disruptive brand of token music with roots in Southern gospel. Sam Cooke, The Impressions, and Curtis Mayfield should come to mind.

And of course house music originated in Chicago (yes, even before NES’s Mega Man with its sonic motif). Developed in garages, houses, and clubs as a form of music for Chicago’s underground club scene, but the secret got out at a now defunct nightclub called The Warehouse.

Safer Communities Hackathon at Google Chicago
Safer Communities Hackathon at Google Chicago | Flickr/Christopher Whitaker

We've got our own Silicon Valley growing

Chicago is a new backyard for tech startups, or a “Silicone Prairie” with Google and Facebook leading the charge. Groupon, Gogo, and GrubHub also have plots here. But Chicago is leading New York and Los Angeles in tech job growth, and its industry diversity means less cannibalization of talent -- with a healthy VC pool as well (over $1 billion in venture capital investment in 2015). Although it may not seem so, compared to NYC, Los Angeles, and San Fran, Chicago’s living expenses won’t grope your wallet as much.

It's the ultimate theater town

Let Broadway be Broadway. Chicago’s theatre scene is less commercialized and more experimental with over 200 small theatre companies. But native celebrities still helm local companies: Steppenwolf Theatre (headed by John Malkovich and Gary Sinise) and Red Orchid Theatre (Michael Shannon on the board).

But only Chicago can claim improvisational comedy as its own. The “rules” of modern comedic improvisation were formalized by The Compass Players, which became the immortal Second City; Del Close from this troupe then opened-up his local favorite shop, iO. We all know the talents nurtured on these stages.

There’s a neighborhood for every brand of person

Chicago neighborhoods are more “balkanized” than, say, NYC’s. But generally, Chicago’s neighborhoods -- aside from the occasional artisanal gelato parlor -- have retained their native edges and commercialism hasn’t sanitized most storefronts. You can be, however, an exterminator and wanna-be app developer in Humboldt Park or a retired hedge-fund manager that wants to start a black box theatre company in Uptown -- you’re able to re-brand yourself at any time, a kind diversity that transcends all others.

We made hooch famous (or at least notorious) and still do

Chicago has been on the sauce for a long time from Prohibition’s saga with Al Capone through today as a fertile ground for new cocktail lore and craft-brew alchemy. Chicago has over 69 craft breweries city-wide and another 101 in the burbs not to mention the thriving alcohol mecca of Logan Square, the Milwaukee Ave strip in Wicker Park, and other staples and sexy hideouts cropping up in evolving neighborhoods.

UChicago library
Library at the University of Chicago | Flickr/Carlos Jiménez

There are big shoulders but also big brains

Elite universities are rooted in Chicago, such as The University of Chicago, Northwestern University, DePaul University, the Art Institute Chicago, Illinois University, etc. -- without the elitism. You can have a great conversation with somebody from one of these schools without feeling like they’re from American Psycho.

Chicago grants poetic license

Influential writers like Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, and Erik Larson, for example, framed Chicago -- a savior, criminal, or passive bystander -- as a symbol of America at large. Chicago is a monument of commerce, but it’s still wholesome in deciding who it wants to and can be, making it a model literary city to explore American’s various cultural currents.

art institute chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago | MaxyM/Shutterstock

There’s more culture than you’ll ever use (oh, and the top museum in the world)

There are world-renowned history, art, modern art, science, and nature museums and other niche collections and galleries throughout the city. But Chicago hosts the number one museum in the world: The Art Institute. Habitually in the conversation of top museums in the world, even ranked as No. 1 by TripAdvisor, the monolith museum houses more than 300,000 pieces of art in its permanent collection.

Our culinary scene is chef d’oeuvre du jour

Never mind the NYC vs. Chicago deep-dish pizza rhubarb -- Chicago hosts nationally acclaimed chefs and dining establishments winning over 40 James Beard Awards (like the Oscars for chefs), second only to NYC (but we have superior hot dogs). Grant Achatz is the most well-known brainchild leading Alinea and the novel cocktail den, The Aviary. The National Restaurant Association show is also hosted in Chicago, which is a showcase for new dining novelties practiced and defined throughout the nation.

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Eric Brown is a Chicago writer and multimedia professional with a background in publishing, media, and entertainment.