Publication Date

October 1, 2011

The American Historical Association's annual meeting returns to Chicago in January 2012 after a nine-year hiatus, and attendees will notice a good deal of impressive change. Millennium Park opened in 2004 and quickly became the city's cultural magnet. A real estate boom accelerated, then crashed, but nonetheless reshaped much of the city's built environment, especially in the River North area that surrounds the AHA's meeting hotels as well as in many neighborhoods. More recently, Chicago has a new mayor after 44 years of rule by Richard J. and Richard M. Daley since 1955, and Rahm Emmanuel promises "tough decisions" in these difficult economic times.

More importantly, Chicago in the past decade has vaulted into the top ranks of "Global Cites," listed sixth (behind New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong) in a 2010 survey byForeign Policy and the consulting firm A. T. Kearny, based on 25 data points ranging from valuations of capital markets to measures of human capital. Global cities like Chicago, the survey explained, “are places where you go to do business, yes, but also to see the greatest art, hear the greatest orchestras, learn the latest styles, eat the best food, and study in the finest universities.” The survey concluded that such cities have not only “global corporations” but also “think tanks, jazz bars, and broadband. In a word, they have clout.”1

Yet many Chicagoans might be surprised—or even angered—to think of their city, with its continuing racial divides, struggling schools, and cash-strapped transit system, as part of a global elite. Deindustrialization, depopulation, and deprivation make large swaths of the city outside the central area appear more "rust belt" than "cutting edge." The idea of the global city as a playground for the wealthy and highly educated does not fit well with historically working-class cultures and ethnic-immigrant communities. The selective nature of growth in the city has fueled a long-standing tension between "downtown" and "the neighborhoods," the latter resenting the narrow focus of investment in the central area as well as the gentrification radiating from it, even as "downtown" interests argue that they are the economic engine providing jobs and a tax base keeping the city fiscally afloat, though only barely. The city's new-found Global City position remains contentious to many.

Similarly, Chicagoans might also hear the word "clout" and make an entirely different association. Clout in the city's lexicon is a specific form of influence-peddling wielded by local aldermen who can arrange a zoning variance or get a nephew a city job.2 In building the global city, “pinstripe patronage”—a refined form of clout—has allowed politicians to dispense contracts and land deals to well-connected donors. For some, clout greases the wheels of a “city that works.” For others, such petty corruption offends and perpetuates the city’s race and class divides.

And yet, undeniably, Chicago has transformed from the early 20th century Midwest metropolis known as the "Hog Butcher for the World" and the "City of Big Shoulders"—a city "coarse, and strong, and cunning," as poet and Chicago icon Carl Sandburg wrote in 1916—into a postindustrial, "creative-class" city (to use Richard Florida's term) based on a knowledge economy.3 The city’s leadership class—corporate heads, city politicians, real estate interests, and city planners—have prophesied, pushed, and funded a Global City agenda. From building Millennium Park to landing Boeing’s corporate headquarters and crafting a (failed) Olympic bid, Chicago has become a part of the world stage. At the same time, this agenda has left large segments of the city behind, with public disinvestment, crumbling infrastructure, and only the hope of service economy work. The divides remain stark and disconcerting.

To explore this complex, evolving city, the Local Arrangements Committee encourages annual meeting attendees to sign up for any of our tours. These include, among others, a look at Bronzeville (the historic center of the African American Great Migration), Pilsen and Little Village (Mexican-American communities), and newly transformed public housing developments. Other tours offer perspectives on European and Asian history in community-based settings, including Lithuania under Soviet domination and Cambodia under Pol Pot. Finally, a curator-led tour at the Chicago History Museum examines this city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender history, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Newberry Library offers a look at its medieval, renaissance, and early modern collections. The committee has also organized a half-day digital media workshop, “THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) AHA” with Dan Cohen, as well as a session on the historical experience with nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima Daiichi. We hope that, like the city, we have something challenging for everyone.

(Roosevelt University) is co-chair of the Local Arrangements Committee for the 126th Annual Meeting.


1. “The Urban Elite: The A. T. Kearny Global Cities Index, 2010,” at

2. Len O’Connor,Clout: Mayor Daley and His City (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1975).

3. Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” 1916. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Perseus Book Group, 2002).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.