How Ethnic Groups Shaped Chicago's Look

The first impression: Buildings not unlike what you get to see of English universities like Cambridge or Oxford, surrounded by huge parks. The University of Chicago (UC), founded 1890 as a private university by John D. Rockefeller, has a beautiful campus.

Michael Conzen’s talk “Metro Decentralization, Global Recentralization, Resurgent Urban Core” is the first part of our seminar at the UC. Conzen is professor of geography, so his interest is rather focused on the urban development of Chicago than social life of ethnic groups in certain districts. But throughout his talk it becomes very clear that ethnic groups have a huge influence on the urban development of a city.

Chicago is a global city, one of the leading cities in terms of economy, networking and cultural status worldwide, and a good example for a successful handling of the new challenges of globalization. For Chicago, as for all post-industrial metropolises, knowledge drives growth, not labor, land or capital. But in earlier days there were different reasons for the enormous growth of Chicago: Founded in 1830, it was highly dependent on the warehouse economy stimulated by the construction of canals. The ‘water-time’ when Chicago grew out of the economical driving force of the canals was the first period of constant growth of the city.

In the second period Chicago really expanded explosively. That was the time when railroads were build and Chicago became the transportation center of the USA. Every good on the way from East to West or vice versa had to pass Chicago. As well as every immigrant. A lot of latter even stayed in Chicago where they found plenty of jobs.

The third period was characterized by the building of large freeways. Suburbs were established outside of the city center and changed the appearance of the city.

For long time periods certain neighborhoods were very much shaped by the immigrants. One pattern is typical: Immigrants arrive at Chicago and first live in the city center. As they start to socially rise, they tend to move out of the inner city until they become part of the strong American middle class and live in a suburb. Meanwhile, new immigrants enter the city and overtake the districts the earlier arrivals just left. According to Professor Conzen, in the history of Chicago the blacks took over sectors of moving-out whites, as well as Mexicans later moved to formerly Polish sectors.

In the last years rich people started to move back into the city core. Professor Conzen lamented the “tearing-down of old houses and the rebuilding with modern buildings”, which changes the look of the inner city in a bad way.

Professor Conzen’s talk was very interesting, enriching and entertaining. He was followed by his wife Kathleen Neils-Conzen about ethnic groups in Chicago, Madison & Minneapolis.

Ayke Süthoff