Fast Company's Fast Cities 2008 list (which is about a thousand times more coherent than last year's) came with a delightful cherry on top for this blogger, as it named Chicago the "Creative Capital of the Universe." Being from Milwaukee (Chicago's little brother to the north) and currently residing in the Windy City, I found this exciting news; Chicago has long suffered from what you might call Second City Syndrome, always trying to get out from under New York's shadow. (For the record: we don't really think of Los Angeles as a real place, so we're still #2).
All About Cities' Wendy Waters wrote a post tonight questioning whether or not the title was quite accurate; indeed, her assessment of the title's pithy, attention-grabbing nature is right on: it would be boring to read another article about New York or San Francisco being the most creative. But there's more merit to the title than you might think if yer not from 'round these parts.
I'll turn to Paul Graham's recent essay, "Cities and Ambition," for my defense. In his highly enjoyable piece, Graham asserts that cities that act as hubs of ambition have a way of communicating with people; New York says to its residents, "You should make more money;" Silicon Valley says "You should be more powerful;" Cambridge says "You should read all of those books you've been meaning to read." Chicago is most certainly an ambitions place -- it's the Emerald City of the Midwest, the Mount Olympus of Flyover Country. All (rail)roads lead here, so to speak. But after reading Graham's essay, I had trouble picking out exactly what Chicago was saying through its citizens' ambition.
"Creative Capital of the Universe" hit me like a brick in the face. Of course! Chicago says to its citizens, "You should be more interesting." The city is a domestic melting pot, pooling people from a region that is typically overlooked and underappreciated. We of the rust belt and great plains cities flock to Chicago to prove ourselves. Chicago's Second City Syndrome is a great asset; a city that is constantly trying to prove itself, after all, demands that its citizens do the same. And because of the slight sense of inferiority, Chicago is less pretentious than other global hubs like New York, London, or San Francisco. That lack of pretention has the power to erode fear of the unknown; Chicago has always understood that, to make big headlines, you need to take big risks.
In a world as spiky and competitive as the one that we live in today, it's pretty much impossible to claim that one city can claim to be the creative capital. But in terms of big headlines, Chicago seems to have inspired exactly what it was hoping: controversy. Screw being rational. Be more interesting.
(Photo from Flickr user kellyhafermann. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
US City of the Year: Chicago (Fast Company)
Chicago: Creative Capital of the Universe? (All About Cities)
Cities and Ambition