February 1, 2011

Worthwhile improvements

Chicago has issues to address before it becomes one of the world's premier cities

I’m an avid reader of the all-things-quality Monocle magazine. Out of Monocle’s ten issues a year, many include lengthy city surveys for such global destinations as Sao Paulo, Seoul, Tokyo, and Hong Kong (notice the magazine’s love for Asia). Monocle also does country guides for smaller favorites like Finland and Singapore.

Perhaps the most widely known survey Monocle produces each year is its Quality of Life Survey, ranking the top 25 most livable cities. The magazine dispatches teams of journalists and photographers to major cities around the world, and then ranks them according to its own metrics, including conventional ones like health and crime, but also more typical Monocle metrics like whether one can find a good drink at 3 a.m., the number of cinema screens in town, and the quantity of retail options.

In an interview revealing the most recent Quality of Life Survey from Tokyo last year, Tyler Brûlé, Monocle’s brain-man and editor-in-chief, talked about the hate mail he receives from Chicago.

Apparently he’s received one too many emails from snarky Chicagoans about their great city in the heartland of the United States. In fact, Monocle sent some folks to Chicago for its last Quality of Life Survey, but of course, it was nowhere near the top 25.

But fret not my brethren, the list didn’t include New York City or Los Angeles either, nor San Francisco. However, Honolulu and Portland, OR did make the list.

Most U.S. cities are like war zones compared to the likes of Tokyo and Singapore, and with Chicago’s relatively high homicide statistics, of course the city didn’t make the cut. But in light of Monocle’s snubbing, and because I have a naïve hope that Rahm Emanuel is reading this, I'd like to offer a brief fix for Chicago:

Solve the segregation problem. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. An analysis by the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that in order for African-Americans to be as evenly distributed as whites in Chicago, 81 percent of them would need to move. One would think that the mayoral race would be rife with rhetoric about fixing segregation. But how far could that go when the African-American community was too busy debating over which one of the three black candidates, Davis, Braun, and the bigot of the bunch, Mr. Meeks, would be the “consensus candidate.” If you are skeptical about the level of segregation in Chicago, then just take a ride on the Red Line, starting in Rogers Park, ending at Garfield. You will notice how everything begins as you would expect with any major city–a nice mix of people. Notice what happens at Roosevelt–virtually every white person leaves. And it seems if you aren’t black and haven’t left by 35th street, then you are surely a U of C student, or otherwise live in Hyde Park. If you lived in Kenwood, you would have just driven home.

Speaking of the CTA, the city should invest in better infrastructure and subway cars. Examples found in many Asian cities are unrealistic and impractical for Chicago to strive for, but domestically, both the Metro in Washington and the MTA in New York utilize available space better, making rides far more efficient than those found on the CTA. Looking at expanding certain lines and adding new ones would also be appropriate. Chicago isn’t huge in area, but many portions of the city could use greater subway access. And what’s the point of the Green Line again?

Actually do something about the level of crime. Policy makers don’t seem to understand that banning guns doesn’t solve gun violence. If the Chicago gun ban worked, then the city wouldn’t have weekends where the number of gun violence victims reached upwards of 40.

For the future success of brand Chicago, the city should hire a customer service consultant. Customer service in Chicago is dismal, spanning from areas like the CTA, where asking the bus driver a simple question can be sacrilegious, to businesses serving food–try ordering a Big Mac on 53rd. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the stress of the city, or the traffic, or the cold, but I have never experienced worse customer service across so many areas of industry in any other big American city. There are some sweet spots, like the Starbucks on Rush in the Gold Coast, and even the CitiBank on Ellis, but usually I can expect an unpleasant experience when spending money in Chicago. Good customer service is not hard to accomplish and does not take much effort. When it is done well, it goes tremendously far in changing attitudes and the quality of experience for everyone.

Demolish the Democratic machine.

Persuade New York to loan Michael Bloomberg to Chicago for a year. Chicago is rather slow at change, and I’m optimistic about Rahm Emanuel possibly being the next mayor. But what Chicago really needs is an independent mayor. It is probably too much to ask for a mayor independent of party affiliation at this point, but at least the mayor should be independent in his or her decision-making. The city needs a mayor with vision that sees Chicago beyond its small-town mentality, and as a global destination for business and culture.

Well, there it is. I could go on, but like Mr. Meeks, what would be the point?

Lloyd Lee is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Political Science.