Finally seeing light at the end of the pandemic’s long, dark tunnel, my mind can’t help but wonder: how is this great city going to remake itself yet again?
When I started to remotely interview with companies in Chicago from sunny California during this February’s barrage of snowstorms and single-digit wind chills, I was often met with questions, explicit and implied, mostly starting with the word “Why?!”
Why leave the ocean, mountains, and 70 degree days? Why trade the Golden Coast for a big lake? Why go against nearly a decade of Illinois population decline? Admittedly, there are a few bedrock reasons for my move: family roots, good friends I don’t see enough, and I’ve missed far too many 1:20 p.m. Friday starts at Wrigley.
But there’s something more — I’ve felt a pull that goes beyond just familial obligations. I’m also a 30-something professional looking for a better life post-pandemic. I’m moving back because after a nightmare of a year, Chicago is poised for a breakout decade. And I want in.
It’s no secret my current home state of California has faced its own steep challenges even before the pandemic hit. Unaffordable housing has pushed thousands onto the streets and forced 56% of lower-income residents to spend too much of their paychecks on rent. Pollution and wildfires keep the state among the worst in the world for air quality. And did you know that a major quake along the San Andreas fault could cut off 70% of Southern California’s fresh water supply?
Lake Michigan may produce some intense weather, but at least it’s not going anywhere.
Beyond the long-term environmental and housing concerns (no small things if you’re looking to start a family), I couldn’t help feeling the crowding and costs of California as professionally and personally stifling. Even my lifelong Californian neighbor would tell me with a shrug, “Hey, we’re a great place to visit.” Over the last year, I contemplated a future back east across the Mississippi and saw a wide open prairie of possibility.
Yes, Chicago was devastated by 2020. Shuttered businesses and restaurants, unrest from an overdue racial reckoning, and a crippling plague that claimed over 10,000 souls all turned the city into something almost unrecognizable to residents. Urban disaster without rival — except for Chicago, which famously burned to the ground 150 years ago.
It’s a tale we’d almost risk over-telling if it weren’t so incredible. Decimated in 1871, Chicago would aggressively charge into the future, remaking itself into a global icon that would literally host the world at a fair two decades later. Imagining myself as part of yet another rebuild — a “second” Second City? — is something too irresistible to ignore.
Finally seeing the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel, my mind can’t help but wonder: how is this great city going to remake itself yet again? What new businesses will arise out of this year of disruption? How will the arts scene respond once we can crowd into black box theaters and gallery spaces again? How will chefs and bartenders excite and inspire us out of our homes and back into their establishments?
The future is objectively bright. The city and state are set to benefit from both a major COVID-19 relief bill and a potential infrastructure cash influx to bolster Chicago as a transit hub. Chicagoland is still rated as a “Top Metro” for corporate investment (last year saw 327 business expansions and relocations according to Site Selection Magazine). Startups in the Chicago area offer a return-on-investment that far outpaces national averages per a recent report. And Chicago continues to have one of the largest and most diversified economies in the world.
This is not to paper over the heavy lift for citizens and city leaders. There’s a reason a poll showed that 73% of residents think the city’s on the wrong track. Even its greatest boosters know Chicago has deep systemic problems that threaten to derail a robust recovery. The road ahead is not for the weak-willed. Luckily, if there’s something that Chicagoans are famous for — a virtue extolled by legendary writers in prose and poetry — it is hard work.
It’s a city that turns its back on pessimism. The city I know is not going into the future with misplaced idealism, but with bullish confidence in itself and its people.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s never been a better time to be a Chicagoan.
Mark Kosin is a writer who recently accepted a job as a copywriter at a Chicago tech firm.
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