Third Coast Diaspora - Pacific Standard

Third Coast Diaspora

Chicago, where many academics and icons have moved to try out new ideas, makes the case that migrants are more important than density to the greatness of a city.
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(PHOTO: DANIEL SCHWEN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

(PHOTO: DANIEL SCHWEN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A great city is a magnet that pulls in talent from everywhere. On that score, New York has no equal. Studying Pittsburgh, a great city exports talent. Steeler fans are ubiquitous, obnoxiously so. On that score, New York has no equal. America's greatest cities suffer from chronic brain drain. Case and point, Chicago:

Thomas Dyja: That’s very much part of the story of the book. Chicago at that point is a nexus for the country. It’s a place that everyone has to go through. A lot of its importance comes from that. It’s a place where people could go and start over. Certainly, Chicago also has a great tradition of sending people out into the world. Every city I’ve gone to has a group of passionate Chicagoans. I don’t think we’re expatriates. We’re exports.

Very few people in the book are from Chicago, or born there. Not Studs Terkel. Not Muddy Waters. Not Nelson Algren. So many people who are really important look at Chicago as a place to try out new ideas. You went west and started afresh in Chicago. That pioneer spirit, that entrepreneurial edge, has always been built into Chicago.

Next City interviewed the author of The Third Coast, Thomas Dyja. Dyja talks about the migration I've never considered. Bears fans are ubiquitous. Unlike Pittsburgh, Chicago isn't infamous for an exodus, brain drain. Chicago is famous for brain gain, at the expense of the Midwest. More from Dyja:

If you’re from Kansas, you’re from the part of the country that sees Chicago as the big city. That Midwestern bias works in Chicago’s favor. Chicago is the idea of what a big city was. New York and L.A. may as well have been Paris. That sentiment isn’t shared everywhere. On the coasts—certainly as I’ve gone to other cities—it is breaking news that so many things came out of there. A lot of people have forgotten that or never knew it.

For a lot of people in Flyover Country, Chicago is the world city. That's a bitter pill to swallow in rural Iowa or urban Missouri. Chicago is the bane of their existence, an existential threat.

For a global city such as Chicago, brain drain isn't an existential threat. Some policymakers may act like it. But they understand Chicago's draw, its gravity.

What makes a city great are the outsiders who move there. Many people who are important look at a city as a place to try out new ideas. Migrants, not density, make cities great.

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