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What's the origin of "the city that works"?
September 3, 2009

Dear Cecil:

All my life, I've heard Chicago called "The City that Works." But I've never really understood exactly what this means. Does it refer to a hard-working, old-world population with its nose to the grindstone and a no-nonsense attitude? Does it refer to large and ambitious civic works projects like Millennium Park or changing the direction of the Chicago River? Or does it refer to Chicago's famous culture of corruption, where "whatever works" is more important than doing things by the book?

— Tim R. Mortiss, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

We have several related questions here. The first is where the expression originated, which took a little more digging than I might have thought. The second is the issue you raise, namely what this semiofficial slogan means. (I say semi because the variant "Chicago Works Together" appeared on city signs, stationery, and whatnot for years. The official slogans remain "Urbs in Horto" — "City in a Garden" — and "I Will.") Happily, once I got question #1 squared away, question #2 answered itself. Finally, and most interestingly in my opinion, we have the matter of whether "the city that works" has any continuing relevance today, and if not, what superior slogan might be substituted. Don't worry, I've got that nailed, too.

Establishing the origin of "the city that works" took the better part of the day — you better believe your columnist sweats on this job. First I (again) called my friend Dennis McClendon, a Chicagoana maven, whom I rely on to fill the chinks in my fund of human knowledge. Dennis didn't know, but based on cites in the Tribune archive, conjectured that the expression had come into common use in the period 1973-'74. That struck me as too late, but hold that thought. Next I called Tim Samuelson, the Chicago cultural historian — and don't you feel privileged to live in a town with a job like that? Tim was stumped, too. However, both he and Dennis agreed with me that the expression had surely originated in national press coverage of Chicago. What's more, I thought I remembered the article, and could envision the clipping in my mind's eye. It was a two-page spread in a newsmagazine, with a photo splashed across the top showing Mayor Richard J. Daley flanked by local luminaries in the St. Patrick's Day parade. Beneath this was the headline, "Chicago: The City That Works." Or so I seemed to recall.

One problem. My initial efforts to find the aforesaid article came up dry — initial efforts in this instance being understood to mean I Googled it.  However, I did discover that the following municipalities had also been described, or described themselves, as the city that works: Toronto; Bologna ("Italy's Communist City That Works"); Wilmington, Delaware ("An Old City That Works"); Grand Rapids, MichiganYpisilanti, Michigan; Stamford, Connecticut; and Portland, Oregon. The last three towns had gone so far as to make the expression their official slogan. Was I affronted? No, just amused: Fine, you pipsqueaks. Whatever gets you off.

Back to the task. Thinking the article I remembered must have appeared in the early '60s, before the tumult in the later part of the decade had sullied Daley's name, I pounced on a 1963 Time profile of the mayor entitled "Clouter with Conscience" (presumably the headline had been written by a copyeditor with an uncertain grasp of Chicago vernacular). No mention of cities working. Dennis wasn't surprised; to him the term suggested a contrast with nonworking cities, which put it in the urban-crisis timeframe of the late '60s or early '70s. Newsweek had run a Daley profile in 1971, but it had somehow eluded the clutches of Google. This meant the retro step of making a trip to the library.

Bingo. The April 5, 1971 issue of Newsweek featured Richard J. Daley on the cover, and inside, spread across two pages, a photo of Daley and his entourage marching eleven abreast on St. Patrick's Day. Admittedly the headline below this read, "Chicago's Daley: How to Run a City," so there my memory had failed me. (It was 38 years ago, sue me.)  However, adjacent to the headline, immediately beneath the photo, the text of the article read as follows:

This is not to suggest, reports Newsweek correspondent Frank Maier, that Daley's Chicago enraptures every resident or inspires every visitor to leave his heart behind. But it is a demonstrable fact that Chicago is that most wondrous of exceptions — a major American city that actually works.

The last bit was repeated in an editor's note at the front of the magazine. Beyond a doubt this article was the vehicle by which "the city that [actually] works" entered common currency. The phrase began turning up in Chicago newspapers by 1972, first appeared in the Washington Post in 1974 and in the New York Times in 1975, and figured in the lead of obituaries nationwide following Daley's death in 1976.

Wishing to be thorough, I note that my assistant Gfactor subsequently found a book entitled Chicago: A Pictorial Celebration, which states:

In the 1950s, Mayor Daley — who arguably has had more influence on the development of the modern city than any other single individual — called Chicago "the City that Works." As much as he was describing his vision for the modern city, Daley was also describing Chicago's hardworking past.

Two observations. First, no cite is provided for the above claim, and the book was published in 2006, long after the alleged fact. While the elder Daley conceivably made some comment along the indicated lines, the paper trail shows no sign of common usage till after 1971. Second — this brings us to your question, Tim — the Newsweek story makes it clear Chicago was "the city that works" in the sense that most (maybe not you) now understand it. It was a city that operated relatively smoothly, in contrast to other stumbling U.S. metropolises of the day. Any connection to the city's hardworking past was coincidental.

Nonetheless, you make a good point. Fact is, "the city that works" is an old-school slogan, which doesn't tell us much, and evidently didn't tell you, about the Chicago of today. My sense of civic duty piqued, I began mulling improvements that would more closely reflect the modern situation. The city that works. The city that operates smoothly. Smooth operator.

Then it hit me. It would have hit anybody.

The City that Operates.

Let that steep in your cerebellum for a while. I make no claims as a phrasemaker. However, this modest revision is, in my opinion, perfect. Even if we buy the "hardworking past" angle, Chicago is no longer the City that Works, in the sense of the City that Gets its Hands Dirty. (This statistic may interest me more than it does you, but in the peak year of 1946, city of Chicago manufacturing employment was 668,000. Today it's 79,000.) Chicago in 2009, in contrast, is the City that Wheedles, Hawks, Creates or at least Ingeniously Rearranges, Schemes, Hustles, Jabbers, Entertains, and as a day job Waits on Tables. In short, it's the City that Operates.

You think I mean this pejoratively. Not at all. Here's this skinny black guy on the south side with big ideas and the gift of gab. Now he's president of the United States. I stand second to no one in my admiration for Barack Obama, but the man is an operator. More pertinently in light of items currently at the top of the civic agenda, we face the prospect of hosting a giant world athletic competition involving billions of dollars of expenditure that nonetheless poses no financial risk. Perhaps 50 people in town can honestly claim to understand this. These individuals are operators. Chicago is their natural home. It's the City that Operates.

You may say: pshaw. New York and Los Angeles are full of operators, too. I concede this is true in the crude sense. However, in these cities you know you're being hustled, whereas in Chicago you think you're dealing with simple working class folk, and the next thing you know they've sold all the parking meters. The mark of the true operator is you don't realize you're being operated on.

I won't belabor the point. Just think about it. The City that Operates. It's a slogan that works.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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