By Nikki Ekstein
CHICAGO, described by President Trump and others as a hellish, dystopian crime scene akin to a “war-torn nation” and “worse than Afghanistan” is about to shatter all of its tourism records, including the one it set last year.
An abundance of creative energy is driving this renaissance: The growing skyline is getting filled with increasingly stylish hotels, and a new Riverwalk that resembles New York’s High Line is daring locals to stay outside well past summer’s end. Its long-famous museums are gaining scrappy rivals, and two gleaming new theaters are reminding Americans of the city’s prowess on-stage.
Add in the food scene — Bon Appetit named Chicago the best restaurant city of the year — and the only art-and-architecture biennial in the US, which kicked off its second iteration two weeks ago, and it’s easy to forget that this burgeoning hub of 2.7 million is also making headlines for its homicide rates.
In the middle of it all is Rahm Emanuel, who set his sights beyond the typical issues of economics and education when he became mayor of Chicago in 2011. The year before he started, tourism in the Windy City had notched 39 million visitors. By 2020, he said at the time, he wanted 50 million.
It was an ambitious goal, but by 2016, the city cleared a record 54 million arrivals — and it’s on track to exceed that number again in 2017. (By contrast, New York hosted nearly 62 million tourists in 2016.)
“We hit it within three years,” Mr. Emanuel told Bloomberg. “So I said OK, let’s go to 55 million by 2020!”
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Chicago’s tourism success has two sides. Without leaving the city’s compact downtown bubble, visitors to the city can stroll along the Riverwalk, Chicago’s ambitious waterfront-turned-pedestrian-plaza which opened last fall; hear jazz concerts on the lawn at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which culminated an expansion this summer; or drop $175 for a 10-course tasting menu at one of the country’s most daring restaurants, Alinea.
These visitors will rarely venture to the city’s south or west sides, where locals are keenly aware that the city has already logged 500 homicides this year. (In 2016, Chicago’s homicide rate trailed cities such as St. Louis, Baltimore, and Detroit when measured on a per-capita basis.)
Though Chicago’s neighborhoods remain highly segregated — a reality in many major US cities — the city’s tourism push has had ripple effects transforming the city end-to-end. There are many ways to slice the figures, but according to Choose Chicago, roughly 4,600 tourism jobs were added in 2016, raising the industry total to upward of 145,000 positions; in the same period, $900 million in tourism-related tax revenues were injected into the local economy.
A major public art initiative has brought free performances to every park in the city. Mr. Emanuel is spending $4 million this year to add 120 new sculpture works by prominent and up-and-coming local artists. A major effort to spruce up public transportation systems has also installed public artworks in many of Chicago’s CTA stations, turning them into bona fide gallery spaces for the masses.
Said David Whitaker, chief executive officer and president of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism marketing arm, “Cities have to continue to reinvent themselves, and that’s what’s happening here.”
And though many artists, entrepreneurs, and investors are part of the narrative, he’s quick to give credit to Mr. Emanuel. “I’ve been in this business for 25 years, [promoting tourism] in several major cities — and I’ve never seen a mayor who’s a bigger champion of tourism. It’s so central for him. He really gets that a great place to visit is equally a great place to live, work, and play.”
A PUSH FOR CULTURE
The arts, it turns out, are what’s unlocking Chicago’s future. “Culture is a venue for tourism, economic development, and public enrichment,” said Mr. Emanuel, who held a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet before running for public office. “As soon as I was elected, I had my office write a cultural plan, and we’ve been assiduously following it, getting culture out to the neighborhoods and holding it up for economic purposes. I ran on this, it was part of my campaign.”
Theater is his next big frontier — even if it’s been a strength of Chicago’s for many years. In the last two weeks, two major new venues have been christened: the Theater on the Lake in Lincoln Park, and the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, designed by local architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill. “Given my own background, I’m a big proponent [of theater]. Our theater scene is bar none,” said Mr. Emanuel. “It’s creative — a real community — and willing to take risks.”
But the city’s most notable success has come from its exceptionally creative food scene. With influential hometown chefs that range from Grant Achatz to Paul Kahan, Mr. Emanuel was able to attract the annual James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food world, in 2015. “I thought it would be symbolic of the city’s emergence,” he explained. Now the awards will be hosted in Chicago through 2021. “People will go to a city just for the restaurants,” said Mr. Emanuel. “I had no idea there was a whole tourism world driven by that.”
He’d better get ready for more food pilgrims, now that Bon Appetit’s editors have crowned the city their favorite food destination. “There’s no doubt that each thing has begotten another victory, another acknowledgment,” said Mr. Emanuel about the recognition. (See below for our guide on where to eat and what to see in the city.) In the past eight months, Mr. Whitaker says his office has more than doubled Chicago’s earned media value, a term that refers to coverage by newspapers and magazines.
The buzz is working. In an informal survey of more than a dozen recent travelers to Chicago, a majority prioritized the city’s dining scene, regardless of whether they were visiting for work or pleasure. (Business travelers accounted for a third of the respondents.) Only a small number said they felt worried about the city’s crime, which was reflected in a sharp divide between the neighborhoods they chose to explore.
Both leisure and business travel are growing at equal pace in Chicago, though those who visit for work claim 30% of the pie, which is 10 points better than the national average. Twenty-five new hotels have opened in the last three years, with more in development. To insiders who scrutinize these numbers, this across-the-board acceleration is the clearest indication that Chicago has yet to peak.
“Visitors want to experience what locals do — increasingly now,” explained Mr. Whitaker, reiterating that what’s good for leisure travelers is inherently good for locals. Meanwhile, a boost in convention travel is a another sign that Chicago is a city where businesses can flourish. Last year, out of the 31 major meetings (those that have more than 3,000 attendees), half reported chart-topping attendance or sales.
Put it all together, said Mr. Whitaker, and you have a strong case for corporate relocations — an argument that Emanuel hopes will get Amazon.com to open its second campus in the Second City. (Preliminary bids are currently being fielded.) “Isn’t it wonderful when a city that’s been around for a while suddenly becomes a hot new city?” he asks. “It’s exciting to think where this all might lead us.”
Mr. Emanuel, likewise, is excited about the next steps. “I don’t want to predict what this year will bring,” he said about the possibility of reaching his 2020 goals in 2017. “But I’m feeling confident.”