Larry Bennett


On his book The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism

Cover Interview of November 30, 2010

The wide angle

I have lived in, observed, and written about Chicago for approximately 30 years.

My academic home is the Political Science Department at DePaul University.  I earned my Ph.D. in Urban Planning from Rutgers University.  In my research I have examined downtown development projects, sports stadium projects, public housing, and currently, the planning and community outreach components of Chicago’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.  In the early 1990s I conducted research both in Chicago and Sheffield, England and wrote a comparative analysis of grassroots politics in the two cities, which appeared in 1997 as a book, Neighborhood Politics:  Chicago and Sheffield.  I like to think of myself as a Chicago observer with a wide-ranging sensibility.

In the 30 years of my observation, this former Rustbelt industrial center—a phase in Chicago’s history that I term the “second city”—has morphed into an arts-rich global metropolis.  In part, this has been a function of globalizing forces operating on a vast scale; in part it has been the result of astute local leadership.  Nor should one neglect the contribution that good fortune may have played in producing Chicago’s local renaissance.  My ultimate aim in writing this book has been to explain this renaissance and offer an assessment of how desirable—from a variety of standpoints—the “third city” actually is.

This book about Chicago has been shaped by the thinking of several important commentators on the American city:  among the classics, Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, in particular; among contemporaries, Richard Florida and Douglas Rae.

From Jacobs and Mumford I derive the notions of street-level (Jacobs) and panoramic (Mumford) urban observation, using these two ways of understanding cities to form my explanations of contemporary Chicago and Chicago’s transition from first, to second, to third city.

In a number of books, beginning with his much-celebrated The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida has sketched out a path to post-industrial urban revitalization that has been vigorously debated by experts and laypersons alike.

Douglas Rae’s study of New Haven, Connecticut, suggestively subtitled “Urbanism and Its End,” offers a much more sobering prognosis for urban life—specifically, American urban life—in the coming years.

I have found that considering, comparing, and seeking to resolve the evident contradictions between Florida’s view and Rae’s view of contemporary cities can sharpen one’s sense of the main challenges and opportunities for those of us seeking to shape better cities in the future.

So, Chicago is my canvass.  My conceptual preoccupations are social justice, urban livability and sustainability, and the sheer pleasure that can be offered by urban life.