Column

Opinion: Chicago’s Newest Skyscraper Deepens Local Divide Over Globalization

Steven Vance

Last August, construction started on the Jeanne Gang-designed, Chinese-funded downtown skyscraper Wanda Vista, which will be the third-tallest building in Chicago when it is completed. The building has been heavily promoted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, but for some, it has become a symbol for the divisive effects of globalization on local economies once reliant on now-outsourced jobs, from manufacturing and engineering, to tech support and reading x-rays.

Sam Wilson is seventy-three years old, tall and gregarious with an infectious elfin laugh. Whenever he shows up to volunteer at the Canaan M.B.C. Food Ministry in Englewood, where we work, he announces with a challenging grin, “The real man is here.”  Everyone laughs.

Sam came to Chicago as part of the second Great Migration, arriving in 1960, an eager young man of seventeen from Senatobia, Mississippi. Work was easy to find back then, and he quickly landed a job as a janitor for FS Tiger, a Jewish family-owned clothing manufacturer. FS Tiger was one of many similar Chicago companies that made high quality clothing for local and national markets. Everyone needed clothing, so the work was good.

Young Sam was a good worker. “I see so much more you can do, Sam,” FS Tiger’s foreman Mr. Wagner told him—and so he was well-paid, mentored, and regularly promoted. The family came to rely on his skillful ability to cut mounds of expensive fabric with exacting detail, and often sought his guidance on how best to conduct important parts of their business. When the company was struggling, Sam saw a way to turn fabric waste into revenue by selling scraps to a cap manufacturer across the street. And so a small ecosystem flourished.

It wasn’t long before other clothing manufacturers in the Chicago area heard about Sam—the industry was, after all, a sort of family of families. Jack Goodman, the owner of Joyce Sportswear in Gary, Indiana, recruited Sam, offering him a down payment on a house and a moving van to help him relocate. Sam took the job but decided to stay in Chicago, driving to Gary every day for eight years. When Sam’s first child was born the company gave him a baby shower—“Me, a man!,” he says laughing with the memory. “It took me a week to bring all that stuff home.”

Sam loves to tell stories of these early years in Chicago. He is proud of what he did, and deeply fond of the people who gave him the opportunity to make a life here, a long way from home. In fact, he says, one of his Jewish employers wanted to adopt him when he came to Chicago—they had no son. Sam went home to Senatobia and talked it over with his mother. “Well…I could live with it,” she said, “but tell your father and he’s gonna kill you.”

So Sam turned down the heartfelt offer, and while there were no legal papers, the family nevertheless cared for him like a son. Sam was grateful and still is. With grinning pride Sam tells me he’s “half Black, half Native American, and half Jewish,” and then lets loose that elfin laugh. He’s telling me in so many words that math can’t provide a full account of the richness of life.

When the clothing manufacturing business moved overseas most of the family-owned companies couldn’t compete and were forced to close their doors. Sam’s last employer, the Sudakoff family, closed Caron Inc. in 1999. It was a sad time. Sam tells me that when his autistic son was born, Phil Sudakoff had set up a special area at work furnished with a table and a chair, a bed, TV, and toys where Sam could bring his boy when necessary. Family was important, after all. When the outsourcing of globalization became the norm, that family of local businesses was broken apart, and so a small ecosystem ceased to exist.

Moving jobs overseas fractures and severs relationships in communities: it allows U.S. corporations to become increasingly profitable while the owners of overseas companies often become fabulously wealthy, largely by exploiting their employees and the local environment. The capacity to invest in and care for local communities—like those Sam encountered here—is gone. These overseas companies then simply turn around and reproduce the fractured ecosystem that U.S. companies exported. It is a calculus that increases profits for the few, globally—and it works. For them.

Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese property developer and multinational corporation, is not a clothing company, but it is cut from the same broad economic cloth, the kind of global company that felled Chicago’s old small-business ecosystems. There is deep irony in Wanda’s evolved business model: founded as a residential real estate developer in China, they now develop luxury properties around the world. In keeping with that high-end market focus, Wanda recently bought the British yacht builder Sunseeker International. Now, Wanda Group is “investing” in Chicago in the form of a giant riverside tower. And people here seem excited. Grateful even.

Construction has begun on what will soon be Chicago’s third tallest building, a “94-story, ultra-high-end hotel and condominium complex,” reports the Tribune. The project is said to be “a gauge of Chicago’s appetite for ultra luxury condominiums,” and the units are selling more quickly than many expected. “About a third of the residential units are under contract,” including the seventy-fifth-floor penthouse that “occupies a full floor and offers a panoramic 360-degree view.” Price tag: $8.6 million. Much of the demand is coming from Chicago buyers, some of whom are buying second homes in the city, but experts expect demand to be augmented by foreign buyers of these luxury properties as well.

“Luxury” and “ultra high-end” and other superlatives of the rich sound attractive and aspirational, but define relational boundaries. They are practical tautologies that say who’s in and who’s out. The truth is, most of us are out. This means that for nearly all Chicagoans Wanda Vista will be nothing more than something to look at from a distance.

As wealth becomes ever more concentrated on a global scale, the wealthy increasingly trade among themselves. The rest of us watch from the sidelines of our towns and cities, struggling to make ends meet.

Sam became an ordained minister in 1968, first serving at St James Missionary Baptist in North Lawndale. He wanted to help others as he had been helped.

“When I became pastor at the nearby Livestone Missionary in 1993,” he said, “the Sudakoffs and the Tigers donated thousands of dollars worth of stuff.” Sam’s congregation was small and relatively poor, and the families who formerly employed him wanted to help in any way they could.

Sam’s congregation is still poor. I asked him about the new Jeanne Gang-designed luxury tower that Wanda Group is building. After I tell him that Gang is a famous Chicago architect—her recent local projects include the University of Chicago’s new residential dorm and City Hyde Park, a fifteen-story apartment tower—he says maybe some of his people can get desperately needed jobs there, as janitors, or maintenance workers, or in the hotel or shops. He said what I expect most people would say. How many of us now cater to the wants of the wealthy, often excited about the opportunity and grateful for the servitude?

I asked Sam to zoom out in time, repeating his own life story back to him. “Remember when you made clothing for people?” His eyes widened, as if he began to see what has happened to this country and this city during his lifetime.

“Yeah—we used to make all kinds of things here. Jobs were everywhere. I made quality clothing. It was a good job, and I was good at it; and I worked for good people.”

By all accounts, Wanda Vista is a mega-project, no doubt about it. Anticipating the project a year ago, a spokeswoman for the mayor gushed, “This is huge,” sounding excited and grateful.

Now that the tower is rising on the bank of our river, we see it is even bigger than first imagined. Wanda Vista is a new mega-monument, one that could have been built in any city anywhere: a symbol of the fractured relationships put in place by the wealthy few who seed, feed, and benefit from growing local and global inequality, leaving the rest of us gazing up, wondering what has happened to our world.

The Tribune story carried the headline, “Wanda Vista’s Hopeful View.” Hopeful for who, exactly?

Jeff Tangel is an adjunct professor of political science at Saint Xavier University and an associate at DePaul University’s Institute for Nature and Culture.

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