The Rostenkowski Legacy Revisited

James Warren should have left well enough alone. His retrospective on former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski in the NY Times was a good look at a vanished order. His follow-up Op-Ed, "My Kind of Technocracy," begins with a red flag waved at the Tea Party set:

Dan Rostenkowski, a gin and porterhouse kind of guy, surely would have felt out of place at the Chicago restaurant where President Obama celebrated his 49th birthday the other day.

Mr. Obama went to the celebrity chef Graham Elliot Bowles's eponymous new joint, which has featured risotto with green apple, Wisconsin cheddar and Nueske bacon, and foie gras dusted with Pop Rocks. It's one of many dining spots that make this city a destination for foodies, with the now-defunct Gourmet magazine tagging one, Alinea, as America's best.

(The first article mentions that Warren had dined with Rostenkowski at a gourmet fish restaurant in a building preserved through the Congressman's intervention, so the line between old and new is not so sharp.)

Chicago is better than ever. I was born there and am still a great fan. But why diss everything about its past? The old Chicago could be coarse and brutal. But at its best it also had integrity in many of its products (like the Schwinn Phantom) and opportunities for talented blue-collar people like the African-American publisher John H.Johnson.

And just where does Chicago stand as a technocracy? Of course it has great arts and sciences universities, museums, and musical life -- which it already did in the bad old days. The Chicago Public Library's expansion has indeed been outstanding. But of the top 25 engineering schools ranked by U.S. News, Chicago has only one (Northwestern), while the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas each have two, as does greater Boston. Chicago doesn't even appear on the recent Forbes list of the 20 most innovative American cities as measured in patents and venture capital activity per capita.It apparently lags behind not only Silicon Valley but Bridgeport, Connecticut. No Chicago hospital made the U.S. News honor roll of the top 14 with advanced capabilities.

Of course Chicago remains a great corporate headquarters location, as it showed when it won a competition for Boeing nine years ago, a major coup. But to many Chicagoans, and ex-Chicagoans, that's little comfort for the rebranding of the flagship Marshall Field department store as a Macy's. In the city's video game scene, a new-media bright spot, Wideload was recently bought by Disney, and Midway by Warner Bros. These moves bring much-need capital to Chicago, but the controlling headquarters are now elsewhere.

No, Chicago's old low-falutin' style couldn't last. But a triumphalism based on hip restaurants and public sculpture also isn't the best foundation for the future.

(I've written a personal interpretation of Chicago's industrial heritage and its fate, originally published in Raritan Quarterly Review)

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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