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Risen from the ashes
On Chicago, the Great Fire, reconstruction, and refugees
Chicago is marking the 150th anniversary of the great fire that leveled the young city. The fire is, of course, one of the most significant parts of Chicago lore, even earning its spot as one of the four stars on the municipal flag.
■ The story of Chicago's recovery from the devastating fire is one of triumph over a series of great adversities. A city that was once ruined is the third largest in the United States, a massive commercial and cultural center.
■ Had you looked at Chicago in 1871, perhaps you would have seen the city's rosy future beyond the rubble. But, for as much as the people of Chicago deserve credit for their resilience, the city's overall success is due more to its fortuitous geography than anything else. The labor force of Chicago at the time of the Great Fire was really nothing all that special. With about 300,000 inhabitants, Chicago was the fifth-largest city in the country (behind New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn [then its own city], and St. Louis). 48% of the city's people were immigrants. The school system was struggling to keep up with growth. Meatpacking and railroading were central to the economy, and they didn't require sophisticated workers.
■ It was a city teeming with immigrants, many of whom arrived with very little financial capital or skill (after all, the wealthy and well-established would have had little reason to leave their homelands). As much credit as the residents of the burgeoning city at the time should get for persisting through the difficulties of the fire and its aftermath, there's not anything in particular about about what they did or who they were that would have made the place special. They happened to be in a great place at the right time for expansion. Certainly there were instances and specific cases of high-quality foresight, vision, and ability that made the rebuilt Chicago better than before.
■ But, in reality, it would have been hard for Chicago to fail. Its virtually ideal location at the base of Lake Michigan and its resulting position as the obvious intersection of much of the nation's surface transit (by both road and rail) put Chicago in an ideal position -- no matter who was there. At the margins, some differences will matter and add up -- otherwise Evanston, Hammond, or Gary might ultimately have turned out to be the dominant city in the region.
■ Being in the right place at the right time -- whether by choice or by accident -- can make a great deal of difference. People carry their knowledge and their skills with them, but being in the right place to put them to work can have a huge impact on an individual's ultimate productivity. What you do can matter much less than where you are. Even today, it's been noted that simply moving from a different country of origin to the United States raises the productivity of virtually any immigrant by a substantial margin: In the words of the World Bank, Migration is, therefore, the most effective way to reduce poverty and share prosperity".
■ Chicago's revival ought to be taken seriously by anyone who today considers the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers. Great Britain has welcomed around 65,000 people from Hong Kong on relatively short notice, as those people have tried to escape the ever-increasing oppression of China's authoritarian government. The British government expects 300,000 people to ultimately make the move.
■ In moving from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom, those people ought to maintain not only the skills and productivity they had before, but in many cases may become even more productive by being surrounded by a like-minded government and culture. And, just as they produce, they will also consume. The act of simply being in the right place can make all the difference. And those who arrived first ought to note well that their fortunes are often improved by the presence of newcomers.