Our Kind of Town Chicago Is

Throughout his five-and-a-half years as mayor, Mike Bloomberg has come across as something of a revolutionary in pinstripes, tearing down the old ways of doing things and replacing them with methods based on reason, data and cool calculation.

He consolidated all of the city’s customer service numbers into 311, centralized the school system and came up with a plan for New Yorkers to breathe the cleanest air of any big city by the year 2030.

The true inventor of these policies, though, was not the Jewish boy from Medford, Mass., but rather an Irish pol from the near south side of Chicago. Back in 1995—when Mayor Bloomberg was just a glimmer in CEO Bloomberg’s eye—Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley got rid of his Board of Education and soon after started holding failing kids back. In 1999, Mr. Daley implemented 311 (yes, the same number New York has). By 2001, he had declared his intention to make Chicago the greenest city in the country and started planting flowers on top of City Hall to prove it.

“When the C-40 summit came, I gave the opening night’s reception speech and I unabashedly said we have stolen from cities all over the world,” said Dan Doctoroff, Mr. Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, referring to the C-40 Large Cities Climate Summit held in New York in May. “Chicago, as the city in many ways the most similar to New York in the U.S., is the prime target.”

So while New York, when it comes to things like the Olympics, congestion pricing and corporate headquarters, generally puts itself in the glamorous company of London, Moscow and Tokyo, the Big Apple has really been getting its juice from the hog butcher to the world.

Such imitation dates back maybe a century, to the first skyscraper. The Ferris Wheel, Jim Belushi and Tina Fey are all Chicago imports. Remember those fiberglass cows that littered New York’s sidewalks years ago, painted in all different colors with punning names like Moo York and Tutancowmon? Chicago (or rather Chi-cow-go) had them first. Chicago put the boom in the Manhattan Project: It was where they split the atom. The Chicago Manual of Style was created in, well, Chicago.

“The thing about Chicago is that they have a second-city complex,” said Ester Fuchs, a Columbia University political science professor and former adviser to Mayor Bloomberg who got her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1984. “People in Chicago obsess about New York, whereas in New York no one obsesses about Chicago. By and large, New Yorkers are very parochial. We think we came up with our own ideas.”

As for what Mayor Daley thinks of the sincerest form of flattery that Mr. Bloomberg has shown him, Deputy Press Secretary Jodi Kawada e-mailed, “Mayor Daley is certainly aware of the improvements Mayor Bloomberg has made in New York City, but he doesn’t claim any pride of ownership.”

Our Kind of Town Chicago Is