Why Is Chicago Called Second City?

By Judith K. Tingley; Updated September 26, 2017

The origin of Chicago's numbered nickname

Why Is Chicago Called Second City?

How and when did Chicago come to be known as the Second City? There are a few competing theories. A minority opinion holds that as Chicago arose from the ashes of its Great Fire of 1871, the city's rebuilding by such architects as Louis Sullivan constituted a new beginning, a "second city" as it were. Another emphasizes the growth of Chicago in the 19th century as it became a city of national stature, with a population second only to that of New York City. Both these theories are complimentary to Chicago – testaments to its spirit, energy and spunk. So why does the term "second city" seem so often to hold a negative connotation of not simply "second place," but "second rate"?

Aspirations to second place

In the first place, what's so bad about second place? For a city in the Midwest in the latter part of the 19th century, second place to NYC must have seemed like a pretty good position. During this period, Chicago's population grew by leaps and bounds, helped along by immigrants eager to make their way in the brave new world of the U.S. Spurred on by the vision of Jane Addams and her Hull House, Chicago provided "settlement houses" where immigrants were given help adjusting to their new environment, including skills training and English lessons. Immigrants arrived from Poland, Greece, Germany, Russia, Ireland, Italy, Scandinavia and more, forming the vibrant "city of neighborhoods" that Chicago remains to this day. The Erie Neighborhood House still exists, now welcoming a largely Hispanic wave of new arrivals.

Chicago surpassed Philadelphia in population in the 1890 census, establishing itself as second only to NYC in terms of population. This solidified its importance as the commercial, industrial and cultural hub of the Midwest. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago gave the city even more reason to celebrate its new prestige with an elaborate "White City" and exhibits up and down the Midway right next to the brand-new University of Chicago. Remnants of this extravaganza still remain – including the Midway itself and the Museum of Science and Industry (originally built as the Palace of Fine Arts).

Second City or second rate?

However, since the mid-20th century, the use of the term Second City has been affectionately self-deprecating at best and snidely dismissive at worst. These disparaging connotations seem to have come directly from one book, published in 1952: "Chicago: The Second City," written by A.J. Liebling, a disgruntled and displaced New Yorker whose few months' sojourn in Chicago provided him enough ammunition for a malicious attack on the City of Big Shoulders. For the cosmopolitan Mr. Liebling, Chicago consisted of an "exiguous skyscraper core and the vast, anonymous pulp of the city, plopped down by the lakeside like a piece of waterlogged fruit." Liebling saw no cultural life in Chicago to speak of, no worthwhile theatre, no decent dining spots or nightclubs. To Liebling, the city was a conglomeration of dullards and conventioneers whose idea of a night on the town was a meal of "pig's ribs" followed by a trip to the nearest strip joint. Chicagoans had delusions of their city's grandeur, according to him, and he remained unmoved by any and all attempts to convince him that the city might have something of value to offer the world.

Even worse, according to Liebling, was the domination of the town by Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, as much of an elitist as Liebling but his polar opposite in terms of politics – an isolationist America-firster who despised FDR's New Deal, liberal Democrats, liberal Republicans, the United Nations, labor unions and, naturally, Easterners. Liebling quotes McCormick as claiming in a speech that "if New York were destroyed, with it would be destroyed all the subversive elements of our country." Not exactly a sentiment to warm the heart of a dedicated New Yorker. Liebling was also left unimpressed by Chicago's corruption and ties to the mob, a leftover from Prohibition days.

Liebling did score some points, but he passed judgment on Chicago a bit too soon. Chicago, at the time he lived and wrote there, was admittedly undergoing a period of economic stagnation that undoubtedly made its boosterism seem all the more obtuse. Still, a Chicago renaissance was on the horizon, and a new meaning of "second city" was still to come.

Chicago strikes back

As the 1950s rolled on into the 1960s, Chicago began once more to rise from the ashes. Over a billion dollars was invested in downtown construction. The city re-established itself as the economic hub of the Midwest. The visual and literary arts lived in an atmosphere in which they could thrive. Architects forever altered Chicago's skyline with soaring skyscrapers. Its downtown bloomed with large public art installations, and the north side became a mecca for art- and music-lovers. The South Side, of course, had never ceased producing wonderful music, art and literature, but Mr. Liebling hadn't paid that much attention to it.

And then there was the Second City comedy troupe, founded in 1959, and named self-deprecatingly tongue-in-cheek after Mr. Liebling's book. Still going strong today, Second City became the world's foremost comedy club and school of comedy, spawning an empire of satire, with such graduates as Alan Arkin, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Amy Sedaris, Tina Fey and so many others. What would modern comedy be without Second City? Where would "SNL" have recruited its most talented players over the past 40 years?

So, from one acerbic little book came a lasting legacy of laughter for people all over the world. Now that's something Chicago can be proud of.

Size really doesn't matter, after all

And now Chicago is seemingly on the descent again. It's actually lost some of its population in recent years and surrendered its "second-largest city" status to Los Angeles many years ago. These days, even its third-place rank is being threatened by Houston. But ... so what? It's still a vibrant and diverse city, a city of neighborhoods. It has esteemed centers of higher learning. It has wonderful museums. It has its own history, its own heritage, its own stout-hearted citizenry who have come through good times and bad. They are right to be proud of their town. Chicago is unique. What else does it need to be?

About the Author

Judith K. Tingley