Buenos Aires and Chicago

Buenos Aires and Chicago


ED GLAESER: Today, cities can seem very distant from
the farms and forests that surround them. But historically, the fate of cities was often tied to
the success of nearby agriculture. Medieval market towns relied on
trading with the farmers and shepherds that entered
through their walled gates. In the 19th century, an agricultural and
transportation revolution suddenly made vast amounts of land in the
American interior accessible to Europeans. The transformation of the landscape
then created the scope for great cities like Chicago and
Buenos Aires. They grew rich as conduits for the wealth
of a hinterland and the Americas. Two centuries ago, Americans lived on the
edge of an enormously fertile continent. Yet those agricultural riches
were largely outside their grasp because transportation cost was so high. In 1816, it cost as much to
ship goods 30 miles over land, as it did to ship them across
the entire Atlantic Ocean. And so
our ancestors like Tantalus in the pit were keenly aware of fruits that
were beyond their grasp and desperate to grab all that could be
produced by America’s rich soil. Over the course of the 19th century,
North and South Americans solved their transportation problem by building
a remarkable infrastructure network. First canals, and
then rail lines resulted in millions rushing to planting herd on
the plains in the Pampas. Cities grew up on pinch points
of that transportation network. Buffalo, the Western terminist of
the Erie Canal was built on a spot where Joseph Darts, pioneering grain
elevators, would carrying wheat from the larger belts that traversed
the Great Lakes onto canal going barges. Louisville, Kentucky emerged where boats
had to be unloaded before they hit the falls of the Ohio river. Every one of America’s 20 largest
cities in 1900 was on a major waterway, from the oldest New York and Boston typically located where the river
meets the see, to the youngest, Minneapolis on the northern most
navigable point on the Mississippi river. Chicago was the greatest of
America’s inland cities and it first grew because it seemed fated to
be the lynch bin of a great watery arc that reach from New York to New Orleans. As it turned out, Chicago would owe at
least as much a rail lines as to canals. William Cronan’s Nature’s Metropolis
is one of the great urban books written during my lifetime. It tells the story of Chicago and its debts to the enormous agricultural
wealth of Illinois and Iowa and Wisconsin. Then as now, American farms have
a tremendous capacity to grow corn. But the problem with corn is that
it has low value per ton and consequently it is relatively
expensive to ship. This problem was traditionally solved by
transforming the corn into something else, something more valuable. The farmers of Western Pennsylvania turned
corn into portable potable whiskey. And they actually rebelled when President
Washington tried to tax that whiskey. The farmers of the Ohio River Valley
turned corn into pigs. For whatever reason, human beings have
long preferred salted pork to salted beef and pigs are really just corn with feet. And so Cincinnati grew up
as America’s pork uplifts, the spot where pigs were salted for
shipping into the east. The farmland is even richer for West and cows are better moving longer
distances on their own. So Chicago’s largest industry by value
added second largest by employment was Stockyards. It was the place where cows by the
thousands were slaughtered and shipped. The rise of Chicago’s
stock yard depended upon another major transportation innovation. The invention of refrigerated rail cars, which is associated with the great
meat packing firm of Gustavo Swift. The big idea, was to put the blocks of ice on top of the
dressed beef, rather than beneath them. Chicago roared as the town at the heart
of America’s agricultural empire, attracting inventors Cyrus McCormick, who
moved West to sell his mechanical reapers. On the other side of the equator,
Buenos Aires found a roughly similar path. Argentine farmland is just
as rich American farmland. Transportation innovations including
railroads and the famed frigorificos. Boats that carried refrigerated
beef across the Atlantic were similarly crucial to
Buenos Aires’s success. Like Chicago, Buenos Aires benefited from
a late 19th Century flood of immigrants who created a vividly Cosmopolitan City. By the start of the 20th Century, Argentina was one of the richest countries
in the world and Buenos Aires was it’s glittering capital, a city built
like Chicago, on nature’s bounty. A century later,
the parallels between Buenos Aires and Chicago would no longer seem so close. Indeed, the relative decline of
Argentina has been one of the great economic tragedies of the 20th century. In a sense,
the divergence of Buenos Aires and Chicago is a story of nations,
the divergence of Argentina and the US. Countries which were once so similar that
immigrants saw little difference between going North and going South. But it turns out that there were
differences between the two cities in 1900 which foretold the different pass. Chicago was always a much better
educated city than Buenos Aires largely because Mid Western
farmers invested in education. Near by Iowa was the birth place
of America’s high school movement. The larger plantation owners of Argentina
saw little upside in schooling. The education gap helps
explain the technology gap that existed between the two countries. In the 19th century, Chicago was on
the world’s innovation frontier, creating new inventions
like the skyscraper, the vacuum cleaner, the zipper and
open heart surgery. Buenos Aires was much more likely to
import inventions from Europe and the US. Chicago’s human capital enabled it to
move easily from agriculture to industry. Buenos Aires’s move was later,
and less successful. Buenos Aires suffered even more
from Argentina’s political and stability during the 20th century. The country veered from
Democracy to Dictatorship from openness to economic isolation. That too owes some debt to
lower education levels which are pervasively correlated with
dictatorship and political disorder. Both cities owed their
growth to agriculture. But in the Midwest,
farmers plowed their agricultural wealth into the minds of their children, and
so the seeds for longer term success. In Argentina, 19th century wealth
made the country prosperous. But despite the heroic attempts of
Argentina apostles of education like Domingo Sarmiento,
Buenos Aires schools lagged far behind. And ultimately, cities like nations and
like people rise and fall based on their human capital.

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