Snuggle up to the Commercial Club of Chicago

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]

Cozy relationships between business and government are pervasive. In Chicago’s machine politics, it’s often unclear whose motives are being represented in new initiatives — the City of Chicago is not well-known for its commitment to meaningful public participation in decision-making processes. Given Mayor Daley‘s penchant for unilateral moves, it’s difficult to think of many significant city projects being out of his grasp. Yet for more than a century, city policy has been shaped — quite openly — by influential groups like the Commercial Club of Chicago, whose interest in improving the city is a strategy to improve the business climate.

Under monikers like “civic improvement club” and “good government group,” the Commercial Club has released studies and initiated plans that have transformed Chicago. The Club’s first major achievement was commissioning the Plan for Chicago in 1909, Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett‘s seminal work laying out a new vision for the city. The Plan for Chicago is responsible for the geographic layout of Chicago, its development and its park and boulevard system. More recently, and perhaps most controversially, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club commissioned a report on the state of the Chicago Public School system called “Left Behind.” The recommendations from this report became “Renaissance 2010,” a plan underway to close poorly performing Chicago Public Schools and reopen them as choice and charter schools, creating a competitive private market for public education in Chicago (for more see Pauline Lipman’s article on page xx).

Movers and Shakers

How does an unelected group of people have undue influence on long-term transformational city policy? Like other pillars of Chicago politics, the Commercial Club is a long-standing institution comprised of those with power and money. As Pamela Strobel, head of the Commercial Club’s spinoff organization, the Chicago Consulting Alliance, says, “Business and government have always worked hand in hand in Chicago. There is a long history of Mayoral leadership in fostering collaboration with the business community. Put simply, it’s just what you do in Chicago when you are in a leadership position.”

The Commercial Club was formed in 1877 by a handful of prominent Chicago business leaders, with a mission to promote the city’s “public welfare and commercial interests” (this has since been altered to read the “social and economic vitality” of the metropolitan region). Beginning with 17 businessmen, membership has grown to almost 500, with dues in 2005 of $1,800 annually. The first twenty years of member names reads like a street map of Chicago: Wacker, Clark, Armour, Farwell andCarpenter alongside George Pullman, Marshall Field, Cyrus McCormick, and Albert Sprague. Membership is “limited to residents of the Chicago metropolitan area who shall be deemed qualified by reason of their personality, general reputation, position in their business or profession, and service in the public welfare.” The club’s makeup is self-perpetuating: new members are accepted based on a written nomination by a current member, and requires seconds from at least six other members.

The Commercial Club’s current membership is a who’s who of Fortune 500 companies and major institutions. Well-represented are major corporations headquartered in Chicago like Walgreens,Kraft, Sara Lee, and the Tribune company; chancellors and presidents of universities (University of Illinois at Chicago, DePaul, University of Chicago, Loyola, Northwestern, etc.); real estate developers; financial service companies; major foundations (Polk, MacArthur, Chicago Community Trust, etc.); and numerous law firms (see sidebar for more).

Early club meeting agendas, from 1880-1900, addressed a wide array of topics: sewerage, taxation, city streets, legislative interference with private rights, “nuisances afflicting Chicago,” the creation of an industrial training school, municipal corruption, unemployed laborers, the nature of instruction in public schools, rapid transit, “The Press: Its power for good and evil. How can we promote one and discourage the other?”, the eight-hour movement, relations with Cuba, and “How may Chicago be made more interesting and attractive?” Listed among the guest speakers at these meetings were Mayors, comptrollers, judges, and Aldermen.

More recent speakers have included Barack Obama, Rahm Immanuel, Dennis Hastert, Donald Rumsfeld, Mayor Richard M. Daley, Rod Blagojevich, and numerous CEOs of both local and national notoriety. In many ways, it seems the Club hasn’t strayed far from its beginnings, tackling major issues facing growth and development in Chicago. They have moved beyond sewers, for the most part, but the heated debate on what makes for a successful city continues. The strategies employed by the Commercial Club to pursue its priorities have shifted. In the 1980s, the Club began creating non-profit institutions supported with Commercial Club member capital. The Civic Committee, the Chicago Consulting Alliance, Metropolis 2020, and the Renaissance Schools Fund are all 501c3 organizations funded through the Commercial Club and guided by volunteer “senior executive boards” made up of Club members.

Make no little plans

The Commercial Club of Chicago is clearly a visionary organization, but the critical question is whose vision it represents. The Club’s modern day initiatives aspire to the scale of Burnham’s Plan for Chicago, yet it’s up for debate whether all of Chicago’s residents will benefit from them.

In 1996, the Club commissioned a report called “Metropolis 2020: Preparing Metropolitan Chicago for the 21st Century.” The Commercial Club’s website states that the plan’s aim is “to develop a long-term policy framework to reshape metropolitan Chicago in ways that would enhance the quality and equity of regional life and ensure Chicago’s place in the top tier of global cities.” The plan deals with critical urban issues such as education, economic development, taxation, governance, transportation, land use, and housing.

It’s hard to argue with the integral role played by these issues in determining the vitality and capacity of our fair city. In the introduction, Metropolis 2020 is compared to the Plan for Chicago, but with a focus not on space in the city but on the “nonphysical infrastructures that economists and philosophers have recognized as providing the indispensable background conditions for a dynamic market economy and a good society.” The very use of the terms “dynamic market economy” and “good society” as parallel goals of the plan beg questions about the definition of a good society, and how the tangible benefits of this dynamic market will be distributed across the city.

The Commercial Club created an organization to carry out the lofty, ‘global city’ goals of Metropolis 2020, bearing the same name. The drive to attain ‘global city’ status has meant engaging in intense competition to attract business (particularly in the financial and hi-tech services sectors: thinkBoeing), a focus on city image over substance (think the campaign for “greenest city in America”), remaking particular areas as playgrounds (think Millennium Park), and an overall increase in the polarization of rich and poor as priorities shift. As Rob Mier said, “be wary of visionary plans because they hold little benefit for the most work-needy.”

Public/Private Partnerships

The Commercial Club is directed by the interests of big business and the desire to keep Chicago competitive in the global marketplace. Their attempts to restructure city services to rely on market forces results in displacement and disenfranchisement for the individuals who are more susceptible to the volatility of the market. The uneven development that follows is evident in Chicago’s geography: a decrease in living wage jobs, affordable housing pushed to the edges, limited access to education and food, public transportation that fails to link workers to employment.

Involvement by business in setting policy agendas happens all the time; the Commercial Club, and countless other business coalitions, have organized their interests into effective public economic development policy for more than a century. The Commercial Club advertises proudly and publicly their lobbying and influencing efforts, hoping to both improve the economic vitality of the region and also cash in from the recognition they’ll receive with good press of their civic engagement. But what are the deeper motives for Chicago-based corporations to dedicate their resources to overhauling local public services like schools? These companies, who have their pick of the world’s most talented labor pool, are unlikely to need CPS-educated labor to increase their profits. It is more likely that they need to have competitive, highly-ranked schools in their vicinity to prove to the labor pool they are trying to attract that the city is not home to the nations “worst,” as U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett claimed in 1987. In an era of fierce competition between cities, amenities ranging from popular restaurants and theaters to parks and school systems are necessary components of getting the upper hand.

The Commercial Club is the most influential civic organization in the city. The choice by the city to seek input and follow recommendations of these allied business interests serves to legitimate the authority of the private sector to determine the well-being of people in Chicago. What are the implications of city policy being framed around a corporate definition of a good society? Do we want our children’s educational opportunities to be dictated by JP Morgan Chase, Exelon, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America? Public policymaking should not be the domain of Chicago’s corporate elite, whose fundamental motives lie with increasing the potential for their own profit. The lack of accountability, public input, and counterbalance for the privileged access granted to the Commercial Club speaks to the need for a critical reading of policy initiatives and an organized demand for accountability. It’s time to insert the public in this public/private partnership.

commercial club


  • Business clubs and Organizations (2007, March 5). Crain’s Chicago Business.
  • Glessner, John J. (1910). The Commercial Club of Chicago: Its Beginning and Something of Its Work.
  • Johnson, Elmer W. (2001). Chicago Metropolis 2020: the Chicago plan for the twenty-first century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Sachdev, A. (2004, June 13). At 25, women’s executive club celebrates, re-evaluates. Chicago Tribune.
  • Mier, R. (1994). Some Observations on Race in Planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 60:2, 235-240.

Partial Listing of Members:

  • Abbott Laboratories
  • IIT
  • UIC
  • Northwestern
  • University of Chicago
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers
  • Archdiocese of Chicago
  • Commonwealth Edison
  • Boeing
  • Leo Burnett
  • Walgreens
  • LaSalle Bank
  • Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs
  • Tribune Company
  • Sara Lee
  • General Growth Properties
  • Waste Management
  • Aon
  • Chicago Urban League
  • AT&T
  • Henry Crown
  • Art Institute od Chicago
  • Quaker Oats
  • Inland Steel
  • Mayor Richard M Daley
  • Chicago Public Library
  • Federal Reserve Bank
  • Skimore, Owings, and Merrill
  • Rahm Immanuel
  • MacArthur Foundation
  • McCormick Tribune Foundation
  • Sun-Times Media Group
  • Polk Bros Foundation
  • Chicago Public Schools
  • DePaul University
  • BankOne
  • Arthur Andersen
  • Boston Consulting Group
  • Chicago Community Trust
  • Kraft

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s