On Chicago

The Chicago skyline, as viewed from Wrigley Field looking south, April 5, 2011. Photo by the author.

I meant this to be a stand-alone post on Chicago, but life circumstances will also turn this into a farewell to that most quintessentially American city. Things have necessitated a homecoming, but I see it as being for the best.

Yes, I have now departed Chicago and returned home to Boston for now. Career-wise this is almost certainly the right move; the kind of work I want to do is based pretty much entirely on the East Coast, and now I’m that much closer to potential employers, etc. But I got a pretty awesome trip out of it, somehow accidentally theming it around baseball. Did you know that for some games tickets to Wrigley Field are as little as $8?

And then our road trip route took us past Jacobs Field in Cleveland, past the sign for Cooperstown (sadly, summer hours had not yet begun), and home to Boston, where Sunday night I was able to watch at Fenway as the Red Sox won their first (and to-date, only) series of the year. Against the Yankees, no less. But I digress.

Much of my thinking on Chicago as a city is reflected perfectly in a post from my old professor, Fredric Smoler:

It was thus a hyper-modern and ultra-American city, more modern and in a sense more American than New York, which predated the Republic. The quintessential American architectural form, the skyscraper, was invented here, and approaching the city from its airport the spires rise above the plain like Oz. L. Frank Baum had lived in Chicago, and I think it shows…

A fantasy of Chicago made a vast impression on people like Bertholt Brecht, for whom it symbolized immensely violent capitalist energies. Chicago no longer seems to evoke that intense energy in the minds of foreigners, or for that matter for too many Americans, and we seem to have also lost the once more varied sense of its history as well…

It would be nice if we thought more about Chicago when we thought about who we are. Rather bizarrely, by the time I was a young man Chicago was conspicuously represented in popular culture only by one TV police show and by the teen comedies of John Hughes, and neither was too explicitly identified with Chicago. I suppose when we thought about ourselves in those days, we were reduced to two nations, and Chicago was a reasonable venue to serially dramatize that, in principle no different from someplace like Philadelphia.

This seems to be the trend with many of the major cities when explored in person. Of course, the idealized version of a metropolis and the dissonant reality on the ground is nothing new: witness any of the syndromes experienced in Jerusalem and Paris and Florence. Living in a city is a wholly different experience from visiting it, too, with mundane daily life often shattering existing preconceptions about that city or country’s character and ability to function.

This is not to say that Chicago in and of itself disappointed; indeed, I found Chicago living to be a pleasure, and the city to be one well worth exploring. But in a reversal, the good parts of living there can be separated from the problems, leaving it an excellent vacation destination and as a potential city to settle in again one day, dependent on one’s career. This in contrast with London, which I found a much more pleasurable city to visit than to live in, though even the idea of the latter is growing on me.

To continue with the baseball theme, an old-school matchup between say, Chicago and Kansas City, or St. Louis and Milwaukee, evoke an image of early-to-mid twentieth-century rural/industrial life, the great factories and businesses of the Midwest pitted against one another in a game one could hear only on the radio. But nowadays in person, much of these cities seem interchangable.Chicago’s Michigan Avenue is St. Louis’s Market Street, Omaha’s Fontenelle Boulevard is Kansas City’s 39th Street; their roles remain the same and only the names change. Chicago still stands out for the immensity of its skyscrapers, but that really just reduces the differences to a matter of scale.

Chicago is in many ways a perfect encapsulation of the American trajectory. From its early dynamism to its corruption, privatization, and current stagnation, it is a city that has represented America’s best and worst. Politically, economically, and socially, it has embraced – and defined – the trends of American history like no other city in the country. Above all (the real dealbreaker when it came to me and a future career), it is an inward-looking city. There is certainly a place for Chicago in the larger world around it, but that role is mostly confined to business. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which is great in its own right, is virtually the only internationally-focused think tank in town, and much of its agenda revolves around the global economy and attracting business to Chicago itself.

The sun sets over Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, April 6, 2011. Photo by the author.

But Chicago was, after all, founded as a city of commerce. I read Donald Miller’s City of the Century a few months ago, and he does a masterful job of explaining the origins of the city and its sheer purpose for existing: to make money. Even the legendary grid system arose from the need to demarcate and sell off smaller plots of land, and the loftiness of the Chicago Loop grew in lockstep with its skyrocketing land values. The wealth and power of the city was ever more concentrated in that half-square-mile central business district, which by 1910 represented 40% of the total assessed land value of Chicago, a city of 160 square miles.

In that sense, a failure to play by the rules and buy into whatever system the Loop propagates is a failure to accept Chicago, and what the city stands for (hence my own departure). As a turn-of-the-century visitor to the Loop explained, “The man who has no business in this section of the city had better look about and arrange matters so that he has, or he has no business in Chicago.” I think I took that to heart, perhaps overly literally.

In many ways it seems like whatever “culture” Chicago does have is the product of an obligatory civic mentality. All the great cities have museums, and operas, and orchestras, and so therefore Chicago needed them too. It was the spirit of competition, like Lindsay’s “the city as a weapon,” that sparked real cultural improvements. From Miller:

In these years between the launching of the Auditorium project and the completion of Daniel Burnham’s celestial city for the Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s makers and millionaires set out to prove to London, Paris, and New York that their town was “something more than a centre of pig-sticking and grain-handling.”

The formulaic package of history museum, art museum, orchestra, opera, et cetera does not mean that Chicago’s versions were entirely uninspired. The Museum of Science and Industry is one of the great regional iterations of the science museum, taking a unique view from others of its kind across the nation. The main branch of the Chicago Public Library is a temple to the written word, complete with fountains and Greek-inspired sculpture. But while Chicago does have its own gems, like the Pritzker Military Library, on the whole its cultural scene does not stand out in a particularly distinct way. Maybe that homogeneity is what plagues all cities in the twenty-first century, not just Chicago. A museum, a university, a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, a historic shopping district – urban denizens of the world will be comforted to find all these things in virtually any city to which they travel.

So that’s what I’m leaving behind. A bustling metropolis with its best days behind it but hopefully better days ahead. And I return, at least for the time being, to a city with its own storied history, one that dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The USS Constitution, with the Boston skyline in the background, April 9, 2011. Photo by the author.

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