Postcards from Chicagoland

Postcards from Chicagoland

Pritchard, Will

Every metropolis decides, one way or another, what to call that version of itself that includes its suburbs. Boston is roughly synonymous with Greater Boston; New York City is the heart of the Tri-State Area; San Francisco anchors the Bay Area. The sprawling city of Chicago and its environs have acquired the strange but fitting name “Chicagoland.” Strange, because the “-land” suffix is usually reserved for larger land masses (Iceland, Greenland, New Zealand). In this case it appears to ennoble and aggrandize what is actually only a metropolitan area. Fitting, because the name “Chicagoland” nicely conveys the extensive flatness and openness of Chicago, which, were it not bounded by Lake Michigan on one side, might continue in all directions indefinitely. This name is often subjected, by advertisers and newscasters, to a pleonastic embellishment that stretches it into “the Chicagoland area” or “Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana.” (Indiana, where it borders Illinois, is also known as Illiana. There is probably an Illisconsin to the north, though I’ve never heard it called such.) In this sense, the term Chicagoland is an emblem of Chicago’s tendency to reach beyond itself, to bestow Chicago status on territories and municipalities that, as I discovered when my moving truck broke down in East Chicago, Indiana, are not really what one thinks of as Chicago.

There is hardly a need for Chicagoland; Chicago alone is plenty huge. It stretches over twenty miles from top to bottom, and reaches almost ten miles west from Lake Michigan. It contains, within its city limits, communities that look, feel, and sound like suburbs. On the way to O’Hare Airport recently I encountered one of these, the peculiar enclave of Sauganash, on the city’s far northwest side. A sign welcomes you to this community (“established in 1922”), as though you were no longer in Chicago. With its handsome houses, peaceful side streets, well-kept lawns, and faintly exclusive air, Sauganash feels like the sort of place that people usually leave cities to enjoy. (Sauganash was described by its alderman in a 1995 Chicago Tribune article as “truly a family-oriented community with a small-town atmosphere, with the Church as the focal point of the community.”) Conversely, some of the western suburbs nearest to Chicago do not differ markedly from the city proper. In other words, it is sometimes difficult to tell where Chicago ends and Chicagoland begins.

If “Chicagoland” accurately denotes territorial extension, it also carries an allusive force, a metaphorical charge. It seems chosen to invoke (albeit clumsily) other, more magical locales: Disneyland, Switzerland, Never-Neverland. The suffix confers upon Chicago some of the aura of fantasy, neutrality, and escapism commonly associated with those other “-lands.” Chicagoland, the name implies, stands at one remove from Chicago. Chicago may be a city with crime, poverty, and squalor, but Chicagoland has none of these. Chicagoland bears the same relation to Chicago, we might say, that the Opryland theme park does to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville: it is a sanitized environment, designed to simulate and capitalize on the authenticity, quirkiness, idiosyncrasy, and history of its original. Disneyland provides another useful analogue. If Disneyland, with its Main Street, U.S.A., is a theme park masquerading as a small town, Chicagoland is a big city that wants to pass as a theme park.

The name Chicagoland, I am suggesting, captures and expresses this view of Chicago as a theme-park version of itself. But it is a view not limited to the name alone. In the eyes of many people, Chicago is just what you would imagine Chicagoland to be: a benign urban playground, a harmless, quaintly old-fashioned, vaguely funky, tourist-friendly destination. This fantasy version of Chicago-to which I will be referring henceforth when I use the term “Chicagoland”-might also be called Movie Chicago. As a matter of fact, Hollywood has shown a marked fondness for movies set in Chicago recently, and the Chicago in which they are set is almost always toothless and friendly, urban but non-threatening. The archetypal elaborations of Movie Chicago are Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which a smug Matthew Broderick skips school and enjoys a day on the town, and Risky Business, in which Tom Cruise gets into urban and suburban mischief while his parents are away. Movie Chicago is a place in which good-looking, privileged, unsupervised young men can drive their parents’ sportscars, confident that they will emerge unscathed from all adventures.

Movie Chicago was on display most recently in the lame and lamentable David Schwimmer vehicle (he of TV’s “Friends”), Kissing A Fool. This film opens with a long, thrilling approach shot; we speed across the sky above Lake Michigan towards Chicago’s breathtaking skyline. The opening credits proceed to roll over what is essentially travelogue footage, shots of easily identifiable Chicago locales. This footage seems designed to cue and to reassure the audience. Welcome back, it says, to that same city you loved in My Best Friend’s Wedding (starring Julia Roberts) and While You Were Sleeping (Sandra Bullock). Once again, there will be elevated trains, lakefront walks, and shots of Wrigley Field. There will be no traffic jams, no bad neighborhoods, no urban terror, anxiety, or desperation, unless they are needed to generate minor obstacles for our hero or heroine.

The movie fulfills this promise. David Schwimmer happens to be a sportscaster, so we are treated to a couple of scenes at Wrigley Field and even a cameo appearance by Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa (just about the only non-white face we see in the entire film). When Schwimmer and his friend are scheduled to meet the third leg of their romantic triangle, he asks “Why are we meeting her in the park?” The answer is, the director would like to serve up a little more gratuitous skyline. Soon we are treated to a shot, looking south from Lincoln Park, of the John Hancock building picturesquely overseeing the lovers’ meeting.

To give it credit, Kissing a Fool is studious, if somewhat errant, in its choice of Chicagoland locations. It stages its grand reconciliation at Ambria, an actual four-star Chicago restaurant, though not one that any of these characters would ever be likely to eat at. It also uses the Green Mill, a Chicago cocktail lounge and jazz club, as the two guys’ regular hangout (they knowingly refer to it as “the Mill”). The choice of the Green Mill might have been quite apt. A former speakeasy with an ornate, beautifully restored interior that features lavish murals and live music, it is just the sort of place that neo-retro hipsters-people who like to imagine themselves in a jazz club-would frequent. The movie, however, is not so self-conscious. The Green Mill is not there for character development but simply for decor and atmosphere, much as it is (I suspect) for many of those who frequent it in real life.

What the movie doesn’t show is where the Green Mill is actually located: at Broadway and Lawrence, in the heart of Uptown. Uptown is a resolutely ungentrified neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. It is nestled between Lakeview and Edgewater, names which give a sense of how urgently many would like to gentrify Uptown. The area has several music venues; in addition to the Green Mill there is the Riviera, an attractive small theater, and the Aragon, a cavernous old ballroom. But Uptown, though it may attract music lovers, remains a rough, somewhat uninviting neighborhood. It is not a bleak ghetto like so many on the South and West Side, but rather a bustling and (one hears) dangerous low-income neighborhood, with a mix of African-American, Mexican, and Vietnamese residents. In Movie Chicago, however, the Green Mill is not in Uptown; it is located nowhere in particular. The characters slip out of a Loop office building in the afternoon, go for a drink at the Green Mill, and magically reappear back in the Loop without having to make a fifteen mile roundtrip. Likewise, characters in My Best Friend’s Wedding can take scenic Lake Shore Drive to get from O’Hare to downtown, even though that road does not connect those points. We who happen to live in actual Chicago have to use the charmless, hostile, truck-filled Kennedy expressway.

When things turn bad in Movie Chicago, it’s usually a sign that you are viewing an action-adventure movie. Even then, however, Chicago remains largely benevolent. Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade provides a convenient and colorful place for Harrison Ford to disappear in The Fugitive. The drawbridge that spans the Chicago river serves a similar function for Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction (first it lifts him high above his pursuers; then he slips down its underside). This past summer the Kennedy was closed for a spell so a crew could film Bruce Willis performing shenanigans on the El train that runs alongside the highway. These cinematic uses of Chicago are derived, I think, from the first, car-crash-heavy Blues Brothers movie. They affirm, like the romantic comedies, this sense of Chicago as urban playground. Movie Chicago is filled with big toys-trains, parades, bridges, skyscrapers-for big boys to play with.

It may sound as if I am unfairly blaming Chicago for how filmmakers depict it. Does Hollywood’s penchant for Chicagoland settings really indicate anything significant about Chicago, other than the reach of Hollywood money? I think it does, because Chicago seems so enamored of Movie Chicago. I saw My Best Friend’s Wedding at the Esquire theater on Oak Street, in the Gold Coast neighborhood where live the kind of people who could afford the sort of wedding with which the movie concludes. One could sense the narcissistic pleasure that this audience took in seeing its lifestyle choices confirmed, its delight in Julia Roberts’s decision to stay at the nearby Drake Hotel (at least $250 a night), though she was ostensibly a mere restaurant critic. One could hear murmurs of contentment as the soothingly familiar, beautifully shot locations appeared on screen: this is our world. Just as the purveyors of Movie Chicago are eager to have us believe that they inhabit real Chicago, a large number of the residents of real Chicago, I think, want to believe that they live in Chicagoland.

And it’s not only at the movies that we find this happening. A similar phenomenon occurred this past fall when “ER,” which supposedly takes place in Chicago, shot and aired live its season premiere. One of the real-time gimmicks they employed, and which got a fair amount of attention around here, was to have George Clooney ask the score of a Cubs game that was on TV-the very same Cubs game that was taking place that moment on another channel. This clever trick was possible because WGN broadcasts nationally, so the actors could watch it from their California Chicago. But it seemed like they were in our Chicago, and correspondingly it seemed like we were on “ER.”

Indeed, sometimes it appears that Chicagoans are taking their behavioral cues from televised versions of themselves. A popular “Saturday Night Live” sketch from several years back featured George Wendt and a few other heavyset comedians sitting around drinking beer, eating ribs, and discussing the Chicago Bears. Wendt would propose various questions to which the inevitable answer was, “The Bears”-pronounced, with a Chicago accent, as “Da Bairce.” The article “da” has subsequently become the inevitable precursor to Bears, Bulls, and Coach (when referring to ex-Bears coach Mike Ditka); one sees it on bumper stickers, and T-shirts, encounters it in headlines, and hears it from the mouths of those who have no Chicago accent at all. An earlier “SNL” sketch continues to have similar reverberations. About twenty years ago, John Belushi and Dan Akroyd played waiter and cook in a Greek diner. Belushi would badger every customer into ordering the same thing (cheeseburger, chips, Pepsi”No Coke, Pepsi”), and then would call out the order with a heavy accent: “Cheeboorgie, Cheeboorgie, cheep, cheep, cheep, Pepsi. . .” The sketch, evidently, took as its model the Billy Goat Tavern and Grille in Chicago, a doubly subterranean dive, sunk in a basement off the lower level of Michigan Avenue. The Billy Goat, located below the Sun-Times and Tribune offices, seems to have catered to harddrinking reporters and pressmen (Mike Royko celebrated it in print), but it now also attracts a significant tourist business. If you order a cheeseburger at the Billy Goat today, the person at the counter will call out “cheeboorgie,” but he seems to be doing so in imitation of Belushi-or, at best, in imitation of something he used to do somewhat more unselfconsciously.

It sometimes feels that much of Chicago is caught up in a similar fate-imitating itself in an increasingly ossified performance of something it once did spontaneously. Until his recent death, Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray was a representative example of this process. His loutish singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was, the story goes, first put over the P.A. system without his knowledge. Eventually it became an expected, reassuring, tired ritual, one of many distractions from the perennially mediocre play of the Cubs on the field. Just as the decor and atmosphere at the Green Mill make one feel how splendid it might be to be a jazz lover, Caray’s singing played upon people’s desire to be Cubs fans. Most of us, however, don’t care enough to be Cubs fans, and it’s not clear that Caray did either (he came to the Cubs late in life, after stints with the Cardinals and White Sox). It hardly mattered, though; he was a Chicago institution, and it was enough that he keep doing whatever it was that brought him fame in the first place.

Chicago has (or had) a number of these institutions, crusty or cranky old white men who, like Harry Caray, made a name for themselves in Chicago and who were subsequently installed as fixtures in Chicagoland. The above-mentioned Mike Royko was one of these; Studs Terkel is another. Mike Ditka (though he has decamped to New Orleans) remains part of this craggy fraternity. They anchor Chicagoland, serving to preserve and affirm the illusion that, however glitzy it may get, Chicago is essentially ethnic, blue collar, down-to-earth. Perhaps the grandest of these institutions is not a person but a type of music: the blues. Blues music’s first great age was in Mississippi in the twenties and thirties; its second and perhaps final apotheosis took place in Chicago in the fifties. Chess Records, at 2I20 S. Michigan Avenue, recorded at one time or another nearly all the major figures of post-war blues: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and (shading toward rock and roll) Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Blues music remains an important component of the city’s musical scene, but nowadays it seems a largely stagnant, retrograde form of music. No one has figured out how to take the blues much beyond where Muddy Waters left it, except by marrying it with rock music as have the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and others. Moreover, the cultural function of the blues has shifted dramatically. Blues music in Chicago-at least on the north side, where the bulk of the clubs are and where the majority of the big names perform-is played largely for a white, balding, tourist-filled audience these days. The music is over-amplified, the playing flashy, slick, professional. One can evidently hear rawer, more “authentic” blues at South and West Side clubs,1but in the end that cannot change the fact that the blues, like Dixieland jazz or big band swing music, is largely an anachronism. It is not well supported by a record-buying public, and its greatest practitioners are deceased or well past their prime. Though this music may remain a thrill to listeners, increasingly it belongs more to Chicagoland than to Chicago.2

Raymond Williams, in his book Marxism and Literature, explains cultural change by identifying three categories that are always in play at a given moment: the emergent, the dominant, and the residual. At the present moment, we might point (focusing on the news media, for example) to the Internet as emergent, television as dominant, and the newspaper as residual. In Chicago, I would suggest, the residual now dominates. Chicago is ruled and shaped by the things and people of yesteryear. This is quickly becoming the case even with Chicago’s most truly dominant force, the Bulls. They have turned into one of the league’s oldest teams while remaining one of its best. Michael Jordan, at thirty-five, is simultaneously leading the league in scoring and threatening to retire. The city is thus caught between expectations of a sixth championship in the nineties and the terrifying prospect that this would almost certainly be the last. But even if the worst-case scenario comes to pass between the time of my writing and your reading this (i.e., the Bulls lose and Jordan retires), it does not seem possible that Chicago will ever let go of these Bulls. The tenacity with which Chicagoans cling to memories of the ’86 Bears (winners of Super Bowl XVIII) would suggest that even wholesale dismantling of the team will hardly make a difference. Bulls residue, in the form of video clips, player-owned business (Michael Jordan’s restaurant, Scottie Pippen’s Dodge Store), and already ubiquitous paraphernalia will be with us well into the twenty-first century.

At the moment, at least, the Bulls only hover on the brink of the residual; on the court they show few signs of aging or fading. But there is indeed much about Chicago that looks and feels archaic, most notably the El. Elevated trains run through much of the city and contribute to the old-timey feel of things (the El is, of course, a Chicagoland treasure). El trains carry with them both a whiff of the past and a hint of the future. More precisely, they remind us of how those in the past envisioned the future: “in the future,” they wrongly imagined, “trains will run not on the ground, not under the ground, but up in the air.” Other cities’ subways go above ground as they near the end of their lines; what is so striking about the El is that (at least on some lines) it stays resolutely above ground, even in the Loop. It feels vaguely sciencefictional to be propelled in the air above Wabash Avenue through a canyon formed by skyscrapers. One experiences the buildings in a remarkable way, by moving among them not at ground level but closer to their midriffs. And yet, however novel and futuristic it may feel to be on the train itself, upon emerging from it one is struck by how rickety and pre-war the structure holding it up seems. The flimsy-looking wooden platforms and the flow-through tracks (designed to drip on those below) seem relics of days gone by.

More pervasive than the El, and for me even more evocative of a bygone era, are the many elaborate, antiquated shop signs that announce and adorn even Chicago’s humblest establishments. Like Las Vegas, like Hong Kong, Chicago is a city of attractive, ornate, sometimes garish signs. The city boasts nothing quite so monumental as the Citgo sign that looms over Boston’s Fenway Park, or the Maxwell House Coffee sign one can see across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. But many establishments still bear the signs they have had for decades, signs whose stylishness and sturdiness (metal, not plastic) recall an earlier age. The Philadelphia Church at 5445 N. Clark, housed in a building that looks like it once was a bank, has a massive, twenty-foot-tall sign jutting out over the sidewalk. It says “Philadelphia Church” in horizontal red neon, flanked on either side by the words “Jesus” and “Saves” in vertical white lightbulbs. As impressive as the sign’s design and size is that fact that all of its bulbs light up. The sign is not just a relic of a time when people thought it appropriate to advertise salvation like a casino or a car dealership; it is carefully maintained by people still very much committed to this principle. Indeed, it is striking how frequently Chicago’s old building signs still accurately name the enduring purposes of businesses within. The elegant sign with white-on-red letters reading “North Town Refrigeration Corp.,” bearing the word “Frigidaires” in neon on either side, does not sit atop a KMart or a Blockbuster video store. They still sell refrigerators in there (47I5 N. Lincoln), as they have since I935. The green-and-white sign above the Uptown Snack Shop (two blocks south of the Green Mill), which promises Broiled Steaks and Chops (in caps) and Fountain Creations (in cursive), does not front an establishment selling pita pockets and blueberry bagels. They continue to offer their grizzled, heavy-smoking clientele a Hamburger Steak ($3. 25 ), Two Grilled Pork Chops ($6.05 ), assorted malts and shakes and “Famous Boston Style Sodas” (these last emerge from a beautiful “AllDry Soda Fountain”). They even offer phosphates, whatever those are.

In other words, things have a habit of hanging on in Chicago. People here manage to go about their business, impervious if not oblivious to change. They continue to sell phosphates and Frigidaires long after the rest of the world has moved on to something else. And there is, of course, a hip, emergent Chicago–trendy restaurants, gutted and rehabbed apartment buildings, alternative music-that uses residual Chicago as its backdrop or counterpart. As a result, one can sometimes feel in Chicago as though one is still in the 1940s. Or, at least, one can tell that the forties took place here, and that they had considerable charm and style.

It may sound like I am describing Chicagoland (a cute, old-fashioned city with character) rather than Chicago, but that confusion may be inevitable. The two locations are not completely distinct; they share many things, the blues and the Bulls and the El among them. I do not mean to suggest that there is a “real” Chicago that exists entirely independent of and apart from the bogus Chicagoland. Chicagoland (i.e., Chicago as theme park) is such a popular and powerful image precisely because it expresses something real about this city. What is so appealing, and so insidious, about Chicagoland is how closely it resembles Chicago. It is hard not to feel, when driving down Lake Shore Drive towards the Loop on a sunny day, that one is a character in a romantic comedy, traveling ineluctably toward a happy ending. The traffic moves along at a good clip. To the left, along the lake, is a substantial contingent of bikers, Rollerbladers, joggers, and beach volleyball players. Leave your car and your responsibilities, they seem to say; come exercise, come frolic. On the right is Chicago’s/Chicagoland’s gorgeous skyline-not quite as dense or dramatic as Manhattan’s, but perhaps better for being more porous. Where the Manhattan skyline is monolithic, Chicago’s is always shifting and reconfiguring itself. It can be taken in from several sides and angles, and it is modest enough that one can take it in from up close. Accessible and inviting, majestic yet accomodating, it invariably makes me feel I can make it here, even if I can’t make it anywhere.

The comparison to New York is, of course, unavoidable. The Second City’s relation to the First City shapes its self-perception and self-presentation, and it is in comparison to New York that Chicago seems particularly Chicagolandish. The difficulty, expense, and (perceived) danger of New York make Chicago feel like the easy, affordable, and safe metropolis that the movies portray it as being. Moving to Chicago from Brooklyn, I was (and remain) struck by how manageable Chicago is. Parking places, spacious and reasonably priced apartments, green grass-all the things that are hard to find in New York-are plentiful here. When I lived in New York, I ended each day with a tense self-congratulation for having survived. A day in Chicago ends with an easy selfsatisfaction: of course I survived; why wouldn’t I? Obviously, many in Chicago (most famously, the residents of Chicago’s notorious housing projects: Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes, the Henry Horner Homes) do not share my sense of security and well-being. And even my complacency is, in part, illusory. I have been robbed at gunpoint in both my Brooklyn and Chicago neighborhoods, and the fact that the Chicago mugging took place on a prettier street was not a particular comfort at that moment. But on all the other days when I wasn’t being robbed, it was. Chicago may be as dangerous as New York (how would we know?), but it lets you forget that danger more easily.

Chicago’s difference from, perhaps even superiority to New York in these “quality of life” respects would be a source of pleasure, were it not so much the business of Chicago to crow about it. One of Chicago’s many nicknames is “the City that Works,” a moniker that mingles proletarian pride (the city that labors, sweats, grunts) with defensive boasting: this city works, not like those malfunctioning monstrosities on the east and west coasts. Chicago’s need to prove itself a world-class city would be almost touching, were it not so annoying. The incessant boosterism is embarrassing. With every major news event, the media desperately seek for what they will invariably call “The Chicago Connection.” Fortunately for them, O. J. Simpson flew to Chicago, allegedly to dispose of some of his bloody articles; luckily, from this point of view, Chris Farley died in his Chicago condominium. There was glee when the Unabomber was thought to have attended a suburban Chicago high school. One can sense the journalists’ palpable frustration that the Monica Lewinsky episode has not offered, as yet, a Chicago angle, except for giving reporters another occasion to ask Hillary Rodham’s girlhood friends (she grew up outside Chicago) how she might be feeling. Chicago’s major celebrities (Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey) are deified, and Chicago’s lesser celebrities (Mike Ditka, the actor John Mahoney) are trumpeted almost as loudly. Hit albums by local rock stars Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins a few years back generated a lot of speculation that Chicago was the new Seattle, and a lot of serious talk about what defined “the Chicago Sound.” Chicago’s rich and varied ethnic neighborhoods are invariably described in boastful superlatives: the biggest Czech community outside of Prague, the largest Cambodian population outside Phnom Penh, etc. Even the weather, which would seem to speak forcefully enough for itself, is publicized and exaggerated. A memorable instance of this phenomenon was “Deep Freeze ’94,” a moniker which one TV news station had already given a brutal cold spell before it began. Chicago, still, seems worried that it will not be noticed, appreciated, credited by the world.

Recently, my girlfriend and I watched part of a surprisingly engrossing program on public television. It was essentially a travelogue: scenic shots of life in and around Chicago in spring, summer, fall, and winter, set to the appropriate movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The show paired hackneyed music with predictable footage (spring equals children jumping rope, birds and flowers, Opening Day). This program seemed a pure product of Chicagoland, the perfect expression of Chicago’s selfregarding impulse (aired during a pledge drive, no less!). And yet, as we watched, we found ourselves seduced by the images, and moved-not to pledge money, but at least to turn off the TV, walk to the lakefront, and look for Chicagoland in Chicago.

Jonathan Eig, in The New Republic (February 9, 1998 ), draws a striking comparison between the ambiance at a (white) North Side blues club and that of a (black) West Side bar. But it should be noted that the kind of blues one hears on the North Side-what he calls “polished upbeat fare”-has long been a part of the blues (e.g., T-Bone Walker, B. B. King).

If the blues is the music of Chicagoland, its food is surely deep dish pizza. It’s hard to imagine, however, that this indelicacy ever had a culinary heyday comparable to what the blues enjoyed musically, and yet it has somehow come to epitomize Chicago cuisine. A deep dish pizza weighs about five times as much as a proper one. It has an outer crust three or four inches tall, thereby creating a shallow pool to be filled with a mound of low-grade mozzarella. Having lived previously in New Haven and Brooklyn, I am accustomed not only to thin-crust, brick-oven pizza, but also to pizza by the slice, pizza you eat as a quick snack on the way to class or to the subway. Deep dish (“Chicago style”) pizza can be eaten only on the way to a lengthy, lactose-induced nap.

Copyright New England Review Summer 1998

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