On a local talk-show recently, a New York actress, Elizabeth Ashley, said of Chicago: "This is a real town." Chicago gets many friendly pats on the head like this. A fnend ut mine, a Churagoan transplanted from the East like me, growls: 'Don t you hate il when they come out here and say. Oh, what a little srtTci this city is'?"
Chicago wasn't always a lost city. Startmg around 1893 with the Columbian Exposition and lasting through Al Capone, it was the aty that most captured America s imagination In those years, Chicago was an enchanted place, with Its history of political riots, gangland wars, and overnight busintrss empires, a history as surrealistic as a Latin Amencan novel. Then, mysteriously, it went out of style. And that raises a crucial, maddening question: Is this place reallv any different from St. Louis, Detroit, or lndianapt>lis?
The Eluabeth Ashley problem is that in parts of Chicago, you can pretend you are in New York, ChKago is still the onlv city in America where such pretending can go on. It has an elegant, Mies van der Rohc skyhnc. Michigan Avenue is a kind of !fun-t>gate Madison Avenue. The Sears Tower, which looks like the black obelisk that descended on the ape-lmgs in 2lXH A Space OdvsMy. is still the world s tallest building. Caller on Chicago radio: Is the Sears Tower the tallest in Chicago? Announcer: The Sears Tower IS the tallest building in the world. Caller: Yeah, but is it the tallest in Chicago?Maybe you are safer with Chicago's surrogate Manhattan. When It gets tiKj expensive, you can always slop pretending, walk a few blocks west, and be back in cheap, uglv Brechtian Chicago, And Chicago s 'Manhattan" is much cleaner than the real one. You can hail a cab for the Pump Room, as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne once did, without having to step over upended garbage cans. Still, it IS a runty little Manhattan 11 you compare the Chicago skyline with New York s, you must think: "O.K., as far as it gix*s, but IS that all?" Lake Shore Dnve has a UKV wall of high nses. but onlv on one side ot the street Past the high rises, it drops sheer oii to Flatbush, the land of little White Hen Pantry Store*. That IS where the real Chicago begins, flat, cold, and neon. It is Like a ttim noir movie set of the late 1940s. The p«*ople are as earthbound as characters in an R Crumb Thomas Geoghegan, a former TNR staffer, is a Chicago lawver. cartiMtn, The real Chicago: where a man can live his life as it was meant to be lived in a crumpled London Fog rainciMt, where he can rattle in .in El over Depression-era housing, where he can wax sentimental about urban ugliness. Andy Wgraphy is destiny. Chicago gets its eerie Oz-Iike character from its ItKation. It sits inexplicably in the middle of a prairie next to a mysterious inland Hea. EJoth thf city and the lake seem connected to some special Midwest creation-myth, or whatever it was that sent the glaciiTs down to carve out the prairies and the Great l^kes. Then rose up Chicago, the nation's once (and fu> ture?) middle-kingdom city, now receding as slowly as a glacier from its former preeminence but not yet like every other rustbelt town. Whdt makes Chicago provincial? First, Chicago is a family town. Even thf chic Lakefronter lives not far from Mom and Dad, who may be just over the line in River Forest or Evcrgrefn Park. Unlike New York or Los Angeles, Chicago does not draw frt>m all over. Doomed by its weather, it must reproduce itself from itself, counting t>n each moping generation to hang out around home. Of course, there are a few witless kids from the Dakotas or Milwaukee, running halfway from home. Even the artists and >ictors, if you ask them about it, never rt>amed farther than the U, of I. campus at Champaign- Urbana. Second, Chicago is a blue-collar immigrant town. Even the sublime in Chicago has a 193f>-proletarian taint: its daylight baseball, its opera, its joycean bar-talk, its Pan- Slavism. Chicago is a holy land of Pan-Slavism, the world's Si-cond-largest Polish-speaking city. A friend of mine explains: "New York has the Jews, Italians, and Irish, so New York is manic brassy, and exciting. Chicago has the Poles, Croats, and Slovaks, so Chicago is sullen, defeated, and oppressed." Some Lakefronters would gladly trade the Poles for the Italians, because they prefer pasta to dumplings. But only East Europeans appreciate Chicago'
By Thomas Geoghegan