July 28, 2003
Chi Town and the Vanishing City

I did not move to Chicago because it was the “city of big shoulders.” When I first started visiting here in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the contemporary touchstones were very different: Chicago was the city of Wax Trax Records, The Baffler, the Sea and Cake. For many of my friends, it was much less the City of Big Shoulders and more the city of Big Black and its inevitable cultural corollary, Steve Albini.

In short, I didn’t have much of a sense of the city’s history and only an English major’s nodding acquaintance with its literary heroes like Carl Sandburg and Nelson Algren.

A lot of people my age and younger seem to be in the same boat. Sometimes I sense Chicago working overtime to prove itself different from other cities—and, in the process, it falls victim to cliché. Look how working class/unpretentious/urban we are! We define ourselves by what we are not—but what are we?

As a result, people who are drawn here by the city’s claims to blue-collar sincerity find themselves leading lives that have nothing to do with the actual blue-collar class. You may be working in a restaurant or an unemployed Web designer or in a band, but you’re not actually working construction or cleaning houses for a living.

Too often, especially among the chattering class of the blog world, this creates a kind of permanent confusion about what’s “real” or “authentic” (see discussion here about the politics of dive bars) that can never really be resolved.

Norbert Blei, the author of Chi Town, had no such confusion. This selection of "true-life tales evoking a city of gritty and colorful neighborhoods and people" and doesn’t worry about irony or authenticity. It's worth reading if, like me, you came here from somewhere else.

Reading the book is a bit like time travel. It was published in 1990 as a collection, but many of the pieces are from an earlier date. It's the Chicago of the 1970s and '80s and the city of the author's childhood memories. The space between the two seems relatively seamless for the author, but today's reader often needs to make a leap. Many of the places he writes about aren't there any more. The neighborhoods he celebrates have changed, too; the European ethnics (the Czechs, Poles, and Slavs) who fascinate him in the bakeries and street fairs have been replaced by other immigrant cultures.

But there's still things in here to recognize: impressionistic views of Marshall Field's, a visit to Aiko's Art Store, the search for the best hot dog in the city, a tour of department store bargain basements. And things that have faded away, like the old location of the Public Library or Van Buren Street hangouts, come to life too.

Blei lauds Nelson Algren, who in his words “made literature out of life.” In terms of writing, his tastes also run predictably to local legends like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel. In line with their traditions, Blei’s stories are really celebrations of the common man. What’s it like to be a garbage collector, a Greek restaurateur, a window washer, a guy who works at the newsstand? The author gets it straight from the source.

At times, Tony almost spins with papers—hands behind his back, hands at both sides, hands outstretched with dimes and quarters and dollar bills (so difficult to change in the rush hours). The faces are familiar, most of them, but the names are a mystery. There is never enough time, at this time, this place. Yet everyone is welcome.

He favors the stories of the average guy on the street (or sitting on a park bench) and, to some extent, now-forgotten oddballs like Xerox artist Bill Stipe. He doesn’t worry about whether Chicago stacks up against the coasts; he believes it stacks up to the cities of Europe.

The Chicago River is our Seine. It lacks the fishermen, the artists, the bookstalls, the lovers of Paris, and it has no Notre Dame. But there is an American beauty to the river that cannot be denied.

This is at once a strength (the author knows whereof he speaks) and a drawback (if you’re curious about the perspective of a woman or an African-American or Hispanic or a young person of the time, you’ll have to look elsewhere). There’s also little awareness of pop culture, which makes it difficult to place some of the stories chronologically. I miss these points of view, but their omission is understandable; they often represent the agents of cultural change, which interfere with the author’s preoccupation with a city that is vanishing. (Blei has vanished from the cityscape, too; he moved to Wisconsin, where he apparently runs a small press.)

Blei knows the El and it figures in many of the stories. Chi Town is a good book for reading on the train, too. Reading in motion is an intermittent experience that keeps you in touch with the nature of the city; it also distracted me from the occasionally unbelievably rhapsodic nature of the author’s prose or the too-frequent typos that should have been caught by now.

These caveats aside, the book is recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand Chicago better. The author’s keen eye for detail helps us see the detail, too, and gives us a sense of the city’s past and how it evolved into what we know today. Here's a winter in memory:

A winter’s night view from the window was a dreamscape of drifting snow and pools of yellow streetlight…white flakes and the lights in the windows of the houses, the storefronts, the darkened fortress of Gary School across the street. An occasional automobile (“machines, Grandpa Blei called them) and the city skyscrapers, as I imagined them, soaring into layers of darkness, clouds of snow…trains, streetcars, and Els gliding on sliver rails, burrowing through night and new snow, passengers framed in small squares of windowlight, arriving, departing, for downtown Chicago…

If you've spent an autumn in Chicago, you know this scene:

I miss the cold October rain, the stiff wind holding people to a standstill. The city watercolored Cobalt Blue, Payne’s Gray. Coats and dresses swept away. Black umbrellas, red umbrellas…yellow and white. Heads lowered into the wind, collars turned, hands holding hats, tugging lapels close to neck. Words caught in the throat, fragmented in passing conversations, swallowed whole.

I still have a lot to learn about the city’s history. I may forever be a lukewarm student of Sandburg and Algren. But this book has reminded me to pay attention, because Chicago—like all cities—is in a constant state of flux. Already, even the city I knew when I moved here is vanishing, like the city of Blei’s youth. And if we stay, my friends and I will one day be the old timers, telling stories, too.

Posted at July 28, 2003 07:19 PM