Monday, August 23, 2010

The Great American City

Let's ignore "Mosque Madness" for a time or if you'd rather not, depart from this place as I do so.

I post today to sing the praises of the City of the Broad Shoulders (don't be intimidated by them), renowned for many things if not (yet?) the fact that it is the place of my birth.  Yes, it's my kind of town, my hometown, where, invariably, I lose the blues.  And it's true of course that not even Billy Sunday could shut it down.

My maternal grandmother learned how to knit at Hull House.  My maternal grandfather was a conductor on the L (which I've also seen characterized as the EL) back when the CTA had conductors and would take my brother and I along on his route now and then.  My parental grandparents were both in Vaudeville, and performed in Chicago and elsewhere.  My maternal grandparents are buried in the same cemetery, and not far from, the last resting places of Al Capone and Frank Nitte.

I've mentioned before here that Norman Mailer called it "a great American city" in his New Journalism classic Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and that I think of it as the Great American City.  Wandering through Grant Park at the Gold Coast Art Fair I was reminded of when, in 1968, the "whole world was watching" the Democratic Convention dissolve into chaos courtesy of disaffected college students and the police of the city.  Sitting in Andy's Jazz Club on East Hubbard and listening to a trio play a few days ago, I felt called on to explain why I think it's a special place.

Happily, the smell of the stockyards is no longer with us, but Chicago owes much of its status and history to them, and to the railroad.  It was for many years the hub which all roads led to and from in the days when Americans rode the rails, and many of the great from the east and the west coasts would stop there.  Route 66 commenced in the city.  It was and remains a great financial center.  It is very much a central city, more or less in the heart of the nation.  It is sufficiently detached from the east and west coasts to avoid the influence, both good and bad, of foreign nations to a greater extent than New York and L.A.

Insulated from that influence, it developed a peculiarly American sense of style, particularly in its architecture.  A friend who has lived for many years in Manhattan told me Chicago is much more interesting in its architecture than New York, and I think he is quite right.  Burnham, Wright and others did amazing things in and out of the Loop.  Great American writers had their origins in the city.  John Dewey and Jane Adams did great work there.

It seems to exude a kind of power, a quasi-Roman kind of grandeur.  It is a very practical city, as Rome once was, and a very violent and venal city, as Rome once was.  It is remarkable in that it was once openly run by gangsters, that is to say rival men of power, again as Rome once was, during the late Republic, when Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Anthony and Octavian dominated.

Money, violence and politics seem to be peculiarly American concerns in some ways, and they are grandly on display in Chicago.  Yet it's also accomplished in the arts.  Literature and poetry, though sometimes harsh, flourished there.  It is one of the great homes of jazz, the peculiarly American musical form.  The rather brazen works of Picasso and Chagall seem very much at home there.

New York is a world capital (as I think Mailer called it).  Los Angeles may have become one as well.  They seem, sometimes, removed from the United States in certain ways.  Chicago does not, ever.  Chicago is the Great American City

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