Chicago, Chicago

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

(Mart Plaza/ flickr)

Ahh, Chicago. The Windy City, The City of Broad Shoulders, or my favorite, Paris on the Prairie; America’s 3rd city: the red-haired, freckled stepchild of our big metropolises.

A city known and celebrated– for better or worse – for many things: hearty, no-nonsense American cuisine, soaring skyscrapers, ubiquitous El trains, a zealous sports culture, rich cultural diversity and a lakeside location, amongst other things. And at the same time, like any other city, Chicago also represents many “other” things: a unique, home-grown brand of corrupt political machines, exorbitant violent crime, astounding segregation and other racial divisions, and of course, the unforgiving winters. The city, if nothing else, is a patchwork, almost a quilt, of locals’ neighborhoods, with corresponding hangouts and institutions. Tight-knit enough where one rarely leaves his or her neighborhoods, often the same one they grew up in. Traditionally made out to be fiercely blue-collar and raffish, I find these befitting, given it being the capital of a rather bland, unromanticized Midwest culture. It is this city, Chicago, that, in my efforts to fill a glaring Midwest hole in my travel map, I will be visiting at the end of the month.

Paradoxically enough, despite the nation’s worst segregation, Chicago is about as diverse as they come (well, outside of Toronto, London, NYC, and LA, that is). As the Great economic engine of the American Midwest, Chicago has been a principal destination for people the world over -- something that remains true today, with 1/5 of the population being foreign-born. Large numbers of Mexicans, Polish, Indians and various Central and Eastern Europeans have converged on and made Chicago home. And as a result, Chicagoans come in any and all walks of life, and while the plurality is black, near-equal numbers of Hispanics (with a Mexican population numbering 800,000) exist. Also existing is a similarly-sized white population, largely descended from immigrants fleeing (then) poverty-stricken Germany, Ireland and Poland. Renowned for sensibility and humility, this is a city whose citizens are stripped of pretension and arrogance; approachable in down to earth manner…and, one where people know how to eat!

Spawned from heavy immigration, is the establishment of Chicago as a food city. Let’s be real. Chicago’s the city to go if it is no-frills, quintessential Americana cuisine one seeks. Home to a unique trinity comprised of (unique local takes on) hot dogs, pizza and Italian beef, a man would be hard pressed to find a city that takes food more seriously. And while ethnic foods, from a smorgasbord of countries exists, as well as upscale dining options, Chicago is, and always will be a relentlessly authentic greasy-spoon American foodie destination – save the haute stuff for NYC or London.

Like its designation as a food capital, also born out of the strong immigrant work ethics, perseverance and know-how that cultivated a small swamp town into a bustling metropolis of several million is, amongst other things, an accomplished architecture tradition. How many cities have a titular style of architecture? Not many, that’s for sure. Since the first wave of Chicago School construction, succeeding generations of architects have poured a range of architectural styles into the mix, with numerous fine buildings in styles that include both the Chicago and Prairie schools, neo-classical, art deco, modern and post-modern. With such a distinguished tradition, well steeped in the crafting of fine architecture, Chicago certainly ranks as one of the architecture capitals of the country. Afterall, Chicago did, uh.. kind of invent, if not, certainly popularize the skyscraper. And on the residential side of things: the ubiquitous turrets? Who does corner turrets like Chicago?

It is for the many above reasons and others, that I consider Chicago (along with perhaps Detroit) the “quintessential” American city, even if only for the sheer fact that of the things we’ve come to let define & associate with Americana culture many have their roots in Chicago. (Countless musicians, athletes and other personalities hail from here. It being a place where people immigrated and strode for success as part of the American dream; the ascension of various, un-related ethnic groups into the American boiling pot, for example.)

As one can see, this is definitely a city I visit with pre-conceived notions. This being my first trip to the heartland, a place viewed with condescension and scorn from coastal liberals..well, we’ll see how it goes. Finally, despite Chicago’s proud march into the 21st century, due to the works of Upton Sinclair and others, I will always lovingly associate sprawling rail yards, messy slaughterhouses, gory meat-packing plants, and the cattle shipping business, along with other, gritty realities of industrialization, with the city. Chicago, Chicago at last.

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