Thursday, March 08, 2012

Open Letter to Chicago

Yesterday was Chicago Day. Here’s a letter I wrote to the city in honor and in horror:

Dear Chicago,

Happy birthday! You’re not getting older; you’re getting better. Actually, let me retract that. Oh, I don’t mean to suggest that you are in decline or in need of a face lift. Far from it. In fact, that's the problem—too many renovations, reconstructions, and rehabbings have rendered you damn near unrecognizable. Well, to me at least.

You see, if you remember we met when I was a boy. Back then, you looked a lot different. You were scary, sure, but exciting. You held so much promise then. Now you almost seem tired. Then again, this could be my fault. It’s not you; it’s me. I moved within your city limits almost 20 years ago. We still got along pretty well back then. The newness of our relationship had yet to wane. In fact, I was so infatuated with you that I knew that I’d never leave. And I haven’t. I tried, god knows I did, but I can’t seem to tear myself from you. Damn, Chicago, you have some sharp claws!

I think the problem is not that you have changed for the worse, but that I have grown along with you. Obviously I'm not as old as you (sorry to bring up age), but I am 40 going on 41. Almost half of my life has been spent with you and the other half was spent alongside you in the nearby suburbs. I watched you from afar until I worked up the nerve to approach. Since then, it’s been you and me. And I loved your bookstores, cafés, all-night diners, dive bars, museums, movie theaters, and concert halls. I loved to visit your lake and walk along the poor excuse for beaches that make those coastal snobs criticize you. I was in love with so many of your facets that when they were destroyed I started to ask myself why the hell I still live here.

A bit on that: The Red Lion Pub was my home away from home. Sure, it’s not your fault that it is no longer around (yeah, there’s the new Red Lion, but love it as I do, it’s not quite the same). And what about the Aspidistra Bookshop, my favorite bookstore and former place of employ? Gone. Wax Trax? Dead and buried. Roma’s? No more. Lounge Ax? No mas. These are just a few of the old hangouts that drew me to you. Okay, so there are new hangouts. Reggie’s Rock Club in the South Loop, for instance. And Delilah’s is still around. Ditto Powell’s (both locations). And for fuck's sake the Seminary Co-Op, easily the best new bookstore anywhere, still stands. Nevertheless, I can’t help but reminisce over those long dead institutions that essentially made Chicago the city I never wanted to leave.

Even the improvements can’t help but elicit a bit of nostalgia. My neighborhood, for example, is quite a bit better than it was 20 years ago. Hell, I might have been scared to live there back then. The same goes for Uptown. I remember walking down Broadway and getting offered crack. Now I see wine bars among the abandoned Uptown Theater (still one of your more marvelous buildings, despite dilapidation). So yes, we have some cleaned up parts of town. And Cabrini Green—one of the more notorious hells you once boasted—is prime real estate, but with that gentrification (or, if you prefer, urban renewal) a certain level of character was sacrificed.

This is not to say that you have gone soft. No, you still lead in violent crime. Okay, those crimes are pretty concentrated in specific areas, but what happens to one of your denizens surely affects us all. Yeah, you’re still a tough motherfucker, Chicago, but maybe it’s time you softened up.

I realize that to newcomers you seem as exciting as you seemed to me when I was a young man. I realize that they too will complain, as I am, when they hit 40. I realize that I am free to leave (despite my job, which demands that we be forever united). Still, I can’t help but bemoan your faults as I celebrate your virtues.

And what virtues! Great food, wonderful parks, incredible museums, culture and sophistication free from the pretension of other big cities. Chicago, you don’t feel the need to prove yourself. You know you are a great town and, unlike New York, don’t need to post signs that read “The World’s Greatest City” all over your downtown streets. You realize that your weather sucks but that the winters do indeed make us value spring and summer in ways Californians never could. You are indeed the heart of the country. You gave birth to the skyscraper and slaughtered livestock for countless hungry mouths. You do not limit your lakefront to those of privilege and welcome all cultures. Between your borders there are well over a hundred languages spoken on a daily basis. I applaud such multiculturalism, but…

We need to talk about the segregation. What’s up with that? Since I was born, there have been areas where some of us were allowed to live and others weren’t. Sure, it’s gotten better, much better, but Chicago, you are still the most segregated of the major U.S. cities. I can’t believe that this is an accident.

I should thank you for some things. Within you I truly began my education. I moved here to finish school, then dropped out, became an autodidact, and then a student again. I discovered books that may have escaped me were I not in such a cosmopolitan, erudite town. I began the construction of my library, which I will never complete, though you have helped make it possible (and I hope you always will). And, most important, you introduced me to my wife, a lifelong Chicagoan. Had I left I would never have known her, or our mad, furry progeny.

I could go on. I could list all of your negatives and positives, but to what end? You are not likely to change except in ways I will not like, and I am not likely to leave anytime soon. Chicago, you are a prairie turned metropolis, but you hide quicksand under your surface. This has held me to you. I may never escape.