My Kind of Book

Everybody knows Chicago. But what do they really know about Chicago?


in Archive


People in Chicago were stunned by the announcement that their city was
out of the running for the 2016 Olympics after just the first round of
voting. Everyone had expected a positive result, particularly after
Chicago son Barack Obama got involved. Was it Chicago’s reputation for
corruption and strong-arm tactics? If Chicago had been announced as the
victor, it may have looked as though the committee bowed to pressure.
Or maybe it was the fact that the world does not seem to know what to
make of modern-day Chicago. The Olympics were going to be Richard
Daley’s legacy: the reintroduction of Chicago to the international

  • Chicago: A Biography by Dominic A. Pacyga. 472 pages. University of Chicago. $35.

Any recognizable narrative of Chicago ended around the second World War, when the population of the city started to drop. The industries that had helped define Chicago — its meat packing plants documented in Upton Sinclair’s classic Chicago novel The Jungle, the skilled laborers who joined unions and helped bring about fair labor laws for the rest of the country — decentralized and moved away. The industrial areas and warehouse districts began to rust and decay, but not as dramatically as Detroit or Cleveland. The newer, cutting edge technology industries never took off in Chicago like they did in Silicon Valley, nor was there a flashy entertainment industry like that of Los Angeles. The story of Chicago became something quieter — the birthing of a Green City movement, the embodiment of the Midwestern work ethic. The outside world took notice when something huge, and often embarrassing, took place, such as the riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, or a serial killer or two, or another humiliating Cubs season, or the deaths of hundreds in the mismanagement of the 1995 heat wave.

Because Chicago has no new compelling storyline, the old ones will have to do for the rest of the world. Even the renowned literary magazine Granta — after spending who knows how long creating its recent issue devoted entirely to Chicago — used Al Capone as its first example of what defines Chicago in the issue’s introduction. It’s enough to drive a resident of the city (as I was) crazy. Chicago pride takes over, with the city flag showing up tattooed on hipsters’ shoulders and a guaranteed bristling whenever Chicago is used as another punchline. In many of the stories about Chicago’s defeat in the Olympic run, there is a citizen puffing up and responding to the interviewer’s use of Chicago’s nickname “The Second City” and proclaiming, “Chicago is second to no one.”

When professor and Chicago historian Dominic A. Pacyga sat down to start his new history of the city, there was an overwhelming amount of material to work with. He decided not to write a chronological history of the city, something that could take up multiple volumes, but to treat Chicago as if it were a person — hence the title Chicago: A Biography. He focused on what he believes to be Chicago’s defining characteristics, rather than its more flashier aspects. Some of the more sensational characters — the sociopaths like Leopold and Loeb, the gangsters like John Dillinger, the bisexual eccentrics like Frank Lloyd Wright — get either a cursory mention or none at all. His attention is taken up by what really does define the city: a fight for fairness for laborers, for the poor, and for children; capitalism and corruption run amok; the work produced and the people who do it.

There are several sentences that, while originally used in Chicago to reference a particular time and place, could have been copied and pasted in various parts of the book. “The aldermen could not be trusted.” “Only in the strange ways of Chicago and Illinois politics could such a thing happen.” “The police then began to shoot indiscriminately into the crowd.” There is truth to the old Chicago cliches, and not just those that deal with its sports teams. Chicago was originally nicknamed “The Windy City” not because there are days when fighting the gales just to get to the grocery store occasionally makes you want to sit down on the sidewalk and cry, but because of the blustery corruption of our politicians. It’s difficult to deny Chicago’s reputation for corruption with a straight face when former governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich refuses to stop professing his innocence — and really, truly seeming to believe in it — on all the talk shows. A few years ago I was sitting in the green room of the local news program Chicago Tonight while they broke the story that the best way to get your building inspected and have it pass was a large sum of money. “This is news?” asked the lawyer sitting next to me. “Didn’t we all just assume this is how our city ran?”

Not only that, it’s the way the city has always been run. Pacyga tells the story of John Powers, the 19th Ward Alderman during the late 19th century, who was fabulously corrupt and yet still beloved by his constituents. “The alderman bailed out his neighbors when the police arrested them. He attempted to ‘fix-up’ matters when they appeared before the courts and residents expected him to pay the rent when they could not or to pay for a funeral when a poor man, woman, or child died… Reformers admonished the poor for supporting these men but did not put in place in the 1890s any practical replacement for them in the political world of the slum.” It’s a running theme. Mayors who openly run around with gangsters are re-elected. Chicago elected a second Daley for god’s sake. The citizens assume the city is run by crooks, but as long as it does run, the complaints stay quiet. When the press started digging around Daley’s hiring practices several years ago, grumbling at the Ukrainian Village bar I frequented tended to be along the lines of, “Why do they have to bring it up?”

Algren’s essay “City on the Make” highlighted the pursuit of money beyond all else, from the pimps to the capitalists who were so afraid of their own workers that someone like George Pullman had to be buried in a block of concrete the size of a room and under a heavy pillar in order to keep his body from being dug up and desecrated. From the very beginning, the consequences of uncontrolled capitalism have played out in Chicago from the (sometimes very violent) anarchist and communist movements of the 19th century to the present day, when during the current economic crisis a union occupied a factory when it was announced it was being shut down (documented in Revolt On Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis by Kari Lydersen).

In between the plots of blow up the Board of Trade and the May Day parades and the strikes, however, social experiments were taking place that would change the rest of the country. Chicago was the first city to set up a separate court system and detention center for juveniles, brought about by out-of-control street gangs and crimes by desperately poor minors. Jane Addams and Hull-House brought dignity to the treatment and portrayal of the life of the poor. The employment rate of women was always high in Chicago, even in the early years. The Midwestern belief system, summed up by Pacyga as “hard work, prosperity, and upward mobility” still reflects the mindset of many Midwesterners. Then there are the less flattering stereotypes, like the fact that there was something called the Lager Beer Riots of 1855, and that in response to 20th-century German aggression Chicago renamed sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.”

My favorite nicknames for Chicago were always “The City of Big Shoulders” and the one that turns a loyalist’s face purple faster than any other, “The Second City.” I was once told that the “Second City” comment has nothing to do with its status behind New York City or its inferiority complex, though I have never read anything that backs this up. A poet who grew up on the South Side — and once railed to me about Ira Glass’s “traitorous abandoning” of Chicago for New York when his radio program This American Life became successful — explained that the name came about after the Chicago fire. Starting in the poorest districts of the West Side, it jumped the branches of the Chicago River twice to wipe out over 2,100 acres, from 12th Street to Fullerton, from just east of Halsted to Lake Michigan. Chicago began rebuilding almost immediately, with carefully thought out plans to make the city more beautiful and more efficient (and also more sinful, although that part is generally left out — gambling and prostitution rose during and after the rebuilding). True or not, it’s a lovely statement about durability and rebirth and should probably become the official story of the “Second City” nickname.  • 7 October 2009