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Sep 2003 / elsewhere :: email this story to a friend

On Chicago and a New Strategy for Knowing My Place
By Sharon Woodhouse

My friends from other places, knowing my deep Chicago roots and Windy City allegiance, ask me from time to time — in ever more insistent, loaded, and sneaky ways — if I could possibly live anywhere besides Chicago and, if so, where? It's entrapment; they're goading me to admit that it's possible for other plots of land somewhere on Earth to be deserving of my attention and even habitation.

Well, sure — just about everywhere! Deposit me anywhere on the planet and I would go about exploring its ponds, stalagmites, junk shops, and lemonade stands, snooping down streets and alleys, trails and turnpikes, in an attempt to grasp its essence. Sheez. Every time I go to New York City, a dozen reasons I need to move there automatically surface in my brain and don't settle down until I'm safely back on home turf. It's been the same with San Francisco, New Orleans, Paris, Venice, Door County, WI, Richmond, IN, Iowa City. Really, everywhere. I develop instant relationships with them all and fall smitten with every one.

I love places and the notion of place. I love them for all their distinguishing characteristics — natural, cultural, built, contrived, historical, and imaginary — and for their limitations. But here's my Second City rub ... I love them, of course, because I learned how to love a place from the best!

Years ago I read a quote by a psychologist that said it is through loving a single human being that we can learn to love humanity. Now that's a perfectly inspiring statement as it stands, but I have preferred to transfer that idea again and again to cities. It so aptly reflects my experience of Chicago and metropolises beyond: it is through loving a single place that I have learned to love them all.

And in loving my particular place, I like to stretch the relationship framework started above. Getting to fully know, appreciate, and contend with Chicago parallels the interactions of other significant bonds: There are multiple sides to plumb; there is a greater flux than any stalwart exterior suggests; there are roles and aspects that are foreign or irrelevant to me that still require respect and understanding; there are endless opportunities for intimacy and unconditional love.

My next favorite notion for approaching the acquisition of urban knowledge comes from a college course, Geography of the Mind, in which we dealt with "cognitive maps." These are the mental maps — always under revision — of their environments that individuals store in their brains that may or may not overlap with reality. Our maps become filled out and customized by the quantity and quality of the interactions we have with our surroundings. Actively negotiating a car through the city streets, for instance, yields more information for our maps than does being the passenger. The character of the information we gather using the public transit system supplies details for our personal grids unavailable to motorists. And the pace of walking, combined with the greater exposure to the stimuli of the street, gives those who go by foot the maximum advantage in their atlas-making that's not so pedestrian after all. An obsessive-compulsive walker like me can run with an idea like this — it propels the fact-finding in my heroic efforts to keep pace with the city around me. I walk and know, walk and know, walk and know.

While it's presumably better for one's mental maps to correspond as closely as possible to the actual world, there's certainly a subjective element to these maps. One way to think about the quality of our maps (though I still like the base of "more is better") may be to consider how well our own maps meet the requirements of our lives. And if our map in general or portions of our maps don't necessarily jibe with reality? Then we're constructing our very own stories of our places — venturing into the mythological realm that is an important foundation of any great city. Thus, I survey every nook and cranny, retaining valuable particulars at times and, otherwise, spinning fantastic webs.

While the relationship and mental map ideas have served me well in my continuous quest to forge an extreme bond with my city, they both lend themselves to very personalized, self-oriented interpretations. By contrast, I started paying close attention over the last couple of years to a new source of information about Chicago that I discounted or ignored in the past: Simply, the perspective of outsiders, passers-through, newcomers, and resident others.

Sometimes they offer quirks and readings on Chicago that never filtered into my consciousness; sometimes what they say sounds so off, lopsided, or irritating that it must be suggesting something new ... if only a nudge to re-examine my own biases. Often enough, it's the trivial, vernacular stuff that ultimately adds up to some new breakthrough in knowledge.

This past week, for example, at a party brimming with non-natives, I learned that I, like other Chicagoans, pronounce the first vowel of "Rockford," the state's second largest city and the former screw capital of the U.S., not quite up to the snuff of some. We say it to match the first syllable of the encased meats so close to our Windy City hearts: Sah-sage. Rahckferd. Well, excuse us; perhaps we're merely trying to distinguish the town from the blue-veined "Roquefort." Note to self: Chicagoans who infiltrate nests of Ivy-Leaguers should expect these useful lessons in diction. Not so new breakthrough.

In any case, from my project of expanding my understanding of Chicago by collecting and sifting through the Chicagos of others, here are some of my favorites ...

  • Thomas Geoghegan, a lawyer, former government worker, activist, and political junkie, pays one of the most hilarious, endearing, and insightful tributes to Chicago, The Political City, in an early chapter of his book The Secret Lives of Citizens. He tells how he "picked out Chicago, our [American] political city," after years in D.C., for a certain type of life unavailable to him in the Beltway. "I wanted a big, disheveled city, Catholic and alcoholic…," in which he could be "a citizen and a voter." Geoghegan's brother, when visiting, notices that Chicago is a flat city with "nothing, not a hill, between these neighborhoods"; Thomas concludes "a flat city crackles politically" because we're all up against each other. With side splitting and mouth agape, I see page after page how the Chicago backdrop of wards, precincts, alderman, and corruption — almost part of our circulatory systems — must be penetrated by the civic-minded outsider.

  • One transplanted journalist and Chicago convert wrote in his love letter to Chicago printed a couple years back in the Wall Street Journal something curious, ripe for chewing over (over a deep-dish pizza or a beer): highly eligible singles in Chicago, according to those who run exclusive dating services, will tolerate an extra 10-20 pounds on prospective mates than good catches in New York or Los Angeles.

  • A former reporter of local grit and color (having grown up in our posh North Shore suburbs), declaiming on why he left Chicago for the urbane center of Philadelphia, stated in the Philly press: "Chicago had mutated into a hideous, bland urban amusement park for Nebraskans, with a good music scene." He didn't think that one would get back to a single one of all three million of us! Being hideous and bland doesn't mean we Nebraskans can't read the paper.

  • A friend of mine, having lived in Los Angeles and New York before becoming a permanent Chicagoan, once asserted with glee that though those coastal behemoths might be better producers of culture, Chicagoans are better consumers of culture! Gee, a compliment. This explains, for example, why we have a more diverse and abundant collection of ethnic restaurants than our friends in the Big Apple. (I've been checking this one out and it's apparently true. Not only are we the biggest restaurant town in the country — topping other cities with our 10,000-some eateries, but we have a range of cuisines at all prices and permutations that put others to shame.) Sounds like we're just better eaters (see above on extra weight allowance for confirmation). No. No. We also have a better small theater scene here despite a much smaller population — not because we can produce more theater necessarily, but because we can consume more of it, thus supporting the broader network.

  • The above-mentioned urban commentator also pronounced (it was $1-Schlitz night at the Long Room) that in New York, you only have to make it big once, then you can rest on your laurels and live off your reputation for the rest of your life. But not here; no one cares about who you are and they don't want to hear what a big shot you think you are. You must keep proving yourself in Chicago. i.e., Frank Sinatra lyrics need adjusting.

  • Another friend, having lived in New York City before settling in San Francisco, misses her in-between stint in Chicago, where the humor level was "just right." New Yorkers were too direct and harshly sarcastic for her. But when her light, flip jokes didn't go over in daily social situations on the West Coast (one fell particularly flat at the DMV) because people took her too literally, she said she knew that the Californian sensibility swung a little too far in the other direction for her.

  • Upon meeting a number of former Cincinnatians in Chicago, and learning that the Cincinnati library has an extensive collection of Chicago books and the Cincinnati papers review many Chicago titles, there stood out in my mind an unanswered "Huh?" It's now evident that Chicago is Cinci's big city — this is where one comes for bigness and its rewards. If you have world-class business or artistic aspirations, if you want to be a star of the stage, if you're gay and want an extended community, Chi-town's your town. I don't know why I've been pummeled almost exclusively with Cincinnati examples, but the principle probably holds for all other large midwestern cities. If your state's big city is still podunk for you, you upgrade to our big city.

  • This just in from a computer geek friend ("I learned this one online...really!"): the Chicago area has the largest concentration of suburban swingers and couples attending, ahem, group sex parties in the U.S. And I thought those extra cars lining village driveways were for Mary Kay parties and barbecues! Deep academic pondering: Is it that Chicago draws people with such proclivities from a wider geographic pool than do other large metro areas or is this because we have a less anything-goes culture here than NY or LA that causes repressions to erupt in this fashion?

  • Nice segue to the French. In spring of 2002, there was an academic symposium on Chicago in France, giving me the chance to talk about the European fascination with Chicago with French scholars. To them Chicago is the most American of all cities. They love Chicago for its ethnic and working-class roots, gritty reputation, radical history, blues and jazz contributions, cutting edge-architecture, and distinctive theater and literature that have emerged from our streets. We're a city privileged by an exceptional geographical position, chiseled by our social and political movements and upheavals, our slaughterhouses, agricultural exchanges, gangsters, sports stars, and ongoing injections of new immigrants. Wow. Now there's a people with some taste. New York is too cosmopolitan, international, and sophisticated to be interesting, to be American. Hmmm.

Finally, I've learned that our boosterism — the hot "windy" air we devote to our great city on the lake — that comes as second nature to us is merely the byproduct of our entrenched second-city status. Though I'm also a New York City booster, they couldn't care less. In fact, only the quaint and naïve tumbling off the prairie don't realize there's no need to boost what's clearly the epicenter of humanity. But I choose to ignore that now that I know they're all resting on a previously earned reputation. Instead, I offer Chicago's rah-rah, Go Bulls! Go Bears!, We're #1, blowhardy gift to everyone else's places: boost your town, know your town, and love your town. Then come love ours.

Sharon Woodhouse is a 3rd/4th-generation Chicagoan and founder of Lake Claremont Press, an independent publishing company devoted to books on Chicago and Chicago history.

Photos by architect Eddy Joaquim of Amsterdam, by way of South Africa, Portugal, and Romania, a lover of places, including Chicago.

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