Easy Chair — From the December 2013 issue

Chicago Is the Future

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It was in 1988 that I moved to the bedraggled neighborhood of Hyde Park in order to study American history at the University of Chicago. I left the city ten years ago. And though I was raised in the suburbs of Kansas City and live today in the suburbs of Washington, it is Chicago that made me who I am.

During my time as a graduate student, a mildly famous memorandum, written by a classics professor in the 1960s, was passed from hand to hand. It bemoaned the sheer awfulness of life at the university, “located in an unpleasant city, in a nasty climate, a thousand miles from anywhere.” I remember being surprised to read this, and being similarly surprised every time somebody referred to Chicago’s brute ugliness. Looking back all these years later, however, I see that it was true.

Once you got away from the neighborhoods near Lake Michigan, the city was ugly. It was “unpleasant.” I’ll go further than that: it was a menacing landscape of litter and rust and concrete and dereliction and vacancy and apartment complexes that looked like they had been designed to crush their inhabitants’ souls. On the South Side, where I lived, the air often stank of whatever industrial operation was taking place down in Indiana. And after a day or so on the ground in Chicago, the snow would turn gray.

I loved the place. I loved the decay, the vacant lots, the dirty snow and the tawdry taverns and the wooden stairs, covered with peeling paint, that were attached to the back of virtually every three-flat in the city. Maybe love is always what happens when you take up residence in your first real metropolis. Kansas City, where I grew up, didn’t count; its urban character had been done in by decades of white flight and enervating sprawl. Chicago had bars, bands, bookstores. A great university. A real organic downtown, not a Potemkin business district propped up by a desperate chamber of commerce.

What Chicago didn’t have back then was any real presence in the nation’s visual media, aside from glimpses in gangster movies. The only parts of the city that penetrated the collective imagination were the prosperous and all-white North Shore suburbs, the setting for countless teen-angst movies of the 1980s. The rest of it was essentially terra incognita. I was aware, of course, that Chicago had once been a celebrated place. In the late nineteenth century, it had stacked wheat and butchered hogs and gone from hamlet to Midwestern colossus almost overnight. The residue of that mighty past persisted in the neighborhood where I lived: rotting monuments, formerly grand buildings, overgrown parks that had been laid out by illustrious names.

But in 1988, Chicago had yet to enter the postmodern world; hell, it hadn’t even gotten finished with de-industrialization yet. Here and there, steel mills still dotted the South Side. Freight trains clattered slowly over crumbling viaducts, the walkways underneath decorated with disintegrating social-realist murals. Enlightened New Economy sociologists of the future would have no difficulty diagnosing this condition: Chicago in those days had no brand.

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