Sweet Home Chicago

The New York Times has a nice piece on Chicago today, talking about what the election means to the town (being that Barack Obama is a hometown boy), and how his being from there puts the city in a new light for the rest of the US. Naturally I’m pleased about this; I have very fond memories of the city myself, and I’m glad to see it getting the attention.

This is a good a place as any for me to trot out my reason why I think Chicago is so special: It’s the largest city in the US that is truly an American city. New York and Los Angeles are great, don’t get me wrong — you all know I’m from the LA area — but I think of them as international cities, with New York looking toward Europe and Africa, and Los Angeles looking toward Asia and Latin America. Chicago, on the other hand, looks out toward the rest of the U.S.; it’s got a unique sensibility that’s both cosmopolitan and heartland. I would go so far as to say it’s the Great American City. You can argue with me about that, if you like, but you’re not going to get too far.

Anyway: Go Chicago! Good to see you getting the love.

68 Comments on “Sweet Home Chicago”

  1. I used to live a couple blocks down from there on Dearborn. Ideally situated for the Printers Row Book Fair.

  2. I may be biased, as I was born there (but only lived there until I was four), but you’ve gotta admit – any town that dyes the river green for St. Patrick’s Day has got it goin’ on.

    “Pass the kielbasa, Stan.”

    Plus Hawkeye Pierce’s ode to Chicago from the “Adam’s Ribs” episode is probably the best I’ve ever heard.

  3. Hey, I know that el-stop, its where I get on the blue-line after stopping at Adams & State off the red-line for Starbucks. It’s right by the Federal Building in the loop.

    You’ll be please to know this, John, as it’s also right next to Federal Plaza, where thousands and thousands (myself included) turned out last weekend for the National Day of Protest Against Proposition 8.

    I’m in Chicago doing my doctorate, which I am coming to the end of in a year, so I’ll be leaving. But damn, will I miss this city … I’m from New Zealand, so being this far away from the ocean and the mountains really disturbed me, but even given how much I miss them, Chicago was hands-down somewhere I have fallen in love with.

  4. That representation of Obama and his logo frighten me. A little bit too propagandaish for my tastes.

  5. I absolutely love Chicago, and when I was between wives, I’d contemplated selling the condo (when that was still possible), ditching BigHugeCo, and moving to Chicago. (Actually, our Wacker Drive office wanted me to transfer there, but my Cincinnati salary wouldn’t accomodate it.)

    Plus Chicago is a lot like Cleveland, just not broke. The weather, the culture, the hustle… I feel at home in Chicago the way I don’t anyplace else.

  6. Fond as I am of Chicago (and I like it better than any New Yorker has a right to), I would say that being international and cosmopolitan IS truly American. In fact, that spirit of being part of the world, part of a global community, is what we need to foster in America right now. American exceptionalism has had its day; it has been disastrous for this country and the world, and I hope it will die a long overdue death. Someone sharpen a long stake, please.

    And Chicago is, of course, not as immigrant-free as all that, after all. The Bohemian (Czech, not alternative) community brought Central Europe to America, as did the German immigrants; Chicago doesn’t lack for people of Irish descent either. But then our whole nation is immigrant-descended (except for the people who walked over the Land Bridge 30,000 years ago…while that certainly is migration, calling THEM immigrants would be bizarre), so being an immigrant is, again, truly American.

  7. I’ve been there. Chicago’s a nice town, but they don’t call it the Second city for no reason.

    Of course, I live the DC suburbs, so I don’t give anyone else’s preferred locale any grief.

  8. Some of my favorite memories from when I was younger are of Chicago. It was dead easy to catch the train from Kenosha, WI down to Chicago and I used to go down all the time with my mom. It’s a great city. I keep not so secretly hinting to mr. angie k that we should move there one day.

  9. Yes, New York looks toward Europe and Africa and LA looks toward Asia and Latin America, don’t forget that Chicago looks toward Canada…eh.

  10. Ah, Chicago. I’ve lived here for eight years now, and it’s been fascinating to see the city come together around Obama. We’re excited and energized and even (gasp!) optimistic about Obama as president, but also for the future of this rockin’ city.

    And why is this city so awesome? You said it well, John. It’s the great American city – made with immigrants and long-time inhabitants, internationally-focused and internally focused, planners and doers and straight-talkers.

    So yay Chicago, and yay Chicago love !

  11. I lived in Chicago for about 6 years. I had some real lows there, and some real highs. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Real nice people, and one of the greatest collections of skyscrapers anywhere in the world.

  12. Chicago’s home. Thanks John for giving it such a nice treatment in your post.

    And for those of us who live here — PUT YOUR HANDS UP FOR CHICAGO!

  13. Chicago’s definitely one of our great cities, though I’m not sure if I’d call it THE great American city. Nor would I say that about NYC or LA. I’m actually inclined to give the title to Philadelphia. It seeps history in a way that few other American cities do, Boston excepted. New York just feels big, but Philly feels great — important, dignified (except for their sports fans), and substantial. The only other cities I’d think bear mentioning in this discussion (aside from NYC, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston) are New Orleans and San Francisco.

    I say this as a non-partisan, being a native of Raleigh, North Carolina.

  14. My DH is from Chicago, so we get there a couple of times a year. I love visiting there.

    There is a mention in the NYT article that Obama’s election my help Chicago’s Olympic bid. We can only hope.

  15. I lived north of Chicago while in the Navy at Great Lakes NTC.
    Love Chicago, went there in August of 2007 for vacation, Gino’s East, The Navy Pier, the Art Institue, man it don’t get much better than that. Heck, my screen saver is a picture I took on my phone looking north along Michigan Ave from the steps of the Art Institute.

    If I ever leave Seattle, Chicago is the only other choice.
    Oh by the way “Da Bears” 8D

  16. Yay Chicago!

    Except if you have to find a parking spot in Lincoln Park, like I had to do last night to pick up the wife from a friend’s place, then good luck.

  17. Freddie Prinze used to have a routine about how being a comedian and traveling around the country, you got to know the distinct personalities of the cities. He said New Yorkers were rude, Angelenos were stoners (hey, I think this dates back to, like, 1974), and Chicagoans were nice. Say you’re driving through the city and you helpfully point out to another driver that their door is slightly ajar:

    New York: “Excuse me, your door’s open.”
    “Mind your own damn business!”

    Los Angeles: “Um, hey, your door’s open.”
    ” … oh, WOW. I didn’t even know I had a door.”

    Chicago: “Hey, your door’s open.”
    “Well, I have four of them – would you like one?”

    Also, the entire city is a living architectural history tour, and the Art Institute is one of my favorite places in the entire world.

  18. Heck, I work in that office building on the right (the Monadnock, the world’s highest load-bearing office building).

  19. As a native of Philadelphia, it gets my vote as well. I think what ultimately makes the difference in the feeling of a city is not the actual make-up of the city, but when it became large. Cities that grew in the post WW2 urban boom have a distinct “newness” to them, regardless of the of the actual age of the city. Atlanta comes to mind in this case.

  20. I definately see your point, and if I knew more about the cities I may even agree, but you just have to know there’s someone out there going, “OMG that’s racist!”

  21. Good ole city of Broad Shoulders etc. Go World Con 2012 (and hope that Columbus doesn’t foul them up again…)

  22. Chicago’s great secret is that the city’s best pizza isn’t the deep dish; it’s the square-cut thin crust. Oh my Xenu, it’s good.

    And — though plenty others are pretty enough — I don’t think there’s an American city that looks better at night than does Chicago.

  23. I would go so far as to say it’s the Great American City.

    No arguments from this Texas boy. I love the place. And here’s another shout-out for the Art Institute, the old Rose Records store downtown (last time I was there, it was the late 70’s), Marshall Fields at Christmas, and that wonderful pizza :)

    It’s one of the few big American cities I’d consider living in (and I mean in the heart of, not the ‘burbs like I do in Dallas).

  24. Kristi Wachter – I’ve found that, when I actually need help, New Yorkers are the most likely to pitch in. There’s “smile and wave and make polite noises” which is polite on the face, and then there’s “help a random stranger just because they need it, which is actually polite.

  25. Shhh….if the rest of the country figures out how fabulous Chicago is (despite the often brutal weather), our housing prices will go up.

    Speaking as someone who’s lived in Philadelphia and loved it, though, y’all advocating for Philly over Chicago are just wrong. They’re not even in the same ballpark. Let Philly have its historic place as our nation’s birthplace; that’s enough.

  26. David H. @36: You had to do it, didn’t you. You had to mention not only Rose Records (oh, how I loved that fourth floor, with the bin of “Midnight Special” records) and Marshall Field’s at Christmas. Macy’s still
    hasn’t figured out what made Field’s such a bit part of “Chicago” . . . of course, the last few owners of Field’s had a hard time with the concept, too, but still. At least they had sense enough not to change the name.

    Sigh. Macy’s unveiled its State Street windows the other day, and gave everyone a preview of the Big Tree. Grr.

  27. I’d have to agree with Mary about Philly. Having spent 5 years there at Drexel, and 6 years in Chicago (ending in 2002), I’d say Chicago wins hands down. Philly is great, but the bustling part is considerably smaller.

    Another great thing about Chicago is the Chicago Reader. When I moved there, I was astounded to find a free weekly that came in 4 fat sections.

  28. I got to know Chicago a little bit while a graduate student at Purdue University (hey, when you live in West Lafayette, you’re looking to go anywhere but Indiana any chance you can get). I love the city. Absolutely one of my favorite places to visit.

    In my experience, Chicago is interesting because the inhabitants really seem very focused on making sure that you love their city. Sort of a “Isn’t Chicago great? Don’t you love it? It’s fantastic, right?” like they’re not quite sure of it themselves. New Yorkers want you to like their city, but then tell you that you’re a bleeping idiot if you don’t like it. Bostonians don’t seem to care if you like it or not. They like it, and that’s enough.

  29. John, there’s no question. Chicago’s everything you say it is and more. I remember as a kid the excitement of making the 40 mile drive into the city to see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field, including the long walk down Addison after my father parked a mile or so away to avoid having to pay for parking. To this day, the smell of bus fumes takes me back to Wrigley.

    And yes, the food. When it comes to deep dish, I’ve always leaned toward Giordano’s.

    There’s the museums, what used to be the greatest music festival on Navy Pier until they turned it into a money-grubber, paying for small portions of overhyped food that was much better at the actual restaurants.

    How about the great writers? Not just the Farrells and the Terkels, but the newspapermen that made their names like Irv Kupcinet with his Kup’s Column, and Mike Royko and his alter ego Slats Grobnik?

    That’s the side of the city that I too love.

    But then there’s the other side, the most corrupt municipal government in the U.S. for the past century. The corruption and theft goes all the way back to the Levee district and Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John Coughlin setting the stage for the Outfit running the First Ward, guys like Ralph Capone (the sane brother), Frank Nitti, Sam Giancana, Tony Accardo.

    There was the last Republican mayor, Big Bill the Builder Thompson, as crooked as any of ’em back in the late 20’s. The Daley machine built to make it permanent, with the payoffs for building permits and to keep the trash picked up.

    The ethos certainly infected the rest of the state, where Paul Powell considered the Secy of State office his literal piggybank, with hundreds of thousands of dollars discovered in shoe boxes in his hotel room when he died. George Ryan continued in his image in the 90’s. At least he’s doing jail time.

    During all this, Len O’Connor, with the best writing and worst TV delivery in history, was doing his best to publicize the corruption. His book, “Clout,” is the best exposé of city politics ever written.

    After Daley’s death in the mid-70’s, Bilandic couldn’t get the streets cleaned, Burke ran things from the 11th ward, and Fast Eddie Vrdolyak did his thing (just got caught, FINALLY).

    The current crew is no better, the Emil Jones/Tony Rezko/Rod Blagojevich trio that’s making hay while the sun shines.

    Sad to say, it’s not the baseball, the pizza, the culture of Chicago that Obama is bringing to Washington. It’s the Chicago governmental culture that he never even tried to fight that’s heading to D.C.

    Pardon me if I don’t feel like celebrating.

  30. I usually describe Chicago as “a really big small town.” And I usually get odd looks from New Yorkers, Los Angelenos, and from people from cities and towns smaller than Chicago…

    And then they visit Chicago and tell me they understand what I meant. Chicagoans tend to Midwestern friendly and have that whole neighborhood/parish thing going.

    And my hot dog stand is so much better than that lousy hot dog stand you ‘n’ yours eat at.

  31. @42: Dave in Georgia

    Although in the minority, we’ve also had some very good and honest politicians lately: Lisa Madigan, Jesse White, Roland Burris. And we can hope that Barack Obama is more reflective of them than the others. Yes, he was close to Emil Jones. His relationship to Rezko was over blown, and I don’t think you can tie Obama to Blago in any meaningful way. On the other hand, he did support Todd Stroger.

  32. Steven,

    I’m afraid you’re indulging in wishful thinking. Obama was involved with Rezko up to his eyeballs. Nice house, Barack. How much did it cost ya?

    Le plus ca change, le plus ca le meme chose.

  33. Thanks for the love on Chicago John! ^____________^

    I pass those banners daily and it puts a huge smile on my face. It makes me even more pleased that our new POTUS is a devoted White Sox fan!


    another Chi-town girl checkin in!

  34. I’ve never lived in chicago, so I can’t really speak to how nice a place it is. But, I’m skeptical: in a recent cover story ranking major US cities on regulation of personal freedom, Reason magazine found it to be the least free of all.


    Reason is a libertarian publication. They rated the cities by considering the categories of “alcohol, tobacco, sex, guns, gambling, drugs, freedom of movement, and a catch-all category of food and ‘other.'”

    Of course, to a certain extent the ratings are very silly – but, it can’t be a good sign that chicago comes in dead last.

  35. @sarah

    heh, I don’t want to start a flame war, but a good lefty has to be discouraged that chicago gets poor marks on things like regulation of sex, freedom of movement, drugs, food, etc. The article rated “personal freedoms”, which means “mostly stuff liberals like and (neo)conservatives don’t”

    either way, though, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. also I’ve assumed yours is a liberal critique of libertarianism, but if it’s a conservative one I suppose I’m now screwed :)

  36. “Does anyone know any good indie sci-fi bookstores in town?”

    There used to be a great one on Belmont, west of the El stop, but it moved out to Evanston and then (I think) went internet-only. It was called “The Stars Our Destination”

  37. Jon H. @ 54:

    Alas, The Stars Our Destination is no more.

    That hurts me. Many years ago, I met up there with my friends from rec.arts.sf.written-robert-jordan for the very first time. That was our “go to” place whenever the gang called a Social in Chicago.

    Later, when my kids were a little older, I took them to the Evanston location – five hours on the damned Greyhound to go meet Neil Gaiman in 2001. I’ve got pictures of my starstruck eldest cheesily grinning next to Neil and clutching his tattered copy of “The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish” that Neil had just signed for him. He still cherishes that book, and loves it just about as much as his girlfriend and his cello.

    I have a picture of Neil drawing a picture on my ass. Well, ok, on the part of my T-shirt that covered my ass, and I’ll never forget how loudly Alice laughed when Neil realized where he was drawing and got all cutely British and flustered about it.

    My bookshelves overflow with books nabbed from TSOD. I have nothing but good memories of the place.

    For all of that, I only have good things to say about Chicago. I love the place, and it’s the only other place in the Midwest I’d be willing to live.

  38. I love Chicago. My earliest memories are of Chicago. Fullerton Street. Lincoln Park. Drawbridges over the river.

    And I think you’re on to something in your attempt to articulate a particularly Chicago-y uniqueness.

    But I utterly dismiss the idea that New York and LA are not “truly American”. In a word: yuck. Wrong in so, so, so many ways. And if I never hear the volkish word “heartland” again it’ll be too soon.

  39. I adore Chicago. That’s where I went to law school, and I practiced law for the first 12 years of my career there. I grew up in Crystal Lake, about 60 miles to the northwest. I live in the California Bay Area now, but I still miss it almost every day — I even miss the winds so fierce that they could literally blow you off your feet in the middle of the winter, and wind chills so awful that news programs would warn you to stay indoors.

    I miss the lake, and I miss the Italian roast beef sandwiches, and I miss the great Chinese food, and I miss the Magnificent Mile, and I miss Marshall Field’s, and I miss the public art (from the Chagall to the Picasso to the Calder to — you know the artist, he/she has done an outdoor piece in Chicago). My favorite place I ever lived was my loft on the south end of Greektown, with its 62 foot long wall covered with bookshelves. I miss Barbara’s Books and The Stars Our Destination and a funky little store on Broadway just around the corner from Melrose, where I lived right after I got out of law school. I miss Lincoln Park and the zoo, and the Art Institute, and the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Shedd Aquarium. I miss the 4th of July celebration in Grant Park, the Steppenwolf Theater Company, the Goodman Theater, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I miss the great steakhouses and the terrific Italian food and the great Chinese food (I swear it’s better than the Chinese food here on the West Coast, which I know is heresy, but there you have it).

    Alas, my blood has become thin after 15 years of warmer climes, and I have become older and unaccustomed to 80 below windchills. Don’t know if I could go back. But oh, I do miss it so.

  40. I’m from Honolulu, Hawai’i, and Obama is MY hometown boy. Wonder if there will be a hula halau performing at the inauguration …

  41. @BukaHobbit – Chicago looks toward *Michigan*, not Canada. Everyone who lives here knows the city points toward the lake. We send all our best weather that way, too (along with the right dewpoints to screw with them in NW Indiana and SW Michigan. They’ve had huge snowstorms this week, we’ve had flurries.)

    I used to work in that office building, too. The walls on the lower levels are something ridiculous like three feet thick, in order to support the weight of the upper stories. It was one of the first “sky scrapers” – back when the sky was considered to be 12 stories up (or is it 15 that the Monadnock building has? If I weren’t so lazy, I’d let wikipedia tell me.) There are these beautiful staircases in that building. Nothing like the Rookery (designed by a little unknown architect from Oak Park) – but still beautiful. Made going to work each day less a chore.

    It’s an exciting thing, to be the home city to a president-elect. Nothing like this has ever happened to Chicago before.

  42. Steven (46) Yes, we all know about the Great Chicago Fire, but as an East Coaster (whose wife is from the CT burbs of NY no less), picking on Chicago is just good sport (I actually have quite a few friends living in Chicago…I need to get back there for a visit again, it’s been almost two years).

  43. As a New Yorker, I take exception to this entry. :-)

    Actually, I have nothing against Chicago. Of all the American cities, it’s the one that reminds me of NYC the most. Philly is quaint, but kinda boring after hours (compared to NYC).

    But, yeah, us New Yorkers don’t get worked out of shape about this sort of thing, because deep down we know everyone knows what the *real* American city is.

  44. I’m glad to see from these comments that I’m not the only non-native and non-former-resident who nonetheless has a deep and abiding love for Chicago. Thanks for the post, John. Unfortunately it and the comments have made my withdrawal symptoms even worse – gotta find some excuse to take a trip up there soon!

  45. Funny, I’ve never been to NY or LA other than their airports – being a Chicago native I’ve never felt the need. But I am a frequent visitor to the Bay Area, London, Rome, Paris, other US Cities – I don’t know if Chicago is the most ‘American’ or ‘best’ American city (I’m not even sure what that means) but I can say, without resevation, that Chicago is a world class city. In addition, we have the worlds best symphony orchestra:


  46. John- I loved the post. I have lived in all three cities, so I would make a couple of adjustments (other than some made previously).

    1. The Chicago area as a whole has a strong division based on racial lines (which has always surprised me). I don’t live there now, but if the whole city is proud of Barack, maybe they can or have broken down these barriers (I don’t live there now).

    2. New York City doesn’t really look to Africa — at least not based on the population. I would say that they look to Europe and Central America based on who you see on the streets and working in the businesses (well, if ou exclude the financial district which is still mainly white).

    3. No one looks at Canada (sorry, this is based on a reply, not the original post).

  47. Wow, your post just reminded me that it’s eleven years to the day that I came to settle here. I hadn’t realized it until just now.

    I’ve found great communities of actors and writers here. Very down to earth folks, and hard working.

    Happy eleven Chicago years to me.

  48. John, you have echoed what my old buddy Mike used to say: “New York City is the most international city in the U.S., but Chicago is the most American city in the world.”

    The five years I spent living in the city were awesome. I miss it a lot, though I don’t miss living in a place with such insane taxing (the city + Cook County = Ouch) and politics (Todd Stroger is a lying punk).

    Being in Kane County means it’s only a $5 all-weekend Metra pass to the Loop. Awesome.

    Oh yeah, Chicago is THE greatest summer city around. The beaches, the cool lakeside temps, the street festivals, the various music fests in Grant Park, etc.


  49. Wow lots of Chicago people are commenting.

    I guess you would have to explain more what American city means. I personally think Boston is far and away the best city. History, culture, past and future. But I’m biased towards it, so what can ya say.

    And to the New Zealand person (Sarah in Chicago) – welcome! :) You’ve probably been here (here as in the US and/or the whatever blog) for a while, but welcome anyway :) I love NZ. Auckland and Rotorua are my favorites.

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