I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago. . . . I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.
Rudyard Kipling, 1891
Chicago is unique. It is the only completely corrupt city in America.
Charles Merriam, unsuccessful mayoral candidate in 1911
I think that's how Chicago got started. A bunch of people in New York said, "Gee, I'm enjoying the crime and the poverty, but it just isn't cold enough. Let's go west."
Allusions to the stock yards; the deep ethical issues; and the extreme weather: a tidy summation of America’s second city.
Being a daughter of America’s first city, I never gave Chicago a second thought. But all eyes have turned to the city on the lake as Obama pulls much of his administration from its players, and a fortuitous holiday meetup among friends brought me to Illinois for the first time.
In preparation I read Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction book about the Columbia Expedition of 1892, a World’s Fair honoring Columbus discovering America. It juxtaposes the artistic and business success of the fair with the killings of one of America’s first serial killers. It also depicted the rivalry at the time between New York and Chicago. Chicago was consciously trying to prove to the world it was not just a city of butchers.
The stock yards closed over thirty years ago, and the city has long proven its artistic soul, particularly in art/architecture, theater, and comedy/improv. I only had three days in the city, but I was impressed. It’s a great place. My Segway tour was canceled due to floods that ensued when the 60 degree days hit the ice from the 6 below days (did I mention the extreme weather?), but I saw quite a bit.
Art for All
One of the great characteristics of the city is outdoor art, truly inspiring, beautifying outdoor art, from the Picasso sculpture in Daley Square to Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, called The Bean by Chicagoans to the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. This art is modern in the best sense, interesting and engaging.
The pieces sit so comfortably and thoughtfully amid the skyscraper landscape, effortlessly humanizing the cold stone and glass buildings. This art has a substantial presence in the city—given the harshness of the weather, this artistic warmth may be crucial to the well-being of Chicagoans. New York has no permanent equivalents, and I think it is the poorer for it.
A big thrill of the visit was going to the renown Steppenwolf Theatre to see two plays by Colin McPherson. (The esteemed Terry Teachout had half of the same idea.) I saw The Seafarer in New York last March with a different cast. The Steppenwolf production featured John Mahoney, Fraiser’s familiar Martin Crane. Seeing him sitting in a ratty chair with cane wasn’t much of a stretch on the surface, but he found the soul of the blind, alcoholic brother in a good performance. I confess that I preferred the Irishmen of the New York cast, including the compelling Jim Norton and the devilish Ciaran Hinds. But the Chicago production was tight with its own sensibility.
The second play was Dublin Carol, featuring William Petersen, yes, of CSI. My television world was coming to life before me—that’s how magical Chicago is. Petersen is from Evanston, Illinois, and he cofounded the Remains Theater Ensemble in Chicago. This McPherson play is one act on Christmas Eve, where John, who runs a funeral home, confronts the ghosts of his life. It was in the smaller, upstairs space at Steppenwolf, which was perfect for the scale of the 3-person play. Petersen’s performance was reserved, perhaps too reserved, but he has true stage presence that commanded attention.
These holiday performances were sold-out both nights I attended, a cultural hearth for warmth to dispel the cold, dreary weather.
Chicago seems a big city instead of merely a large place.
A. J. Liebling, first to designate Chicago "The Second City," 1949