Chicago is not a fun filled collection of food and quirky neighborhoods and two train lines. This is important to the identity of Chicago; it’s what keeps Chicago from being a Disney attraction; it’s what lets people live here. Chicago is the split knuckle, the calloused palm. Chicago is a broken tooth. This is what makes Chicago great.
The boiling down of the City That Works into a collection of favorite moments and sights, of best neighborhoods and trains robs it of its essence. For every exciting moment of camaraderie after a rare Cubs win, gut swollen by Old Style, surrounded by men and women that are best seen through the lens of inebriation, there is a robbery, an assault, a gunshot that further divides the city, divides neighborhoods, forces its residents to always, always remember how lucky or unlucky they are. Stumbling blindly forward in the daylight leaves you unprepared for the night.
Chicago is a broken and separated city — decades of racial turmoil and segregation have left vast swaths of poverty and crime left unattended and underserved. To glance over that fact while praising the gilded downtown, the trendy Lincoln or Wicker Parks, is to do a disservice to a city that strives off of being diverse. Immigrants built this town and they rebuilt it. And they continue to rebuild it every day, yet the polished and primed areas are continuously pandered to while the rest of the city props itself up. This knowledge, the common secret that the city keeps us all from being equal is what keeps us all strong, it’s what keeps us on our toes.
That’s not to say that the disparity is welcomed. Even by those in the wealthy areas. But it forces us to build strong communities. It’s why our neighborhoods are as tight as they are. And one day, things will change. Until then, we work.
The grime of the CTA. The smog of rush hour. The broken glass glistening on the sidewalks after a warm summer’s weekend with fresh press boards over what used to be windows. This is the Chicago that speaks more than any meal at Hot Doug’s. The destruction and hope for redemption. The graffiti and the brown amorphous shapes covering it up. Rotten wood on the L platform. Blue light cameras and sirens at two in the morning. Dive bars and rats in the alley. Cockroaches in an unheated studio apartment. This is the Chicago that pulses beneath every footstep. This is the Chicago that grounds and creates.
There are positives too. There is opportunity for happiness and relaxation, and little to none of it has to do with being better than a tourist.
Transplants prove their Chicagoanity by scoffing at the downtown spots, the tourist traps, the sights flocked to by camera wielding outsiders. As if these icons aren’t awe inspiring and impressive. The top of the John Hancock offers a panoramic view, affording anyone who comes on a clear day to see every edge of the city that they might never get a chance to see. The factories to the south, the never ending sprawl to the west, north clear to the suburbs — and the view only gets better at night. Surrounded by the golden lights of downtown, the city seems even more impressive, like each building was erected not to be a solitary structure, but to be one construction closer to completion, to perfection. The view offers a break from the real, the scrambling and breathlessness of everyday life in Chicago. It gives tranquility.
Chicago is the neighborhood bar with a seat reserved for every regular. It’s the extra-legal restaurants that still allow smoking indoors. It’s the greasy spoon that survives, somehow, every health inspection. It’s the community college. It’s drug deals and drive-bys. It’s the corner parks and peace gardens that no one knows about except a handful of people with a silent pact to never stay at the same time. It’s more than a list and it’s more than words can ever really describe.