Chicago in the Rear-View

Well, it’s all over now save for the thinking. Of course, what is anything but thinking? Walking, eating, even breathing, are just thinking in motion. Travel is no different. The sights, sounds, smells, and feelings we seek by traveling are, at bottom, just another way of thinking through the world. The trip I’ve been thinking about for the last four months is finally over and I’m still unpacking it all, but I’m interested today in how we come to think about places in the first place. 

If you played Sim City 2000, you might remember a little easter egg in the game. Here’s how it worked: build a library in your city, click on the building to view details, and then click the button marked “Ruminate.” The game would then open a window containing an essay on cities by Neil Gaiman. I suggest playing the game on DosBox and reading the essay in context, but you can read the short piece here if you don’t have the time. I first read Gaiman’s essay when I was about ten years old, and I’m convinced that it shaped the way I think about cities from the very beginning, because Sim City was the first tool I ever used to think about what a city is, how it works–and Gaiman’s essay tied it all together. Software can move you like that. 

Ruminating in Sim City 2000

“Cities are not people,” Gaiman writes, “but, like people, cities have their own personalities.” When I think of Chicago I imagine a vast, brown machine straddling Lake Michigan, churning incessantly. A pulsating, breathing hybrid being made from people and steel and brick and concrete. On my second night in the city, now 950 miles away, I called it a “grand steamroller of a city… an unstoppable machine looming over the Great Lake,” and at the end of the trip I felt the same way. Of course I’m not alone in this characterization. Carl Sandburg famously described the “City of the Big Shoulders,” the “Hog Butcher for the World,/ Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/ Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” Anthony Bourdain called Chicago a “completely non-neurotic, ever-moving, big hearted but cold blooded machine with millions of moving parts… that will…roll over you without remorse.” Following Sandburg, we are inclined to see these millions of people, living like anywhere else, as some sort of thing, some lovable but impersonal monster chewing up corn and spitting out steel. Why? Maybe we give each other this idea of what a place is, and we travel to reinforce it. Maybe we travel because of it. Or, maybe Gaiman was right. Maybe Chicago really is a sprawling machine made of people. 

Bathymetric Map of Lake Michigan

On my first day in the city I was riding the Red Line train south into the Loop and it struck me as odd that all of this should be happening just a few thousand feet away from the cold, quiet depths of wild Lake Michigan. While the train raged through a tunnel, an image popped into my head of a Smallmouth Bass, ensconced in silence and ever-so-still, suspended in the water just a few hundred yards away from this roaring, clanging madness. In my imagination, a single little bubble escapes the fish’s slowly opening mouth. It meanders to the surface, where it contributes an immeasurably tiny voice to the symphony of noise swirling in the air around the city. It is amazing that these two things–electric locomotive and smallmouth bass–should exist in such proximity to one another, and it raises the question: is the fish part of the machine, too? Tennyson argued in his way that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” but in this place the traveler cannot help but feel that the order is reversed. The city is wild; the lake civilized. It’s all a matter of perspective, yes, but the frigid calm of the lake’s depths seems to offer a poignant counter-argument to the City for living in this part of the world. The fish does not move unless it must. The people living in the city are always moving, bundled against the killing cold. Maybe this is why the city seems like a thing unnatural: it moves when it should be still.

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1733 Map of Chicago (Source)

The cold is unmistakable. The wind, infamous. It gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon during this time of year. When I was there it was foggy and wet, muddy from the first snowfall. As the sun slid beneath the horizon and the long, cold night closed in, I thought too about how miserable Chicago must have been for the people who lived there hundreds of years ago. “Cities exist in location,” Gaiman says, “and they exist in time. Cities accumulate their personalities as time goes by.” Huddled against the cold, counting the days until the spring, Chicago’s early people–Native progenitors and European usurpers alike–must have cultivated a biting sense of humor and a firm work ethic to survive here. Joking to blunt the sharp edges of the cold and shorten winter’s long nights, then working feverishly in the warmer months to survive the cold again. The first Europeans came to know Chicago as a place to cross the river: once, twice, three times you could portage the Rivière Chicagou on this 1733 map. The city, as Gaiman suggests accumulates its character across time and space. You stamp your feet when you’re cold. In Chicago, you cross the river. Over time, millions of people found their way to the portage. They stamp their feet to stay warm. They cross the river. They do it over and over again until they start to look like millions of moving parts and the city takes on a life of its own.

Images like these are the things we use to understand cities. I’m no closer to understanding Chicago today than when I boarded the plane to visit, but neither was Sandburg when he wrote:

“The bronze General Grant riding a bronze horse in Lincoln Park

Shrivels in the sun by day when the motor cars whirr by in long processions going somewhere to

keep appointment for dinner and matineés and buying and selling”

The city is what we project upon it. It is then what we project upon the projections. Add image upon image, time upon place, and the palimpsest can take on a life of its own, like Sandburg’s General Grant in the remainder of the canto:

“Though in the dusk and nightfall when high waves are piling

On the slabs of the promenade along the lake shore near by

I have seen the general dare the combers come closer

And make to ride his bronze horse out into the hoofs and guns of the storm.”

Chicago, I will miss you.

Grant Monument

Chicago: Day One

There is a heat lamp in my hotel bathroom. 

I’ve been basking in here like some kind of great, pale lizard in a bedroom terrarium, periodically turning the timer knob to keep the lamp going, for at least 18 minutes. I suppose I’ll have to leave at some point, but there’s another heat lamp under the awning out front, anyway. And I’ve randomly walked beneath at least three more around the city, stopping briefly to reflect on how travel really does broaden your horizons. I’m in Chicago, and the idea of a public heat lamp for humans has never crossed my mind. It’s the little things that stand out. 

Flying here yesterday morning, the clouds parted over the seaboard’s Appalachian spine and I felt it was important to write in my notebook that the towns were clustered in the valleys below. I have no idea why this was important, but it was another little thing for a Florida flatlander to reflect upon, and my notebook is full of these cryptic little admonitions. The naked geology of the earth below us was awesome in the actual sense of the word–awe-inducing–for, in my part of the world, the skin of the earth is hidden beneath a chaste layer of green, youthful and taut rather than ancient and wrinkled. The billion-year old landscape beneath us rippled like a bedsheet spreading from the mountains out toward the great farm belt of Indiana as we began our descent into Chicago.  

Bill Cronon argues that Chicago was the depot of the great American West, a concentration point for all the corn and cattle wealth of the vast continental empire ripped from the bleeding hands of its Native masters in the nineteenth century, and I agree. There would be little reason to settle on the chilled rim of Lake Michigan without all of that wealth, and herein lies the testament: Chicago is a grand steamroller of a city, unbreakable, an unstoppable machine looming over the Great Lake and dancing around an emerald-green river that stretches as far as the eye can see. I can’t help but think of the city in its packinghouse heyday as a giant, grimacing head tilting the West into its mouth like a bag of potato chips: crunch goes a million head of cattle, clang goes the Tribune Tower. And so on, until Mr. Brown and Candyman and Chi-raq entered the nation’s consciousness and Upton Sinclair turned over in his grave once again.

Fever dreams of racial violence aside, the city is a kinder place now. The maliciousness of its capital is obscured beneath good works and meaningful architecture. The reflective quiet of museums replaces the clanging madness of the rail yards–indeed, the old Burlington Zephyr resides now in the Museum of Science and Industry–but still, I can’t help but imagine the young people on the streets here as the starry-eyed sons and daughters of Iowa corn farmers, Indiana dairy farmers, Wisconsin grocers. Middle-aged couples bumbled around Macy’s in the Loop where we shopped yesterday, laughing and staring just like us, enjoying their day in the City from the sprawling suburbs just as we made our way to this great entrepôt from the distant southern pineland. Let us all genuflect before this city, because it is one of the greatest cities in the world. I am thrilled to be here.