Monday, March 26, 2012

Chicago Thoughts: Chicago, Modern City of Districts

The Districts of Chicago overflow with character. Residents know it. Residents relish it. Even today, an era I often lament, character still pours from our locales. Brief tour should invigorate even the staunchest skeptic.

The term "District", as we should understand it here, originates from the fantastic settings of history and imagination. We think of Baghdad, with Bazaars and Universities, just as we think of Neverwinter ,Faerun regional capital with Beggar's Nest, Blacklake, and more. "District" does not just connote internal city division, but rather a singular character separation between communities within the metropolis. Districts have as much overwhelming personal character as they have tangible opportunity; a sense of adventure permeates a true district, just as the character of that district influences the actual nature of that adventure. In the classic example of Athkatla, we find city divided between Temple, Bridge, Dock, Slum, and a variety of other zones. There is no such thing as an Athkatlan adventure. Rather, adventures become characterized by the specific district in which they take place. Brawl and brew in the docks, prayer and proselytizing in Temple, and so on.

Tempting as it may be to classify this as an antiquated or romantic notion, I discourage such doubt. Skepticism drives innovation, as any paragon of either Renaissance or Enlightenment could attest. Doubt is the business of the uninspired, and I know of no great works accomplished by an uninspired being. Do not be doubter, but do be skeptic. Question whether or not "Districts" applies in the modern world, because the questioner seeks answers, explanation, and clarity. Skepticism changes belief, not entrenches it. Doubters seek only confirmation of extant disbelief. Doubt is one of the greatest agents of stagnation, whether historical, cultural, intellectual, or in any other realm.

So it is that we arrive at Chicago. As far as a thesis goes, this was an obvious one. The essay's first part alluded to it in all but explicit statement. Now I state it clearly, pride bolstering my words. Chicago is a modern City of Districts. The greatest now? Or ever? I do not think so, but it is the greatest I know. Not all who travel or reside here may agree, but many surely do. And for those that do not, I encourage skepticism; why should any city of the drab modern age achieve Constantinople's or Rome's glory? Perhaps Chicago will not, but it will not be for lack of Districts to compose its map and drive its citizens.

Chicago's neighborhoods have diverse names. Does this make us a City of Districts? Of course not. Names alone do not suffice. That we have an Andersonville, a Wicker Park, a Lincoln Square, a South Shore, an Englewood, or a Pilsen means nothing on its own. Many cities give pet name to neighborhoods, just as many lovers offer pet names to each other. The fact of the names is not sufficient to mean anything. You would be hard pressed to find a city with residents who did not have ownership enough to name parts of their town. Indeed, as a particularly obnoxious series of recent metropolis posters shows, every major city in America appears to have such districting. But as we can sense with just tangential observation, not every city even approaches worth at being entitled "City . of Districts". Something more than mere neighborhood name must be at work here.

Then there is the character and nature of those neighborhoods. If nothing else, Chicago's have character. Say it cool, like Bronzeville jazzman. Character. Perhaps to excess, some might argue. In the true City of Districts, neighborhood character must strongly influence both the qualities of its residents, and the tone of adventures and opportunities. I fear to say that one should be able to predict both residents and adventures just by knowing the neighborhood; predictability is too closely related to homogenization, and there is nothing homogeneous about Districts and their contents. Rather, you should have a feel for the general tenor of anything in a District just by knowing its name. You would never know specifics with cursory examination. General character, however, should be expected and sought after.

The Districts of Chicago overflow with character. Residents know it. Residents relish it. Not just historically, although that is also true. Even today in an era I often lament, character still pours from our locales. Brief tour should invigorate even the staunchest skeptic. Unlike the tourist mousetrap buses, we should not start downtown. Back of the Yards is as fine a beginning as any. Working class houses and cars, faint scent of slaughter town carcasses wafting through air. Open lots line the streets, cattle and hog spirits prowling about. Europe's immigrants arrived and started anew. Flannel collared man or woman, sleeves rolled high, city safety vest flapping in breeze, set forth in mornings to take to the town and claim their check. Enjoy burger or dog, but do hold that ketchup. Chug beer and watch the game, whatever that game may be. Complain and laugh, and fix a car on a warm spring day. Hard work, old brick, quiet streets; welcome to Back of the Yards.

Uptown comes next. Chicagoans will observe that we are not exactly traveling in terms of miles or proximity. This is a tour that respects character, and diversity of character. Not miles or roads. Uptown is thus next, not Bridgeport or Chinatown. Everything you need to know about Uptown can be found in its post office, and I do not say that dismissively or to reduce or lessen its grandeur. Wizened women in mismatched shoes stand alongside stained coated beggars, men in fishnet stockings and bras chatter with yoga-mat toting blondes. Teenagers in bulging hoodies and pants poke at phone screens with one hand, clutching handwritten letters and bills in the other. Babies play with broken pink cars in a corner while two men of Eastern Europe mutter darkly at each other. And all of this takes place not in some 1970s barracks of linoleum and cinder block. Patrons stand on gold filigreed marble. Majestic limestone upholds gilded ceiling. And presiding over it all, the Public Works Mural of the Great Depression. Tall, awkward laborers, painted in the distinctive style of renegade Art Deco painters of the early Twentieth Century, hammer at girded skyscraper. Farmer strolls a field. The boss oversees on the left, tailcoated with pocket watch. Artist plays on the right, with guitar and booming voice. The words blare to the post office audience: "Out of the wealth and needs of industry came a new architecture. From the sun and the fruits of the black soil, poetry and song sprang." With its subsidized apartments, glittering condos, and towering theaters of Gatsby's time, that is Uptown.

Little Village next? A tough choice, and perhaps an all-too-conscience one. Chicago is great in its ethnic diversity, and despite some groans that it may elicit, I would be remiss to exclude the West Side heartland of those coming from America's south. Besides, how can anyone who has driven all of 26th or 31st Street neglect the energy of this District? Ask ten different residents and you receive twenty different recommendations for the best restaurant, the best market, the best retailer. While working here as protector of University of Chicago researcher, I was invited into almost every home we visited. Water or tea was often offered. Dinner was even given at least twice. Hospitality like that was supposedly extinct! Little Village's families disprove our Western ignorance. An older gentleman explained his nativity scene to me, a diorama that spanned an entire dinner table of space. Cotton for snow, figurines for an Arkful of animals, and the most simple carvings of the holy figures I have witnessed. He even knew I did not understand a word he was saying. But it was not disingenuous on my part to listen, just as it was not condescending on his part to speak. We shared faith and Christmas wonder without sharing a language. Romantization risks minimizing the dangers of such a neighborhood. Latin Kings, Gangster Two Six, beaten pit bulls, desperate robbers; they too call Little Village home. But that too is part of the neighborhood's spirit, or at least a time for it to manifest. Churches rally parishioners, social service agencies fight for the young, and outreach workers take to the streets to battle with reason and words against gun and cusses. But that those same men who invite me into house for arroz con leche or tea can stand down their child's shooter; this defines Little Village and its family.

Those who know me can guess where I will end. There is not much to say of it without diminishing its strengths or simplifying its dangers. Of all the neighborhoods, this is the one that those from Los Angeles to New York City may have heard; certainly if you read of Chicago in the 1990s, you would have heard of Little Beirut. Today we call it Englewood, and there isn't a cabbie in the city that journeys there without either a steeling inhale or a flat out refusal. Residents struggle in it, get by in it, die in it, and thrive in it. Businesses avoid it. Police fear it. Social workers avoid it. Citizens of Chicago at large ignore it, hoping it to go away; it is easier to care of Syria's or Sudan's problems, thousands of miles away. But 5 miles away? That is what the proverbial rug is for. Some say it looks like Bosnia, although those people have themselves never been anywhere east of Berlin. A more apt comparison is Detroit. Or New Orleans. In all these cases, however, it is easy to miss the true character of Englewood, Chicago's murder capital with a murder rate higher than Colombia or South Africa. Englewood is a neighborhood of Strength. It is the strength of the Rebel Alliance on Yavin IV. It is the strength of Catelyn Tully as she journeys Westeros. It is the strength in every pastor who lights fire in his sermons to empower his congregation. You see it in every teacher and social worker who returns to work for another day, and in every young man or woman who comes to their office or classroom again. It is in the block clubs, the living rooms, and the backyard cookouts of every smiling, enduring family. You can witness it in those that "positively" loiter across the street from gang cliques, and those who call 911 when a man is shot in the road. Englewood is the District of a mighty spirit, and that spirit is what will infuse all its residents, visitors, and adventures for years to come.

Four portraits do not make a gallery. I would not attend a showing at museum or exhibit with such a meager presentation. Hopefully, however, quality of artwork exceeds quantity. Chicago has always been called the Second City, in no small part because of its supposed subservience to New York. We lack the history of Madrid or Rome, and we lack the business power of Tokyo or Beijing. What we do not lack, however, are Districts. Dozens of other unmentioned ones remain for exploring and characterization, although we should not think that we characterize them ourselves. Rather, they are their own characterizers. Ample questing across cityscape should reveal that to be the case, but I assure all skeptics who remain to not take my word for it. Venture forth with helmet upon head, bag upon back, and machete at side (take that last advice more proverbially; the police would take unkindly to a literal interpretation). Know that the Districts of Chicago await the questing knights and pilgrims of this world with lost treasure and unclaimed story both. We are the Modern City of Districts, and just as the towns of the Old World were ripe with tale, trial, travail, and triumph, so too is Chicago.

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