Never a City so Real: A Walk in Chicago
Once, in my business travels, I met a man from Chicago. Over the course of a somewhat lopsided conversation he made his love of his home town apparent, finally asking me where I was from.
“New York,” I answered, dreading what was about to come. Natives, finding themselves outside the orbit of the five boroughs and close-in suburbs, know that the mental equation triggered upon hearing those two words is ‘Love it or loathe it?’ Too often, the second choice wins.
The response was instant: “You know what’s wrong with New York?” I sighed, deeply, once again hating random acts of conversation.
“No, tell me.”
“People put up umbrellas when it snows.”
Well, he had me there. They did then and they still do. And I still enter into random conversations. Because of all the things I might have heard, the plain-spoken practicality of his observation perfectly summed up the differences between the nation’s two major cities.
That last sentence is sure to stick in the craw of my Angeleno friends but the sprawling, comparatively low-density urban enclaves of the Sun Belt are a different type of city. For me, at least, a city has to be walkable and a subway system is a must. Better still if the subway occasionally rumbles above ground on elevated tracks. Basically, it’s a northern and eastern thing.
Also, it ought to be large enough to contain diverse multitudes. One of the things most at risk in this age of homogenizing is how quickly things can become similar. New York and Chicago should be different and so should the neighborhoods within them. Alex Kotlowitz, a New York native transplanted to Chicago would, I think, agree.
Though I’d not read him before, Kotlowitz is an established writer, best known for his 1992 book, There are No Children Here. In my mind, he occupies shelf space near Jonthan Kozol, whose work on education, in my memory at least, gained widespread recognition around the same time. Like Kozol, Kotlowitz is drawn to the stories on the margins of society and this short volume proves no exception.
The book, subtitled ‘A Walk in Chicago,’ is evidently part of a series. I’m guessing the idea is to have a local writer give readers the authentic take on their town. It’s not a terrible notion–editorially or commercially–but publishing series tend to go belly up. We’ll see if any other volumes turn up.
What’s important about the subtitle, though, is that it’s misleading. There is not a lot of walking in this quick read, though there is a lot of sitting and talking. Chicago, which seems to sprawl from the Indiana to (nearly) the Wisconsin border, does, like a proper city, lend itself to walking. But when I think of walking in Chicago it’s always in and around the Loop and the adjacent lakefront. (Hey, I’m an out-of-towner. We do the tourist thing.)
I can’t imagine a coherent walk across the midwestern metropolis because, in local terms, I’d be walking from the furthest reaches of Brooklyn or Queens to north Yonkers or beyond. In the 1990s Nik Cohn (he who penned the article that became Saturday Night Fever) attempted such a feat with a walk along Broadway, starting at the Battery. As I recall, though, Broadway stretches, technically, to the Canadian border, Cohn made it to Midtown or just beyond in the space of 322 pages or so.
Kotlowitz takes roughly half that length to introduce us to what makes any city valuable–its residents. He profiles a criminal defense attorney, small businessmen, a lawyer tilting at the windmills of corruption, a pair of freelance neighborhood activists, a retired union official who began working in the city’s once thriving steel mills, a millionaire and even a couple of artists. Over and over, as I read along, my mind kept wandering to mosaics and place which is, if you think about it, not a bad way to describe a thriving city. Including the artists mist have been no accident.
Kotlowitz is a skilled craftsman, painting intimate portraits of the people he’s introducing us to. Having written that sentence I realize that it might be the best description of the book’s overall impression. I really feel like I met all these people and understand their connection to the place they live. That’s no small trick and Kotlowitz pulls if off effortlessly. Anyone who’s ever struggled to get words to say what they’re trying to express will recognize the effort that lies behind these easily flowing, warm tales of just folks.
One might be tempted to write this off as travel writing but Kotlowitz has his interests and many of his subjects are from the lower half of the income distribution. This isn’t just me retreating to the safety of social science. Kotlowitz is such an astute observer you can use the book to illustrate otherwise abstract concepts.
Here’s an example. One of the book’s chapters focuses on Chicago’s criminal courts building, a mass located well away from the business district. Except for prisoners wearing DOC-issued coveralls, the building is filled with people signalling their position in their own reference group through their clothing. My students, I hope, will more readily remember that concept now that they can associate it with an accused pimp who showed up in a leather jacket bearing the motto ‘Pimpin’ ain’t easy.’
Maybe the best thing you’ll take away from this book is the knowledge that it’s possible for people from all over the world to live together and just get on with life. At the moment, fear rides the land, driven by a man who thinks it’s okay to use his bully pulpit to decry such migrants.
This book is just the tonic to help ameliorate that corrosive cant.