Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Second City - Early Impressions

Following is from my journal dated sometime in late 2003. I had moved to Chicago sometime in early 2003 and I had recorded my first impressions of the city in this piece. Revisiting this today, I see a a lot of things that I should add and a few things that I should change. But I also see that somehow my inherent cynicism seems to have taken a back seat and since that doesn't happen often, I refuse to rework this!

The Second City:

“Chicago, Chicago
That toddlin' town
Chicago, Chicago
I'll show you around, I love it
Bet your bottom dollar
You'll lose the blues
In Chicago, Chicago…”

“Well, at least it’s not St. Louis or Minneapolis. Chicago can’t be that bad, can it?” my friend sounded skeptical when I told him that I was moving to Chicago. I wasn’t convinced either. Chicago, in my worldview, wasn’t my kind of a city. I liked what I saw of it the last couple of times I was there but visiting is very different from actually living there. New York is more my type, or Boston maybe. But Chicago? Nah..I didn’t think so. When you have been enamoured by the charms of the East Coast for the past few years, you really wouldn’t want to move to flat, ugly, industrial Chicago. Or so I thought. It was almost as if it was the antithesis of everything that I wanted in a city – history (speaking in relative terms of course), culture, civilization, charm, and a sense of refinement if you know what I mean.

Six months later and a few hundred times wiser, I survey the city that I wanted to dislike from the skydeck of the John Hancock Center. “I know you people want to go up Sears Tower”, I tell my out-of-town friends with the confidence of a native Chicagoan “but trust me, this one has the better view. Sears is a waste of time. You don’t get to see the lake in all its magnificence and that makes all the difference.” This is the city I was sure I was going to hate? What was I thinking? I don’t remember when was it that it happened, but I think this city has a habit of creeping up behind you when you aren’t looking and completely take you by surprise. New York will always be my first love but the human mind isn’t known for being faithful; so I don’t think its fair to blame me for this one indiscretion.

Once I moved to Chicago, I started exploring the city with a detached superiority that a native New Yorker would have been proud of, carefully pointing out to myself why this place can never be compared to New York City. When I walked the entire stretch of Lincoln Park, I thought that it was so absurd to try to create a Central Park here. But then I had to admit in some remote uncorrupted corner of my mind that Central Park does not have a real lake running alongside it and what a difference that makes! New York might be the city by the sea and we all know how seas and oceans look like but this is the city by the lake and this lake is like no other; it has a character of its own. I think sometimes that it sets out to deceive everyone that it’s the sea and many a time, it succeeds too. It’s only the taste of freshwater and a vague memory of 8th grade geography that convinces you otherwise.

It was the beginning of summer when I moved here, so one of the first things I checked was the schedule of Shakespeare in the Park. Guess what? They had none in the city this year and my worst fears were confirmed. I wasn’t going to do anything with this city anymore. A friend had to drag me to the summer music festivals in Grant Park. By the time it was the Jazz festival weekend (we were done with Blues, Classical, Latin and Celtic by then), I stopped sulking entirely. I must say here that I was also very happy with Steppenwolf, Second City and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

I did not take the lake cruise until I was forced to; a bunch of friends came visiting and I had to play the gracious hostess. I wasn’t expecting much – after all, what could beat the Manhattan skyline? I was vindicated thoroughly; nothing could beat the Manhattan skyline. But to my surprise I was willing to concede that this not only comes a close second but it has much more variety in terms of how the buildings looked.

I started digging more into the making of this city and its neighborhoods. Nope, this is definitely not where the immigrants, after many days of travel through the rough seas, caught their first glimpse of the lady with the torch and saw in it the promise of the American Dream. But this is where they came by the droves – Germans, Poles, Scandinavians, and others through railroads and boats; this is where they toiled hard to realize that dream. This is where they fought some of their toughest battles, not just against the harsh winters that Mother Nature bestowed on them, but also against other men – landowners and industrialists who forced them to work 10, 12 and 16 hours a day under hazardous working conditions. The history of the American labor movement is also in good measure, the history of the city of Chicago though I wonder how many Americans read that in their history books today. The struggle for the eight-hour day that led to the infamous Haymarket fair incident here in Chicago was the origin of May Day, a day celebrated across the world with the notable exception of the United States as Workers’ Day.

If 9/11 showed us the resilience of the New Yorker, the Chicagoan went through a tragedy of a similar magnitude more than a century ago when the fire of 1871 destroyed all that was – 300 dead, 90,000 homeless and 18000 buildings destroyed. If ever there was an example about the worst times bringing out the best in man, this was it. The Chicagoan built the city back from scratch, but this time with safe building materials and safe construction techniques. The engineers and architects to come out of this period are some of the best in American history – William LeBaron Jenney, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and John Root. They, among other things, developed what is known today as the ‘skyscraper’ and were the proponents of the Chicago School of Architecture. New York might be the city of skyscrapers, but this is where it all began.

Chicago literally rose from the ashes to claim its rightful place and it edged out New York to host the World Fair (World Columbian Exposition) of 1893 where the whole world came to terms with the indomitable spirit of Chicago. As every fellow East Indian would recall, it was here, as part of this fair, at the World Parliament of Religions, that a young Hindu pilgrim from British Bengal succeeded in introducing the essence of Hinduism to unsuspecting Westerners. The building where Swami Vivekananda delivered his famous speech has been renovated many times since – today, it is the home of the Art Institute of Chicago and there is a bronze plaque there commemorating his address. It reads, in part – “His unprecedented success opened the way for the dialogue between Eastern and Western religions”.

Eager to learn about the different styles of buildings here in Chicago, I took an architecture tour not long ago. I came across a building called the Rookery at the intersection of La Salle and Adams streets as part of the tour. The architect of the building was John Root but the skylit lobby went through a renovation later, and the architect for the renovation was Frank Lloyd Wright. Standing in that lobby, looking at the contrast between the lobby and the rest of the building, I realized the sheer genius of the man – for hundreds of years men have copied, varied and perfected the classical, Hellenic style and then this man comes along and builds something that is so radically different and yet so exquisitely beautiful. It is almost as if he is making a cultural statement with his straight lines and symmetry, he is ushering in a new era of science and industry; its time to move on from Gods and Goddesses; it was time to herald the modern age.

After the tour I went back home and rummaged through my bookshelf and pulled out ‘The Fountainhead’ to see whether there is any mention of the city that Howard Roark first starts working. I had read somewhere that Roard was modeled on Lloyd Wright. One doesn’t have to agree with the author to appreciate the inspiration for the work. I couldn’t find any reference to Chicago but there is no doubt in my mind that it could not have been any other city but this. This is essentially Roark city – efficient and functional and still beautiful. As Louis Sullivan put it - “form follows function”.

Every city I visit, I search for an underlying theme, a theme that makes its existence meaningful. With Chicago, I had to try harder than other cities to find what I was looking for. It came to me at an extremely ordinary moment at a coffeeshop in Wicker Park. There I met a young lawyer who graduated top of his class at Georgetown, turned down offers from all corporate legal firms, and is working today with a healthcare union in Chicago. He has a goal – to lobby hard for legislation that will bring down healthcare costs for the millions who cannot afford insurance. That’s when it dawned on me – ‘It’s the people, stupid’.

Every time I look at this city, at its buildings rising all the way up to the sky, at the cunningly deceptive blue lake, what makes me fall in love with it is what it stands for – it is a testimonial to the heights that men and women have conquered, men and women who fought against all odds for what they believed in, and their spirit, more than anything else, is what makes this city come alive.


Sunil said...

Delightful post......though I have some of my own opinions of Chicago (that differ from yours a fair bit :-))

You forget to mention the superb stuffed pizzas that Chicago has. Can't get them (that good) anywhere else in America, except in obscure little Urbana-Champaign nearby, in papa del's :-)

Veena said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Veena said...


Thanks and do do let us know what you think abt the Second City! To tell you the truth, if I were to write abt Chicago today, it would be way different from this piece.

I am also not a fan of the deep dish pizzas here - the amount of cheese on them actually makes me want to throw up :( But I agree, no post on Chicago is complete without the mention of food - I can't think of any other city which has sushi joints in almost every corner!


Sunil said...

Not deep dish...stuffed...

and the trick is to tell them to put less cheese, and double the stuffing. Then its mmmmmmmm......

I'll post something on Chicago someday.......but it's a city I actually like. Its got character, and uniqueness....something that many cities lack. Throw in the jazz....and its great. But it also seems gothic, dark....no wonder Batman's Gotham was kinda modelled on Chicago.

Veena said...


I will def try the stuffed pizza next time I am down at Champana!

I believe Gotham city was modeled on NYC rather than Chicago. If I remember correctly, the first few editions had NYC and then they changed it to Gotham to make it universal. But it was so cool that they shot Batman Begins here in the city. I got a kick out of watching the bad guys trying to cut off the city by raising the drawbridges that I can walk past everyday on my way to work!