June 10, 2013

Announcing "My Kind of Town," a New Essay Series by Travis Fortney

My Kind of Town: A CCLaP essay series

Over the next year, here at the website, I'll be posting a series of reviews entitled "My Kind of Town", which takes its title from the popular Frank Sinatra song--Chi-CA-go, Chi-CA-go, my kind of a town....

I'll be exploring novels that take place in Chicago, from the turn of the twentieth century to the present. I'll be reading Frank Norris's The Pit, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, James T. Farrel's Stud's Lonigan Trilogy, Saul Bellow's Herzog, Phillip Roth's Letting Go, Alexander Hemon's The Lazaras Project and a number of others. I may revisit a few titles that I've already read, or add new books to the list as I learn of them.

The first review, which I'll be posting on Wednesday, will be of Robert Herrick's Memoirs of an American Citizen, a forgotten novel whose gender politics are embarrassingly backward, but which is worthwhile reading for Chicagoans who are interested in better understanding their city, because it represents an early fictional rendering of the Chicago Way. Although I'll probably expand on my definition of what exactly the Chicago Way is in future reviews, what the phrase connotes for me today is bribery, corruption, the Mob, violence, questionable business tactics, and accepting that the world is a place where these things are going to occur with or without your own participation--if you're not cheating your way to the top and keeping everyone else down once you get there, then you're not playing the game, you're a sucker.

Originally, this series was conceived as a response to this New York Times Book Review cover article. The reviewer Rachel Shteir is a New York transplant who has lived in Chicago for a decade. She pulls no punches, beginning the essay with the words, "Poor Chicago", then taking the city to task for its "many urban apocalypses", namely gun violence, the cost of parking, the foreclosure crisis and the unemployment rate. But what bothers Ms. Shteir most of all is Chicago's mythology, the story its residents and politicians tell themselves--namely, that Chicago is a great city, a world class city, with the power to face down adversity and come out on top. Ms. Schteir takes the other view--that this optimism is actually delusion. The piece caused a bit of a stir when it was first published, because readers mistook Ms. Shteir's trash-talking about Chicago for trash-talking about Chicagoans--and maybe they were right, because that "city of broad shoulders," blue-collar braggadocio, as slippery as it is to pin down, is contagious. Here in Chicago, where you live has a lot to do with who you are.

Like Ms. Schteir, I'm a relatively new arrival to Chicago, having lived in the city for five years. I liked the place I moved here from--Missoula, Montana--an awful lot, so much in fact that I sometimes wish I'd never left. But I found the Rogers Park lakefront, a tree-lined street that feels like home, neighborhood bars where everyone knows my name, and I've made a few new friends along the way. Still, my relationship with the city is complicated.

Chicago is the place where, only a couple months after arriving, I was out walking my dog a couple hundred feet from my apartment, heard two loud bangs over my shoulder, watched the other people on the street with me drop to the ground and cover their heads, and realized that the bangs were gunshots. Faced with a decision, I walked the short distance to my apartment--less than a block--nearly got run over by a car screeching out of the alley, then went upstairs and watched from my window as the street filled with fire trucks, police cars and ambulances, and the paramedics wheeled a body from the alleyway. I'm not sure whether the person on the stretcher was living or dead, but I am sure that the car that nearly ran me over was a green Dodge Charger. I 'm also sure that a young man was found dead in a green Dodge Charger a couple blocks away a week or so later.

If that shooting was an isolated incident, it would be one thing, but it wasn't. Something we've dealt with ever since then is knowing that on an unusually hot day, there will likely to be a shooting (although, to be clear, my neighborhood recently passed a one year anniversary without a shooting death--you'll hear newspaper reports of a man being shot in the buttocks). And before you dismiss this by assuming that I live in "the hood," I don't, or at least I don't think I do. I live in the Rogers Park neighborhood, approximately one half mile away from Loyola University. My neighbors are mostly first-time homeowners, young families and college students. The fact that there are shootings is ridiculous, but it's a fact--just a couple weeks ago, a wonderful local coffee shop, The Common Cup, had a window shot out.

Despite this, Chicago is also the place I got engaged, the place I adopted the best dog I've ever had, the place where my wife and I bought our first home. The streets never feel unsafe to me.

It's also the place where, just a week ago, I was outside maintaining my rather elaborate patio garden and I listened to a homeless man--I know a few of the homeless people in my neighborhood by sight, as I'm sure a lot of Chicagoans do--vomit great quantities liquid into the alley not ten feet away from me. If that description sounds like I'm trying to be disgusting, I am a little. The copious pockets of vomit on the streets--which you're more likely to notice if you spend a lot of time walking a dog--are a kind of signature of my life in Chicago. But this little scene was something different. Like I said, I knew this particular person. He's kind of short and squat, red-faced, fairly young, and pushes a shopping cart full of cans through the various alleys at all hours. If the cans he picks out of a dumpster once contained some alcoholic substance, he holds it up over his mouth and shakes out what few drops he can. I've had sympathetic feelings for him, because my dog has barked at him when he didn't deserve it. My dog sometimes gets nervous when people behave erratically, and this homeless man has a severe mental disability. So here I am, in the alley, carefully cultivating my heirloom tomatoes, and this guy is vomiting in a loud, voluminous and remarkably sustained manner right next to me. Between us is a wooden slat fence, that's maybe six feet tall. And instead of unlocking the gate, making sure he's all right, going into the condo and getting him a glass of water, offering to call an ambulance, maybe making him a sandwich--instead of doing any of those things that one reasonable person might do to help another--what I do is freeze. I don't move a muscle. I duck down so that I 'm completely hidden by the fence, I listen to him vomit and hack for another minute or two, and then I listen to him wheel his shopping cart away. I've seen him a few times since, and he seems fine, but I've been questioning myself. I've always thought I was the type of person who opens the gate. But the fact is that after five years in Chicago, this is not something I would do, ever.

I know that these are just stories that any Chicagoan who has lived here long enough could tell. My point though, is that Ms. Shteir was right about some things. Sure, her her piece is a shoddy takedown job that seems like it would be more at home in The Huffington Post than The New York Times, but gun violence and poverty are real problems in our city.

Ms. Shteir and myself differ a bit in what we see behind the bluster of our politicians and citizenry. I agree that the Chicago Way is responsible for a lot of that bluster, but in Ms. Schteir's view, the bluster and the Chicago Way are one and the same, and in order for any positive change the city must take a humbler view of itself. Hence her desire to take Chicago down a peg or two. It's also true that it's naïve to think that political corruption has had no effect on the city's budget crisis, for example, which has an effect on the number of police, school budgets, care mental health services for the city's poor, and any number of other things.

My view is that the city's bluster might indeed be an offshoot of the Chicago Way, but the bluster, the swagger, the pride Chicagoans have in their city, is also one of my favorite things about the place. After all, it's a form of optimism, and this city can use all the optimism it can get. I'm also of the view that the bluster allows Chicagoans to think that our city's problems aren't too big to overcome, and that as long as we keep on thinking this, it might be true.

Obviously, my views aren't particularly well-developed or set in stone. So the purpose of this series of reviews is to explore these questions. What is the Chicago Way? What is the Chicago state of mind? What's the source of the swagger? Do I want to prove Rachel Shteir wrong? A little bit. But really, I'm setting out to right what I thought was one of the wrongs in her review. I want to give the city its due, give it a fair shake, try to learn something new. After all, for better or worse, Chicago is my home, why not try to have a more nuanced view of the place?

Filed by Travis Fortney at 9:05 PM, June 10, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Reviews | Travis Fortney |