My Kinda Town

In my edition of Thoreau’s Walden (the Barnes and Noble Classics edition), Thoreau takes up twenty pages just to describe Walden pond itself, as well as a few other nearby ponds. At roughly four hundred words per page, that’s eight thousand words just on a few bodies of water. It’s clear how much HDT loved Walden, considering how many of those words were used just to describe what it looked like.

“The scenery of Walden Pond is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description.” 

And he gave one, for two more pages, before moving on to talk about other ponds in the area. But, he came back to give more description of his favorite pond, as well as the conjectured history of its formation. No one has ever loved anything like Thoreau loved Walden. As a fan of romcoms and, obviously, romance novels (lesbian ones, of course), I have never watched, read, nor written about a love like that. It made me ask myself, if I were to write something like Walden, what would be my subject? Is there a place that I love as much as Thoreau loved his pond?

The obvious answer to that question is Chicago. Most who know me would probably say that my love of the city started when I met my first love, who was from there. She solidified it, but she didn’t start it. Andrew M. Greeley started it. I first came upon Greeley at a sidewalk sale one summer of some year when I was still an undergrad. I was home for the summer and was walking down Main St., when I came upon the sale, and my eye immediately fell on a table of books. I started thumbing through them and came upon a novel whose glaring white cover with blood red lettering immediately grabbed me. It was Happy are the Merciful, by Andrew Greeley, a murder mystery, starring a character named Father Blackie, set in modern day Chicago. I was intrigued, so I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. After that, I made sure to read and collect every Greeley novel I could get my hands on. His descriptions of Chicago and environs, as well as his use of local history, made me fall in love with the city, a place I’d never been to before.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would fall in love with someone who lived there. Even when that relationship ended, my love of the city held true, and is still alive and well to this day. I visit often, and don’t mind playing the tourist, as there is so much I haven’t seen. Of course, every time I visit, I make sure to visit favorite haunts. There are a few used bookstores I always make sure to stop into, a few restaurants I always eat at, though I also try new ones every time, and I always walk the Mile. If you’re unfamiliar with the city, the Mile, or One Mag Mile, or more formally, the Magnificent Mile, refers to the downtown stretch of Michigan Avenue. A couple blocks off the Mile is State Street, the one Sinatra called “that great street.” Go another four blocks and you’ll be on Wells Street, under the el tracks (the west side of the loop), the same el tracks Jake and Elwood drove under when they were evading police. If you head back to Michigan and start walking North, in no time you’ll see the Crain Communications Building, the same building one of Elizabeth Shue’s young charges almost slid down the face of in Adventures in Babysitting.

If movies aren’t your thing or you just want something more serious, let’s talk about Grant Park. In the middle of Grant Park is arguably one of the most famous water features in the country, the Buckingham Fountain. Immortalized in the opening sequence of the sitcom, Married With Children, it is a stunning sight to behold during the warmer months, when it’s going full blast. The fountain, in all its magnificence, is not the only thing Grand Park is famous for. For history buffs like myself, and/or for those who can remember, Grant Park was the scene of a massive riot on August 28, 1968. Several anti-war groups converged on the city to protest the war. Their activities coincided with the Democratic National Convention. Over 10,000 protestors filled the park and

“[a]fter four days and nights of violence, 668 people had been arrested, 425 demonstrators were treated at temporary medical facilities, 200 were treated

on the spot, 400 given first aid for tear gas exposure and 110 went to hospital.

A total of 192 police officers were injured.” The Guardian

The protestors burned the American flag, raised the Viet Cong flag, and threw manure and urine at police. Police responded with, what was described by witnesses, as “unrestrained violence”, resulting in a police riot, where many of the injured were innocent bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The resulting trial, where a group of organizers, who became known as The Chicago Seven, ended in short sentences, which were later dropped.

Or, maybe you want to know something about the gay history of Chicago. During my last foray into grad school I wrote a paper on this topic. There is so much gay history in Chicago, St. Sukie de la Croix wrote a fabulous book about it, called Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall. In there and other sources you’ll read all about Towertown (the section of the Loop where the men solicited each other), The Dill Pickle Club, which was an entertainment venue that often held lively discussions and debates on homosexual topics. You’ll also read about the Vice Commission, whose job it was to clean up Chicago by arresting anyone suspected of participating in immoral behavior, such as prostitution, gambling, and homosexuality. Besides arresting people, the vice commission published a report, The Social Evil of Chicago, in 1911, which, among other things, noticed the correlation between women’s low wages and prostitution, mainly that woman weren’t making enough at “legitimate” jobs, so therefore had to turn to prostitution to make ends meet. Though nothing initially came of their report, they helped pave the way for fair pay for women.

For a city named after the wild onions which grew in the area, a city continuously plagued by problems of flooding and sewage backup, fires, an infamous serial killer, a perpetually losing baseball team with a goat curse, and windy politicians, it doesn’t sound like a place that would have stolen my heart, but  it did. And once stolen, always stolen. I can sit here and list several more negative things about the city, some of which you may have heard, some of which you probably haven’t, but I’d rather tell you what I love. As Mark Twain so rightly observed, it’s never the same city as it was when you last came through. I always find something new or notice that something else has changed. I love the age of the city and artistry of the architecture. The lake effect weather and the over abundance of snow. The noisy, rattling el trains and Van Buren station. The backwards flowing River and the basement garage feel of Lower Wacker Drive. The giant, perpetually moving Ferris Wheel and the giant Flamingo. The ghost of my first love.

Now this could only happen to a guy like me
And only happen in a town like this
So may I say to each of you most gratefully
As I throw each one of you a kiss

This is my kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of people too
People who smile at you

And each time I roam, Chicago is
Calling me home, Chicago is
Why I just grin like a clown
It’s my kind of town

My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of razzmatazz
And it has, all that jazz

And each time I leave, Chicago is
Tuggin’ my sleeve, Chicago is
The Wrigley building, Chicago is
The union stockyard, Chicago is
One town that won’t let you down
It’s my kind of town

Songwriters: Jimmy Van Heusen / Sammy Cahn

Sung by Frank Sinatra

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