“The Second City” was a slam by a New Yorker magazine writer stuck here for a few years he hated.
“The Windy City” was a Wisconsonite dis calling us blowhards.
“City on the Make” was from Nelson Algren sounding off on the city he loved and hated, the shatter-nosed lovely who claimed and broke his heart time after time.
“City of the Big Shoulders” I don’t abide by anymore. Much of C. Sandburg’s 1914 ode still rings true. They still tell me you are wicked, crooked, brutal, and I believe them. We are still coarse, strong and cunning.
But we lost our big shoulders. We no longer butcher hogs or stack wheat. We don’t make tools or play with railroads. The industry is gone, drained, taking with it a chunk of the souls of the proud, broad men and women who built the town that cast them off.
So what do we have left? “Chi-Town” and “The Chi” are said with pride, but ID no more about the town than its first three letters.
“Chiraq” talks only of the blood-drenched parts, when the city’s true injustice comes from the lovely bits where the well-off dabble in parks and craft beer, capable of and encouraged to ignore their browner neighbors.
“My Kind of Town” is from a Frank Sinatra musical, and this I cannot truck.
So what should we call this town of ours, our city of third-place hustle-blood braggarts with no wheat to stack?
In his history of the “City that Works” nickname, Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope” proposed one I quite like.
“Chicago is no longer the City that Works, in the sense of the City that Gets its Hands Dirty… Chicago in 2009, in contrast, is the City that Wheedles, Hawks, Creates or at least Ingeniously Rearranges, Schemes, Hustles, Jabbers, Entertains, and as a day job Waits on Tables. In short, it’s the City that Operates.”
The City That Operates. References Daley the First’s windy boosterism, talks of Algrenian hustler’s blood. I don’t know if I can top that.
But I’ll try.
We talk of coming together, an unsaid reference that we’re split apart. A fractured city, broken to its bits in areas, bursting at the seams with innovation and joy in others. The South Side ignored, the West Side displaced by young artist types who praise its authenticity as they move in and push out.
The North Side is fine, just fine, thank you for asking.
Old timers in the bungalow belt, holding an existence of broad accents and corner stores. An electrified hip talking of incubators and apps in converted industrial space. Writers kneeling at the altars of the Algrens and Terkels who would hate such glorified toadying. Suburbanite overlords watching from the skyscrapers.
Some lots of land playing slapjack with prices, constantly topping, looking for the moment to strike. Whole blocks to the south lay fallow, vacant but for unmowed grass, broken glass and a single two-flat boarded up with plywood.
Acoustic gigs at coffee shops and hustling hip-hop CDs on street corners, each refusing to admit the other is a musician.
A friend recently told me we’re all in the hustle economy. I like that as a name too, capitalized of course.
The Hustle Economy.
But I don’t know how to describe this broken, beautiful, hustling town. I’m not an Algren, Sandburg or Cecil Adams. I’m barely a Sinatra or “Chiraq Drillinois” scribe King Louie.
We operate. We hustle. We scrabble out our own cut of life. A deal on a street corner for five grams of happiness. Late-night cigarettes and guitar tabs, searching for the tune that will change the world. A man in high tower, working late on a billion-dollar deal as his view skyscrapes over a city he’ll never truly know. The laughter of families in English, Spanish, Polish, Tagalog, Chinese, Urdu, Arabic, Khmer, German, Korean, sundry African tongues.
There’s chaos here. There’s life here. If we hustle, cut and scrabble, it’s because the world does.
Chicago, Illinois: The City That Is.