LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE
GP 8 October 2008: Second City
What’s Not to Like? Chicago is home to Second City, an improvisational comedy theater dating back to 1959. A whole nest of comedians got their start there, and the Second City concept has spread to numerous cities, especially Toronto. The name is wonderfully apt. Chicago is a metropolis that is always a bit in the shadow of New York, peopled by tall and distinguished skyscrapers and O’Hare, the country’s busiest airport, but the monumental parts of the city are confined to a small district, and the patois and ruminations of its citizens constantly remind you that you are not in a global city. It is truly a second city, not overwhelming, and quite livable.
Its small-town, big-city synthesis makes it very appealing. It is not daunting like New York, or haphazardly sprawling like LA. One of Canada’s most impressive businessmen loves it, each day calling up pleasurable memories of his time there, when he was in Canada’s government service. Likewise, a young manager of a restaurant in a university town in the South always eagerly awaits his next visit there, his brother having decamped to Chicago ten years ago. Each time, he sets off on one of the many tours available, perhaps to see historic buildings or to inspect a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
It offers amusements aplenty, the usual plethora of shops to sate almost any appetite, above-average if not superlative restaurants, and, above all, clean streets and a fair amount of greenery. The smart traveler can slip into town via Midway Airport and quickly get intown to a hotel, totally avoiding O’Hare which is a disaster waiting to happen, and a horrible long car ride away from the city.
Easy to Mock. A European professor, to the shock of his colleagues, was wooed away from the University of Chicago to Austin, taking up a gigantic offer from the University of Texas. The Chicago professors asked him how he could forsake cultural Chicago for the philistines in Texas. He rejoined, “I already faced that issue when I left the Continent for Chicago.” But we can say he was dead wrong about Chicago.
While the University of Chicago is a little too enthralled with itself, and its thinking is inbred, it has produced a raft of first-rate scholars over the years and some inventive concepts. Fermi brought the atomic bomb to life in its precincts. Robert Maynard Hutchins sculpted it into a first class institution, and the University has not entirely turned its back on his vision. Its website is littered with the names of seminal thinkers who have changed the course of scholarship throughout the world.
The town has a super-abundance of first-rate museums, none better than the Art Institute of Chicago. There you will find Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte, so famed it even set the stage for Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George. Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which created quite a hullabalo when first exhibited in 1930, hangs in the American collection.
Win and Lose. Its professional teams are always respectable. Both baseball teams finished at the head of their divisions recently, but then, the accursed Cubs squad blew it all in the playoffs, though many think it really is one of the best teams going. On a recent night, we saw the Chicago White Sox clobber the Mariners, and were most delighted to see the fireworks go off when home runs were hit. Yet any true fan roots for the hapless Cubs, and will sell his soul for an outing at Wrigley Field. Wrigley is so engraved in the Chicago psyche that the Art Institute recently featured Mario Ybarra Jr’s comedic version of a Los Angeles Wrigley called Take Me Out … No Man is an Island. The Sox and the Cubs together symbolize today’s Chicago perfectly, for it embraces victory and defeat simultaneously in many, many aspects.
Well-Run City. We have commented elsewhere on Daley City. The two Daleys, father and son, have run the city well, their force of character accounting for the fact that the streets are clean, re-development happens, and other services are often on the uptick. The city, we find, looks rather good on the outside, its distinguished, soaring architecture cementing our impression of a metropolis that knows no bounds. The Mayor is a contrast to the hacks in Cook County Government, widely alleged to be corrupt, and the equally soiled mountebanks in state government.
But its heart has been hollowed out. A restaurant will enjoy world wide acclaim, and even look the part, but the food is simply not very distinguished. It is hard to find strong local merchants, the preponderance of stores along Michigan Avenue belonging to national chains headquartered elsewhere in the United States. The proud Chicago Tribune is now owned by real estate magnate Sam Zell ( a terminal condition equivalent to the Tisch family ruling CBS), and it is slowly ceasing to be a newspaper.
Chicago’s prosperity originally sprang from its status as a transportation hub, but, increasingly, it is a bottleneck on the road, in the skies, along the rails. The El, its subway, is extremely charming, is fun to use, yet it is in poor repair. When you ride it, you see some very overweight, tired hardworking citizens: Chicago is vastly tortured by obesity. If the transportation dilemma cannot be resolved, the city will lose its place in the sun. Last year The Economist commented on this dilemma in “Gridlock on the Lake.”
The Hollow Hotel. We and some colleagues recently had occasion to stay at a well-regarded boutique hotel on Chicago’s Gold Coast. It took two hours for our bags to make it to our room, the elevators broken. The desk staff had lost the bags, but fortunately the doorman found them and, for a vast tip, wrestled them to our room, hoisting them up several flights on the back stairs. At yet another point, the room air conditioner broke down. About the only thing that ran well was the hotel restaurant, which was under separate management. We heard later that the restaurant is to be “upgraded,” and the chef changed, so it, too, probably will go the way of all flesh. The hotel, A Fawlty Tower, expresses the Chicago dilemma: everything looks good on the outside, but things are troubled at the core.
The Shape of Content. The American artist Ben Shahn authored a short, influential book called The Shape of Content. Chicago now has the shape, but not the content. Fortunately it has a storied past. Maybe in its rich history it can discover a future where all is well when you peel back the drapes. It is ripe for re-invention.
P.S. Candidate Barack Obama lives within the ambit of the University of Chicago. The political sharpies emphasize his leftist connections, but, in fact, he is conversant with all parts of the Chicago spectrum. What he has gotten from both the University and Mayor Daley is a healthy dose of pragmatism.
P.P.S. It’s strange that Chicago should have given birth to a theater of wit, since there is a certain seriousness and ponderousness to the Chicago character. But then, as we have noted, the same temperament has seized the Canadian soul, and yet that land has give birth to a score of polished comedians.P.P.P.S. The White Sox have followed the Cubs into the grave, also beaten by a team from a sunshine state. Chicagoans will bear up, as they have in the face of so many reverses. So much for the playoffs and the World Series. It’s time to focus on ice hockey, a more exciting sport.
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