BY WARREN COHEN
In Chicago, the days float by differently. Every day, hours before nightfall the bars on Rush Street are in full happy hour mode, with pints of beer hoisted high and cigar smoke billowing. During the summertime, a full house of Chicago Cubs fans spend the afternoon enjoying Wrigley Field's timeless atmosphere: its ivy-covered outfield walls, hand-operated centerfield scoreboard, and freeloaders watching from the apartment roofs on Waveland Avenue. Around holiday season, residents spend their days crowding the sidewalks illuminated by Christmas lights on the buildings, window shopping on Michigan Avenue, aka "the magnificent mile." No wonder most visitors ask the same question: Doesn't anyone in this town work for a living?
If easy living and a gentle spirit characterizes contemporary Chicago, it's not a well-known fact. That's because the myth of Chicago obscures the real story of Middle America's unofficial capital. Chicago has been romanticized as a gritty, foreboding place, a city on the make. Visitors to the hulking metropolis, home today to some 2.8 million residents, were overwhelmed at first sight by the raw, record-tall buildings downtown. In the neighborhoods, miles of bungalows and three-flat houses stretched far into the horizon like a prairie field, beyond where the eye could follow.
Among their boulevards lurked menacing uncertainty. Chicago was supposedly full of crooks, fast talkers and bullies. Al Capone (a self described "furniture salesman") and his cronies controlled the city's mob scene, amassing a fortune bootlegging during prohibition. Later, mayor-for-life Richard J. Daley commanded a political machine where cigar-chomping ward bosses made sure that every voter punched the precinct card in lockstep fashion. No wonder native writer Nelson Algren compared Chicago to a beauty with a broken nose.
But if the city earned its legend from its past, it's hard to observe any of these unsavory elements in contemporary Chicago. The city is a model for urban beauty. Some of the nation's first skyscrapers, poems in concrete, glass and iron, were constructed downtown by architects like Louis Sullivan. Some neighborhoods feature Frank Lloyd Wright's best homes, in the prairie style he invented. Patrons flock to the city's Art Institute, which has one of the world's best collections of Impressionist art.
Gritty? The west side of downtown smells less of diesel fuel or uncollected garbage than brownies, courtesy of the Blommer chocolate factory, which sells its oversupplies in its discount outlet. (The city's sweet tooth is also sated by area factories that make Brach candies, Tootsie Rolls and Jelly Bellies.)
Yet the city proudly wears its old reputation like a Halloween mask, as a means to intimidate outsiders. This posturing has its disadvantages. Chicago still lags behind peer U.S. cities in attracting international visitors, who are said to be cowed by the city's reputation. And executive recruiters sometimes lament that attracting newcomers to Chicago can be tricky. Of course, they joke that it's their second hardest job: The toughest is getting people to move away from Chicago.
Pretending to be rough and tumble also disguises the town's true character: a gentle, unthreatening epicurean center. Just take some of the recent cosmetic changes that have bolstered some traditional Chicago strengths. The city was one of the first to introduce the new concept of grand retailing, where department stores boasted multiple floors containing every conceivable home accessory. Lined with these retail stores, State Street was immortalized in song as "that great street." But in the 1970s. the cars were diverted off the street in favor of a pedestrian mall. When traffic ended. so did shoppers, who felt that the street had become deathly quiet. The retail center soon moved to the tony boutiques of Michigan Avenue - the magnificent mile.
But last year, the pedestrian mall was scrapped, the autos returned and the sidewalks narrowed. Wrought-iron street lamps. in 1920s style were also installed to provide unique decor. Now. State Street has regained its luster, with bustling traffic, and new retail stores seem to open each month.
Another beautification project has helped the city live up to its motto, "Urbs in Horto," which translates to "City in a Garden.'' Mayor Richard M. Daley, Hizzoner's son, has planted a record 500,000 trees since taking office in 1989, adding much-needed splashes of color to the city's ashphalt-heavy sections. A similar project involved this past summer's creation of the museum campus. Daley linked three of the city's most visited attractions-the Field Museum of National History, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium-by diverting and paving over a highway. What once was a road is now a verdant park, with paths for bikers and rollerbladers that is connected to the city's already impressive 24 miles of lakefront trails.
Given these surroundings, it's not clear why Chicago natives persist in fancying themselves as rogues. Perhaps it's an elaborate defense mechanism to shield the city's easily bruised ego. Coastal elitists dismissively refer to the Midwest as "flyover country," without bothering to land and sample the city's wares. Perhaps that's why Chicagoans are so boastful about the city's superlatives: America's largest convention center (McCormick Place), busiest airport (O'Hare), and highest building (the Sears Tower). The recently rebuilt convention center. named after Colonel Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, hosts massive trade shows that draw millions of tourists to town each year. Easy-to-navigate O'Hare is a model of sanity for an airport. And although the Sears Tower has lost its rank as world's highest (to a building in Kuala Lumpur), visitors can ascend its 110 stories to gaze upon the flat expanse of the city.
A more plausible notion that explains Chicago's bluster may be guilt. A legacy based on the city's unabashed appetite for amusements would contradict the Protestant work ethic of the city's forefathers. Early settlers in Chicago included Germans, Irish, Swedes and Poles. (Even today, Chicago has the second largest Polish population after Warsaw.) They established a pattern of separate neighborhoods. The city administration divides the town into 77, although there are probably a hundred more unofficial neighborhoods. Residents frequently visit these areas to indulge in cultural and gastronomic delights. The city's best fabrics, bright and colorful, can only be found in Little India on Devon Street. German-influenced Lincoln Square has old-time apothecaries, and in the Ukrainian Village all the street signs are still in the Cyrillic alphabet.
In the evenings, Chicago shows no sign of retiring early in preparation for the next day. The city is the birthplace of contemporary improvisational theater, where audience members feed performers scenarios around which they build humorous skits. Many small companies have nightly shows that cost no more than a movie. The most famous theater, Second City. has provided a steady talent pipeline to Saturday Night Live, with alumni including Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and John Belushi.
Music clubs are another strength. The city is home to the Chicago blues, a style that fused Delta finger-picking blues with electric guitar and horns. Today, blues honkytonks operate nightly in all areas of the city, from the Checkerboard Lounge on the south side of the city to Kingston Mines, nestled in the upscale area, Lincoln Park.
The final explanation for keeping Chicago's raucous reputation intact is mere greed: The locals want to hoard all the fun. So the next time a Chicagoan talks tough about his hometown, don't believe him. Secretly, he knows that Algren's bruised belle has blossomed into Cinderella on the lake.
Copyright 1998, The Costco Connection. All rights reserved. Reposted under limited use agreement.