This article appeared in the Sunday Herald magazine
Five letters, starting with a big old O, proclaim Chicago’s most exalted living scion. The very name warms hearts from pole to melting pole, kindles faith in improvement and leaves millions of Americans moist about their peepers.
Saviour of the world though he may be, we’re not talking about President Obama here. No no. Chicago is Oprah’s town. Somewhere along the line she wrestled Al Capone’s heirs off the throne, and nowadays she gets to do what she wants, with Mayor Richard M Daley’s blessing: on our visit half of Michigan Avenue, one of the city’s main arteries, was closed off for two days while Oprah partied with her celebrity friends to mark the start of her 24th “season” on television. Most Chicagoans, shuddering to think what she has planned for her 25th, went about their business; a teeming minority lapped it up, happy to hold aloft polystyrene clappy hands, ogle the slebs and stuff their faces.
Oprah, queen of empathy and psychobabble, “made it” in Chicago. The city, we are told, “made” Obama. There is, I’m sure of it, something about the place that revels in the containment of such dual narratives: tabloid talk host and self-help wet nurse on the one hand, cerebral politician and civil rights attorney on the other. Indeed, the president may have drawn up his ideological map living and working in Chicago’s South Side, a place steeped in social activism and blue collar pride, but where would his campaign have been without its populism, its implacable showbiz optimism and the saccharine “yes we can”? Oprah’s endorsement of Obama, incidentally, is estimated to have delivered him over a million votes.
There isn’t, as yet, an official Obama-lover’s tour of Chicago, although guides will point out the president’s mock-Georgian mansion (surrounded by Secret Service goons), the church he used to attend before his pastor said unhelpful things about whites and the basketball court on which he won permission to date Michelle after impressing her brother with his dribbling. Much more visible around town is the insignia of Mayor Daley, who famously responded to Chicago topping the US murder league table in 2001 by insisting that the 9/11 deaths should have been included in New York’s figures.
Given the historic scourges of gangsterism and corruption in Chicago, you can just about follow the PR logic. But Daley, whose father – also mayor – died in office in 1976 having served just a bit longer than the current incumbent’s two decades, has never been entirely free from the suspicion of corruption himself, a suspicion that is wont to linger around most political dynasties but particularly around those in cities where politics, big business and the unions have always been close.
The upside of such fellowship is, perhaps, that, in Chicago, things get done: buildings go up, people get paid, the streets are clean and civic-mindedness thrives. The city’s parks cover a total of 30 km²; one of them, Grant Park, hosts an excellent free Jazz Festival every year; and the Art Institute of Chicago houses some of the finest collections of art – European, American, Asian – anywhere in the world. The vibrancy and positivity that helps young Senators into the White House is not, indeed, hard to seek: it is there in the built environment, in the sports-mad citizenry whose baseball team never wins and in the nightlife that, according to Sinatra, not even the preacher Billy Sunday could shackle.
Chicago is, absolutely, the prototype of the modern metropolis. Razed to the ground by fire in 1871, it was rebuilt, skywards, round about the same time that it found itself at the intersection of the railroads from California to the North Atlantic and a shipping route that connected the cities of the north to New Orleans in the south. In 1900 the city’s engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River, a feat that made the Mississippi navigable from Lake Michigan. And so a town built on swampland became a major industrial player, not least – courtesy of the Refrigerated Railcart – as the nation’s meatpacking hub. Yes we can, indeed.
Today, the vertical building styles of the last century and a half collide and caress on Chicago’s street grid, a checkerboard designed by Daniel Burnham, the great American architect and urban planner who tried to put his vision of “the city beautiful” into practice in The Plan of Chicago. The neo-classical and the neo-Gothic are everywhere at street level; stretch your neck and you’ll find elegant art deco skyscrapers, among the oldest in the world, and the bombastic modernist creations, all steel and glass, of Mies van der Rohe and his acolytes. Van der Rohe wanted to strip architecture of all historical peculiarities, but his buildings have a theatricality about them in-keeping with the majesty of the 20th Century American cityscape, which is to say a skyline suggestive of endless possibilities rather than of social engineering.
Chicago’s buildings are also more visionary than those of New York, the city to which Chicagoans most frequently compare their own and occasionally find it wanting. In reality, there is little reason for them to feel in any way second best: Chicago doesn’t share Manhattan’s anger or its snobbery, it’s cleaner and less frantic, and just about everything that’s world-class in New York is as good in Chicago. Its theatre audiences can stomach more than just musicals, it gave the blues a home and invented house music and it sits right bang on a freshwater lake that’s bigger than Wales.
The city that reversed a river also gave the world McDonald’s, Playboy, rollerskates and Wrigley’s, and, courtesy of the Chicago School of Economics, the free-market ideology some reckon brought last year’s crash. Were he alive Milton Friedman might have stuck up for himself by pointing the finger at those who encouraged banks to make credit so easily available, ie governments. But as laissez-faire capitalists and Democratic Party machine politicians alike know, it’ll take something more than the laws of boom and bust to bring Chicago down.