My Kinda Town

In response to this post there were a lot of comments. Some were good, but some were very bad and wrong and said really mean things that made me sad. (Thrusts out lower lip, knuckles edge of eye to wipe away tear.) I figured I’d adopt a policy of “talk among yourselves” and sit it out. But then one guy named George said:

I thought Chicago was a mini-France. A one-party, gun-banning, socialist sh*t-hole rife with corruption and a large welfare-supported underclass.
Am I wrong, Lex?

Whoa. I started to defend our fair city’s honor, but decided not to bury it in a comment. Here goes:

George, dude. So harsh. And — yes! — so wrong!

Chicago is a lot different from France. All that corrupt politics stuff is background noise here. The foreground noise is people running around day and night trying to make money, and arguing about college football. Nothing like France.

And “sh*thole”? No flippin’ way, dude.

This place is so totally awesome in so many ways. Harold’s Chicken Shack? Powell’s Books? The lemon meringue pie at the Berghoff? Unique Thrift on Milwaukee? The two dog special at Gold Coast Dogs? Jimmy’s (yes, even post-rehab)? Weeds? (RIP!) The Smoking Popes? Marie’s Riptide Lounge? The Fireside Bowl? Valois??? (Still the best!) The Chinese restaurant on the roof of the Del Prado? Hyde Park Liquors? The Hideout (the one off of Elston)? Billy Boy Gyros? (Also RIP) Bookman’s Corner? Phyllis’ Musical Inn? The Italian Ice place on Taylor Street? El Presidente? And those are just a few of my idiosyncratic favorites. This place totally rules.

As to the supposed “large welfare-supported underclass”, there may be some of that. But let’s just come out and talk about what you are insinuating. Chicago has the most kick-ass African Americans going on. Look at the stretch of 55th Street west of Hyde Park. It was a ruin 20 years ago. Now it is rehabbed by buppies and looks great. Look at South Shore and Hyde Park. I was a poll-watcher for an election down there a few years ago. The polling place was in the lobby of a highrise, 99% black residents, a parking lot full of Jaguars and BMWs. Jesse Jackson wants you to think that the Black people need someone like him to lead them like Moses. Bullsh*t. There are more successful, well-dressed, stylish Black people in Chicago than anywhere on Earth. This town is the setting for the Black American success story the Lefties don’t want you to hear about, and some of the Righties don’t want to hear about either. Don’t let the conventional suburban vision of Chicago as a Mad Max-like moonscape crawling with gun-toting hoodlums selling crack fool you. Yeah, parts of the West Side are still a disaster, but that is less and less of the story all the time.

And socialistic? The place is crawling with new restaurants, new construction is going up every other block, spectacular new additions to the skyline are sprouting out of the ground like dandelions. Downtown looks great. Twenty years ago it was a ghost-town at night and on the weekends. I was a paralegal, I worked long hours, and getting off work late at night it was like a Sergio Leone movie set, scraps of paper blowing down the street, the lights changing and no cars, like Pyongyang. Now it is hopping. Not like New York, but still hopping.

If this is socialism, let’s put it in bottles and sell it.

Gun-banning. Yeah. Oh well. You are still wrong about everything else!

Full disclosure: I live in a close-in suburb now, but still work downtown. The third kid pushed us out. We needed a lawn and a swing set. And, actually, George failed to mention the three killer things: (1) astronomical house prices — surely not a sign of economic collapse! — (2) bad schools, and (3) still too much crime and general disorder to raise kids most places in Chicago, in my opinion.

33 thoughts on “My Kinda Town”

  1. Don’t forget the newly crowned World Series Champs. Is half of Chicago celebrating while the other half ruing the day? Or did Chicago Boyz generally unite in celebration?

  2. I shudder having to defend corruption, but Theodore Dalrymple already did in a City Journal essay of his

    Basically Dalrymple’s essay is on the miracle of Italy changing in 40 years from a country far behind Britain in nearly every economic statistic to equalling or surpassing Britain in a few by 2000. Dalrymple’s diagnosis for Italy’s success? The ease at which Italians subvert an easily corruptible government bureaucracy.

    Basically, the corruption happening in Italy in the past 40 years has been to sort that actually improves the lot of the citizens being repressed by a smothing state. People finding ways to short cut around the stiffling bureaucracy or simply out right dodge taxes.

    I’ve heard the corruption in Chicago described similarly especially when contrasted with the corruption in Louisiana. Just food for thought…

  3. When we lived in Chicago, (just west of Wrigley,) we had locked gates to the yard and a dog with a bad reputation for biting. We still got ripped off by Jimmy who lived 3 doors down when we moved to semi-rural WI.

    I was looking at a key on my key ring the other day and couldn’t figure out what it was for. After some study I realized it was the front door key. I never use it because our doors are never locked.

    Yea, there are a lot of nice places in Chicago, and it’s still the “city that works,” but we couldn’t go back.

  4. Dude! You almost make me want to go back. Almost. Everything you write is true, but you are leaving out one big thing: the climate. Chicago has about six months of nasty weather a year. It’s a very good place to live and do business if you don’t mind being indoors for months at a time, but it’s lousy if you’re in any way outdoorsy. But compared to Paris? There is no comparison. Chicago has improved a great deal in the past twenty years. The kinds of social pathologies that now plague Paris and other European cities are a thing of the past in Chicago.

  5. The large black middle class is an important element of Chicago. The funny thing is, many take it for granted. I certainly was until my step-father was visiting and asked why Chicago had such a large black middle class as opposed to say, Kansas City, where he lives (I made a couple of guesses, but I don’t know why).
    Certainly a lot of the growth of home ownership on the east south side is middle/upper income blacks choosing not to move to the ‘burbs, and that trend shows no signs of abating.

    Also, economic opportunity it everywhere here. I moved here from St. Louis because it offered a lot of entreprenueral opportunity. I’m sure the same calculation has been made by the thousands of Poles, Irish and Mexicans (among others) who move here every year.

    The high housing costs are simply a function of any well-off vibrant city.

  6. BTW, I rent in the South Loop. I miss rural areas because that’s where I was raised, but I’ve never lived in a suburb and not sure I would really like it.

  7. “…I’ve never lived in a suburb and not sure I would really like it.”

    You don’t go there because you like it. You go there because you have kids and what you like has fallen into second place, or lower, behind what other people you are responsible for need. For the amusement and pleasure of grown-ups, you want to live in the city, and Chicago is very pleasant indeed if you are single and have a little money in your pocket. For the security and peace and open space and orderly and demanding schools — the things you want as an environment to raise children — the suburbs, at least in the US, for most people, are going to win out.

  8. Jonathan, weather schmeather. The icy blasts hew the weak human material into sturdy manhood! Embrace the ice-covered lake, the arctic-blue sky, the stinging, knife-like winds, the heaps of new white snow piled high along the sidewalks, the plumes of steam rising into the pink dawn sky over the towers as you drive in from the West at sunrise! Nature here is at once harsh and beautiful and suited for the strong and those who would be strong!

  9. Chicago a mini-France? Oh No! No city is more American than Chicago. None has less to do with France.

    Chicago has its own literature:

    “I am an American, Chicago born-Chicago, that somber city-and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

    Its own architecture. Is own everything. It is incredibly distinctive and not at all French.

  10. I am also from St Louis, love the city but it is not a business city. So I came to Chicago to for a job. I use to think Chicago was kind of a dirty city corrupt city (like St Louis 20 years ago). After living in Chicago for 4 months and attending training in New York, I think Chicago is a great city.

    Also, I was at a Bulls game last night, they lost but thats history. The interesting part that I noticed was the diversity in the crowd. I have never seen so many mixed couples and mixed groups from every economic background than I did last night.

    That reminded me that the US is nothing like France no matter where you go. We have, in general left our racist past behind.

  11. –The high housing costs are simply a function of any well-off vibrant city. —

    Ehhhhh, if we’re not careful, we’ll turn into model blue city/state failures like SF and Mass. Forcing families out to the exburbs cos they can’t afford to live there. Which is 1 reason for population decline. Sales tax is outrageous, parking is high – not compared to Britain, but trust me, it’s high for the flyover states. Too many restrictions/building codes drive up land prices.

    We’re not begining to be known as The Peoples’ Republic of IL for nothing!

    And if/when UA goes down – 4% of our economy, IIRC.

    BUT – King Richard II would never have handled a disaster like Nagin. He loves his city.

  12. Jonathan, weather schmeather. The icy blasts hew the weak human material into sturdy manhood!

    Dude, I went running once in Lincoln Park when it was ten below and windy and my sturdy manhood almost fell off. I had to scrounge some newspaper from a trash bin and stuff it down my pants to prevent frostbite. No kidding.

    Remember the end of Brave New World where the protagonist chooses exile in the Falklands with their bracing weather? Even he didn’t want to be in Chicago in winter.

  13. Lex, you are right and I constantly wonder what I’m going to do when it comes time for kids. The current plan is to make enough money to pay for better schooling. Other than that, teach my children to make good choices (drug use in the city and suburb is roughly equal). As for exposure to nature, camping and visits to my rural homeland [NW Missouri] will have to do.

    Chicago will never be like San Fran. San Fran is located on a roughly 7mile by 7mile peninsula in one of the most beautiful settings in the world, with loads of land restrictions on development in the surrounding 200 miles. So, there is a lot of underlying land scarcity to increase costs. [I used to appraise land in the bay area]
    Certainly, we will tend toward a higher average cost like Mass., but this is a sign of success and other people’s desire to live here. For those who cannot handle the costs intitially or who are sick of the high costs, other places will open up. For example, virtually every Western state recieves it’s greatest influx of new residents of California. Indeen, in thirty years the eastern face will probably look like California.
    I don’t forsee Chicago becoming like that for a while, for unlike Boston, it is physically huge. I chose to come up here because it seems to have an unending source of neighborhoods that are either declining or resurging, providing ample chance for judicious purchase or real estate or development; for the little guys and the big guys.
    This same pattern will soon start to play out in the inner suburbs has some will start too decline (further) and others will experience a renesaince.

  14. Mitch,
    You hit the nail on the head. My number one complaint about Chicago would have to be that it is so damn flat. Beverly is the only neighborhood that I can think of that has significant hillage. Without the lake, we’d be as boring as Indy.

  15. Dan,

    I don’t think it’s crazy to be outside in cold weather. You just have to dress for it. The problem with Chicago is that the constant wind exacerbates the cold and takes the fun out of many winter activities. Madison is probably a lot better in this respect.

  16. I grew up in Rockford and have had my share of blistering cold wind chills. Even with no wind, -10 is nostril hair freezing cold, if you know what I mean. Not weather fit for man nor beast! I moved here to Moscow on the Yahara 11 years ago and it is pretty much the same as Rockford or Chicago.

  17. Sorry to rub it in Jonathan, but with what your home state has been through in the last couple years during hurricane season, Chicago has it all over Florida.
    I agree with Lex, though, the flatness is a big downer. However, if there were any topography better than a molehill near Chicago, there would be 10 million more people living here and it would be a far, far different place. (think traffic!) Ditto for the weather extremes.

  18. “…the flatness is a big downer…” One friend, a true Chicagoan, Lithuanian guy from Marquette Park who had a KISS poster on his dorm room wall when I met him, came out to visit me at my parents house in Massachusetts. His comment about Boston was classic: “If the roads can’t be straight, why can’t the land at least be flat?” The East Coast has disdain for the Midwest, but the Midwest, if it thinks about the East Coast at all, wonders why it is even there. Who needs it?

  19. SandyP,
    Compare Mass. to New Jersey. New Jersey actually has a higher population density (highest in N. America, among the highest in the world).
    The problem with Mass. (and am I assuming that you are refering more to Boston) is that location and geography play a much more restrictive role on development (added to governmental restrictions), than in Boston.

    While Chicago could merrily expand ad infinitum to the west, northwest, and south and southwest, for many reasons, this is not possible in Boston; thus there is a greater demand for diminishing resources. So, while Mass. is in actuality physically larger than San Fran (or say the Bay Area), there are also a larger number of people and the same kind of land use restrictions in place that cause those problems.

    Theses really do not exist in such a form in Chicago, yet. New Jersey, however, will in the next ten years start to experience the same problems as Mass. Don’t forget just how much older development on the east coast is compared to the rest of the country. I believe that settlement patterns outside the east coast are a couple of hundred years from being really fixed, a la Europe. However, in places where they are more static like Europe, you see European style pricing, like in Mass.

  20. People from Chicago tend to be defensive about their city. That might be because the weather there is usually good with infrequent bad spells, whereas the weather in dumps like Florida is usually bad with infrequent good spells. Wait a minute. . .

  21. This thread has turned into a love-fest for Chicago. The gist of the thread is that Chicago ain’t nothin’ like France because it has some great “architecture” and the corruption is “background noise.”

    I’m curious to read a comparison of Chicagoan tax and regulatory policy with those of French cities? Or some comparison of Chicagoan business/governmental collusion with France’s (recall Vivendi bribed Chirac while he served as mayor of Paris).

    TM Lutas saw a symptom after Christmas ’04. He posted here a critique of a city worker he watched lazily removing Christmas lights from a city tree. Just what are the effects of the city’s employees unions on their captive, urban clients: users of city-mediated projects, garbage pick-up, phone, transportation and licensing offices?

    Are we really supposed to love a city just because it has “good architecture?” What I take home from this is that city-dwellers will creatively rationalize a “love” of their chosen city. For example, my friends love San Francisco/Marin. They pay over 70% of their income on housing, gripe continually about the crime, pollution, politicians, high-taxes, homelessness, traffic, you-name-it, but then put on a diaper-grin and tell me how much they “love it.”

    Humans are adept at filtering out the bad aspects of their chosen environments. It is a learned coping mechanism. In Chicago’s case, our minds blend the city’s crowds, its traffic, its smells of tar and diesel, the corruption, and the intermittent whine of sirens mercifully into a cotton-y “white noise.” Or as Lex puts it, “background noise.” The French citizenry has done the same with their nation’s internal problems for decades.

    Sometimes, suddenly, as in France today, some perturbation will snap us out of our inattentiveness, and we can’t help but notice the filth we’ve been stepping blindly over for years. There are lessons for Chicago in France’s riots. Chicagoboyz is a blog where I think I might find them.

  22. Steve,
    Very good question. From everyone I’ve talked to, the corruption is very much less than it was twenty years ago and the disruption in services that may be caused by corruption is hard to find. It seems, from the investigations that have been going on over the past year, that the corruption serves to bloat the city budget in the form of fake contracts, rather than erode the quality of services actually provided. Granted, such bloat can in the end erode service quality when funds get tight, but like I said, I’m almost universally told that it may have been true 30 years ago, but isn’t now.
    When it comes to infrastructure, Chicago is among the best in the world.

    The biggest problems come in the regulations and hurdles that occur at the city and aldermanic levels. Here you see the value of influence in that certain people can get their plans to move forward quicker than others. No money may change hands, but in definitely pays to know someone. This is especially true now in building permits. That office has become completely backed up and if you are a little guy trying to get something done it can be maddening and time consuming. (the result of which is that more and more work is being done off permit, especially decks and interior renovation – this also encourages the payoff of inspectors, though I don’t know if it’s happening)

    Some city programs/positions have become virtual hereditary positions, passed-on from father-to-son/friend. Often, these are positions that operate in the field and thus aren’t easy to maintain supervision over. One example was the porch inspectors. This had tragic results as many inspections just weren’t performed.

    The only form of pay-off I’ve ever personally witnessed was not with the city, but with a utility. It has a reputation of being very unresponsive and can completely hold up construction and permitting (the fruits of a monopoly). I knew someone who would pay an inside guy a couple of hundred to short circuit the process. All the connections would be done safely, but it could save weeks to months.

    Finally, the aldermen are very powerfull and they can really mess with developers, or just people trying to build a house to their liking, all due to their personal preference. If you’re a small developer and you want a certain type of national tenant in your building, but they don’t like say Subway, well they can basically kill the deal and you’re out of money.

    Those are the warts of Chicago that I deal with; still, a great place to live and do business. Would I prefer something different, sure I want the mountains of Colorado, but I can do without.

  23. BTW, the lessons of France, particularly how not to ghettoize people is one that Chicago has already learned. Public housing is now much more mixed income and non-dehumanizing. There is more a focus on opportunities and all the big buildings are coming down. All of which further integrates into Chicago life those who were once put-up in giant prison-like edifices.

  24. I mentioned I was from St Louis earlier, so I have some insight to that city.

    Everything said about Chicago is also true of St Louis in the last 20 years. The large tenements have come down and the minority population is finally starting to get off their feet.

    The tenements came down and now the city is being revitalized.

    I am actually from the Metro East, Illinois side of St Louis. The only complaint we have about Chicago is its drain on the rest of Illinois. The schools are really horrible downstate. Students from Chicago suburbs were a full year ahead of me in schooling by my freshman year of high school, and my mom was a teacher and would make me do schoolwork all through summer. School considered inner city schools were right about par with what I was getting downstate, with less violence maybe.

    I was luckily able to get out of my school and attend a state boarding school near Chicago.

  25. As far as the Chicago corruption is concerned, as long as the city looks great and works, I could care less.

    In London there is no corruption in the Chicago sense, but there is a corruption of incompetence. For example: The cheapest subway ride is now $6. Crime is out of control and the police do nothing but issue press releases and harrass motorists. etc. etc.

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