“This is my kind of town, _______ is! My kind of town, _______ is!” As soon as one hears the trumpets blare up behind Frank Sinatra belting out these familiar lyrics, only one thing comes to mind: Chicago.
Endearingly known by many different nicknames, such as the Second City and the City That Works (City of Chicago) amongst both locals and non-residents, Chicago has made numerous contributions to the world in a multitude of areas over the years. These advancements in all areas of life have resulted in it being the “talk of the town” as much within its own city limits as outside of them for the better part of its existence. In spite of achieving feats such as being the home of the debut of the world’s very first Ferris wheel (City of Chicago), in recent years, the City of Big Shoulders has seen its reputation deteriorate considerably. This is especially pronounced in the media and popular culture’s portrayal of what it (allegedly) is really like there. As a native of the Windy City, I am here to set the record straight.
To start: the bad. These days, with songs such as the underground hit Chiraq by Nicki Minaj, herself a prolific rapper with huge amounts of popularity, containing explicit lyrics about Chicago’s epidemic of gang violence, I would imagine it is exceedingly difficult for a non-native to have any concept of Chicago being a safe place. For example, lines such as “ain’t yelling cut when it’s shooting time / sign up, it’s recruiting time / big wigs with a suit and tie” (AZLyrics) and “don’t let a single thing get by ‘em / king pins and them drug lords / chi-town, no gun laws” (AZLyrics) and “rolled out with some Latin Kings and some eses and them plain khakis” (AZLyrics) are commenting, respectively, on the normalcy associated for some people to join a gang, the frequency of firearm-related violence and the casualness associated with hanging out with known gang members. Songs such as this do serious harm to the reputation of the city because young people, in all likelihood, will listen to a rap song that is growing in popularity amongst his or her social group much sooner than he or she would look up hard statistics on the types and circumstances of violent crimes in Chicago.
However, that is not to say that such statistics are not easily accessible. It is absolutely true that there is an epidemic of violence in Chicago. Keeping track of it is a sad reality for not only the police and the loved ones of the victims, but also for the media. Nationally renowned newspaper the Chicago Tribune keeps a detailed record of homicides that happened in Chicago, with breakdowns of the data by month and location within the city, in addition to the names of each victim. While it is comforting to know that the memory of these lost souls lives on, it is still deeply upsetting to know that since 01 January of this year, 387 homicides have been recorded within city limits (Chicago Tribune). This contributes to a reputation of a widespread lack of security, especially when the map shows that the majority of these murders were committed on the city’s West and South sides. These two sections of the city are among the most populous. However, they both occupy a clear first place in terms of contributing to the notoriety of Chicago’s gang and violence problems.
Recent memory gives us Barack Obama, well known for having gotten his political starts in grassroots community organisations in Chicago, as well as television shows such as Chicago PD, which follows “the Intelligence Unit of the Chicago PD [which] is run by Hank Voight, a man who was originally introduced as a criminal who had very little respect for doing things by the book,” (Highfill) only embellish this supposition that Chicago is a dangerous, corrupt city. This is augmented by the fact that “the entirety of Chicago PD‘s first season was about how far one man [Voight] would go to put the right people behind bars, and how far he would go if he were betrayed,” (Highfill). Voight was repeatedly shown to be cooperating with and even going so far as financially supporting questionable individuals who only helped him out due to an agreement that he would turn a blind eye to their illegal activities in exchange for information on an as-needed basis.
This is problematic, due to the fact that songs such as Chiraq and shows such as Chicago PD can carry much more weight in helping to form someone’s opinion of Chicago than they are even intended to. From my context as a native of the Windy City, I think it is accurate and appropriate to comment on the gang violence and the corruption within local government because these are widely known phenomena accepted as fact. However, by focusing so much on just these two aspects, the reputation of the city as a whole is diminished considerably.
As such, it is absolutely necessary to consider some of the more lighthearted, less dark things that Chicago is known for. For example, in the video Sh*t Chicagoans Say, around the 0:23 mark, the comment “our skyline is way better than New York’s” is pointedly made. As a matter of pride, this is a very passive-aggressive nod, and also a reminder to the viewer, to Willis Sears Tower’s decades-long holding of the rank of the tallest building in the world. And as well it should be, because the Sears Tower was and for that matter, still is, a beacon and potent symbol of American ingenuity and prowess. Chicago historically has been and continues to be one of the main powerhouses driving the American economy.
In spite of occasional and sometimes rampant governmental mismanagement, such as the comment made about Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, being mistaken for a parking metre at the 0:43 mark in Sh*t Chicagoans Say (due to Emanuel having shed responsibility of on-street parking to a private company instead of a city-run parking authority-like entity, thus eliminating millions of dollars in revenue per year for the city), Chicago continues to be a regional and global hub for creativity and innovation, among other world-renowned and celebrated attractions. This is underscored by Chicago being home to “dozens of cultural institutions, historical sites and museums, more than 200 theatres, nearly 200 art galleries and more than 7.300 restaurants” in addition to “26 miles of lakefront, 15 miles of bathing beaches, 36 annual parades, 19 miles of lakefront bicycle paths and 552 parks,” (City of Chicago).
Simply put, Chicago is much more than Barack Obama and homicide. Chicago is a sea of beautiful skyscrapers which “create a sense of might: of labor, industry, and commerce. As a body of architecture, they are a glorious portrait and instance of the productive facet of the American character; one of our best facets,” (Maidman). Chicago is a hub for tourism on all levels. Chicago is insanely delicious food. Perhaps just as well known as violence about Chicago is its food. Succinctly put: “If you think deep-dish pizza and ketchup-free hot dogs are all there is to understanding Chicago food, you’ve got another thing coming. Chicago is a city of many, many neighborhoods, all of which come with their own culinary traditions. It leaves the city’s residents with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the diverse dishes that are often only a hop on the ‘L’ away,” (Erbentraut). In addition to the technological and engineering breakthroughs touched on earlier, Chicago is also known for its numerous culinary innovations.
To name a few, this innovation entails such well known and home-grown dishes as Chicago mix popcorn, a blend of cheese and caramel flavours, and the jibarito, a Latin-style sandwich with deep fried plantains instead of bread, which was “invented at Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park and is one of the most distinctive dishes that traces its roots to Chicago,” (Erbentraut). In addition, various famous chefs call Chicago their base of operations for the most famous restaurants to round out a beautifully varied and impressively thorough culinary offering to anyone who should find themself passing through.
It is precisely this that one must keep in mind when pondering Chicago. The City of Big Shoulders is exactly that: a city of big shoulders. On them is carried a great weight, with all the characteristics of any large city. There is good, there is bad, there is ugly and there is everything in between, but no single characteristic should, or for that matter, does define it.
“Facts & Statistics.” City of Chicago. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/about/facts.html>.
“Chicago Homicides.” Crime in Chicagoland. Chicago Tribune, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <http://crime.chicagotribune.com/chicago/homicides>.
“”Chi-Raq” Lyrics.” AZLyrics. AZLyrics, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/nickiminaj/chiraq.html>.
Highfill, Samantha. “‘Chicago PD’ Season 2 Premiere React: The Evolution of Hank Voight | EW.com.” EW.com. EW.com, 24 Sept. 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <http://insidetv.ew.com/2014/09/24/chicago-pd-season-2-premiere-react/>.
Erbentraut, Joseph. “26 Food Things Only A Chicagoan Would Understand.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/08/foods-only-chicago-understands_n_5087204.html>.
Maidman, Daniel. “In Praise of the Bean: Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” Millennium Park, Chicago.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 20 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-maidman/in-praise-of-the-bean-anish-kapoor-cloud-gate_b_2695938.html>.