Chicago - Sep. 19, 2020
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What Is A Chicagoan Anyway?

Public TV star Geoffrey Baer once explained to me, because I did not understand it, the circumlocution required of Evanston residents who believe they are Chicagoans.

They live on the north side of Howard Street, as did I once upon a time, which means they do not live in Chicago. That's irrelevant, he said, and apparently that irrelevance extends to thousands of other people, too.

"I came to see that Chicago is not just a city; it's a region," Baer said with a completely straight face which is the television face of Chicago's history. He grew up in Deerfield and lives on a quiet Evanston street.

It's as Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the poetic faith of theatrical experience: Being a Chicagoan requires a "willing suspension of disbelief."

There's an element of unreality in that. It's fatuous.

As a regional emigre, I was applying boundaries literally, Baer said. An error, he assured me, though anyone who suspends the laws of nature and language for their benefit does not have logic on their side.

Hence we come to the minor kerfuffle involving Beachwood Reporter proprietor Steve Rhodes.

Rhodes recently ran afoul of "Chicagoans" hailing the city's glory for sharing a Bon Jovi total-city singalong, thus warding off the Coronavirus voodoo pandemic.

Rhodes contends that Chicago Exceptionalism is a comfortable delusion. But if anyone adopts it, they at least should be actual Chicagoans and not live, let's say, in Evanston.

Them's fightin' words.

For what it's worth, which I'm sure is nothing, I have lived and worked in seven states. Every place has been both good and awful. The distinctions all depend on how much money you have to experience what is good and avoid what is awful. It's often as simple as that.

The recurring debate centers over whether Chicago is exceptionally wonderful, or exceptionally grim.

I suggest the answer to that choice is "Yes."

Chicagoans all live in several contiguous areas separated by everything that divides all Americans. But how can anyone who lives in Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, Highland Park, Glencoe, Lake Bluff or Lake Forest be an authentic "Chicagoan" or have the right to call themselves that? As for Kenilworth, it seems to so affluently alien as not to be terrestrial.

Glenview, Morton Grove or Lincolnshire? Might as well be in Wisconsin.

On the other side of the state line, Whiting, Hammond and Gary might as well be on Neptune, though no one who lives there is, or wishes to be viewed as a Chicagoan.

Sorry, no disrespect to those on the Illinois side, but you too also live somewhere else other than Chicago.

If you call yourself a Roman or Parisian or Londoner, the presumption to outsiders is that at least you live there.

This definition is grossly less specific for "Chicagoan," which seems more like a situational state of being. Like still feeling existentially you are married to someone you divorced 20 years ago.

And as I wrote several years ago in a vain attempt to deliberately provoke discussion about violence, "White Chicago" does not seem to care what violence and poverty afflict "Black Chicago" and neither cares much about "Latino Chicago."

Suburbanites seemed oddly passive and tolerant about levels of violence and poverty in Chicago that would not be allowed in their burbs. The common factors, of course, are race and income. The boundaries are enforced by tribal edict, which means they are both profound and destructive.

White suburban "Chicagoans" live a different life than real "Chicagoans" of color. That's not so hard to understand, is it?

As a generality, the burbs do care about "Chicago" but only when it involves cultural/sports/recreational activities, not the lives of people. There are the people who live in Chicago and then everybody else who objectively is a spectator of that life. Except for the cost of real estate, the spectators all occupy the cheap seats.

The essence of Chicago seems often simultaneously wonderful and hideous, both crass and noble, which is hardly exceptional as a social critique of any big city. In big cities, bystanders get gunned down in drug deals gone wrong, just outside a theater doing a touring live performance of MacBeth.

There are no gang wars over who controls the drug trade in northern Lake Forest.

That's also far less true of almost everywhere I've ever lived from Florida to Montana, mostly in attractive college towns.

But I have resided in several of those tony suburbs of Chicago, though I never was tony. I was always a schlub and happily so. Schlubs don't need to pack as many suitcases when they move.

My experience is that Chicago's suburbanites care about "Chicago" only when it suits their sentimental convenience. It's a conversation technique, a placeholder. They revere the city of poetic "broad shoulders" as long as they don't have to live the austere, gravelly hardship of that life or be confronted by people who do live there.

Much of that real Chicago life is not so conveniently poetic.

Those I knew who grew up in Chicago and then moved to the suburbs invariably framed that experience as an escape. A lucky escape.

There is the physical reality of Chicago, and there is everywhere else, which is some form of greener pasture.

The residential fugitives uniformly told me that Chicago was what you "put up with" until you could move to the burbs. Whatever that feeling's source, it does not seem to be devoted love.

If you ask, they uniformly proclaim love for Chicago in all its splendid grandness. But live there? Not on your life. That poses a more philosophical question: How do you love a home you mostly wanted to flee?

Some people think of themselves as "Chicagoans" but never lived there. Their citizenship is only emotional, which is to say: irrational. This seems to an outsider to be a deliberate self-delusion.

I'm not even sure what being a "Chicagoan" means to them beyond just a self-bestowed title.

This is hardly a profound observation.

On his way to be being Chicago's uncrowned "City of Big Shoulders" poet laureate, Carl Sandburg grew up in Galesburg, then lived in Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, suburban Elmhurst and, of course, Evanston ,where everybody believes without challenge they are "Chicagoans."

He once lived in barracks at West Point, but got kicked out of the military academy after two weeks of school for flunking a grammar exam.

As a Chicago Daily News reporter, Sandburg, as with Abe Lincoln the lawyer, worked in Chicago and visited, but never lived there, as far as I can find. And I looked pretty hard.

Home is not a place you visit occasionally. Sometimes geography is definite and defined.

Sandburg is not even buried in Chicago. His ashes are in Galesburg.

At least Studs Terkel had his ashes dispersed at Bughouse Square, the quintessential Washington Park touchstone of Chicago political culture.

Terkel was born in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants, but he was never anything other than a Chicagoan. He died in his Chicago home at 96.

And as far as we know, the home was not in Evanston.

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Recently from David Rutter:

* Kris Bryant's Future Bar Trick.

* Mansplaining To A Millionaire.

* Status Check: Chicago Sports.

* The Week In WTF Redux: Blago Is Back Edition.

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David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. He welcomes your comments.



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Posted on March 24, 2020


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BOOKS - Searching For The World's Largest Owl.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - The Tao Is To Chill.


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