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Vacations and Sufferings in Chicago

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“Chicago a tourist hotspot? The city of brutal winters now a city for vacationers? No way!” Or so I thought when I returned to update my book, City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago (published under Cornell University Press’s NIU Press imprint.).

I originally wrote the book in the mid-1990s while teaching at a small Chicago-area college. After committing to teaching a course on the History of Chicago, I sought a suitable textbook for my students to read. I couldn’t find one. Many superb books addressed one aspect of the city’s history—some on the first Mayor Richard Daley, others on immigrants’ experiences, others on Hull House—but I needed a one-volume book that covered the entirety of the city’s history.

So I wrote the book as I taught the course. While a serious history book that synthesized the good scholarship that was available to me, it also aimed at holding the attention of my nineteen-year-old students. They chuckled at the reference to Dennis Rodman, who played for the Chicago Bulls basketball team at the time, and his unintentional contribution to gentrification. They choked when the book described how late nineteenth-century residents dumped garbage into the Chicago River, which led engineers to reverse the river’s flow.

While a serious history book that synthesized the good scholarship that was available to me, it also aimed at holding the attention of my nineteen-year-old students.

It was my turn to be surprised when I wrote a new chapter examining the 1995-2015 years. Al Voney, a South Side shoeshine man, had lamented in 1989 that “Chicago has become like Detroit—a dead man’s town.” Rust Belt woes seemingly enveloped the city. But the second Mayor Richard Daley planned to rescue the city by remaking the downtown into a trendy twenty-first-century destination for sightseers, international conferences, and relocating corporate offices.

Twenty-five-acre Millennium Park sprouted in the Loop, anchored by the dazzling Jay Pritzker Music Pavilion. A century-old elevated railway was converted into the Bloomingdale Trail (The 606), a nearly three-mile-long paved and landscaped promenade. Lavish makeovers made the city’s ethnic neighborhoods destinations for food tourists. The city once famous for smelly animal stockyards and smoke-belching factories became the second-most visited city in America behind only New York City, according to several tourism industry analyses. Chicago also became one of the top ten US destinations for international tourists. Tourism brought high-end restaurants to the city, so much so that Bon Appétit magazine named it the nation’s best restaurant city in 2017. I was surprised to find this Chicago, a city that two political scientists dubbed a City of Spectacle.

I was surprised to find this Chicago, a city that two political scientists dubbed a City of Spectacle.

I was not surprised to find it coexisting with the city Spike Lee called Chi-Raq in his provocative 2015 movie. Pronounced with a long “i” sound so that it rhymes with Iraq, Chi-Raq is a nickname that suggests an equivalence between the violence on Chicago’s South Side and war-ravaged Iraq. Even as I wrote about postmodern art in Loop parks and foie gras in Loop restaurants, I knew that a million Chicagoans would read my book and think, “That’s not the city where I live.” Their Chicago experience was one of poverty, homicides, and evictions, and the city’s makeover at the turn of the twenty-first century did little to change that.

History does not actually repeat itself, although it does seem to rhyme a lot.

History does not actually repeat itself, although it does seem to rhyme a lot. Maybe Chicago’s poet laureate, Carl Sandburg, would agree if he saw the City of Spectacle and Chi-Raq cohabiting. His 1914 poem “Chicago” conceded that the pre-World War I city had its share of human suffering. “They tell me you are wicked and I believe them,” he wrote. But unlike what he called the world’s “little soft cities,” Chicago was the muscular city that constantly built, razed, and rebuilt. It was “laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,” mused Sandburg. It seems that Chicago is still fighting.


Robert Spinney is a professor of history at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. He is currently planning a sightseeing visit to Chicago, which will mark his first return to the city since 1998.

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