It’s Election Day in Chicago: A Deconstructed Love Story
“The best any mayor can do with the city… is just to keep it in repair.”
—Nelson Algren, Chicago: City On the Make
It’s election day in Chicago, which means it’s the day citizens of this Third Coast Second City bring out their dead to participate in the American right to screw themselves at the polls.
Since its incorporation on March 4, 1837, Chicago has been the place for people who want to be punished. There are the winters, the Cubs and the Bears, the Daley family, the pot holes, and, of course, the crime. And by crime, I mean the politicians and the police. Yes, the city has its positives, too. There’s the lake and its shoreline, the architecture, the Blackhawks, Stephanie Izard, the excitement of not knowing whether the improv show you’re about to see is going to be incredible or give you cause to wish for a swift and vicious cancer to eat you and every player on stage alive.
Chicago, perhaps more than any other American city, has worked hard to never yield to change. It has always maintained a strong sense of pride in the Chicago Way. Even the drastic changes the city’s gentrification has wrought aren’t really changes at all. Pushing out the poor and unique for the wealth and homogenization is the Chicago Way. Have you been to Wrigleyville lately? I imagine that the shock I experienced would be what, say, Benjamin Franklin would have experienced if he’d traveled through time to 2019 Philadelphia. It wasn’t recognizable. All the shiny new buildings and posh brands. The Ricketts family paved hell and put up a shopping mall. It was unnerving. Even the filthiest, most puke-soaked parts of the city are endearing when left to their filthy devices. Chicago is a city that most embodies the White Man’s Burden. But it does so with contempt — never to benefit the people of color (not that Manifest Destiny was ever truly meant for anyone’s benefit but the whites), but to put them out of their misery and into a new, worse kind of despair..
The fourteen people hoping to be elected as Chicago’s mayor have all been calling for change! and an end to the Chicago Way! But they don’t mean it. They can’t possibly. Because an end to the Chicago Way would mean an end to this city. It would mean that all the candidates would have to give up their grip on understanding how to play the game, how to govern and legislate and fundraise and make deals and avoid indictments. I do believe that most of them truly want to improve the Chicago Police Department. But that’s mostly out of self-preservation because not a one of them wants to go down the way Mayor Rahm Emanuel went down.
I don’t want to be a defeatist or a pessimist, or cynic. I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half busting my hump to be more positive and confident about the future. You might say I’ve been Marie Kondoing my life to be less David Himmel and more Don Hall. (Hall has the optimism of a puppy, and while I still think “optimism” sounds like a retinal disease, I’d love to be as gleeful for tomorrow as Hall is about pretty much everything.) But here’s the thing, Chicago is what it is. It will not change. Not with one election cycle.
Algren was spot on when he wrote in 1950 in the ultimate book about Chicago*:
“… the Do-Gooders still go doggedly forward, making the hustlers struggle for their gold, week in and week out, year after year, once or twice a decade tossing an unholy fright into the boys. And since it’s a ninth-inning town, the ball game never being over until the last man is out, it remains Jane Addams’ town as well as Big Bill’s. The ball game isn’t over yet.
But it’s a rigged ball game.”
We’re going to go to the polls and cast our votes for the person we think is better than the others and who will do the best job for Chicagoans knowing well that the best will never be good enough. Most Chicagoans will always be playing second fiddle — fifth fiddle if you’re poor and darker skinned — to the Gold Coast-Magnificent Mile Ruling Class. If you don’t know who they are, they’re easy to find. Pick up an issue of the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times. They’re the ones on the front page walking into or out of federal court. Or flip through an issue of CS Modern Luxury. They’re the ones smiling big and bright at galas fiddle players will never be invited to.
What can we do? Start by writing in my name for mayor or 2nd Ward alderman. Or, better yet, we can stop being so proud of the Chicago Way. Stop convincing ourselves we’re a city of progress and industry. We’re not. We were, and maybe that’s one thing that’s changed. The meat and the steel are no longer exports. Chicago’s only export now is delusion and sociopathic gravitas.
It’s election day in Chicago, and like all election days, it’s an opportunity to make a change for better or worse. Chicago can’t get much worse, so better is the only real option. But change is hard. We might do our best to vote for it but it’s going to take a long while for it to stick.
I’m left with little hope for any positive change to come out of today’s election. I’m thinking bigger picture. As long as I live here my hope is that I can one day shake my head in disagreement when I think of what Hunter S. Thompson said about the city when he wrote:
“Chicago — this vicious stinking zoo, this mean-grinning, Mace-smelling boneyard of a city; an elegant rockpile monument to everything cruel and stupid and corrupt in the human spirit.”
Chicago, we don’t deserve better — we’ve done this to ourselves for almost two hundred years — but we should want better. And if we’re as tough as we brag to be, we can have it.
*The penultimate book about the city is Mike Royko’s Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago.