- Words: Bettina Richards
Some say Chicago is the Windy City. Okay, first things first–it is not windy. It is damn cold at times, but not windy. It was thusly named for the blowhard politicians who took up residence here in the late 1800s. Which is odd, since Chicago is known for being a city where people don't sit around talking about what they're going to do–they just do it.
Rather than talk about what Chicago isn't, how about what it is? Sprouting up from the seeds of early industry, the Midwest's largest metropolis was fed and built by workers who came from near and far; its vast expanses of flat prairie allowed them to create numerous cities within the city. As I sit in Pilsen on the near Southside and write this, I'm surrounded by the wonders of Mexican culture: beautiful murals, amazing eats and, in the summer, wandering mariachis. Chicago also has the biggest Polish population next to Warsaw, meaning that later I can pick up some pierogi and drift over to the Baby Doll Polka Lounge, where the over-60 set kicks up fierce accordion dance music and the moves to go with it.
In the early 1900s, the great African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender (the spark of the black empowerment movement) drew tons of opportunity seekers from the Deep South to Chicago; they brought with them legacies, recipes and music. Since the 1920s, the City of Big Shoulders has been famous for its great bluesmen and jazzmen, including AACM (Association for the Advancement of the Creative Musician) founder Fred Anderson and the mighty octogenarian Von Freeman. These two horn players have mentored the free jazz community for nearly 40 years. Like so many Chicagoans, they're wood-shedders, working technique and tone while searching for a new sound. They're not as focused on taking the music somewhere as about being willing to go where the music takes them.
Plenty of manufacturing goes on here–as you read this, workers at the Ferrara Pan candy company (started in 1908 by Italian immigrant Salvatore Ferrara) are breaking a sweat making Lemonheads and Red Hots. Plenty of industry has also moved away (bye, bye to most of the hog butchers!), meaning all the empty warehouses and industrial spaces not captured by loft/condo developers are ripe for artist studios, silk screening set-ups, starting record labels–and home to many a practice and performance space. Affordable space to live/play supports a vast number of labels and clubs and musicians here. The lower the overhead, the higher the creative risks you can take.
After living in Chicago for 10 years, I have not yet run out of new areas to explore. Let's go on a treasure hunt for all the Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe works. We could bike the path along the lake all the way to Milwaukee–a trip that changes with the seasons, presenting an expanse of frozen waves and frozen flags in the winter and a paradise of boaters and birds in the summer. Let's take pictures of all the wonderful hand-painted signs on tire repair shops, barbershops and churches. Perhaps it is a sari you crave, a good curry or the delights of Ethiopia or Iran. Or we could hop on the El, throw back some soul food and explore a Southside village built as a worker's utopia by the Pullman train car company. Then again, we could just play pinball and order up a Leinenkugel from one of the members of Tortoise or Wilco who bartend at the Rainbo. I'll meet you at the corner of N. Damen and Division, okay?
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