A few months ago, baby A was insisting on having her first nap of the day sleeping against my chest, and one of the few things I could do was read. So I read Granta 108, the Chicago issue, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for a while.
I liked it very much. Whether because I share some sensibility with the Granta staff or because we have all seized on The Objective Truth About The City, it summed up my sense of Chicago as well as giving me fresh new perspectives – which is exactly what you’re looking for, I guess, when you read a book about a city you know.
So in Granta, Chicago is a city of immigrants: finding one other to play (soccer) football, importing feuds from Mexico, trying to make a living driving packages round the city. It’s a city of gun violence. The most moving thing I’ve seen in the last year was the film The Interrupters, a film about Ceasefire’s attempts to stop gun violence, by Alex Kotlowitz who has a piece here about a woman he knew and her son, Khalid, who was shot dead. Chicago is notorious for bad housing projects, some of which are now demolished – great photo essay by Camilo José Vergara – and corruption – the piece by Neil Steinberg on this finally got me to grasp how that works here. It’s also notorious for its segregation between rich and poor, white and black, and ‘Mr Harris’, about a rich boy who ventures into a dodgy area and ends up being hassled for money to fix his car by the eponymous Mr Harris, is wonderfully awkward about that. And there’s the lake, and it’s the home of Barack Obama, and it’s where Jane Addams started the Hull House settlement for the urban poor. There’s a nice three pages (you know how I love short articles) on an underground flood in 1992 and how it exposes the urban chaos.
But it has now come to my attention that American publishing houses have also produced some volumes considering Chicago’s unique features and cultural significance, and I have therefore read two of them, with page turning assistance from baby A.
123 Chicago is ‘a cool counting book’ with a nice graphic take on the wonders of the city. 2 Art Institute lions, 5 deep dish pizzas, 8 hot dogs, 3 L carriages, 4 skyscrapers. Some are a bit questionable, either from a counting point of view – 10 fireworks? – or in terms of a lack of distinctiveness – trolleys? balls? Are these what anyone thinks of when they think of Chicago? But it’s all quite likeable, including the way that the text at the back identifying everything is in both English and Spanish.
Good Night Chicago, though, which I was put onto by my friend A (who averred that the book was bound to exist – and so it did!) is a more heartless proposition. It is absolutely clear that a template has been generated to suit every major American city and then given minimal tweaks to achieve some local colour. The pictures are bland, the route around the city is nonsensical, the text is inserted in the most budget way imaginable (the low point is the picture of a child reading the book ‘Good Night Chicago’ on the Magnificent Mile, where the word ‘Chicago’ is in the wrong font on the wrong background). We start the day on Lake Michigan – ‘Good morning, Lake Michigan.’ OK. But by midmorning we are saying ‘Greetings, Chicago River and bridges.’ Oh yes. Those famous bridges. In time we’re onto ‘Good afternoon, sharks, fish, turtles, and mammals at the aquarium.’ Mammals? My personal highlight, though, is the deathless phrase illustrating Alexander Calder’s immense red flamingo in the Loop: ‘It’s nice to see you, art.’ If you want a good laugh, follow this link to the page where the creators of the series claim to be the disciples of Walt Whitman.
Still, functioning as a checklist of attractions that I’ve never got round to seeing, it is at least a reminder that I ought to make it to the Field Museum and the planetarium. So thanks, Good Night Chicago. Now I must go out and buy the current Granta: Britain.