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Neil Steinberg tackles nativism in ‘You Were Never in Chicago’

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Updated: December 3, 2012 6:18AM

EDITOR’S NOTE : Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg explores what it means to be a Chicagoan in his new book, “You Were Never in Chicago” (University of Chicago, $25). He deftly weaves Chicago history in and out of his own story of being an outsider trying to figure out his own way in since his college days at Northwestern University in Evanston. Here is an excerpt:

There are only two ways to get to Chicago. You either are born here or you arrive. Those born here have a natural claim, the automatic ownership that emerging into the world upon a certain spot has granted people, at least in their own view, since time began.

But those who come here also have claim to the city, eventually, and some even become its icons if they stick around long enough.

Wherever newcomers hail from, the city enters their understanding through landmarks and streets, buildings and neighborhoods, a cast of soon-to-be familiar players assembling, a map slowly taking shape in the brain. You figure out Wrigley Field and you figure out the Daley Plaza, then eventually you realize that Clark Street runs by both, though you can live here your entire life and not know they are exactly five miles apart — a mile being an esoteric unit in a city measured by blocks, el stops, wards, parishes, and the time it takes to get somewhere. “Beverly in twenty minutes from the Loop, if there’s no traffic,” a resident proudly claims, ignoring the fact that there’s always traffic. A new arrival soon realizes that Wrigley Field and the Wrigley Buildling are different places, that 94 and 294 are different highways, and though the road signs claim they’re heading east and west they’re actually going north and south, generally.

Eventually, emotional nuances fill in. You can love Wrigley or can love Comiskey — I’m of the generation to whom its proper name, US Cellular Field, still sounds odd, commercial and temporary — but you can’t love both; it’s like being both a Democrat and a Republican. There is a South Side attitude — blue collar, Catholic, belligerent — and a North Side attitude: cosmopolitan, Unitarian, easygoing. Baseball fans in a North Side bar shoot cold, appraising looks at each foreigner passing through the doorway and demand to know where he’s from and why he’s there, uininvited. The South Side thinks North Siders are queers; the North Side thinks South Siders are brutes.

This of course is the white Chicagoan calculus. There is different math for each subdivision of Hispanics — for Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and such — and for Asians, whether Indians, Pakistanis, Koreans. Tensions roil under the surface that are seldom noticed by the city at large. For instance, consider Chinatown; would that be a Taiwanese Chinatown or a People’s Republic Chinatown? You might not care, but people in Chinatown certainly do. For blacks, the South and West Sides are very different places, emotionally. The South Side has the frayed gentility found in parts of Chatham or Pullman — enough to put on airs — and other middle-class black neighborhoods, while the West Side tends to be considered a war zone past the United Center, though that too is an overgeneralization, as certain blocks and neighborhoods have been reclaimed from chaos and decay. The livability of any given spot can depend on the time of day and whether the people there happen to be shooting at each other at the moment or not.

Rich or poor, every neighboorhood, every street, has its own particular bylaws and ways. Bill Mauldin was a teenager from Arizona, taking art classes and staying at the Lawson YMCA, when he found himself leaning on the rail on the Michigan Avenue Bridge, listening to ringing bells and wondering what they meant. They meant the bridge was going up, as he quickly discovered. “One of the nice things about Chicago,” the famed editorial cartoonist later wrote, “is its tolerance for rubes.”

I second that.

Evanston is not Chicago. Sure, the el runs through it, but the el runs all the way up to Wilmette, and Wilmette, with its red brick streets, thickly treed and densely mansioned, is definitely not Chicago. The el reaches Wilmette like a power line strung into a formal garden, an out-of-place black wire of necessity, a gritty emissary from the city, like a sooty shop foreman, still in his leather apron and steel-toed boots, perched awkwardly on a pristine velvet credenza in the neat outer office of the company president. The city is waiting to see you.

Which leads to the question of where Chicago is, precisely. Not the borders, those are clear enough. But do they matter? Does being born here make you a Chicagoan? That can’t be all of it. If that were enough, then Bobby Fischer, born at Michael Reese Hospital and promptly departing the city forever, was a Chicagoan, even as the hate-twisted chess master passed his final reclusive days in Icelandic exile, while Studs Terkel, born in New York but living decade after decade in his cluttered brick house on Castlewood Terrace, was not.

So being a Chicagoan obviously isn’t just a matter of emerging into the world here. And merely working in the city every day doesn’t do it — trust me on that one. Having a desk at the Sun-Times for the past quarter century, first at 401 N. Wabash and then at 350 N. Orleans, no more made me a Chicagoan in anybody’s eyes than tacking a postcard of the Eiffel Tower on my bulletin board would make me French.

So is it sleeping here? That has got to be it, right? It’s where you put your head at night that makes you a Chicagoan. That’s what constitutes “living here” in most definitions. your place of residence, where you get your mail. Do you have to both live and work here? That was the entire case against Rahm Emanuel — those who currently reside here are Chicagoans, while those who leave, even temporarily, even at the behest of the President of the United States, are not. You stop being a Chicagoan after ... eighteen months, apparently. But if that were true, if living here right now is the key then plenty of flight attendants and TV meteorologists perched in Presidential Towers between gigs in San Diego and Pittsburgh are genuine Chicagoans, at least for the moment, while Nelson Algren, passing his bitter last years on Long Island, or Mike Royko, residing in baronial comfort in Winnetka, were not.

Could being a Chicagoan possibly be a self-assessment? You can have the credentials to be a Chicagoan, but if you turn your back on the city, they don’t matter. Consider Ernest Hemingway, whose legacy is associated with many places he visited, lived in, wrote about, or loved — Paris, Cuba, Key West, Spain, even Idaho.

Chicago — where he lived for a year and met his first wife, where he began writing professionally and which pops up in his early stories — barely registers on the Hemingway radar. The adjacent suburb of Oak Park, where he was born and raised, scores only a single blip. Hemingway’s deathless slur of it being a town of “broad lawns and narrow minds.” (No one has found an original source for Hemingway actually saying or writing this, so it may be apocryphal, the way many witty remarks are often falsely ascribed to Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut.)

Why? Because Hemingway felt snubbed by his hometown. “Nobody in Oak Park likes me,” he plaintively wrote to a biographer. So he didn’t like Oak Park in return. Whether he uttered his famous putdown or not, it certainly reflects how he felt. Nor did he like Chicago. Even in his youth, he admitted to “hating it,” and in later years, he said he wasn’t impressed with Chicago, didn’t think he belonged here, and gave the city the same backhand he supposedly gave Oak Park. “I never thought Chicago was a tough place,” Hemingway said in 1953 — “tough” of course being the highest compliment Hemingway could conveive. Chicago, he said wasn’t even as tough as Kansas City.

Being a Chicagoan is not a matter of how long you reside here, but how it affects you. It is a process, an attitude, a state of mind. Of course, living in the suburbs, I would say that, and many Chicago residents vigorously resent the suggestion and insist that it is a false claim upon what is theirs alone, the wearing of a ribbon for a battle you didn’t fight in. And there is sense there — either you partake in the full spectrum of Chicago joys and Chicago woes, some of which arrive unexpectedly in the dead of night, or you do not. I accept that.

But like all cosmologies that place the holder smack at the center of the universe, the where-you-sleep standard is not a logical argument but an irrefutable definition, and a shifting one at that. When you look hard at the must-be-born-here argument, it tends to be endlessly reductive. Those endorsing it don’t generously grant acceptance to all who meet their initial criterion. Instead there are always caveats, exceptions. There is always a smaller inner circle. When pressed they reveal that just living anywhere within the borders of Chicago proper is not nearly enough. North or South Side isn’t enough. The right parish is getting close, but even that isn’t always sufficient — heck, living on the right street doesn’t always count in the subtle calibration, the endless parsing of who belongs.

“I was here first!” cries Dick, an angry boy squaring off against another angry boy in a James T. Farrell story.

“I live on this street,” answers the second boy.

“I lived in this neighborhood longer than you,” Dick answers.

There is no Chicagoan so firmly established that another Chicagoan can’t question his credentials. It’s easy to do: Richard M. Daley? The former mayor? C’mon, how can the mayor, how can anyone cocooned in that bubble, with a driver and a platoon of flacks and handlers and guards and assistants and money up the wazoo, ever pretend to be a real Chicagoan? To presume that Daley experiences the city the way actual Chicagoans do? Puh-leeze! Particularly when he’s swanning around the world half the time — to Paris for the love of Christ! — and after he bugged out of Bridgeport to move to a townhouse and every other weekend he’s rushing off to Michigan to ride his mountain bike around Grand Beach. Is that being a Chicagoan? Really? Really?

Still, even I recognize that four years of study in Evanston, of dwelling in dorms and rented student rooms on the periphery of the city, the inner suburban ring, did not make me a Chicagoan. At best, it introduced me to the broad outlines of the city.

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