City Walks

You sound buoyant today

I lean back, shoulder blades sinking into the seat, hand drifting lazily against the garish orange frame. I am buoyant – I can hear it.

It must be the euphoria from the trip

There’s no must – it is – and though I know it’ll pass, I fill myself with it for as long as I can.

A silence laps against us, and as we settle into it I reconstruct a world I’d lived only days earlier, recall a moment when I’d turned around, and within the eddies of human motion found stillness and order along a river bank…
Bower by the River

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Yes,” and a few frenzied minutes to pack my duffel – that’s how the trip to Chicago started. I’d last experienced it through plate glass – from a tour bus, then, an observation deck – but this time was different. I put miles on my shoes, crisscrossing the Magnificent Mile, the Loop, River North and part of Pilsen; I roved Millennium Park, and even encroached upon the bizarre, manufactured world of Navy Pier; I did all this, and wanted more.

Does Chicago evince an impression? It didn’t for me – our previous encounter was too brief, too disconnected. I returned expecting something reminiscent of Toronto; perhaps a city more assured of its place than Ontario’s perennially self-conscious capital, but not much more. Instead, I found a vibrant place that comfortably defined a space between the “It could only happen here” attitude of New York and the North American anonymity of Toronto. No overbearing attitude here, rather, a palpable sense of purpose, a quiet knowledge of being a place where things happen. It must be the city’s can-do, have-done history internalized, then projected for us visitors to devour.

It’s not simply in the air though. You can see it when you walk, written in the stone, concrete and glass of every downtown building. From the mountainous stolidity of Prudential Life, to the Gulliver-sized public art that demands our attention, to the brooding Gotham-bulk of the Carbon and Carbide building against a lint-grey sky, this is a city carved in the architecture of arrival. The buildings announce: “We do not simply exist – we want to be, and we mark our space, here, in this world.” And the city? It’ll take on anyone, do anything; raze airports, score canals, resurrect the waterfront, put its skyscrapers on display – reinvent, reinvent, reinvent. You arrive to find a place where the future holds only promise, where uncertainty engenders no fear.
The EL

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But the past is here – and you don’t have to go far to find it. As you enter the Loop it is a constant presence, realized just overhead in the orange, rusting bulk of the EL train lines. Bare-bones stations, each steel girder exposed to the elements, heavy metal storm fencing to better contain the quivering masses, the electric blue sparks cascading outside the scratched Plexiglas at every bank on the track – these speak to an older, harsher start. The carriages running the Loop are smaller, tighter, their seats closer; its riders are tense, watchful – on a dark Sunday night their eyes dart panicky from one to another; the stations disconcert – some mirror buildings in height, while others reek of abandonment, their burnt-out lights spelling disuse. I felt nervous. I’ve traveled in many transit systems and it’s only here I’ve felt nervous.

This speaks to another Chicago – one not of power, authority or achievement, but a Chicago that appears as you walk south, and west of the Magnificent Mile. It is the Chicago of the low brick buildings on 18th, each blank-eyed to your fate; of the woman shuffling into the coffee shop, turning over rubber mats in her hope for pieces of copper; of the shiftless man who mouths “You motherfucker… you motherfucker” to the bill-counting proprietor as we fork up our pollo en mole, roll fajitas, and down our cervezas in watchful ambivalence; this is the Chicago that forces you to be alive – reminds you that you are alive, – that stirs the immediacy of being.
Chicago Waves

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I believe that compelling cities always hold something back. That beneath their painted faces lies the promise of something older, freer; this … taste of an undercurrent that you must pursue – though one you may be unable to tame. Toronto doesn’t offer this. It lies open; invites you in; it is too nice, so stirs no deep feeling. But not Chicago…

I speak of this, each word a gentle ripple in that quiet room.

You miss it, don’t you?

Fingers beat a low tattoo against the wood, drummers to an unactualized rhythm. I do, I do.

You should read this. Read this poem: Chicago, by Carl Sandburg. I think you’d like it – I think you’d smile.

I read it a few days later, and my heart beat a little faster; walked to the window, stared out to midday gloom – and smiled.

Flickr photo page: Bower by the River
Flickr photo page: The EL
Flickr photo page: Chicago Waves

Comments

  1. The_Voice - November 26, 2007 @ 22:24

    My beef with Chicago? It smells funny :P

    In the summer though, there’s this park where they have free symphony concerts for the public… that, and the EL tracks are probably my favourite parts of the city… at least the downtown core. Where my relatives live in the ‘burbs is pretty swank too.

  2. Allen George - November 28, 2007 @ 07:23

    I didn’t notice any peculiar smells in the three times I’ve been there, including recently. You’re also the only person who’s mentioned this – none of my companions on the trips raised this issue either.

    The “this park” is probably Millennium Park, and the concerts are held in the Frank Gehry designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion; it’s quite the structure – beautifully conceived and located.

    The Loop’s great to walk, though the finance-heavy part had its share of imposing street faces (CBOT especially); it felt hollowed out on the Sunday I was there, just like KingSt. (around Univ/Bay) on weekends.

  3. The_Voice - November 30, 2007 @ 09:32

    No one agrees with me about the smell :) But it could be I haven’t been in about 10-15 years… and my own father who used to go when he was a lad says it’s less and less polluted in the city each time he goes… so maybe it doesn’t smell anymore :)

  4. Paul T - November 30, 2007 @ 21:49

    Hi Allen
    Yes, I still swing by your site every now and then!

    Even in our brief taste of the city I caught something of the confident vibe you’re speaking of. It really was a tease, wasn’t it? One observation deck and one trolley tour, that’s it… I would never try to experience a city that way if I could help it. But we did what we could with a tight schedule and it left a good impression.

    The sunset over the midwest was beautiful that night.

    My website’s down right now so I can’t dig up that old Chicago entry. I’m pretty sure I have an archived copy somewhere, I’m going to dig it up and read it when I get home. Want a copy? I think there was a Carl Sandberg poem in there somewhere.

    Cheers.

  5. Allen George - December 2, 2007 @ 12:07

    Paul T:
    Thanks for stopping by – it’s nice to hear from you. It’s funny how everyone’s scattered and put together new lives; I guess I’ll complete this when I leave Waterloo.

    Ah, so you noticed the confident vibe too! That’s good to hear, and yes, it was quite the tease the first time we visited. If you return, walk – I think you’d enjoy it; it’s the best way to get a sense of place.

    My impression of the midwest is one of vastness, and it’s hard to describe it without using words like grand, expansive or overwhelming. It is also, curiously, the place I feel the strongest, quietest connection to the land; as if the place and I are part of the same…experience.

    It’d be great to have a copy of the Chicago entry – please send it along to me; I’m very interested in reading your impressions. Post a link if you can.

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