Siren song

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
Trip End Jul 02, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Illinois
Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sirens can be heard at all hours. I notice it on maybe my second day; the frantic catterwauling of police ambulance fire brigade. its possible the prolific dunkin donut shopfronts really are keeping the medics busier, but its not like people are falling in the streets. and for number of excited ambulances, i'm surprised i haven't seen the local populace dropping like flies. no, i think what i'm seeing is just the urgency of big city life. particularly big American city life.

This city is Chicago. The sirens are not unique to Chicago, but somehow its here that i really notice them. And i think this is because Chicago is the quintessential American city.

Some snapshots to explain why...

Chicago is a very pretty city. Its downtown buildings soar upwards and bear names like Sears and Trump. The ugliness of the brand though is counterbalanced by the elegance of the structures. Neo-this or neo-that styles stand shoulder to shoulder. there is plenty of sculpture and ornamentation - a lion here, a flying buttress there. each building brings its own style but they don't clash. they balance one another.

The old water tower is the only downtown remnant of Chicago before the great fire. and it looks instantly like the imperial architecture of Portugal. strange connection but very obvious. This is the neo- phenomenon. American history doesn't stretch back far enough to include the gothic or the romanesque, but its architecture certainly draws from such periods, even as it adds a few layers of gloss. there are lots of loadless pillars in this city and country.

the sculptures are remarkable. a giant Picasso thing glares across one plaza at a serene piece by Joan Miro. Stained glass windows abound - they have a museum just for them here. also more contemporary sculpture; abstracted metal shapes, a giant reflective blob that shows the entire city skyline. art is important here, but you won't find nudes surrounded by fountains. nor will you find gold or marble or even much bronze. american public sculpture involves metal, readymade objects, television screens. the materials of America and the world today.

in amidst the art and architecture clangs the Chicagoan train system, the el. Among all the gleaming, carved edifices, the el is supported on battered yellow girders, with their rivets showing indecently. there is nothing aesthetically pleasing here, and the trains are slow and unreliable and ugly. public transport in the country of cars is a proletarian matter. this subway system is in the same category as the greyhound. you take it when your car has been towed. you avoid the talkative nutters on it. you try not to touch anything for too long.

on the weekends the cars are temporarily left behind and the entire city seems to go running, cycling, roller blading or power-walking along the shores of lake Michigan. in between runs you can play beach volleyball. There is plenty of obesity in America - Chicago's two culinary trademarks are the deep-dish pizza (more dough more cheese more sauce more frying) and the hot dog (with onions and relish and a hundred other multi-coloured garnishes, most of them i'm sure preserved in vinegar) - but here, on a saturday morning at the lake, there are tanktops, ipods, and grimly set jaws. people are getting fit and attractive. they are being seen to get fit and attractive. there is one freak in jeans with a pack who is photographing things and not getting fit at all.

inland from the lakefront is green and leafy lincoln park. the squirrels here still cause me to point and pause, but every park in America has its resident rodents. the lincoln park neighbourhood is a glamour area. this is where you come when you've finished college but still like to wear your hat backwards or have you tan sprayed on. you can buy tiny designer dogs that fit in your bag. you can buy bags to match your dog and bags for your dog. and the store smells like caramel corn. which is disconcerting. down the road the bars are crammed with television screens. american creativity manifesting in 'yeah we could fit another screen up there'.

on the opposite side of town is pilsen, where the native language is spanish and cowboy hats with moustaches don't attract any snide remarks. old men push flavoured ice carts along the quiet sunday street, and couples sit in their doorways and shout across to their neighbors. there are communion dresses in the windows.

Chicago has its icons, but they are very homegrown. navy pier is a theme park with rides sponsored by mcdonalds et al. the morton salt girl is nothing more than a billboard advertising the first iodised salt manufacturers. wrigley field is a musty old ballpark. none of these histories diminish the appeal of the icons one bit. there is something relaxed and refreshing about icons that are just brands, yet that were not manufactured but simply withstood time. this can produce grimmer icons as well; the site of the valentine's day massacre, the sole surviving structures of the great fire, the union stockyard gates, entrance to the world's only high-profile slaughterhouse, which almost choked the river in offal. chicago's history, like all history, is a mixture of the gritty and the transcendent.

perhaps Chicago's most famous feature is also somewhat temperamental. i arrived at chicago on a warm and sunny weekend. during the week the wind dragged rain and fog across the city. by the following weekend the sun was out and so were the runners again. Chicago is versatile enough to provide a list of amusements that only seems to grow as you devote more hours of discovery to the city. it is a difficult city to conquer, to encapsulate and write about, i think because it is a little like every city. and if it is comfortingly familiar, it is also magnificently unique, because it so typifies so much of what city life and american life and american city life is all about.

from the fourteenth floor of the studio apartment in Lincoln Park, i could pat the cat and see at once the lake, the enormous black edifice of the Sears Tower, the greenery of lincoln park. i could cook dinner and be cooked breakfast. i could watch the fog roll in and the fog roll out, the demolition crews taking apart another highrise, the cranes assembling yet another. and i could hear the sirens hurtling through the streets, outpacing the hurtling cars, clunking trains, serious joggers, gambolling dogs and leaping squirrels, and drowning the sports commentary, the wailing cat next door, the jazz, the rock and roll, the hundred languages, the clinking bottles, the home runs, the recorded messages, the clinking coins, the brewing coffee.

the sounds of the city, and the city is Chicago.  
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