Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Everything you wanted to know about Chicago, from Alan

Alan is a proud Chicagoan. Here is his take on the Windy City.

1. Tell us about your connection to Chicago.

I was born and raised there, on the South Side in a neighborhood called Mount Greenwood, named after one of the many nearby cemeteries. Al Capone is buried in one not far from where I grew up. My whole family still lives there, and our history with the city goes way back to the mid 19th century when it was still very new.

2. For those of us on the two coasts, Chicago is seen as the only sizable metropolis in between. It’s even called the Second City. How do Chicagoans see themselves, relative to cities like New York and Los Angeles?

It's strange. We're generally both very confident of our city, yet still frequently compare everything against the yard stick of NYC. I think this is more from a feeling that we're unfairly overlooked than from any feelings of inadequacy. New York is bigger, but Chicago has arguably better architecture, equally good food, equally varied and deep-rooted ethnic enclaves, world-class museums, theater, music, parks and on and on. The city doesn't get a fair shake for its nearly unparalleled history of influence on American society--it's a microcosm, both as a mirror of the country that surrounds it on all sides and as the birthplace of countless enduring cultural cornerstones that are uniquely American.

3. Chicago has a reputation of crooked politics. Any truth to it? Did you see any concrete examples?

​Yes, it's 200% true. The city operates on nepotism and dirty money. My mom is a retired CPS art teacher, and many of my relatives are or were city teachers as well. My grandfather was a prominent construction foreman during the 60s through to the early 90s, and was deeply involved in building many of the city's important landmarks​. I've witnessed the corruption first hand--as just about any Chicagoan has in one way or another--albeit on a lesser scale than my relatives, whose stories would make your blood boil.
​That said, we've enjoyed the perks of living on the same block as more than one fireman for many years, including yearly 4th of July block parties where literally thousands of pooled dollars in high-caliber fireworks are set off from breakfast time until well past midnight, in a town where even bottle rockets are allegedly very illegal.

I remember my mom being pulled over once when I was a kid, and as she nervously shuffled through her wallet for her driver's license, the cop noticed her CPS ID card and told her "don't worry about it, we're on the same team. Teach those kids good, and have a nice day." She was pulled over for nearly hitting a pedestrian while distracted with my younger brother screaming from the back seat of her 86 Tercel. It was gold with a 5-speed.

Friends whose parents or uncles were cops got away with bloody murder, or at least robbery, DUIs, and drug possession in cases that I know of. Hang one of those cute little checkered black and white cop hat sashes around your rear view mirror and you can get away with pretty much anything.

We're all complicit in one way or another.​

4. Former Obama advisor Rahm Emanuel is mayor. Is he doing a good job?

​I'm not a fan. He's eviscerated the schools, which were already on their knees from decades of rampant corruption and mismanagement. Yes, there's a one billion dollar budget gap, but closed schools have predominately been in poor, black neighborhoods. This has exacerbated already out of control gang violence problems, forcing kids to cross very dangerous and very clearly defined territorial neighborhood lines in order to get whatever substandard education they can.

My mom was forced to retire early and take a fraction of her promised pension or risk losing it entirely, which she would have if she had put in her final 18 months.

He's invested heavily in areas frequented by tourists while funneling tax income towards business deals that indirectly benefit hedge funds tied to 
his ​
campaign funding.

He's closed clinics for the poor and given tax breaks to companies headed by friends and relatives.

He fought in the streets with city skinheads as a young activist and obviously still fancies himself as a champion of the poor and underrepresented, though it's clear he's delusional. Daley was incredibly corrupt, too, but at least he kept the schools open.

5. It seems like dozens of people are shot every weekend in Chicago. What’s causing the violence? Has anything been done to slow it down? What needs to be done?

Like anywhere, institutional racism, segregation, neglect and hopelessness. Street gang violence has been an issue on the south and west sides since the 60s. Even in the late 80s and early 90s when I was in grade school, we were regularly visited by community activists, aldermen and police representatives who would tell us how to stay neutral and stay safe.
​It's worsened largely due to the 2008 recession making things even more difficult for the city's poorest, and none of the social support infrastructure that disappeared with the money has returned since it has started to flow again.

Short of a radical change in politics--and I mean from the ground up--nothing's ever going to change regardless of how bleak things get. Rahm has shuffled police personnel and touted new plans on a regular basis, but it's clear that no one's willing to tackle the problem at a root level.

6. Laquan McDonald, a young black man, was shot 16 times by a cop. What is the reputation of the Chicago PD? How will the public there react to the shooting, as more details emerge?

​Again, like anywhere there are bad and good apples. A lot of young cops come into the force with honest, admirable intentions, but the machine is corrupt to the core and doesn't tolerate those who don't play the game for long.

A lot of bullies and thugs are attracted to the job, too, and even us white kids caught a lot of shit from the street cops. I'm not at all comparing what we went through to what black and Latino kids went through, but we were treated to regular verbal abuse and the occasional roughing-up for nothing more than walking down an alley or smoking a cigarette. We weren't the best kids, but that was the neighborhood and we never hurt anyone or caused any big trouble.

​White cops have been shooting black people with impunity forever, and I remember many high-profile cases from growing up. A cell phone or wallet or whatever would be mistaken for a gun, the holder would be shot a dozen times, ​there'd be a march, protests and community meetings with police leadership, lots of empty promises and then the cycle would start again.

Growing up on the South Side in close quarters to rigidly defined borders between black and white neighborhoods, racism is deep, thick, nasty and goes back generations. Whites don't like the blacks, blacks don't like the whites and generally speaking, they don't mix outside of school or in grocery stores. We all got along well as kids in elementary school, but we never visited each other's homes to hang out. In high school there was a lot more tension, and all of a sudden kids I was friendly with for years didn't want to talk to me anymore. What I'm getting at is that the plague effects everyone, and white cops who grew up under these circumstances carry it with them on the job. Whether intentional or not, if you're predisposed to think an entire race is your enemy, it's going to give you an itchy trigger finger.

7. What movie set in Chicago best captures the city’s spirit?

​After all that depressing shit this is going to sound flippant, but for me it's still Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The city has grown in leaps and bounds since then, and apart from some of the bigger buildings, much of the skyline captured in that movie isn't even recognizable anymore. Still, the feeling of excitement at heading into the Loop or to the North Side and enjoying the incredible wealth of culture--architecture, museums, sports, the lake front, food, people, music, the energy on the street--it was captured in that movie really well. It was John Hughes' love letter to his city, and it shows.

​A lot of grimier movies capture the underlying and ever-present feeling of foreboding that in combo with that other stuff gives the place its magic, but not to the same extent.​ Aside from the obvious crime movies, I think the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart epitomizes the deeply romantic bleakness of day-to-day life that anyone who loves the city learns to embrace and accept as part of its allure.

8. Chicago deep dish pizza and hot dogs are world famous. What doesn’t the world know about Chicago’s food scene?

​It's a lot more than deep dish and dogs. Those are both amazing of course, but our thin crust is better than anyone else's, too. It's not like New York pizza because it actually has some sauce, the crust is made of cornmeal instead of cardboard and we cut it into squares. I've been away for a decade now, and with no bias I can honestly say it's the country's best regional style of pizza by miles. My California native wife and friends who I've introduced agree enthusiastically.

​Chicago is a food city. There's Greek mom and pop joints on every corner, and every neighborhood has its favorite. They serve hot dogs, Italian beefs, hamburgers, pizza puffs, fried mushrooms, zucchini, fries, shakes and all sorts of deadly treats. Who has the best Italian Beef sandwich is a constant argument--I like Al's, dipped in jus with sweet peppers, and sometimes if I want to kill myself with heartburn, hot giardiniera too.​
​ ​

​Fine dining goes really deep, too There are countless outstanding restaurants in the city, with new ones opening at a pace that's impossible to keep up with. 
One of my closest cousins is a Michelin starred guy making a big name for himself.
​ ​
"best in the world" 
every other year or so.
My wife Anna and I try to hit up at least one all-out tasting menu every time we visit, but 
​a ticket to ​
Alinea has been elusive so far.
In May we had the full tasting menu with wine pairings at Topolobampo​ and were seated in the Obama's favorite booth. I still can't believe that happened.

I can't even begin to explain Hot Dougs, but what other city has a hot dog stand named one of the world's best 50 restaurants by Bon Appetit? It really was spectacular.​

Yeah, the food is pretty fucking unreal.​

9. What is the car culture like out there?

​All the meatheads I grew up with wanted Monte Carlos, "Rivs" or Z34 Cavaliers. The smarter ones liked Fox body Mustangs. 

Downtown, on the North Side and in some of the fancier suburbs there's a lot of exotic stuff like Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, Astons, Bentleys, Lotuses and such.

Benzes and BMWs have always been popular everywhere, but you still see a lot of new Cadillacs
​ and Buicks​
 with vinyl tops, too.
Every time I go home I notice
​ ​
AWD versions of Infinitis, Beemers, Acuras, Lexi and other upmarket brands that I never knew existed.​
Since I've been away, fast Subarus have become pretty popular, for 
​similar, ​
obvious reasons.​

​Affordable foreign performance cars in general have really blown up since I left in 2002 or so, and some of the car-themed social media outlets I follow show a really big and impressive scene, even by SoCal standards. I approve, and look forward to being part of it when we relocate sometime in the next few years.

10. Why do you love Chicago?​

There's no place like it. Its unpretentious and thoroughly blue collar but sophisticated and metropolitan. People are friendly and courteous with Midwestern sensibilities, but by the same token don't take any bullshit. It is literally the cultural center of this country, and nowhere I've been feels more American--for better or worse. It's food, it's architecture, it's museums, it's big parks, decay, gray skies and harsh weather and corruption and racism. No other place I've been reflects both the good and bad of humanity on such a deep and pervasive level. It doesn't sugar coat anything--the lows are low and the highs are the highest. It's not easy living, but no other place is home for me.

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