A few weeks or months ago (I can’t remember which), I decided to make a map of Chicago neighborhoods. I live in Los Angeles and I’ve made a map of Los Angeles Neighborhoods. After I visited it, I made a map of New York City neighborhoods. I’ve also made maps of the neighborhoods of Detroit, San Diego, Long Beach, Pasadena, Glendale, and Glasgow… as well as the wards of New Orleans; the boroughs of Greater London; and the districts of Greater Taipei, Seoul, and Busan. Chicago, being as it is the US‘s third most populous city and the first big city that I ever visited seemed like a natural candidate for a similar neighborhood map. And then, a few days ago, I discovered that Chicago was incorporated as a city on 4 March 1837. So, I got cracking.
In the 17th century, what’s now Chicago was inhabited by several Native peoples, including the Kiikaapoa, Mascouten, Miami, Wea, and Illinois Confederation. The name, Chicago, is derived from the Myaamia word for a type of wild onion, Allium tricoccum, “shikaakwa” which grew there in abundance. The earliest known written reference to Chicago is in the memoir of French explorer, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who referred to it in his memoir, written around 1679, as “Checagou.” By then, the area had been conquered by the Iroquois. Over the ensuing decades, it passed back and forth between the Algonquin and Iroqouis.
The first non-Native settler in Chicago was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a freed slave a married a Potawatomi woman named Kitihawa, and who established a farm on the Chicago River in 1790. The US established Fort Dearborn there in 1803. After it was destroyed by Natives, the fort was rebuilt in 1818. In 1829, James Thompson surveyed the town of Chicago which was incorporated as a town (population 350) on 12 August 1833. It was granted a city charter by the State of Illinois on 4 March 1837. The Illinois and Michigan Canal and Galena & Chicago Union Railroad both opened in 1848, spurring Chicago’s rapid transformation into a major transportation hub. In the 1880s, Chicago overtook Philadelphia and Brooklyn (then still separate from New York City) to become the nation’s second-largest city. It remained the second-largest city for a century until it was surpassed by Los Angeles in 1982.
Since then, Chicago has been the US’s third-most populous city and I feel as though I have to here say that some of my favorite cities are “third cities.” I love, in particular, Osaka and Vancouver; and while I haven’t visited any of them, other celebrated hird cities include Giza, Munich, Naples, Johannesburg, Valencia, Brisbane, and Lyon.
It thus strikes me as strange, given its size and relative proximity to me for much of my upbringing, how infrequently Chicago crossed my mind as a kid growing up one state over from Illinois in, first, Kentucky, and then, Missouri. Of course I knew that the 108-story Sears Tower, completed the same year I was born, was the world’s tallest building (until 1994, when it was overtaken by Petronas Towers in Kuala Lampur). I also loved Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), which was, among other things, a cinematic paean to Chicago. I remember, too, that Balki and Cousin Larry worked at the fictional Chicago Chronicle but, to be honest, that was about it. We had no family there (although one of my great grandfathers was killed in Downer’s Grove, a Chicago suburb, in 1919) and we never visited it.
Chicago was, in my mind, overshadowed by New York City and Los Angeles but also, however improbably, by the nearest “big” cities to me, a kid living outside of Columbia — Kansas City and St. Louis. It does seem somewhat strange to me now, considering the fact that all three of those cities could fit inside of Chicago and still leave room for all of Phoenix. And yet all three, although smaller, seem more “urban” than Phoenix and St. Louis was bigger than Chicago until, um, the 1860s.
I knew a few things about Chicago. Even though I never watched sports much, I knew that Bo Jackson went from a Missouri team — the Kansas City Royals — to a Chicago one — the White Sox. Chicago was also where our hometown heroes, East Ash, relocated to get “discovered” but instead vanished into obscurity. Anyway, I think that the first time I was in Chicago was in 1989 when I had a layover at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on my way to Paris (which, it should be pointed out, is also smaller than Chicago). Of course, being in an airport hardly counts as being anywhere but when I got to France, everyone was listening almost solely to Chicago House. House music was truly the first thing that really put Chicago on my mental map and a friend (from Chicago, no less) once told me that I had once said that the Midwest’s only cultural contributions of note were F. Scott Fitzgerald and House.
When I ended up in Iowa, again one state over from Illinois, Chicago seemed to loom large not just in my mind but across campus. Iowa, unlike Missouri, has no professional sports teams. It is home, though, to the Iowa Cubs (also known as the “I Cubs” or “cubbies”) one of the Chicago Cubs‘ five minor league affiliates. When I was there, it seemed like the majority of students at the University of Iowa were from the Chicago area. The first night in a university dorm, someone somewhere kept playing “Valerie Loves Me” over and over, a song by Chicago power poppers Material Issue.
I don’t have figures, but I suspect that the students from Chicago at U of I are outnumbered by those from Chicagoland — the suburban sprawl surrounding Chicago — a sea of uniplexes, fast-casual chain restaurants, and vast parking lots. Chicagolanders seemed to favor the University of Iowa because of Iowa City’s distance from Chicagoland. Namely, it’s far enough away that the Chicagolander’s parents are unlikely to pop over unannounced only to discover their child passed out on a sand volleyball court underneath a pile of red Solo cups… but still close enough that the Chicagolander can drive home to demand that their mother wash their cargo shorts, hemmed jorts, Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts, and Abercrombie & Fitch shirts (at least that’s what they were wearing in the 1990s, along with backward baseball caps, wraparound sunglasses, puka shell necklaces, Caesar cuts, and Tevas).
Chicago was also close enough for people like my friends and I drove there pretty regularly, to see bands perform and films screen that skipped Iowa… bands like Blur and Pulp and films like Velvet Goldmine. But i usually went with a purpose and thus had little time to properly explore. While there one Fourth of July to see the Gossip, I did explore a little. I walked south for what seemed like a really long time. I asked a girl what neighborhood I was in. “The wrong one,” she replied. A car then approached slowly, a window rolled down, and the barrel of a gun emerged. An unseen passenger pulled the trigger and blasted me with his Super Soaker. I took a bus, and then a cab, back to the area in which I was staying. On another Fourth of July, my brother overshot the Shaumburg location of Medieval Times and we ended up in a truly chaotic scene on the banks of Lake Michigan.
Maybe Chicago was too big to wrap my head around then but, when I lived in Iowa City, I was always more drawn to smaller cities: namely St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. But then again, I live in Los Angeles — a city that almost defies comprehension. Maybe that’s why Chicago is more alluring to me now than when I practically lived in its long shadow.
I hope to visit Chicago again someday soon with no real purpose in mind and to really just let my eyes, ears, and nose guide me rather than a guidebook or list of tourist attractions. That said, I might add recommendations to the map if they’re the sort that appeal to enthusiasts of adaptive reuse, alleys, architecture, art houses, book stores, breweries, college campuses, cycling, dance, ethnic enclaves, folk art, gardens, green roofs, landscape architecture, libraries, liminal spaces, museums, night markets, observatories, parks, plop art, public squares, pubs, rivers, ruins, small music venues, stand-up comedy, theater, trains, vegetarian-friendly restaurants, and walk streets.