Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
—from “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg

Chicago was a big, young, driving, thriving city in 1914 when Sandburg wrote that. It had already been the home of the first skyscraper and was destined to be home of many more; it had seen its famous fire in 1871, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (which gave us the term midway); it was already a mid-continent commercial nexus and had for a time been the fastest-growing city in the world; it already had its famous elevated train loop around the central district. It had not yet seen the roaring ’20s and their gangsters; it was not quite yet the place about which the musical Chicago (set in the 1920s) was written. It did not yet have its famed deep-dish pizza, which first hit plates in the 1940s. It was not yet the town of the 1964 song “My Kind of Town,” made famous by Frank Sinatra. But it was all there, sprouting and growing, like a bulb (or perhaps a whole field) of wild garlic in the heart of America.

I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days in Chicago for the conference of ACES: The Society for Editing. We were at the Palmer House, now a Hilton hotel; it’s in the middle of everything, pretty much. It has a glorious lobby, a dimly lit cross between Grand Central Terminal (or should I say Union Station, since it’s in Chicago) and the Sistine Chapel, dominated by a busy cocktail bar. Up a grand staircase is the Empire Room, which through the heart of the 20th century hosted every entertainer who might perform in such a room (their photos line the hallways by the guest rooms) and this past week hosted a spelling bee for editors as part of the ACES conference (I was one of the judges, having won the event at last year’s conference). We also had events in the Chicago Athletic Club, which is no longer an athletic club – it has a hotel, bar, and event spaces in its classic old building.

Chicago is home to many classic old buildings. It has shiny newer buildings, to be sure, including the second and third tallest in the US, but it has not gotten rid of its gems from its booming years, all the American art deco and prairie style designs, all the steel and stone. This is a city that never stops reminding you that it was the epitome of architectural chic several decades ago.

Which is not where its name comes from. Chicago is a French-style rendition of a word from the language of the Miami-Illinois, an Algonquian people: shikaakwa, the name for a plant that grew abundantly in the area. The Latin for the plant is Allium tricoccum; it is more commonly called ramp, wild leek, or wild garlic. It’s smaller than a leek but larger than garlic.

To me, Chicago feels like a cross between Toronto and New York – it’s smaller than New York, more comfy and manageable in its central area, and with a nice lakefront, and often reminds people of Toronto in ways, but it has the urban grit and American empire feel of New York. I took some pictures at the conference. You can see the whole album on Flickr, but here are a few.

5 responses to “Chicago

  1. My first instinct to the video was, “That was nuts,” yes I said that out loud. But I had a Brazilian roommate in college, so . . . Portuguese is my mystery.

  2. Don Nekrosius

    I hate to say it, but the totally white photography missed all the color there is in Chicago. We’re a richly diverse city that extends far beyond the cosseted halls of the Palmer House. Get out and meet the people if you want to say you’ve been to Chicago. As a photographer, you’ve a white eye for the wrong guys.

    • I admit, I was there for a conference and so only had time to wander nearby on my lunch breaks. We do want to go back; we didn’t have time to get beyond downtown this time.

      Also, my wife is very very strongly opposed to photographing people on the street and she gets really quite upset if I take a picture of anyone—anyone—I don’t know, and especially if I post it on Flickr. Even if I have a conversation with someone, she still gets very upset if I so much as ask to take their photo. I have had those arguments with her before and I am not going to again. As interesting as all the people in Chicago are, and as diverse as they are, and as much as I might talk to them (which is not as much as an extravert would), the only people I could feature in my photos were people at the conference.

  3. As a small kid, during the second World War, my mother, infant brother, and I, spent two days in the train station there. I suppose that has colored my view of Chicago as an adult. It’s too much like a toilet.

  4. Don Nekrosius

    Dear Professor,

    Wives can be dictators, mine having been in office for 48 years to my great benefit. I do think you should get over your fear of photographing people on the street. Children must be protected; big people can take care of themselves. You did take marvelous shots of the city where I grew up and still roam. My comment arose out of looking at the conference participants’ photos and noticing a lack of visual diversity. Who knows who they are under their pallor? A city is a place where people live, the hardscape only the background to its denizens. Imagine Toronto empty. Not the same place. The next time you visit, please take your wife on a tour of the many fascinating neighborhoods, talk with pleasant looking strangers, try the local cuisine and pay no attention to the bloke who thinks the city is a toilet. It’s the garlic ramps give us that rep.

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