Being "Chicago Enough" | Bleader

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Being "Chicago Enough"

Posted By on 02.01.11 at 04:00 PM

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The New York Times's latest report on Chicago's mayoral contest left me reaching for the blender to make a Zoloft smoothie. Titled "Rough Side of Chicago Shakes Race for City Hall," the article makes the city out to be some sort of provincial place where one must prove their "Chicagoness" in order to become mayor. The hot question here: Is Rahm Emanuel of Wilmette "Chicago enough" to serve?

The paper quotes UIC political science prof Dick Simpson: "From a Chicagoan’s perspective, there’s a great doubt over this . . . It has been said that he doesn’t even know the sports teams." (Some of us would consider that to be a positive quality.)

And then there's candidate Gery Chico, who describes Emanuel's celebrity-studded, multimillion-dollar campaign as possessing an "arrogance" about it. "And I don’t think that’s Chicago," he told the paper, which continued:

Mr. Chico reminds locals that he hails from the Back of the Yards neighborhood, which sat in the shadow of the city’s stockyards, that he pitched baseballs in the city’s dirt alleys and that he grew up riding the Archer Avenue bus. "People feel a certain kinship when somebody has grown up like they have," he said.

Um, OK, so ... How does playing ball and riding a bus make someone qualified to lead a major American city? Also, should we really be looking backward into the past for solutions? Nostalgia doesn't really help anybody resolve problems, does it? If so, perhaps we should spritz meat smell around the town so we can better relive those Sinclairian good old days, or stage a reenactment of 1968 up and down Michigan Avenue. Bill Ayers can go back into hiding. It will be great.

Whenever people confuse history with nostalgia, it makes me sad. Remembering history is how you avoid repeating mistakes—it has more to do with facts than feelings, and therefore can be learned and understood by anyone who's willing to put forth the effort. Nostalgia, on the other hand, is tied up with emotions, and is an effective way to alienate people who weren't around to share certain experiences with you. It should go without saying that maintaining a "sense of place" in one's city should be a priority for every mayor. Otherwise, you end up with the suburbs—which is where Emanuel is from, let us not forget! But Emanuel hasn't lived in the suburbs for decades. He has lived in Chicago and, from what I know, embedded himself in the culture just like the rest of us who weren't born here but somehow ended up making the place our home. I've heard friends talk about seeing Emanuel on the CTA (this was years before he started touring all the public transit hubs looking to shake people's hands). A friend of mine sold a piece of art to him once. He used to attend the synagogue at the end of my old street. To me, the guy's Chicago enough. (Then again, I'm not from here.)

Just because someone grew up in a place doesn't mean they have a better understanding of how to go about leading it (duh). Leadership skills are transferable, and often strengthened when a person leaves a place for a while. Residing elsewhere for a time can help you to gain perspective and become exposed to new ideas that you can then take back with you to your hometown. I'm not saying this happened with Rahm Emanuel—this is an argument for keeping an open mind, not for voting Rahm.

Another reason why the whole "I'm from here, I'm for real" argument is pointless is that many of us who live in Chicago also did not play baseball in the BOTY alleys growing up. Should our votes count less, just because we played with our friends in Pittsburgh or Pakistan instead? Our presence within the city limits doesn't lessen the city's authenticity in any way—if you want someone to blame for any character the city's lost, then blame corporate chain stores that have moved into the city limits, often with approval from lifelong Chicagoans and Chicago politicians, and replaced homegrown businesses with their same-old-sameness. The candidate who best defends Chicago's character will be the one who comes up with solutions to preserve and grow our local business culture, honor our architecture and cultural institutions, and protect our environment—and who makes these goals important to everyone in the city. Chico might be the candidate most likely to do this. But not because he rode whatever damned bus.

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