Reading: Our City, Ourselves | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Reading: Our City, Ourselves

These guidebooks aim to portray the "real" Chicago, to take the reader "under its skin, where it lives, breathes, and smells." Do they?

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Perfect frankness in a city guide is as rare as perfect honesty in a politician. Proof of that proposition is offered in three new guidebooks from Chicago Review Press. The most interesting of these are Sweet Home Chicago: The Real City Guide, by Sherry Kent and Mary Szpur, and Norman Mark's Chicago: Walking, Bicycling & Driving Tours of the City. Each is the third edition of a deservedly popular guide, updated to reflect the updatings that Chicago itself has undergone in the last few years. And each is a fine book whose failings are as troubling as its virtues are admirable.

Sweet Home is a compilation of 35 urban how-to articles by 31 contributors. It is a primer for the beginning student of the city, be he tourist or recent transplant, from all-night copying shops to health care cooperatives. The book's first edition appeared in 1974, a sort of countercultural Baedeker in the days when Chicago guides were still aimed at the upscale transient. (Typical was a 1967 Rand McNally guide with one entire page devoted to "fine, absolutely reliable furriers.") Sweet Home changed authors in subsequent editions, but its cultural priorities remain almost steadfast. Its contributors devote much attention to music radio but do not mention TV. They try to explain the public transportation system but do not deign to talk about taxicabs. We get the third in Sweet Home's series of alternative sight-seeing attractions (for those who regard the Sears Tower as the world's tallest bore). The new edition adds Lower Wacker Drive to this list, which rather stretches the definition of "scenic." The alternative press still gets attention (although the book unaccountably fails to list the Sun-Times as Chicago's alternative daily).

Times change, however. Tem Horwitz, who authored the first Sweet Home, is today a busy loft rehabber. Baby-laden baby boomers are instructed where they can buy antisexist children's books. The Chinese peasant leader whose views on politics were quoted approvingly in the first edition has not survived the editors' purge; duck sauce, not revolution, is what excites us these days.

Accordingly, Kent and Szpur tried to bring this new version of their guide "closer to the mainstream," which may upset older readers. The phrase "so-called police riot," used here to describe the 1968 romp through demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention, smacks less of revisionism than of amnesia. And it is not mere nostalgia that makes Nancy Banks's description of Hyde Park from the second edition ("chauvinistic, isolated, and self-consciously intellectual") more pointed than the new one offered by Philip Charles, Jack Helbig, and their editors ("cosmopolitan, tolerant of eccentricity, very liberal").

Norman Mark, on the other hand, has always paddled as happily in the mainstream as a duck in a pond. Mark remains the unregenerate Chicago guy--wisecracking, romantic, a bit of a rube with an appetite for the dubious in all its forms. Mark's Chicago really is a guidebook, with step-by-step directions for 26 tours designed mainly with the ambitious pedestrian in mind. Not everyone will be as enamored as he is of gawking at posh hotels, where the rich might cavort at rates up to $4,000 a night; and a few may conclude, on the basis of the anecdotes supplied here, that Chicago was indeed a toddlin' town--until about 20 years ago. (Sadly, no one recently has hired World War II bombardiers, as the National Pickle Packers did at their 1946 convention, to drop pickles into barrels from atop the Hotel Continental.) But Mark's fund of anecdotes (some of which may be true) is inexhaustible, which makes his work that rare thing, a guidebook that is as much fun to read as it is to use.

Mark's purpose, in short, is to show readers how to enjoy Chicago, while Sweet Home's is to teach them how to live here. Sweet Home's chapters on gay men and lesbians, for example, discuss sex in terms of something one is, not something one does, while Mark passes on the advice of a singles-scene veteran: "Go ugly early." Still, since enjoying Chicago requires a little education, and since living in it requires some occasional fun, the two approaches often overlap. We're not surprised that Mark devotes several of his recommended tours to drinking, but Sweet Home also mixes instruction with intoxication whenever feasible. (The authors direct thirsty explorers of Hyde Park, for example, to Jimmy's, "the only bar in the Midwest with a complete 11th edition Encyclopaedia Britannica behind the bar.") Nor is Mark devoid of social consciousness. Sweet Home dutifully alerts readers to the Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, but it is Mark who tells us that the museum was founded in part because Chicago's Jews were excluded from "the upper reaches of the city's cultural establishment (such as the Art Institute)"--a fact that says more about the city's culture than does the acreage of Impressionist paintings that decorate it. Indeed, this item of Mark's is a helpful reminder that the counterculture in Chicago includes religious and ethnic minorities as well as politically disaffected whites of the suburban Left.

In a mobile nation that is both urbanized and deeply ambivalent about urban living, city guides fill an expanding need. Counting these two, there are at least two dozen about Chicago in print at the moment. Most sensibly address themselves to the resident as well as the visitor, since many a Chicagoan outside his own neighborhood is as raw a tourist as any Shriner just off the bus from Sheboygan.

Whatever their focus and whatever their audience, city guides tend to speak in the accents of the booster. Marketing compels that tone to some extent; what is rendered unattractive will be unvisited, and guidebooks to the unvisited are in about as much demand as ethics texts at the Justice Department. So the writing in this genre often teeters between gush and guffaw. Mark, for instance, praises Chicago most effusively for what it is not, concluding rousingly that it is withal a better place than Cincinnati.

Indeed, Chicagoans in general have become masters of the inverted boast, as befits citizens of a city that has invariably been good at being bad. (I will always admire the local choreographer who explained to a reporter that one of the spurs to innovation in Chicago dance is its backwardness: dancers here are so ill-trained, she said, that they don't know what they're not supposed to do.) Both of these books, consequently, devote much attention to crimes of a very picturesque sort--brothel keeping, gang shooting, politics--which have given the city its reputation as a Six Flags for the antisocial.

This may be back-lot Chicago, Capone-on-a-stick, but it is not necessarily dishonest. Our love for a city is as wayward as for a person; what seems brutal to the outlander often seems "honest" to the forgiving native. Affection may be genuine, however, and still be untrustworthy. Both of these books aim to portray the "real" Chicago, to take the reader (in Mark's words) "under its skin, where it lives, breathes, and smells." But do they? Where much of real Chicago lives, for instance, fear of crime, especially physical violence, is pervasive. Sweet Home, however, scarcely mentions crime beyond an occasional reference to a "rough" neighborhood or to the fact that some people feel safer taking buses instead of the el late at night. Mark is more forthcoming, perhaps on the advice of his lawyers, since his book encourages readers to set out afoot where they will be particularly vulnerable to mayhem. "Chicago is far less dangerous than its reputation says it is," he notes. True enough: the tourist is more in danger of being robbed by his near-north-side hotel than by a street thief. Even so, if you read Mark with the eyes of a suburban innocent or a wide-eyed rustic, he makes the city seem a very dangerous place indeed. He advises tourists to be "sensible," which in many a small town and suburb means removing the lawn mowers and any ten-speeds from the front yard at night. In Mark's Chicago, bodily harm, not petty theft, dictates what being sensible means: women should never walk alone at night, drinkers should avoid side streets, travelers should not park in certain lots or take certain buses.

If there is one subject that intrudes more insistently than crime on the mind of the native Chicagoan, it is race. It couldn't intrude less in these guides. The real Chicago is two-fifths black; the Chicago revealed by these guidebooks is white only. In their otherwise excellent chapter on neighborhoods, Kent and Szpur write that they tried to cover the south and west sides as well as the north, "since the trendier parts of the city seem to get the lion's share of media coverage." An admirable goal: the black south side in particular is where much of the city's postwar history happened and where much of its present life is lived. But of the south-side districts Sweet Home describes, one is Chinese, two are Hispanic, and one is Lithuanian. Middle-class Beverly is also on the list; while integrated, it is about as representative of black Chicago as the Gold Coast is of white Chicago. Mark's south side reaches no farther than Bridgeport and the old Stockyards. Chicago, City of Neighborhoods, by Dominic Pacyga and Ellen Skerrett, does much better by the black neighborhoods, and thus better by readers. To its credit, Sweet Home recommends the book; it would have done better to emulate it.

In some ways the insider is the least dependable guide to a city because of all the things he has learned not to notice--the city's ghettoization by class as well as race, the extremes of wealth, the ugliness of the neighborhoods. The wide-eyed often see such things more clearly, if only because they have not yet learned where not to look. I chatted with one such naif not long ago, a white man in town only a few months. He told me how, on one of his early visits, he consulted a map and opted to take Washington Boulevard as the most direct automobile route from the Loop to Oak Park. "Someone threw a bottle at my car," he recalled, with more wonder in his voice than anger, of his first exposure to the real Chicago. As most residents know to their sadness, Sweet Home's description of Chicago as an "open city," like Mark's advice that one can visit any part of it, is more hopeful than helpful.

A franker guidebook would warn against such expeditions, including advice about those parts of town in which blacks are not always safe either. A better guidebook, on the other hand, might encourage them, for the sake of the wisdom they might bring.

Publishers, of course, are less interested in wisdom than sales. Is it assumed that only black people would feel comfortable on the south side? If so, then publishers must further assume that black people do not buy guidebooks. Either suggestion is pernicious. Do they assume that white people, even those who crave "ethnic" experiences, do not want to go there? Probably; that reluctance is real enough. But to the extent that such reluctance is owed to racism it ought not to be catered to. Besides, it is just as likely that it is owed to ignorance of the sort that guidebooks at their best seek to dispel.

Both books have lesser faults. Maps, for example. Sweet Home has only one, showing the street grid. Mark's tour maps are not keyed to a larger citywide map, so tourists will find it difficult to know in which part of the city the tours are set. Even if you buy the book for your boring cousin Freda, you'll probably still have to escort her when she blows into town from Milwaukee.

Buy both books anyway. If you're a Chicagoan, you will find something in each that you didn't know about; nonnatives will find something in each they'll wish they'd read before making their last trip. Both books will do until someone publishes a guide to the real real Chicago, complete with "Another Other Top Ten Sights." Think of it--Cook County emergency room on Saturday night. The Dan Ryan at rush hour. Lake Calumet landfills. The Robert Taylor Homes. . . .

In his otherwise comprehensive Chicago's Museums, Victor Danilov unaccountably fails to list the Hard Rock Cafe among his 144 cultural attractions, this in spite of the fact (reported by Mark) that Mick Jagger's guitar is displayed there.

Admittedly, Jagger's guitar is not the Pieta. More in a class with Ernie Banks's bowling ball, in fact. But it shines with significance compared to what Danilov does list: the spark plug collections, Mother Teresa souvenirs, 1920s iron lungs, and similar jetsam that has washed up at the zoos and aquariums, nature centers and arboretums, historical houses, children's museums, religious and ethnic museums, and fine arts museums and galleries in the city and suburbs.

Collector plates? Phony western shoot-outs? All cataloged here, along with a tantalizing collection at Glen Ellyn's Willowbrook Wildlife Haven--"more than 100 permanently disabled birds and mammals." Open 9 to 5 every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. See you there.

Norman Mark's Chicago: Walking, Bicycling & Driving Tours of the City (third edition) by Norman Mark, Chicago Review Press, $8.95

Sweet Home Chicago: The Real City Guide (third edition) by Sherry Kent and Mary Szpur with Tem Horwitz, Chicago Review Press, $8.95

Chicago's Museums: A Complete Guide to the City's Cultural Attractions by Victor J. Danilov, Chicago Review Press, $9.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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