News & Politics » Feature

With Everyone Offering Democratic Conventioneers Guides to the City, What We Really Need is the Inside Dope on WHAT STINKS!

Don't Say We Didn't Warn You.

by , , , , , and

comment

By Jeffrey Felshman, Ed Gold, Cate Plys, Neal Pollack

The 1996 Democratic National Convention

Why join 15,000 media representatives and legions of sign-waving yahoos at this over-hyped, over-covered snow job? Do something - anything - instead: take a quiet stroll along the lake, paint your nails, hoist a frosty mug. Anything but stand on the convention floor among the balloons, confetti, spin doctors and glad-handers. Here's what you'll be missing: A candidate who long ago sold all his principles to corporate America. A platform devoid of controversy and content. Gift bags, courtesy of the city's busy host committee, stuffed with Frisbees, Frangos, and Quaker Chewy Granola Bars. And worst of all: a well-managed police department that can laugh at itself.(Neal Pollack)

Protest areas

You can change the world! Re-arrange the world! But not at the city's designated protest areas with their lottery-selected protest times. If you want problems, look a mile away from the United Center in any direction. That's how close most dissenters will get, no matter how large their marches. Or go to Grant Park, where Andrew Hoffman, the son of the late, great Yippie leader, will be leading his "Festival of Life" to protest inequities in U.S. drug policy. Or to freeway exit ramps, where Pro-Life Action League leader and Chicago resident Joseph Schiedler has threatened to distribute his utterly loathsome propaganda. While all this stuff is going on, who will be at the protest pits? Traditionally radical cells such as the Illinois Nurses Association, the American Lung Association, the National Space Society, the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, and, of course, the Chicago Property Owners Coalition. You can just hear the songs forming now: "Won't you please come to Chicago and join Psychologists United for Quality and Teamsters Local 743 on Tuesday from 6:45 to 7:45 PM in the protest pit at the United Center's Lot E?" Catchy, eh? (NP)

Richard M. Daley, Mayor

No matter where you go in Chicago, the words blare out at you: "Richard M. Daley, Mayor." Arriving from the airport? Driving down toll roads? Attending a concert in Grant Park? "Richard M. Daley, Mayor." Spot a sewer truck at work on your street? Who do we have to thank? "Richard M. Daley, Mayor." Just like in the good old days - when with virtually no opposition a mayor could tear down entire neighborhoods to build freeways, universities and public-housing projects, the Daley name and image is everywhere in Chicago. Last year a New Yorker reporter compared the ubiquitousness of Michael Jordan's image inh Chicago to that of Kim Il Sung's in Pyongyang. But he was wrong. Jordan's image is everywhere like Jesus's. Richard M. Daley, Mayor is our Kim Il Sung. Or at least our Kim Jong Il. He is our Mayor. There is no other. (NP)

Wrigley Field

Baseball is played differently than it was at the end of World War II, the last time the Cubbies won a pennant. There's artifical turf, deeper fences, stronger hitters, and indoor stadiums. But what Cubs fan cares? They get to spend a day at Wrigley, man. Chances are good that they'll see at least one home run hit by an opposing player, complete with the throwing back of the ball, a "tradition" started way back in 1984. Conversely, if the wind is blowing in, they get a thrilling Wrigley Field pitching duel complete with 40 pop flies and the winning run scored on an error. But look out at center field, at the cute little scoreboard with its hand-turned numbers and updates that are innings behind. Check out those rooftop bleachers with the giant inflatable beer bottles hovering overhead and the actual-sized bottles lined up on the wainscotting. There's the lushly-cultivated ivy, and behind it the brick wall that has nearly killed a man more than once. So what if the Cubs don't climb above .500? The fans get an afternoon at an "artistic" park, and midway through the 7th inning, they get to see Harry Caray lean out of his glass box and drool "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The whole crowd, seemingly without exception, stands and sings along with him. Cubs fans are sheep-like in their loyalties. They spend their days in a curio where time is supposed to stand still. They buy the Cubs newspaper and watch the Cubs TV station. And when they're told to sing, by god, they sing. (JF)

The Billy Goat Tavern

Twenty years have passed since Saturday Night Live immortalized the Billy Goat. You know the sketch -- "Cheezboogah, cheeseboogah, blah blah blah." And still they come by the busload, the clueless tourists, gingerly stepping down onto lower Hubbard, clutching their purses to their hips and glancing nervously around as they descend into the garish, overlit Goat.They've long ago driven out what few actual journalists hung out there. Even Mike Royko, who did as much to celebrate the Goat as SNL, deserted the place. Some say he's back, but who cares? Both he and the Goat are tragic reminders of the sad decline of journalism -- most of the people whose grease-stained by-lines adorn the walls are dead, either physically or just professionally. You can't drink enough at the Goat to counterbalance the horror of being there. (Ed Gold)

Deep-dish pizza

The joy of eating pizza lies in its simplistic hedonism: You pop a thin slice down your throat, then a couple more, and wash it all away with beer before you have to call it quits. Right? Not in Chicago. Chicago-style stuffed pizza is an indigestible insult that grumbles in your stomach days after consumption. It's pizza's obese bastard stepson. Yet crowds line up outside Pizzeria Uno's, Pizzeria Due's and Gino's East for hours to get a taste of the dense, pasty stuff. Munching even a single slab may seem beyond the trouble. Two may require CPR. And even Bill Clinton would probably throw up his hands and gurgle: Three slices and you're out. Why we proudly claim to have parented this culinary manhole cover is anyone's guess. (Benjamin Constant)

Al Capone's Chicago

Some things are too tasteless even for tourists. Thus came the welcome news, earlier this summer, that the monstrous blight on Ohio Street known as Al Capone's Chicago will close in autumn. Close--then, one prays, it will be bulldozed, crushed into gravel and, finally, dumped into the lake, that it may offend no more. But it ain't closed yet, and anyone considering venturing into the bright fake storefronts, perhaps from a misguided sense of history, should know what is in store. Imagine "Schindler's List" performed by the characters at Chuck E. Cheese. The tale of 1920s gangsterland Chicago is recounted, in a homogenized form that somehow both minimizes and glorifies the terror and tragedy of that awful period in the city's history. While fans of kitsch and bad taste might be tempted to view this cultural atrocity, particularly since it is about to disappear, don't. Al Capone's Chicago isn't even bad enough to be inadvertently funny -- just a weak and ill-conceived effort whose failure couldn't be sweeter, unless of course it had happened years ago. (EG)

Hard Rock Cafe

Hayseeds don't wear straw hats to the city anymore. They don't hook their thumbs under the straps of their muddy overalls, angle their heads back as far as they will go, and gawk, "Look-et the buildings! Hoo-ee! They muss be a mile high!" Instead, they go to the Hard Rock Cafe. They stand in long lines to spend their hard-earned farm subsidies on expensive gewgaws to put in those little Hard Rock bags. Is there a city dweller alive who wouldn't rather have a tasteful, quick bullet behind the ear than suffer the humiliation of toting one of these badges of shame? Anyone who cares at all for rock music shudders in revulsion to see it given the Relics of the Saints treatment it gets at Hard Rock. Oh look-Ozzy Osborne's outfit! A poster from the Beatles! A bunch of guitars! You half expect to see Jimmy Hendrix's mummified thumb in a stained-glass reliquary. Maybe that's next. (EG)

Planet Hollywood

Downtown Chicago is one giant movie set, where even a lazy visitor can see the building from which Steve McQueen jumped a car into the Chicago River (Marina Towers), the intersection where Harrison Ford bummed money (Lower Kinzie) and the bridge where Dolly Parton, well, did something (State Street), all in the span of a two-minute walk. So why would visitors seek out an artifice like Planet Hollywood and fight each other like desperate refugees for the honor of gawking at salvaged stage props? This is like going to New Orleans and eating at Burger King. The famed El, which film-makers around the world line up to include in their movies, is not far from Planet Hollywood. And if you put your butt on it, it will whisk you to one of Chicago's many charming and authentic ethnic neighborhoods. Where you can find a really good restaurant, filled with colorful local characters and a warm sense of place. Just like in the movies. (EG)

Navy Pier Ferris Wheel

Suckers lured aboard the red french-fry-box gondolas of the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier, perhaps by the appealingly low $2 ticket price, invariably step off the wheel, moments later, with the same reaction: you only go around once. Once. This flies in the face of standard wheel practice, followed at the dinkiest county fair, where the wheel once boarded spins around a few times, fast, before starting to unload. Greed, however, dictates that the Navy Pier wheel continuously load and unload, never kicking out the stops, crawling along at a maddeningly slow pace and providing a view that will impress only those who have never been in a tall building before. Suggestion: bring a milk crate to Navy Pier, stand on it, and then hop off. The thrill will be the same, and you'll be up two bucks.

Sears Tower

Forget that the Sears Tower was topped this year by those twin towers in Malaysia -- Malaysia is so far away it's like saying that Michael Jordan isn't the best basketball player anymore because there's a better one on a team in the Crab Nebula. No, the Sears Tower has other problems. Like the idiotic city-boostering film you have to sit through before they let you up. And its unfortunate placement in the relative hinterlands of the southwest Loop. That's why you'd have a better time at the John Hancock. Sure, the Hancock's a little shorter, but look at its advantages: (A) Location. You can shop your way up Michigan Avenue to the Hancock. The Sears is convenient to nothing except that building with the big white tank on top that nobody knows the name of. (B) Location. Lots of interesting buildings are clustered around and can be viewed from the Hancock. Sears gives you a view of Iowa. (C) Booze. Just below the Hancock deck is a bar, part of its Signature Room restaurant, where the $6.50 you could have blown on admission to the Sears observation deck will buy you a beer. One final advantage: fewer screaming school groups.

Buckingham Fountain

Buckingham Fountain is about all you get in Chicago, fountain-wise. The only other fountain we can direct you to is operated by a steel button and has a wad of gum in the basin. It's usually surrounded by tourists who make plans to meet there because it's so easy to find. You can't miss it. Just look for the slab of concrete bracketed by a highway and a congested street. Buckingham is big. It's round. It's designed after the Latona Basin at Versailles, which is half its size. But despite its faux-French bogosity, its minor statury and stolid predictability give it the aura of a prize-winning exhibit at a Midwest state fair. Look at that big water! Why, it must shoot up 35 feet in the air! Ooh! Look at the colored lights at night! Who'd guess they were controlled by a computer in Atlanta? Donated by philanthropist Kate Buckingham as a memorial to her brother Clarence, the fountain's maintenance is paid for by a trust so that it will remain a free gift to the citizens of Chicago. And it's worth every penny we've paid for it. (Jeff Felshman)

Prairie Avenue

For most Chicagoans, the historic district at 18th Street and Prairie Avenue is a curiosity they pass while using 18th as a shortcut during Bears gameday traffic. In that capacity, it's a pleasant surprise--a few old stone houses at the head of a block-long cul-de-sac. For a tourist who makes a special trip at the behest of a breathless guidebook, expecting to find a lost piece of Chicago history when the city's first families lived sumptuously on the near South Side, it's...still just a few old houses. On the entire block, there are five existing houses from Prairie Avenue's heyday in the late 1800's. The vast majority of the block is guarded by a black wrought-iron fence interrupted every few feet with detailed plaques telling--or perhaps we should say taunting-- visitors about all the great houses that used to be there. Only two houses are open for tours, and good luck getting there at just the right time. A piece of paper inside a dirty plastic sleeve tacked up on one of the houses announces the tours--Wednesday through Sunday, 12-3. Go any other time and you won't even be able to find a place to go to the bathroom. (CP)

The Stockyards

You may as well be looking for a herd of buffalo and an Indian village. There are no stockyards. They closed in 1971. In their place we now have the Stockyards Industrial Park, a perfectly good specimen of that genre featuring nothing more exciting than companies like North American Glass Distributors. The one reminder of the luckless beasts who once pawed the ground here is an old stone gate on Exchange, just west of Halsted. This was the entrance to the stockyards, and may be the work of the famed architects Burnham and Root. Visitors may admire it for up to five minutes before wondering why they drove all the way out to about 41st Street. It's an interesting piece of stonework, but given the location, also as depressing as the Statue of Liberty in "Planet of the Apes." (CP)

Off-Loop theater

You know the Chicago school: bloody-knuckled, raw, and emotionally pure. Featuring the finest new plays, the riskiest directing, the newest wave in scenic and lighting design. And valet parking. The most robust survivor of Chicago's 1970s off-Loop theater boom, Steppenwolf promoted its just-concluded 20th anniversary season with the slogan "20 Years on the Edge." Come, now. Five edgy years, sure. Six? OK. Ten only at a stretch. But not 20. Unless you consider the "edge" to include corporate sponsorship by Citibank, AT&T, Phillip Morris and IBM and ensemble members who are regulars on Roseanne and Frazier. Even though the Steppenwolf incorporates verifably edgy works by other companies into its Studio Theater series, it's about as establishment as theater gets, right up there with its big-budget partner, the Goodman. But it could be much worse. Most other off-Loop boom theaters have either folded or mutated into deeply lame forms. Take the Organic, once the stomping ground of such Chicago-school giants as Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna and a place where an emerging playwright named David Mamet could try out new works. This year's longest-running selection on the Organic's main stage? Clue: The Musical. (NP)

Improv

Chicago's homespun performance art is cooked live before your eyes like dinner at Benihana's. Improv can be creative, brilliant and cathartic-but only if you're onstage. Being in the audience, on the other hand, is like watching grass grow, then dry out, then turn brown and dead, then blow away. Improv fuses the very worst that live performance has to offer: It's a theater experience without actors, a comedy routine without comedians. It's like the "Gong Show"-without the security of a gong. And this artistic quicksand encourages performers to discuss their disturbing and pathetic lives before an audience of throat-clearing strangers, as though the room were an enormous 12-step meeting, always accompanied by a rinky-dink score. If that doesn't phase you, think about this: One Chicago troupe, ImprovOlympic, proudly points to two famous alums who represent what it clearly regards as the pinnacle of comedic genius: Chris Farley and Mike Myers. Don't say we didn't warn you. (BC)

poetryslams

come to chicago illinois
to hear words spoken in pubs
sipping from pints of stale
poems shouted by loudmouths
offering ridiculous screeds
at the top of their lungs
smile in discomfort
clap your hands
weakly silently skeptical
bar poetry
arhythmic schizophrenic
paranoid screeching
would embarrass bukowski
if he weren't already
turning over in his urn
sophomoric moronic musings
profane scatalogical
pornographic ejaculations
whistle stomp your feet
hoot & holler
order another drink
pay your cover charge
nothing's free in chicago
not even insults from onstage amateurs
pay your cover charge
order another drink
& demand better poetry
(Benjamin Constant)

Halsted Street

One big Chicago draw never found in a department of tourism brochure is the city's large, visible gay community. Imagine being a gay Rotatarian delegate from Grafton, Wisconsin. Your social life consists of making lingering eye contact at pancake breakfasts and church suppers. Suddenly, you find yourself with a free evening in the largest enclave of homosexuality between Christopher and Castro streets. The problem is where to go. No "Boystown" marked on the CTA maps. Nothing helpful under "Gay Bars" in the yellow pages. You really should have done your homework before you left Wisconsin. Take a cab to the corner of Halsted and Roscoe. You're there. The rest is up to you.

Wicker Park

"Every day is D-day under the El," wrote Nelson Algren in that epic and oft-quoted (locally, anyway) prose poem Chicago: City on the Make. But the careworn hustlers of Algren's beloved Wicker Park neighborhood have moved on; "D" these days stands for development. What's actually under and around the El at North, Milwaukee and Damen? On a recent weekday afternoon, a Range Rover and a Ford Taurus. The newly-renovated "Wicker Parker" condos, with "private decks," from $149,000 to $175,000. And a beauty establishment selling a $20 t-shirt with the slogan "salon@wicker park.come." A shoe-and vintage-furniture store that displays Algren-era blue vinyl chairs for $120 and "Hip-Hop" black leather shoes for $115.99. And if you're hungry, you could have the legendary pierogi at the Busy Bee Restaurant, or the blue-corn and blueberry flapjacks at the brand-new breakfast eatery next door. For dinner, a restaurant across from the El offers "Shrimp and grits with tasso, mushrooms, tarragon and Herbsaint " and "Smoked free-range chicken with black beans & cactus jicama salad." (NP)

Bridgeport

Urban historians may consider Bridgeport a mecca, but let's be realistic. Romantic old Comiskey Park? Gone. The new one is a lovely shade of pink; too bad no one visits Chicago to match paint chips. The first Mayor Daley's house remains. It remains nothing more than a bungalow that happens to have a police car parked nearby. Looking at it, no matter how intently, will not conjure up the late Boss's spirit. Great ethnic restaurants? Not here. The closest approximation is the relentlessly mediocre Lithuanian "Healthy Food Restaurant," whose starchy eastern European offerings would land it in trouble if the FDA monitored restaurant names like food packaging. Perhaps the most interesting spot is a barbershop at 3519 S. Halsted. "No name, just a barbershop," shrugs owner Raul Garza,who's been there 26 years. Garza's windows feature such anomalies as a large white hand holding a fake rubber hamburger and a doll's head; the back of an Edgar Winter Group album; and a fake human skull topped with yellow plastic spiky things and a small sign reading "SPIKES." "To let people know I do that hairstyle--spikes," Garza explains. Inside, the shop is filled with everything from 50's hair model headshots to 70's posters of John Travolta. A stuffed Wile E. Coyote--the size of a second-grader--sits in an old beauty chair under a hairdryer. Relax in one of many old comfortable recliners while waiting your turn. (Cate Plys)

The University of Chicago

This town, or at least a very small, annoying, portion of it, went stupid over the hundredth anniversary of the University of Chicago a couple of years ago. Newspapers turned their Sunday magazines into UofC yearbooks, complete with congratulatory ads from utility companies and law firms. TV stations examined the school's history in half-hour specials consisting mostly of rah-rah. One Sun-Times writer suggested a celebration in Grant Park. All right! Par-tay! Not like anybody connected with the university needs an ego boost. The UofC's alumni, faculty and student body have always thought they're better (and, with their own private police force, safer) than us, and that they can get away with murder. But all those Nobel Prize winners and private cops couldn't stop Leopold and Loeb. Or the invention of the atomic bomb. Or Allan Bloom. Or Milton Friedman, a Nobel winner himself. Or the nameless thousands of condescending, self-righteous academics and critics that the university has loosed upon the world. Guidebooks advise tourists to stay away from the areas bordering the university, but the effect of those neighborhoods on the rest of the world is comparitively benign. You probably won't get mugged around the UofC, but watch out-there's an annoying social engineer lurking around every Hyde Park corner. (JF)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustrations by Peter Hannan.

Add a comment