This article is part of the The Great American Reach Around series.
Our journey through this land should probably begin at this heart and in the Midwest's defacto capital, and my current home town, Chicago, Illinois.
Chicago is the largest city in the Midwest and the third largest city in the nation, with 2.8 million inhabitants compared to New York City's 8 million. The numbers are deceptive, however, because Chicago is part of an immense and densely-populated metro area that extends uninterrupted north into Milwaukee's metro area and south east deep into Indiana.
It is not uncommon for someone from as far away as Merrillville, Indiana to tell someone not from the area that they live "in Chicago". Who can blame them? They live in Northern Indiana, the world capital of anti-abortion billboards, NASCAR memorabilia and fireworks stands! If Northern Indiana can figure out a way to come up with a firework that looks like a stock car and shoots up into the sky and explodes into an aborted fetus with a dime next to its hand then maybe those people will start self-identifying as Indiana residents.
You may know of "Chicago" as the "Windy City", but if you ever visit Chicago you should never say this phrase. If there is a gust of wind and you say, "Boy, I guess this is the Windy City!" you are more likely to have a wino vomit acid in your face than have anyone laugh or smile knowingly. No one actually knows for sure why Chicago is called the Windy City, but all residents know with metaphysical certitude that anyone making a joke about the name deserves to die. Not even TV weathermen use the expression in Chicago.
Situated on Lake Michigan, Chicago's skyline is arguably the finest in the United States and many regard the city as one of the great architectural centers of the world. The "Chicago School" of architecture (that's a style of architecture, not literally a school) gave birth to steel-frame construction and what we consider modern skyscrapers. Most famous architects of the 19th and 20th centuries have at least one incredible building here with their name attached to it.
For over 20 years Chicago was home to the world's tallest building, the Sears Tower, but this title was stolen by the cheating Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1998. Everyone in Chicago got very slightly pissed off about this because the Petronas Towers took the title on a technicality. When the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan was completed in 2004 it took the title more honestly and Chicagoans paused briefly from not caring about the issue to be glad that someone took the title from the Petronas Towers.
Chicago was built by immigrants that no one wanted around, like the Irish, Poles, Germans, and Itallians. These days Chicago plays host to the nation's second largest population of modern unwanted immigrants: Latinos. Despite this high-concentration of untamed Latin passion and a large African-American population, race relations have actually been very good in the Chicago area in recent years.
Most crime statistics in Chicago have continued to trend downward since the 1990s, although murders rose slightly from 405 in 2005 to 426 in 2006. Residents of Chicago will tell you that our hilarious murder statistics are a source of great pride and entertainment here. Gang shootings and street warfare have largely taken a back seat to much more creative "interpretive murders", like the case of a man who strangled his infant unconscious, placed it in a plastic bag and threw it at a wall until it died.
The two most recent murder sensations to sweep the city are a serial killer who murders and mutiliates gay men (still at large) and a lesbian woman who suffocated her lover with a pillow, locked her in the trunk of the car in their garage, and then called the police claiming she went missing. There was also a guy who was slashing the faces and necks of people walking their dogs at night, but they caught him and he never managed to kill anyone. Better luck next time, buddy!
The 1980s saw a Chicago in decline. The old industries of America were disappearing and the heavily industrial city of Chicago was not coping well. Richard M. Daley, son of the late mayor Richard J. Daley, was elected as mayor in 1989 as a backlash against ineffective leadership during this time. He has become the nearly undisputed and beloved Caesar of Chicago.
Richard M. Daley was re-elected to a sixth term as mayor this year. He has presided over a new Chicago, resurgent and flush with wealth once again. Tourism has returned and he has helped the city diversify its economy and come out on top in a global economy that has seen so many other Midwestern cities fall on their faces. Major public works projects like the fantastic Millenium Park and new commercial construction abound.
Like his father, Richard M. Daley is prone to bully political opponents and resort to quasi-legal tactics to get what he wants. Unlike his father, he wields his nearly absolute power in the city for the obvious good of the city. That doesn't mean his stunts don't sometimes make people mad.
My personal favorite Daley stunt came in 2006. The Repulicans had expressed an interest in holding their 2008 national convention in the liberal stronghold of Chicago and invited Daley to bid on the opportunity. Daley replied by giving a speech in which he said he could not devote the time to the proposal and had to withdraw Chicago from consideration so that he could focus on planning for the seventh Gay Games. Illinois family groups and the RNC went into a tizzy. Daley, almost an avatar of Chicago, went on to speak at the Gay Games. Try to imagine one of the "sassage in my aye-orta" SNL superfans walking out and giving a speech at the Gay Games. The message was clear to Chicagoans and to social conservatives.Finally, Chicago would not have gotten to be the fifth fattest city in the United States (and probably, therefore, in the world) without having a lot of great food. I am a big fan of local favorite Giordano's and their ridiculous stuffed pizza. Remember in Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo busts the Tauntaun open with Luke's light saber? Imagine that, only instead of guts popping out it's melted cheese and pizza sauce.
There is also Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company, which offers the unique pizza pot pie experience. They bring out a bowl of pizza with a mushroom-shaped lid of crisp crust overflowing the top and then they flip it and cut out the bowl. A few bites in and you'll feel a tingling in your face. That's your nose getting fat, but it's worth it! Or you can just head over to Lou Malnati's or Pizzeria Uno (the original) and they will satisfy your need for more traditional Chicago Style pizza.
There's a lot more to Chicago fine food than just pizza. We have the traditional sausages and Chicago Style hotdogs (no ketchup you heathen), but we also have a wide variety of fine and/or fast ethnic food. Humboldt Park has roughly 50 awesome Puerto Rican restaurants and trendier neighborhoods tend to have at least one stellar Asian restaurant, Thai being a big favorite.
Chicago is an international city to rival any in the world, as important today as when this city was America's meat and steel supplier. It has been through tough times and tough transformations, but it has come out on top, a burgeoning city-state of 21st century America. It is the shining beacon of the Midwest.
Every light side must have a dark side, so let's continue on and learn what horror lurks in the shadow of Chicago.
"Don't you get it? What we have to understand is it's them or us. It can't be all of us, or one. It's got to be us, or they become it. Then we lose what makes us we."
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