The nature of city living explored
January 12, 1991
In which I tried to dig a little deeper into the ancient distaste of Downstaters and Chicagoans for each other. I even quote a sociologist, which shows how serious I was.
You knew it would come to this: According to the Trib, House Speaker Mike Madigan has taken to slandering Jim Edgar with this sneer: "The governor is now living in the largest city of his life." To be sure, the imputation of provincialism is accurate enough—Jim and Brenda have Glen Ellyn written all over them—but it seems not quite fair coming from Madigan. The only people who might regard this power nerd from Chicago's Southwest Side as a cosmopolite are the Irish from Chicago's Northwest Side.
Madigan's real beef with Edgar is that Edgar is not from Chicago. Of course, a lot of Illinois folks think that Edgar's not being from Chicago—indeed, his not liking Chicago—is the best thing about the governor. Even most "Chicagoans" hate Chicago. Denizens of the metropolitan area seldom venture into the city, and when they do they stick to well-worn paths leading to the ball parks, the Michigan Avenue shops, or the museums. Of Chicagoland's seven million or so residents, maybe five million live in places that are vastly more like Springfield than they are like Chicago's Lakeview or Albany Park neighborhoods.
Jim Thompson, a recent governor, grew up in Chicago and loves it there, where there are so many more people to like him. (Chicago has always liked its vulgarians outsized.) But Downstaters usually find Chicago daunting, even sinister. This is an understandable bias, if an unfounded one. (Of the four most hideous murders of strangers committed at random in Illinois in my adulthood, three were committed in and near Springfield, only one in Chicago.) People there drive faster and are quicker to talk to strangers and the homeless are out where you can see and smell them—the cops being more tolerant of every kind of misbehavior than Downstate. The city itself seems out of scale, and while that means only that it is out of scale in a less familiar way than Springfield is out of scale, it is disorienting nonetheless.
None of this quite explains the peculiar mix of anxiety and condescension with which so many Downstaters regard their state's largest city. It is a mistake to think that Downstaters, for example, are impressed by the big city; more often they come for the pleasures of feeling superior to it. They go home and talk about their brush with the weird in the same condescending tones that they use to describe the cab driver who spoke no English and the price of a beer at the Hyatt. Rather than shame their for their small-town ways, a trip to Chicago confirms their choice of lifestyle.
In search of clues, I turned to the sociologist Richard Sennett, who has written an interesting new book titled, The Conscience of the Eye about the design and social life of cities. Sennett writes that big cities have always been a reality check against complacency. The rules of identity and social interchange are not always clear in such places. Thus it is where the housing project meets the gold coast, the factory district abuts the playground, the Spanish-speakers mingle with the English-speakers—or in the case of visiting Springfieldians, where the tourist meets the cab driver—that possibilities for communication and self-discovery are richest.
Sennett recalls how in the 1920s urbanists from his alma mater, the University of Chicago, described the value of the city in terms of what Sennett calls the "provocations of otherness, surprise, and stimulation" that could be experienced there. (It is hard to read that without smiling, remembering how the University of Chicago has since turned itself into a enclave against the otherness of the black South Side with the help of the largest private police force in the world.) Such a city can be a daunting, often scary place, invigorating but wearing. But such stimuli make cities important from economic and cultural points of view, because they spur creativity and invention in all its forms.
One of Sennett's favorite terms is "exposure," and that is what a big city does to you. It exposures your prejudices, its exposes your ambitions, it exposes your fears. Many people find that an unpleasantly disturbing experience. When a relative or friend goes away he may not come back a better or more appealing person but usually he will be a truer one.
I am perhaps taking the romantic view. Mere exposure to difference, Sennett concedes, does not change people or even engage them, and often may leave them fearful. Sennett suggests that the solution is not to remake cities to some standard of suburban niceness but to cultivate a more profound acceptance of difference in other people by acknowledging the "unfinishedness" in ourselves.
People who regard themselves as finished, it needs not be said, do not find big cities attractive. The people who do are the young, the immigrant, the deviant, the unsettled. The big city does not, as often said, tolerate difference especially more than smaller places. One can be anything in Springfield that one can be in Chicago. A big city does however concentrate difference, which means that in a place like Chicago there will lots more people like you than in a place like Springfield—enough perhaps to make up a community, an organization, a market, a subculture.
Chicago certainly is a big city in scale—it has as many city cops as Taylorville has people—but experienced travelers like the writer Jan Morris report that it doesn't feel very big‑city compared to the world's New Yorks, Londons, and Tokyos. The only thing "big city" about Madigan's neighborhood for instance is that it is near one. (Madigan's neighborhood could be described as a Charleston with potholes.) The Edgars of our small towns know there is a wider world, and if they are brave enough will seek it out; the Madigans smugly conclude that they're living in that wider world, and so never go looking. ●