Feeling Like a Foreigner
Taking the anthropological view in Chicago
May 3, 1990
Much of the lingering political antagonism between Chicago and Downstate Illinois owes to mutual ignorance. Having lived in both places, I can tell you that the antagonism is as intense in one as it is in the other but the ignorance is mostly on the side of the Downstaters. This piece caught me in my public service mode, in which I tried to make visiting the big city seem less intimidating for Illinoisans outside the collar counties.
The most startling news being published in magazines such as Der Spiegel and Punch these days is that there is more to the U.S. than New York and Disney World. The State of Illinois's Office of Tourism has been running full-pages ads in the big magazines in western Europe and Japan that tout our Gomorrah-by-the-lake as a destination city for the world's pleasure travelers. The ads claim that Chicago has Rio's beaches, Milan's clothes, Paris's restaurants, and London's museums. That's mostly a crock, of course, but if the Europeans were impressionable enough to buy the mixed economy they'll buy Chicago as a Renaissance city. Actually, foreigners are more impressed that Chicago has Chicago's buildings and blues musicians, and they're coming at a rate of a million people per year to see them.
DCCA [Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, which then ran the state tourism office] has targeted audiences in England, Germany, Japan, Italy, France, and Spain for its foreign tourism campaign. Nothing, however, is being pitched to the potential tourist from south of the border. I do not mean Mexico, but the Will County line, the southernmost edge of the six-county Chicago metropolitan area that separates it from the nether regions of the state.
Chicago is a foreign city to most Downstaters. Oh, people come up for an art show or ball game or to take the kids to the museums. And state workers from Springfield infest the state-rate hotels. But neither group stays long or strays far. Most find their way to Michigan Avenue and never leave it, clinging to it the way an uncertain swimmer clings to the edge of the pool.
Paris is a foreign city too, but Chicago strikes most Downstaters as more alien than exotic. They suffer from a version of that anxiety that infects Chicago's image abroad, namely that (as one frustrated DCCA staffer put it to me) there is an Al Capone on every street corner. The big city's reputation for violence has increased, if anything; while the gangs these days are younger, they are less discriminating. The impression that Europeans get of Chicago from reruns of "The Untouchables," Downstaters get from the TV news, which runs only the most lurid and appalling stories. That most of them occur not in the city but the suburbs, or that gang violence occurs miles from the tourist hotels, seldom comes through. A stranger's sense of any city is unfocused, so that what happens anywhere in Chicago seems to him to happen everywhere in Chicago.
Fear of crime is hardly the only cause of the Downstate visitor's unease in the big city. In its customs and physical arrangements, Chicago—downtown Chicago anyway—is as foreign as Ulan Bator. People park parallel on the street. They don't eat supper until eight. Many don't speak English. They smell like Ethiopians—not because so many of them are Ethiopians but because they ate at an Ethiopian restaurant the night before.
Like any foreign visitor to Chicago, the Downstater may encounter problems with language and currency. Interpreters are on duty at O'Hare to assist the non-English speaker, but a neglectful CTA does not provide translators to help you make sense of the signs on the public transit system. You will have to ask a local to learn, for example, that the "Des Plaines" to which the Congress el travels is not the town of Des Plaines, near O'Hare, but Des Plaines Avenue in the west suburb of Forest Park, ten miles to the south of O'Hare. And while your money from home is good in Chicago, the exchange rate is punishing to Downstaters. The hour of street parking that costs you thirty cents in Springfield will cost you four dollars in a Loop garage. And when you find out what they charge for a glass of the house wine in hotel bars on North Michigan, you may be tempted to ask if the house comes with it.
Americans wouldn't dream of staying in a hotel in the U.S. where the bathroom was down the hall, but they do it in England and think it's wonderfully quaint. The key to a happy visit to Chicago is to approach it in just that spirit. Do you disdain to ride the el because it's noisy, rickety, and slow? Then look at it through the eyes of the Milan-based design magazine Abitare, which described it in 1987 as a "remarkable anachronism" with "an adventurous personality that awakens in us intimate childhood memories related to notions of urban exploration and discovery."
There are in fact three Chicagos open to the tourist. The best known is the lakefront Chicago, the city of remarkable buildings, museums and parks, posh hotels and smart restaurants. In its values it is an extension of the North Shore suburbs, in ambiance—at least according to New Yorker staff writer Tony Hiss, whom I talked to about it recently—it is a throwback to the Manhattan of the 1950s and early 1960s, when New York was still a nice place to live as well as to make money.
The lakefront Chicago is for people who don't like Chicago. On her last visit, writer Jan Morris decried the new sidewalk cafes as affectations, mere props in an ersatz European street scene. She was comparing them, and the city, to Paris. Me, I compare them to the Beardstown Kiwanis' booth at the state fair. It's a matter of what you're used to. In Springfield's most pretentious hotel bar they serve Pabst in a chilled wine glass; if you want an ersatz experience, go to Chicago and have a real one.
The second "Chicago" is its suburbs. They may be described as the stuff you have to ride through to get to where you're going. (I backed construction of the proposed superconducting supercollider in DuPage County until I became convinced that it wouldn't explode.) In between the suburbs and the lakefront is the real Chicago, the city of neighborhoods where you find the best and cheapest restaurants and its least ersatz people. There is nothing quite so ugly as a neighborhood commercial street in Chicago but it is where you can find whatever truth there is to find about the city as a factory for turning foreigners into Americans.
The phrase "foreign city" takes on literal meaning in the neighborhoods. The Indian shops along Devon Avenue offer superb food and sari repair. Pilsen is as close to Mexico as you can get without having to drive through Texas. You can eat authentic Persian food in the old Swedish neighborhood of Andersonville (the Swedes have always been hospitable to the Third World). And if you can imagine every man, woman, and child in Taylorville turned Chinese you will have an idea of the growth of Chinatown, which today is home to about forty restaurants (mainly Cantonese). Just get off I-55 at Wentworth and ask about the duck at the nearest poultry shop. It's as close as you can get to feeling like a foreigner without a visa. ●