By Jonathan Bradley

Photo by Flickr user caribb

Photo by Flickr user caribb

This was my final essay for the USSC postgraduate course The American City. It has been slightly edited.

Blame the bluster. That’s how the Illinois city of Chicago earned its Windy City sobriquet, but the name did not arise from the local meteorological conditions. It was the young town’s windbag citizens, rather than its blustery weather, who earned it the title; and even as the city grew into its outsize self-regard, it never lost its cockiness or its confidence (Encyclopaedia of Chicago 2004).

Chicago does not shuffle; it swaggers. Despite — or perhaps because of — its severe setting, it retains an optimism even where there is cause for none; this is a city whose citizens endure freezing winters and sweltering summers, who took their city’s rude manufacturing foundations and built on them glittering skyscrapers and world-famous architecture. It is a city that, upon holding the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, sought to outshine even Paris, the old world’s most refined cultural centre. Chicago developed its fortune from unglamorous industries, such as the unrefined and frequently dangerous meatpacking plants that earned, from poet Carl Sandburg, the city the designation of Hog Butcher for the World. Chicago’s politics is famed for its sleaze, its venality, its dependence on connections and repaid favours, and yet, its adopted son Barack Obama navigated his way through its ranks to become elected 44th President of the United States on a promise of bringing change to a nation weary of inefficiency and corruption. Chicago is renowned for its cultural vibrancy, particularly the creative contribution of the African American communities in the city’s South Side neighbourhoods, where Obama first launched his political career as a community organiser. Chicago is riven with ethnic division; various neighbourhoods are distinguished as Polish, for instance, or African American, or Irish centres, but yet these neighbourhoods act as launching points for the city’s migrants to find opportunity where there was none before. The South Side, for instance, may frequently trap its citizens in poverty and segregation, but the political and cultural networks formed within these communities gave their citizens a self-determination unavailable in the Southern states from which they had migrated.

Chicago remains America’s second city, even as it slips to number three on the population scale, having been overtaken by Los Angeles during the 1980s. In many ways it is the quintessential American city, a booming, thriving centre in the very belly of the nation. The Great Plains — the nation’s famed bread basket — stretch out from its edges, the Mississippi surges through its hinterland, and Chicago swallows immigrants, both the intra-national and international, seeking their fortune. Neither the world renowned centre of commerce that is New York nor the sun-soaked pop-cultural playground of Los Angeles, Chicago’s conception is intertwined with that of its nation; unlike New York, or Los Angeles, which have larger than life identities separate to America, Chicago’s cultural fabric is woven from the same stuff as that of the United States itself.

Chicago’s paradox is in the tension between its base origins and its soaring ambitions; the stoicism prompted by the former and the optimism derived from the latter. It is a uniquely divided city, but the citizens of its patchwork neighbourhoods are united in — as was one of the central themes of the Obama campaign — hope. This essay will examine the means by which Chicago, in its real and mythical guises, reconciles these tensions. With particular reference to the city’s representation in Carl Sandburg’s poetry, modern popular music and commentaries on President Barack Obama and his connection to the Chicago political landscape, it will find that the contradictory conceptions of Chicago are actually inseparable; each is a part of the other.

In his poem “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg uses the city’s cruder foundations as a means of introduction. The first line announces the town, famously, as “Hog Butcher for the World,” and follows this with “Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat/Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” Sandburg describes Chicago as America’s — and even the earth’s — unglamorous engine room; it does the dirty work of slaughtering pigs, bundling grain and distributing goods, while, presumably, the rest of the world enjoys the fruits of the town’s labour. Sandburg personifies this Chicago in the form of one its blue collar workers: “stormy, husky [and] “brawling.” Reflecting the brutal power of its factory labourers, Chicago, in Sandburg’s conception, is a muscular “City of the Big Shoulders.”

Sandburg acknowledges Chicago’s more severe aspects, and does not attempt to hide them. He concurs that the city is “wicked,” and relates stories of murderers who go unpunished, hungry women and children unable to feed themselves, and the destruction of wholesome farm boys at the hands of the city’s garish temptations — “painted women under the gas lamps” — artificially beautiful prostitutes illuminated by artificial light.

But Sandburg, like the city he seeks to portray, celebrates its baser features. He returns the contempt of his city’s detractors, and subverts its coarseness and brutality into points of pride. “I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city,” he declares, “and I give them back the sneer.” Sandburg personifies Chicago as a “city with lifted head,” a “tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities.” This Chicago still has the broad shoulders of its labourers, but that quality has become evidence of its strength and vitality rather than of any beaten down weariness.

Chicago is a site of restless and ceaseless activity (“Bareheaded/Shovelling/Wrecking/Planning/Building, breaking, rebuilding”), where construction and destruction are inseparable. Even if its pride is foolish — “under the terrible burden of destiny,” it laughs “as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle” — it is living testament to possibility and resourcefulness; “fierce as a dog … cunning as a savage,” it possesses the buoyant confidence of a vital and handsome young man, one “half-naked, sweating” with “white teeth,” a pulse under his wrist and “the heart of the people” beneath his ribs.

As the poem culminates, Sandburg stacks accolades on to the city as if they were fresh from a foundry, piled up and ready to be transported to the world. He runs Chicago’s unspectacular industries together as the tall bold slugger he alludes to earlier does, who “toil[s] … piling job on job”; abutting them against each other where previously they had been offset into careful, individual lines. Sandburg declares the city “proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation,” ending his declamation with a flourish. If his poem possesses a little too much swagger, or is too cocky in its rapid dismissal of Chicago’s flaws, this is unsurprising. Sandburg, as a Chicagoan, must also be “stormy, husky, brawling”; a man who laughs under the “terrible burden of destiny.”

Photo by Flickr user moacirpdsp

Photo by Flickr user moacirpdsp

This Chicago is defined by its optimism; to adapt the title of a book by the Chicago politician and now President of the United States Barack Obama, Chicago has the audacity of hope. The President encountered the phrase through his Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama, in his memoir Dreams from My Father, writes of the sermon in which Wright spoke of that audacity; his description of the Reverend’s words reveal the duality of stoicism and optimism central to the Chicago experience:

“As the sermon unfolded, though, the stories of strife became more prosaic, the pain more immediate. The reverend spoke of the hardship that the congregation would face tomorrow, the pain of those far from the mountain-top, worrying about paying the light bill … [i]f a part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfil its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how the spirit carried within it , nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.”


Obama, almost paradoxically, finds optimism amid the poverty and hardship of the city; hope within, as Sandburg might put it, “the terrible burden of destiny.” He quotes the Reverend Wright consecrating the hardship of his day to day life, preaching of “The audacity of hope … [during t]imes when we couldn’t pay the bills. Times when it looked like I wasn’t ever going to amount to anything …” (294).

The passage closes Part Two of Obama’s memoir, the section titled “Chicago,” and the politician evidently considers this faith to be essential to his Chicago experience. The religious conception of hope Obama gains from Wright’s sermon is simpler and more sacrosanct than the tangled and corporeal swagger of Sandburg’s “city with lifted head,” which is indeed “proud to be alive,” but also “coarse and strong and cunning.” Outside the Church service, however, in the residences and organisations of the city’s Southside, Obama experiences the earthier aspect of the town, the one that not only prides itself on its hope, but also revels in its own audacity, as well as its coarseness, its strength, and its cunning.

Obama decided after graduating from Columbia University to become a community organiser, saying he would “organize black folks. At the grass roots” (133). In Chicago, where he pursues this ambition, there seems to be little way to organise anything other than at the grass roots. The communities he discovers are tight-knit, yet divided. The organiser who employs him, Marty Kaufman, describes the city by saying “Blacks. Whites. Hispanics. All working the same jobs. All living the same kind of lives. But outside the plant, most of them don’t want anything to do with each other” (149). Even within segregated communities, there are differences. Obama describes declining areas where there are “[d]istinctions between neighborhoods, then blocks, then finally neighbors within a block; attempts to cordon off, control the decay” (158).

The Chicago Kaufman describes and Obama discovers is supported by its strong communities, but constrained by the divisions between them. All institutions are possible vehicles for political activity. Kaufman tells Obama “If poor and working-class people want to build real power, they have to have some sort of institutional base. With the unions in the shape they’re in, the churches are the only game in town.” The truism is borne out by Obama’s work once he reaches the city; he finds himself hindered equally by politicians who will not meet with him, unions who do not share his goals and church leaders who dislike the organisation with which he works. As Kaufman explains, “Chicago’s polarized and … politicians use it to the their own advantage. That’s all Smalls [an unco-operative Reverend] is — a politician who happens to wear a collar” (162).

Before employing Obama, Kaufman gave the politician, whom he saw as “young and black and interested in social issues,” some advice: “Find a political campaign to work for. A powerful patron — somebody who can help you with your own career.” As Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article Making It relates, after concluding his work as a community organiser, Obama did exactly as Kaufman had recommended.

In 1995, Alice Palmer, an Illinois politician from Obama’s Hyde Park neighbourhood nominated herself as a candidate for her local congressional seat, and Obama subsequently announced his intention to run for the state senate seat from which Palmer was departing. Palmer endorsed Obama, but when her congressional run failed, she asked him “to step aside like other African Americans have done in other races for the sake of unity.” Obama refused to do so, and garnering support from local organisations and power bases, he challenged the signatures nominating his former supporter for the seat. Obama succeeded in having Palmer removed from the ballot and won her seat unopposed. “That’s Chicago politics,” the New Yorker reports Obama as having said — with a sigh. Palmer also seemed to recognise it as par for the course within the city, saying “Anyone who enters Chicago politics and can’t take the rough and tumble shouldn’t be there.”

Making It details Obama’s rise through the city and state political structures, facilitated by his ability to build connections and gather support from a diverse range of powerbrokers. The article portrays Chicago politics as hyper-local, dominated by ruthless factionalism and tainted by the continual presence of, at-best, questionable operators. To navigate his way through it, Obama had to rely on the pragmatism and fierce self-reliance Sandburg attributed to Chicagoans, as well as some of the cunning. “Chicago is not Obama’s hometown, but it’s where he chose to forge his identity,” the New Yorker article says. Yet despite his reputation for carefulness, Obama shares more than a touch of his adopted home’s fondness for audacity. Having made his way through the city’s labyrinthine political operations, in 2004 he was set to give a now celebrated speech at the Democratic National Convention. Even prior to giving his speech, the politician was already receiving a favourable reaction from the public. “If you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow” Obama said, according to the New Yorker. “My speech is pretty good.”

Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention

Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention

Chicago’s glory is inseparable from its citizens’ humdrum lives. Just as Obama reached the American presidency by building upon interrelated webs of local connections, the city’s successes derive from the bonds between neighbourhoods, blocks, or even within specific buildings. Another Carl Sandburg poem, Skyscraper, constructs one of the soaring towers for which Chicago is known by illustrating the individuals who labour within it. Sandburg describes the “ten-dollar a week-stenographers,” the “men who sunk the pilings and mixed the mortar,” an architect, a watchman, a mason, all who out of their toil, create a teeming building that “looms in the smoke and the sun and has a soul.” In Sandburg’s conception, this embodiment of Chicago is fed by the entire city’s vast surrounds, urban and beyond: “Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into it and they among its twenty floors and are poured out again back to the streets, prairies and valleys.” The skyscraper reciprocates, broadcasting messages across the landscape, which Sandburg describes with allusions to modernity, Promethean vitality and unbridled commerce: “Spelled in electric fire on the roof are words telling miles of houses and people where to buy a thing for money.” The city constructs its extraordinary accomplishments from the mundane labour undertaken block by block and corner by corner.

Photo by Flickr user Storm Crypt

Photo by Flickr user Storm Crypt

Nearly a century later, the Chicago rapper Common related the story of another part of Chicago in the same way. His song “The Corner” constructs a neighbourhood in the same way Sandburg constructed a skyscraper: from the lives of the people who populate it. “Uncles that smoke and … put blow up they nose” adjunct “niggas rollin’ in droves”; the narrator walks to a store and stops to talk to “hoes,” while his cousins hope rapping will provide them with economic opportunity. Over a dusty beat augmented with snatches of conversation and snippets of melody, as if the music were constructed from the neighbourhood it seeks to describe, a slam poet preaches “The corner was our magic, our music, our politics.” The corner draws life from the people who live around it (“these are the stories told by Stony and Cottage Grove”) and it, in turn, gives and takes life from those people. “The world is cold,” Common raps, but “the block is hot as a stove.” The meaning is twofold: the corner is a refuge from a harsh world, but also a site of conflict and danger (“the block is hot”).

Academic Murray Forman asserts the primacy of place in hip-hop, saying “Space and place are important factors that influence identity formation as they relate to localized practices of the self … in rap, the definition of one’s environment and the urban spaces of home terrain is a conventional aspect of the form” (2004: 155) Forman identifies that individual cities possess distinct sounds and discourses about space and place (2000:208-9) and that the local details in rap songs reveal spaces that are “simultaneously real, imaginary, symbolic, and mythical” (2000:217). Chicago’s music, and particularly its hip-hop, suggests not only the city’s actual features, but also the way its inhabitants live in, think about, and experience the city.

Notably, Chicago adopted hip-hop at a somewhat slower place than many other cities in the nation, and even when hip-hop did attain a cultural foothold there, for much of the genre’s history, very few artists from the city found national success. Throughout the 1980s, hip-hop spread from its New York roots to cities throughout the nation, but Chicago exhibited a level of immunity shared by few other American regions. The presence of an already established local style, the disco-derivation known as House, did much to contribute to this. The City of the Big Shoulders already had an inner-urban soundtrack for its patchwork of high density neighbourhoods and low-income housing projects, and so a natural breeding ground for hip-hop, the third most populous city in the nation and one of the primary foundries for black music throughout the twentieth century, ended up embracing hip-hop relatively lately.

House, an up-tempo, highly rhythmic genre, is party music; it is used as a distraction from the pressures of everyday life. It is concerned with the body and soul, and as Thornton notes, “whereas white or European dance music is about a futuristic celebration and revelation of technology … black dance musics are more likely to be rooted in local urban scenes and neighbor ‘hoods … These specific places anchor and authenticate music, render it tangible and real” (in Devereaux 2007). As music journalist Nick Barat noted in an article for the magazine Fader, “it’s easy to forget that house music is inherently an urban art form. Despite the fact that in the rest of the world, house was both appropriated by shirt-averse white folks and almost completely overshadowed by mainstream hip-hop, the sound was born in Chicago hoods and never really died out there” (2007). House, being specifically Chicagoan, acts as a cultural locus for the city, a shared liberation from environmental realities.

While the following theorising is only speculative, the initial and enduring popularity of house could well be due, at least in part, to the high level of poverty and violence in Chicago. Cities with similarly high levels of violent crime, such as Baltimore and Washington D.C., share with Chicago an appreciation for fast-paced dance music. Baltimore’s local style, a house derivative known as Club, is frequently portrayed by its city’s residents as light-hearted, fun music. A song by Baltimore Club DJ Rod Lee titled “Dance My Pain Away” makes this connection explicit, as does a quote by Baltimore rapper Labtekwon: “Club Music is not just ‘get high, wild out’ music. People use the music to dance and purge all the demons in their normal lives. We sweat our pain and sorrow out on the dance floor … We use this music as a point of refuge and cleansing” (in Devereaux 2007). It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that house music plays a similar role in Chicago’s culture; dance transforming hardship into transcendence.

This is in decided contrast to the more reflective aspects of Chicago hip-hop, illustrated by one of the city’s earliest rap songs, Sugar Ray Dinke’s “Cabrini Green Rap.” The rapper uses the song to commemorate a friend who was murdered in the titular public housing development. Entirely lacking the kinetic themes of house music, the song’s grim subject reflected, rather than transcended, the artist’s environment. Lyrically, it is a eulogy: “One of my best friends got shot in the back/Trying to get out of his Cabrini Green shack … I’ll never forget my man Larry Parkes.”

As hip-hop became more common-place within Chicago, the city put its own stamp on the genre. A dance music evolving from House, Juke, is known for having even more rapid tempos than its progenitor, in the range of 140 to 160 beats per minute rather than House’s traditional 120. “It caught on heavy at basement parties and teen events,” Barat says, and quotes a local DJ, Puncho, who explains the nomenclature: “’When we would be at parties, we’d hear girls like, ‘They jukin in there’ or ‘We gonna go get our juke on’’” (Barat 2007). Juking has a strong performative aspect; it is athletic, youth-oriented and competitive, features it shares with hip-hop dancing in general (Hazzard-Donald 1996: 510-11). Even when the out-of-town import of hip-hop gained a presence in Chicago, the city determinedly retained its local traditions.

Juke track “Watch My Feet” by Chicago duo Dude N Nem

If Chicago dance music, and hip-hop/dance hybrids are focused on the body and soul, its hip-hop has a distinct, though not exclusive, fondness for the intellectual¹. The city’s most commercially successful rapper Kanye West, used two lines to frame his career approach on his debut single “Through the Wire”: “What if somebody from the Chi that was ill got a deal on the hottest rap label around/But he wasn’t talking ‘bout coke and birds, it was more like spoken word.” West had indeed garnered a contract with the highly respected Roc-a-Fella label, and though his rapping was quite unlike the spoken word style of poetry that had simultaneously arisen from the Windy City’s streets, he does have a deserved distinction of being more complex than the average rapper, even if in true Chicago fashion, he retains a reputation for egoism notable even within a notably self-promoting genre like hip-hop (“I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go” he casually assures his listeners in one song).

Indeed the conflict between West’s spiritual desires and his material impulses are one of the central themes of his work. “You know what the Midwest is?” he asks in the devout “Jesus Walks,” and answers his question: “Young and restless/Where reckless niggas might snatch your necklace.” West, as Obama did, turns to the church to find hope within his city’s rough streets. He later puns on the Bible’s Psalm 23, saying he “walk[s] through the valley of Chi where death is/the top floor view alone will leave you breathless.” He conceives Chicago as at once daunting and awe-inspiring; the self-assurance the rapper displays throughout his catalogue is his version of, in Sandburg’s words “singing so proud to be alive and so coarse and strong and cunning.”

The spoken word poetry West refers to in “Through the Wire” is slam poetry, a working class, literary counterpart to the musical form of hip-hop. It originated in Chicago in 1986, when construction worker Marc Smith arranged with Dave Jemilo, owner of a local Jazz club, to host a weekly poetry competition (Weber 1999, NPS 2008). Slam poetry’s focus is on the performance rather than the text exclusively, and its lively, declamatory and competitive qualities make it a distinctively Chicagoan art form, even as its popularity spreads around the world. At once high-minded, and in its working class origins, decidedly populist, it belongs squarely within the artistic landscape of the City of the Big Shoulders. Slam Poetry is designed to allow its participants to prove themselves before an audience, and it suits the Chicago propensity for bluster.

And Chicago has no shortage of braggadocio. In the mid-19th Century, the city’s politicians would boast of their hometown’s natural advantages, and the surety they had that Chicago would become the Metropolis of the West surely helped to make it so. Grasping at all opportunities to transform the city into a teeming centre of manufacturing and culture, they helped turn open prairie into a skyscraper forest of commerce and industry. In Chicago, even at the toughest moments, the mere existence of its self-mythology provides the basis for the city’s reality. The hardships and unglamorous surrounds of the city do not suppress the pride and ambition of its citizens; they fuel it. This is why even Chicago’s most inspiring successes seem hard-earned; the city’s greatness and poorness is constructed block by block, industry by industry and vote by vote.


¹This is necessarily an oversimplification. Chicago also has a history of gangsta rap, some of which exhibits less intellectual qualities. Nonetheless, I believe the city’s artists do tend to demonstrate a fondness for the cerebral.


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