Book Review—Go Down, Moser: Way Down in Chicagoland

Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis

By Whet Moser

Reaktion Books Ltd.

Does full-disclosure apply to Twitter acquaintances? If so, I know Whet Moser from the internet.

I don’t follow many people. When the number exceeds 100, I experience brain smog, induced by too many voices screeching simultaneously. I like comics, but I don’t need a hundred dweebs kvetching about mistakes in the latest Marvel movie. I like photos of “chonky” animals being friends, eating raspberries, and such like, but too many dilutes the kawaii. And while I very much like to read Chicago tweets, Twitter is filled with Richard Nickel wannabes photographing every brick and stick laid against one another, and grumpy grad students more interested in building footprints than gathering stories from old Chicagoans. I’ve pruned my Twitter tree of these, but always left @whet. Why? Because he provides measured amounts of Chicago lore that are inevitably new and interesting. I don’t always agree with him, but he makes it worth my while.

Moser brings that brevity and earnest scholarship to his first book, Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis. The title suggests a 900-page thesis, punching in the heavyweight class of  The Encyclopedia of Chicago or William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Not so, but this trim skimming of the city’s history and persona gives the impression of a much larger book. While a survey doesn’t allow for in-depth analysis of the whys and wherefores of its subject, Moser—with a few exceptions—tackles much ably in his limited space. He neatly exposes and dissects multiple Second City clichés, decreeing the city’s famous cheesy tomato crust slabs to be more of a casserole, and revealing the slightly shady history of the contest to design the city’s sparse yet popular flag—for the best, it turns out. He sometimes walks well-trodden ground, but as his bit on tourist flytrap Navy Pier shows, he’s thoughtful even about the dreck. What’s more, he repeatedly proves the existence of neighborhoods beyond the Loop, citing the heretofore unmentioned areas of Chatham, Jefferson Park, and others. Oh my, yes, there is much going on here.

The book is separated into two parts: Chicago as it was, and as it is. Reaktion Books’ Cityscopes series seems to offer urban deep dives for tourists and transplants, profiling its subject cities beyond the usual sites and sights. Moser is up to the challenge, though on rare occasions he and the city itself can come up short. Then again, and as I’ll discuss later, he might be making a point of how the former stacker of wheat, butcher of hogs, and player with railroads has slowly become Babs Jansen, giver of tours.

The historical section is compact and fat-free, summarizing history without sacrificing the meat. All the greatest hits are here: the Fire, the World’s Fairs, Capone, the ’68 Democratic National Convention, seeded with intriguing yet never extraneous facts and insights. Attention is paid to our unsung heroes and villains. Original Chicagoan Jean Baptiste DuSable doesn’t simply pop up, trade a bit, then disappear. We see an early instance of gentrification in fact when the French/Haitian DuSable was (likely) shooed off his lands and white settler/trader/murderer John Kinzie moved in. Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough—water systems planner and Chicago River-reverser—whose efforts ensured cleaner water and fewer cholera outbreaks, gets his due. Moser covers the big names like Jane Addams, Daniel Burnham, and Mayor Richard J. Daley, but also profiles less-well-known (at least to newcomers and outsiders) personages like landscape architect Jens Jensen, oral historian Studs Terkel, and former Mayor Harold Washington—who seems due for a revival these days. Stepping out of Chicago history’s well-worn grooves is deeply refreshing.

History marched on…and by mid-century multiple sociological and urban planning studies marched in, to Moser’s scholarly delight. By the ’70s we encounter paragraphs like:

“In 1970 Chicago alone had just shy of 5 percent of all the manufacturing jobs in America. By 1980 that fell to less than 4 percent. From 1970 to 1987 the Chicago region lost 250,000 manufacturing jobs. Unemployment was just 3.9 percent in the city in 1970, one point below the national unemployment rate and one-tenth of a point below that of the metropolitan area. Just two years later it was 6.3 percent, seven-tenths of a point higher than the national rate and a full 1.2 percentage  points higher than the metro rate. In 1980 it was 11.3 percent, three points higher than the metro rate and 4.2 points higher than the national rate.”

Which, while pertinent and interesting is slightly jarring after the storytelling of the previous chapters. Moser switches from griot to wonk. Fair enough: Chicago’s story changes after the ’60s, from one of growth to survival, and we begin to hear the old canard of how Daley Sr. saved the city from the fate of the rest of the Rust Belt by concentrating his efforts on the downtown area, drawing in the financial sector, and turning the Loop into a boomtownlet. But Moser doesn’t award Daley Sr. the laurel that easily.

“Daley’s courting of the city’s business class, and his aggressive redevelopment of the city’s central core—sometimes at great cost to existing neighborhoods and done with a thinly veiled intent to cordon it off from surrounding poverty—succeeded in its goal of retaining and attracting dense commercial development downtown, and gave it a strong foundation for when the rise of finance in the 1980s and’90s, and the rediscovery of urban life by Generation X and millennials, drew the highly mobile yuppies…and eventually their children back.”

Which has been the ongoing revitalization plan for several mayors. The various “Bosses”—I’m looking at you Daleys and Rahm—get plenty, perhaps too much, credit for beautifying the city—like adding chrome to a beater. While he applauds the city’s beautification efforts, Moser notes the price at which they came. He makes mention of the old saying that there are two Chicagos—meaning one black and one white—though he explains how, over time, it’s become more nuanced than that. I mention it because two books are at work here: one a neatly appointed historical/sociological survey, the other a tourist guide for the “new Chicago” promised by Rahm Emanuel, featuring boîtes to eat in, bars in which to wet whistles, and parks to… whatever the verb is for perambulating your offspring with a jogging stroller. Reflecting the city-building, or rather -burnishing, of the Daley, Daley, and Emanuel eras, the book’s “The City Today” section shows what a theme park the town has turned into in just 20 years.

But avoiding the pursuit of safe quirkiness and overexposed, ordinary attractions remains the book’s strength. Moser goes past the flashy new stuff. He takes time to praise the Field Museum’s “The Four Seasons,” a gorgeous diorama showing a family of deer in various stages of growth throughout the year, created by Carl Akeley—chief taxidermist from 1896 to 1909. I suspect shade-throwing on the opposite page in the dismissive caption “A T. Rex skeleton in the Field Museum” beneath a photo of “Sue”.

Bully for Moser too that he honors Chicago’s architectural heritage, but doesn’t stick to Sullivan, Wright, and Burnham. I confess our tastes diverge here. His Mies van der Rohe appreciation disturbs me, and lines like the following made me shine up my rhetorical fists:

“He’s a love-him-or-hate-him architect; his extreme austerity means he’s not as widely beloved as Sullivan and Wright. But the buildings that most define downtown Chicago (and, of course, downtowns in other major cities) owe an obvious debt to Mies even as they departed from his obsession with boxes and grids.”

I’m in the hate-him (wouldn’t want to date him) camp, but I see his point. But really, I thought only his best friends called him Mies.

The only architect he pitches more fannish woo at than van der Rohe is Jeanne Gang. I imagine Moser’s editor had to remove multiple cartoon hearts doodled around Gang’s name in her several appearances in the manuscript.

“…the beloved architectural star Jeanne Gang.”

“…led by Jeanne Gang, one of the world’s great architects.”

“Chicago’s current grand planner, the architect Jeanne Gang.”

Good gravy, son, get a room. Presumably designed by Studio Gang.

He also indulges in oxymorons like “warm Brutalism” and “Brutalist grandeur”, and dares to invoke the word starchitect (referring, yes, to Gang). Some sins are unforgivable—but I’ll let them slide this once. Mostly because Moser backs up his opinions and takes new tacks with hackneyed subjects. Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis may be the first instance I’ve encountered writing on the Cubs and White Sox’s cross-town rivalry that debates the merits of their respective stadiums’ sight-lines, their surrounding neighborhoods’ ambience, and how both add to the experience of seeing live baseball. Elsewhere, he brings the infrastructure heat and thunder, giving Lake Michigan a decent accounting that extends beyond the beaches. He carries off this and other chapters with a spare but evocative journalistic style. Of note, his chapter on riding the El has a clear, gliding poetry, revealing what we’d lose if another eccentric billionaire shows up and succeeds in his pitch for an underground, turbocharged, assumedly invisible time-traveling monorail.

Not every chapter works. Toward the end of “The City Today” section, the book takes a turn from being an analytical/historical survey to a bright but typical visitor’s guide. A chapter on Chicago bar culture begins with an interesting bit on “tied houses,” but ends up becoming a paean to a few familiar sites. The chapter is fine, but so brief you wonder why he bothered. The food chapter is well-considered but cursory. I appreciate one less account of deep dish, Italian beef, and saganaki, but the chapter is attuned to chichi eateries. He cites Chicago Reader writer Elizabeth Tamny’s exploration of the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group and how it prepped Chicago for haute cuisine—which is interesting, though I’m not entirely convinced. Food and drink, I confess, aren’t my favorite subjects, but the brevity of these sections leaves me wanting more. In light of that, this may be the first Chicago city guide that recognizes its Uzbek, Yemeni, and Vietnamese populations, though this too is fleeting, and falls onto the convenient notion of Chicago the food and entertainment city. Maybe Reaktion needs to offer Moser (and Tamny, for that matter) a series of even deeper Chicago dives, exploring Chicago’s neighborhoods to their fullest.

Overall, Moser recognizes the change in his adopted city and its slow transformation into a sparsely populated series of pleasure islands connected by urban-garden paths. Less ethnic than economic cleansing, perhaps, as it becomes obvious who’s being priced out and who’s “allowed” to stay. Moser isn’t another Chicago renewal parrot, squawking about how tourism dollars make everything all better. He’s reporting on what he sees, the bad with the good, the tacky with the timeless.

History ends in Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis, as we see the Second City’s exchange of gritty tactility for smooth, simulated experience. Fine, I’m being dramatic. It hasn’t really ended, so much as become stuck in a repeating loop. Chicago has experienced this sort of revival before. Cosmetic improvement and entertainments as the way to shared utopia, ever since Ferdinand Wythe Peck blithered about how Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Theatre would bring “democratic ideals” to the people of Chicago. As if all the Pullman porters, stevedores, and steer euthanizers would take in the symphony there every other evening. You’d think we’d learn by now.

Today’s Chicago, from Bean to Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., is pure branding. At least the part the tourists see, perpetrated by folks who just want things to be nicer, you know? Lincoln Yards is just the latest incarnation currently being blasted through by human rubber stamps. In parts, especially toward the end, it appears Moser speaks for the forces of nice, describing the urban al pastoral pleasantness of the 606 and whatnot, but I don’t believe he’s thrown in completely. His praise is leavened with pragmatism.

He likes Millennium Park, claiming it has “redefined the urban park” by refusing to “simulate nature” and instead “embrace its own urban nature.” He also notes it was terribly late and extremely over budget. The 606 and other public space prettifications have added luster, but they’ve also caused spikes in gentrification, redevelopment, and rent. Fiddler’s Green Chicago is growing at the expense of neighborhoods that could use a boost—at least those that have yet to be torn down and dispersed. Other subjects you’ll find here but not in other guidebooks: a explanation of TIF districts, and trends toward reconversion of two-flats and three-flats into single-family homes for the well-off, reducing the number of rental spaces. A new Chicago, yes, but who are these new Chicagoans?

What truly makes Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis work is that Moser is a journalist, not a marketing shill. He knows most of the Old Chicago is gone, the remaining residents cosplaying while long-time populations that brought something to the city other than strictly cash, decline. But he finds and presents us with the best of the city’s yesterdays and today. In an appropriate coda, he provides a listing section showing scrupulous taste in unique city merchants, venues, hotels, bars, restaurants and other outside-the-Loop mainstays visitors should skip a day at Navy Pier to enjoy: Margie’s Candies, Quimby’s Bookstore, Honey 1 BBQ, the International Museum of Surgical Science, Thalia Hall, the likely-to-be-obliterated-by-hip-progress The Hideout, and others. Another nice surprise: a nicely curated suggested reading list, recommending the works of Algren, Dybek, Bellow, Obejas, Richard Wright, and others. Really, how many tour guides have you met with the foresight to provide a syllabus?

Overall, Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis is a heaping spoonful taken from a vast bubbling bigos of history, culture, and experience. Just a taste, really, but a rich, complex, and flavorful one.

Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis is available at most bookstores and through Reaktion Books.

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