For Studs Terkel, Chicago Was a City Called Heaven

Studs Terkel, America’s best-known oral historian, never wavered in his devotion to the Windy City

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Editor's Note, May 16, 2012: Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian, reflected on the character of the city of Chicago for us in 2006. He died in 2008 at the age of 96. Today would have been his 100th birthday.

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders...

Carl Sandburg, the white-haired old Swede with the wild cowlick, drawled out that brag in 1914. Today, he is regarded in more soft-spoken quarters as an old gaffer, out of fashion, more attuned to the street corner than the class in American studies.

Unfortunately, there is some truth to the charge that his dug-out-of-the-mud city, sprung-out-of-the-fire-of-1871 Chicago, is no longer what it was when the Swede sang that song. It is no longer the slaughterhouse of the hang-from-the-hoof heifers. The stockyards have gone to feedlots in, say, Clovis, New Mexico, or Greeley, Colorado, or Logansport, Indiana. It is no longer the railroad center, when there were at least seven awesome depots, where a thousand passenger trains refueled themselves each day; and it is no longer, since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the stacker of wheat.

During all these birth years of the 21st century, the unique landmarks of American cities have been replaced by Golden Arches, Red Lobsters, Pizza Huts and Marriotts, so you can no longer tell one neon wilderness from another. As your plane lands, you no longer see old landmarks, old signatures. You have no idea where you may be. A few years ago, while I was on a wearisome book tour, I mumbled to the switchboard operator at the motel, "Please wake me at 6 a.m. I must be in Cleveland by noon." Came the response: "Sir, you are in Cleveland." That Chicago, too, has so been affected is of small matter. It has been and always will be, in the memory of the 9-year-old boy arriving here, the archetypal American city.

One year after Warren G. Harding's anointment, almost to the day, the boy stepped off the coach at the La Salle Street depot. He had come from east of the Hudson and had been warned by the kids on the Bronx block to watch out for Indians. The boy felt not unlike Ruggles, the British butler, on his way to Red Gap. Envisioning painted faces and feathered war bonnets.

August 1921. The boy had sat up all night, but was never more awake and exhilarated. At Buffalo, the vendors had passed through the aisles. A cheese sandwich and a half-pint carton of milk was all he had during that twenty-hour ride. But on this morning of the great awakening, he wasn't hungry.

His older brother was there at the station. Grinning, gently jabbing at his shoulder. He twisted the boy's cap around. "Hey, Nick Altrock," the brother said. He knew the boy knew that this baseball clown with the turned-around cap had once been a great pitcher for the White Sox. The boy's head as well as his cap was awhirl.

There was expensive-looking luggage carried off the Pullmans. Those were the cars up front, a distant planet away from the day coaches. There were cool Palm Beach-suited men and even cooler, lightly clad women stepping down from these cars. Black men in red caps—all called George—were wheeling luggage carts toward the terminal. My God, all those bags for just two people. Twentieth Century Limited, the brother whispered. Even got a barbershop on that baby.

There were straw suitcases and bulky bundles borne elsewhere. These were all those other travelers, some lost, others excitable in heavy, unseasonal clothing. Their talk was broken English or a strange language or an American accent foreign to the boy. Where were the Indians?


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