For Studs Terkel, Chicago Was a City Called Heaven | People & Places | Smithsonian
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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During all these birth years of the 21st century, the unique landmarks of American cities have been replaced by Golden Arches, Red Lobsters, Pizza Huts and Marriotts, so you can no longer tell one neon wilderness from another.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?

This was Chicago, indubitably the center of the nation's railways, as the Swede from Galesburg had so often sung out. Chicago to Los Angeles. Chicago to Anywhere. All roads led to and from Chicago. No wonder the boy was bewitched.

Chicago has always been and still is the City of Hands. Horny, calloused hands. Yet, here they came: the French voyageurs; the Anglo traders; the German burghers many of whom were the children of those dreamers who dared dream of better worlds. So it was that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra came into being; one of the world’s most regarded. It was originally Teutonic in its repertoire; now it is universal.

They came, too, from Eastern Europe as Hands. The Polish population of Chicago is second only to that of Warsaw. They came from the Mediterranean and from below the Rio Grande; and there was always the inner migration from Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee. The African-American journalist, grandson of slaves, spoke with a touch of nostalgia, memories of his hometown, Paris. That is, Paris, Tennessee. "Out in the fields, we'd hear the whistle of the Illinois Central engineer. OOOweee! There goes the IC to—Chica-a-ago!" It was even referred to in the gospel song "City Called Heaven."

The city called heaven, where there were good jobs in the mills and you did not have to get off the sidewalk when a white passed by. Jimmy Rushing sang the upbeat blues, "Goin' to Chicago, Baby, Sorry I Can’t Take You."

Here I came in 1921, the 9-year-old, who for the next 15 years lived and clerked at the men's hotel, the Wells-Grand. (My ailing father ran it, and then my mother, a much tougher customer, took over.)

To me, it was simply referred to as the Grand, the Chicago prototype of the posh pre-Hitler Berlin Hotel. It was here that I encountered our aristocrats as guests: the boomer firemen, who blazed our railroad engines; the seafarers who sailed the Great Lakes; the self-educated craftsmen, known as the Wobblies but whose proper name was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Here in our lobby, they went head-to-head with their bêtes noires, the anti-union stalwarts, who tabbed the IWW as the acronym of "I Won't Work."

Oh, those were wild, splendiferous debates, outdoing in decibel power the Lincoln-Douglas bouts. These were the Hands of Chicago making themselves heard loud and clear. It was the truly Grand Hotel, and I felt like the concierge of the Waldorf-Astoria.

There were labor battles, historic ones, where the fight for the eight-hour day had begun. It brought forth the song: "Eight hours we'd have for working, eight hours we"d have for play, eight hours for sleeping, in free Amerikay." It was in Chicago that the Haymarket Affair took place and four men were hanged in a farcical trial that earned our city the world's opprobrium. Yet it is to our city's honor that our governor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the three surviving defendants in one of the most eloquent documents on behalf of justice ever issued.

The simple truth is that our God, Chicago's God, is Janus, the two-faced one. One is that of Warner Brothers movie imagination, with Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson as our sociopathic icons. The other is that of Jane Addams, who introduced the idea of the Chicago Woman and world citizen.

It was Chicago that brought forth Louis Sullivan, whom Frank Lloyd Wright referred to as Lieber Meister. Sullivan envisioned the skyscraper. It was here that he wanted to touch the heavens. Nor was it any accident that young Sullivan corresponded with the elderly Walt Whitman, because they both dreamed of democratic vistas, where Chicago was the city of man rather than the city of things. Though Sullivan died broke and neglected, it is his memory that glows as he is recalled by those who followed Wright.

What the 9-year-old boy felt about Chicago in 1921 is a bit more mellow and seared. He is aware of its carbuncles and warts, a place far from Heaven, but it is his town, the only one he calls home.

Nelson Algren, Chicago's bard, said it best: "Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real."

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