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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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.


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