The book is a tour of the people of Chicago, those who have been Kotlowitz’s guide into this city’s – and by inference, this country’s – heart. Chicago, after all, is America’s city. Kotlowitz introduces us to the owner of a West Side soul food restaurant who believes in second chances, a steelworker turned history teacher, the “Diego Rivera of the projects,” and the lawyers and defendants who populate Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building. These empathic, intimate stories chronicle the city’s soul, its lifeblood.
This new edition features a new afterword from the author, which examines the state of the city today as seen from the double-paned windows of a pawnshop. Ultimately, Never a City So Real is a love letter to Chicago, a place that Kotlowitz describes as “a place that can tie me up in knots but a place that has been my muse, my friend, my joy.”
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Never a City So Real
MY FATHER-IN-LAW, JACK WOLTJEN, SOLD EUCALYPTUS oil. He hawked it in two-ounce bottles at flea markets and county fairs. He took orders over the phone and then the Internet, and convinced local health stores to carry it. And he handed out samples to friends and strangers alike, including to his neighbors and the UPS man.
Jack named the oil, which was extracted from an Australian eucalyptus tree, V-Vax, derived from the Latin word vivax, which means tenacious for life. He believed it soothed bee stings and burns, that it cured everything from the common cold to kidney stones; he was also convinced that it helped slow the progress of AIDS. A confident, easygoing man who rarely got flustered, Jack could — and did — persuade almost everyone he met of V-Vax's curative properties. My wife, to this day, uses it for cold sores. Because the medicinal oil would eat through plastic, Jack had to package it in glass bottles. But he made a point of telling anyone who'd listen that he drank the stuff. Every morning, he poured a few drops into his orange juice. "I down it like a shot of whiskey, just like John Wayne," he once told a reporter for a local weekly.
Chicago, after all, is a place of passion and hustle, or as the early explorer René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, wrote: "The typical man who grows up here must be an enterprising man. Each day as he rises he will exclaim, 'I act, I move, I push.'" And so my wife's father was celebrated here, for his entrepreneurial spirit and for his unwavering belief in himself. One of Jack's longtime friends told me, "I was never completely convinced of the healing power of V-Vax, but Jack was such a strong and caring person, and he never seemed to have any doubt that just his touch would have a healing effect, eucalyptus oil or not. He used to persuade elderly women that V-Vax had restorative powers. He didn't do this disrespectfully — he really believed it. He wasn't conning anyone. He said the women loved the feel of it on their hands."
Jack was a ruggedly handsome man, and I can easily imagine those elderly women swooning over him. At six foot two, he was built like an oak, firm and straight-backed. Even into his seventies, he ran five miles a day. He had an open and empathic face, and more often than not he was in high spirits. He also had an uncanny ability to make everyone feel as if he shared a special intimacy with them. Even when Jack got angry, which was usually out of indignation rather than due to some personal slight, his eyes still flickered with a measure of mischievousness.
Jack did things his way. He hung posters of paintings by the masters in his house, and while he thought that these works were good, they weren't as good as they could be. In a Matisse, he whited out a line he thought didn't belong. In a Gauguin, he added a cat. Just about all Jack listened to was Pink Floyd, and at his funeral, his children played The Wall on a boombox, much to the priest's dismay.
Jack, who died in 1999, personified the city, a place eternally in transition, always finding yet another way to think of itself, a city never satisfied. It's a city marked by its impermanence, though unlike, say, Los Angeles, which is regularly scorched and scarred and shattered by natural forces, Chicago's metamorphoses are generally shaped by human hands, the Great Fire of 1871 notwithstanding. It's a practical place — a city of necessity — where man has actually beaten nature. In 1900, for instance, when it became apparent that the sewage flowing from the Chicago River into Lake Michigan might contaminate the drinking water, the city simply reversed the flow of the river.
Jack loved the city for its ingenuity, as well as for its easygoing demeanor. "I can't see why anyone would want to live anywhere else in the world," he used to say. And he relished its tussles, large and small. He hustled, peddling his V-Vax, embracing the underdog, finding ways to reinvent himself — not for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, but rather because life is short and sometimes another path seems enticing and just worth the try.
Jack was born in Chicago, where he spent much of his youth (minus some years in Green Bay, Wisconsin). Raised a devout Catholic, in his twenties he entered Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in the blue hills of Kentucky. His novice master was the theologian and author Thomas Merton. Gethsemani required a vow of silence, and at dinner if you wanted salt, you had to stare hard at the shaker until another brother noticed. One day, cutting down a tree, Jack couldn't contain himself. He held his head back and roared, "Timber." After that, his days at the monastery were numbered. Within a couple of years, he had married, and he and his young wife, Fran, who herself had just spent a year in a nunnery, opened a Catholic Worker farm in eastern Missouri for recovering alcoholics.
Jack and Fran eventually had nine children together, and found their way back to Chicago, where they settled in Austin, a neighborhood at the city's farthest western reaches, a collection of wood-framed single-family homes and grand-looking churches. The eleven of them lived in a three-bedroom home with one bathroom. Shortly after they moved in, in 1965, the complexion of Austin changed virtually overnight. As black families began buying into the neighborhood, realtors, in a scheme that became known as "blockbusting," deliberately frightened whites into selling. Blockbusting was a rather simple yet utterly destructive tactic. First, a realtor would buy a home on an all-white street, and move in a black family. Then, the white families on the block would panic, selling their homes to the realtor at bargain-basement prices. The realtor would then make a hefty profit by turning around and selling them to more black families. But Jack and Fran insisted on staying in Austin, and they made a show of it, joining civil rights marches through Chicago's segregated neighborhoods.
My wife remembers one rally her father took her to, where, at the age of ten, she clutched Ralph Abernathy's hand, trying to hide her face from her best friend's father, who was screaming racial epithets at the marchers from the curb. "Go-a back-a where you came from," the angry refugees from Eastern Europe's communism yelled at the blacks, refugees themselves from the Jim Crow south. This city is the story of newcomers, the Irish, Poles, Croats and Serbs, Mexicans, and more recently Asians and Africans, but in the end it's defined by race, by a history that is by turn ugly and celebratory, from the 1919 race riots to the 1983 election of the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington. Even milestones such as Washington's election come at a cost, though; it was marked by the ugliest and most divisive of campaigns, in which Washington's opposition rallied voters with the slogan, "Before It's Too Late."
In the 1960s and '70s, white landlords wouldn't rent to blacks. Jack didn't think that was right. And so he did what he could to force their hand. Working for a local fair-housing organization, Jack invented "testing" — a benign appellation, given the ugliness it uncovered. A black couple would try to rent an apartment and inevitably be turned down. Then Jack and a colleague posing as his wife would try to rent the same place, usually successfully. A lawsuit would follow. Among the white parents in the neighborhood Jack became known as "the underground spy for the spooks," an accusation he was perfectly comfortable with.
Jack eventually gave up that work to sell his V-Vax, as well as a lens cleaner that he liked to boast was used by NASA. Jack and Fran divorced in 1975, and a few years later, he and his new wife bought a three-flat on Elston Avenue, along the Chicago River. (Long before it was popular, Jack would launch his wood canoe from the riverbank nearby, pushing past the used condoms and floating beer bottles. Today, it's considerably cleaner and you can rent not only canoes but, no kidding, gondolas.) Jack bottled the V-Vax in his garage, running feeder tubes down from twenty-five steel drums that he stored on the second floor of his home. On holidays, the family would gather at the house on Elston Avenue, and Jack would regale us with stories of his antics, most of which we knew by heart.
Jack always, it seemed, pursued oversized ventures. Once the columnist Mike Royko held a kite contest along Lake Michigan, and Jack built one so large that the string tore the skin from his children's hands. (My wife remembers her father planning to use the kite to tow his canoe across the lake, but she can't recall whether, in fact, he ever tried it.) Another time, he hooked up the family's Alaskan malamute, Michi, to a sled he built, and had him pull two of the girls. He was so proud of this achievement that he called the Chicago Daily News, which ran a photo on its front page. Jack liked to boast that he was the one who first raised questions about the killing of the Black Panthers' twenty-one-year-old Fred Hampton and twenty-two-year-old Mark Clark. On December 4, 1969, thirteen policemen stormed the young men's West Side home. The police contended that the Panthers had opened fire on them, inviting newspaper reporters to take pictures of the bullet holes that had allegedly come from the Panthers' firearms. The police, undoubtedly feeling cocky about their conquest, kept Hampton's home open; in the following days, lines of people paraded through the apartment, including Jack — who, upon examining the contour of the "bullet holes," realized they'd been made by a hammer and nail. Jack said it was he who alerted the newspapers, and, indeed, a subsequent FBI investigation found that the Panthers had fired one bullet whereas the police had fired as many as ninety-nine.
On occasion, I'll be somewhere, and it'll come up in conversation that I'm married to a Woltjen. "Jack's daughter?" they'll ask. I'll tell them yes, and they'll smile and inevitably pass along some story. "He was," said a friend of his, "one of a kind."
When Jack's wife sold their house after his death, my wife decided she wanted only one item: a sculpture her father had erected in his side yard. Its design is simple: an anvil hanging by a thin cable from a tall wooden pole floats a foot above a metal dish filled with bird seed. I suppose that my wife has plans to reconstruct it in our backyard someday. I'm not sure — I'm afraid to ask. Jack once told a reporter, "When the birds come, they kind of look up nervously at the anvil while they eat. I think it's a beautiful juxtaposition of power and fragility." The same might be said of his chosen city.
CHICAGO IS A STEW of contradictions. Coarse yet gentle. Idealistic yet restrained. Grappling with its promise, alternately cocky and unsure. Nelson Algren — himself a bar of discordant notes — wrote in his prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make, "Once you've come to be a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." An imperfect place, Chicago is America's city; it dreams America's dream.
Chicagoans, it has been said, are tribal, living among their own, a city of insiders whose entire identity is wrapped up in their neighborhood or parish. (I once asked the chief judge at criminal court where he was from, and he replied "Lady of Lourdes" as if that would assist me in placing him.) The former chief of staff for the city's current mayor once laughingly told me that he never felt a part of the City Hall gang because, as they would frequently remind him, he wasn't from Bridgeport, the southwest neighborhood where the mayor and his cronies hailed from. Indeed, Rand McNally sells one poster-size map that breaks the city into 198 neighborhoods (it's over 200 if you count a few it missed), each defined by ethnicity, race, or class, each distinct from the other, some with straightforward designations like Ukrainian Village, Greektown, and Andersonville. A. J. Liebling, in a series of New Yorker pieces on the city in the 1950s, mistook this small-town quality for provincialism. He derisively referred to Chicago as "the Second City." Contrary to popular perception (and Liebling's claims) Chicagoans didn't take offense. In fact, eight years later, the city's premier comedy troupe — which spawned the likes of John Belushi, Joan Rivers, and Bill Murray — adopted the name, which has become a sort of rallying cry. One longtime newspaper columnist here recently said of Chicago's "Second City" status, "We don't give a fuck. We like it." Chicagoans are also a succinct people.
For all of Chicago's reputation as an insular place, it has, in fact, been molded if not defined by outsiders, people whose unconventionality flourished because there was no one to tell them to operate any other way. It's why Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan changed the face of American architecture in Chicago and not in, say, Boston or New York. It's why Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck formed their catalogue companies here, transforming rural America. And it's why Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and Saul Alinsky were able to raise hell, and in doing so push us to rethink the place of the dispossessed. It's a city that doesn't presume. It's a democratic city. Expansive and exposed. There's nothing false about it, no pretense. It is as you see it. Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, wrote that "it steals, helps, gives and cheats," and does so with more zest than any other city in the world. (Wright also wrote that Chicago is "the known city," suggesting that it had been examined and scrutinized, talked about and considered more than any other modern-day metropolis, which makes writing about it somewhat daunting.)
I'm an accidental Chicagoan. I grew up in New York, a city that thinks it's the center of the universe, which it is. I never felt that I truly belonged to New York. It's a place obsessed with status. Money. Beauty. Power. It's how you're measured there. Everybody, though, finds a place in Chicago. People are taken for who they are, not for what they have or haven't achieved. This is, after all, a city first settled by people running from failure or pursuing a buck; it's America's original pioneer town. As historian Donald L. Miller points out in his book City of the Century, when Chicago was first settled in the early 1800s, it was a mud hole, a windswept prairie marsh so inhospitable that the Miami Indians chose to settle elsewhere. The original settlers were, writes Miller, "rogues and roustabouts." Then the hundred-mile-long Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor was completed in 1848, connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, and the city became the nation's center of commerce, luring land and commodities speculators as well as builders of railroads, factories, and stockyards. Chicago soon became the destination for a cascade of immigrant groups, and in the twentieth century the terminus for African-Americans fleeing the South and for farm boys looking to earn a living butchering hogs or rolling steel.
I came here because as a journalist I thought it would be a good perch from which to peer into America's heart, but I didn't expect to find a home here. I expected to stay a year, maybe two. It's been twenty, and counting.
THE ITALIAN SOCIOLOGIST Marco d'Eramo writes, "Chicago expresses the truth about the United States." Which truths, then, have I chosen to include here? I'm going to admit right up front: This is a skewed and incomplete view of the city. I won't pretend otherwise. When I told fellow Chicagoans what I was doing, they each had their notions about what should and shouldn't be included, and they'd grumble and grouse. Inevitably, they'd say, "How can you write a book about Chicago, and not write about ... ?" Fill in the blank. Chicagoans are a possessive sort. They have set notions of how people ought to think of their home. Some feel that if this book is to be considered a source for visitors to Chicago, it ought to include all the obvious sites: Buckingham Fountain, the Magnificent Mile, Wrigley Field, the Garfield Park Conservatory, and the Loop (which is how Chicagoans refer to their downtown because it is encircled by the tracks of the elevated train system, the El). Others believe that it ought to revel in the flowering of the city. In the 1990s, Richard M. Daley, son of the Boss, the late mayor Richard J. Daley, planted three hundred thousand trees — honey locust, hackberry, linden, mountain ash, elm, sycamore, flowering pear, ash, and Norway and silver maples. In 1996, he traveled to Paris, fell in love with it, returned home, and had the city hang hundreds of flower boxes from lampposts and bridges. By the end of the decade, he had the park district each year sowing 544,000 plants, 9,800 perennials, 156,000 bulbs, and 4,600 shrubs. This city of big shoulders is beginning to look more like a city with curves.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Never a City So Real"
Copyright © 2019 Alex Kotlowitz.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsNever a City So Real
Oil Can Eddie
Millie and Brenda
Give Them What They Want
It Takes All Kinds
Isn’t That the Corniche? Afterword
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A good quick read. Like several long feature articles about different people and places in Chicagoland.
Alex Kotlowitz loves Chicago. You will too after reading this book.
A good quick read. Like several long feature articles about different people and places in Chicagoland.
rent 100$ a month
Growing up in the Northwest side of Chicago, there were many things I never knew about the city. After reading this book, I was privileged with knowing about the people of the city, not just the ones that surrounded me in the Jefferson Park area of town. Through the use of people, Alex Kotlowitz makes the story of the city jump with excitement. Hearing the stories of the old steel mill workers to the troubles of Cicero, you see how these people have been affected. If you want to know a little on Chicago history, I urge you to read this book.
Based on Kotlowitz's previous books, I expected something that hit a lot harder. This book is more about characters in certain neighborhoods than it is about the city itself. Ignored in the book is the southwest and northwest sides of Chicago. Here the more educated, more affluent, but just as tough residents live. Because the neighborhoods are stable, have good schools and low crime, the author must have found these regions too boring to write about.