Rust Belt Chicago collects essays, journalism, fiction, and poetry from more than fifty writers who speak both directly and elliptically to the concerns the city shares with the region at large, and the elements that set it apart. With affection and curiosity, frustration, anger, and joy, the writers sing to each other like the bird on the cover. At times the song sings in harmony and at others sounds in notes of strategic dissonance. But taken as a whole, this book sings one song, responding to one cacophonous city.
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Chicago is a dark jewel on the lake, an implacable garnet, a bristle of quartz towering next to a turquoise expanse. These stones are set in a bezel of grey highway. A rough backdrop highlights their sparkle as further rings of grey asphalt reach outward, framing a semi-industrial backdrop called Chicagoland.
To an outsider, the word "Chicagoland" might evoke a theme park where you can ride the Capone-a-con or the Checker-Club Blues Experience, where you'd line up to buy eight dollar hot dogs on a poppyseed roll with relish and a pickle and then hug a plush-costumed figure dressed like Jane Addams. If Chicagoland were a theme park, I would pay to visit, and then I would feel empty, wanting the ineffable that would be absent.
I grew up in New Lenox, Illinois — twenty-four miles from the nearest edge of the city limits. To explain and locate New Lenox, I say, "It's far southwest of the city, right next to Joliet. You know: Blues Brothers, the prison," and people all around the world nod and say, "I've driven through there on I-80."
Am I a suburban kid claiming affiliation with a city I only drove into for grade-school museum trips and supervised parental expeditions to buy Christmas chocolate at the old evergreen-colored Marshall Field's? Yes. Kind of. I am also someone who took high-school drives to see bands at the Cabaret Metro on Clark Street, who drove up to play indoor soccer and drove home on the cold highways alone, listening to Paul Butterfield on the radio and absorbing the blues, taking for granted that the night in every city would be soaked in such wailing and ache. My friends and I drove downtown aimlessly, not having money to actually do anything and not knowing what to do, then driving home. I am someone who later took the train in to work, then still later moved into the city, crossing a divide and falling in love with the neighborhoods knit together by the L.
I am not from Chicago, but I am from Chicagoland.
At first, I couldn't explain what I meant — I just knew.
Back when my husband was my boyfriend, he overheard me tell a stranger I was from Chicago. He scoffed at me in that gentle mocking I seem to invite from the world at large. "You're from corn, not Chicago," he might have said.
"No," I replied, insistent, maybe rising from my seat to express something with a finger upheld, putting something into words that up until now might never have needed to be uttered: "No, I am actually from a place that is called ... Chicagoland."
He joked with me: "I'm from about two hours west of Pittsburgh. Is that Far East Chicago?"
"No!" I said. There is no East Chicago in Chicago. It's just the lake. Though just across the border is East Chicago, Indiana — which is somehow, inchoate in my mind, also Chicagoland. He drew a rough map on a scrap piece of paper. I tried to sketch the boundaries and he reached in with a pen to circle the entire Midwest.
It turns out we were both right.
The friendly round-faced man with glasses and a work shirt who appeared on our Zenith television told me as a child that Empire Carpet served greater Chicagoland. Invisible ladies' voices sang a number — "588-2300: EMPIRE!" — that I remember even when I cannot remember the phone number of either of the homes where I grew up.
Chicagoland was built by advertising, tentacles of transit, and waves of immigration lapping on the prairie's shore. Colonel Robert R. McCormick, Chicago Tribune editor and publisher, is said to have put the term "Chicagoland" into common usage in 1926 on the paper's front page: "Chicagoland's Shrines: A Tour of Discoveries." He gave this gritty kingdom a name and claimed that his land reached out 200 miles in every direction to include parts of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Iowa.
Today the Tribune defines Chicagoland as the city itself plus all of Cook County, eight Illinois counties including Will, and two counties across the line in Indiana. The Illinois Department of Tourism plucks Chicago out and describes Chicagoland as the remaining portion of Cook County plus Lake, DuPage, Kane, and Will. The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce is inclusive: the city plus its ring of six counties.
Today in Chicago, the term "Chicagoland" is a practical and unselfconscious term of internal reference. Businesses use it to denote their locations, phone companies and government agencies and transit authorities use it to describe their coverage and service areas.
I don't know whether the north suburbs call themselves Chicagoland, or whether they need to. I know they have distinct and glowing identities all on their own. You can say "Evanston" and people know well enough: Northwestern University and a "beautiful town."
New Lenox, while beautiful in its own humble way, is not "beautiful." It is a former farm town in Will County that has aged in mildly horrific ways like a cheap facelift. We are an affordable bedroom community, and our face has frozen lumps of botox McMansions studded in between the wrinkles of vinyl-sided older neighborhoods that used to be the only places to live. We are the intersection of I-80 and the third beltway of I375, the economical alternative.
To me, Chicagoland is the unclaimed and unnotable spaces like these, where waves of immigrants settle as they move out of downtown but somehow never escape the city's grasp. Chicago is not present without the liminal space you must cross to get to Chicago, and Chicago is not one of those snooty places that cares whether you are "in" or "out" of a dividing line. Chicago is a bristling dominion that looks out across the corn and goofily, cheekily wants it all.
Chicagoland is a ruined beauty, the roadside that glitters with grit that edges the corn. It is the kingdom bounded by highways that have names instead of numbers: the Edens, Kingery, Lake Shore Drive, the Dan Ryan, the Stevenson. We are the ends to all those roads. Chicagoland is Chicago's garage. We are the long, low, rusted warehouses where Chicago parks its snowplows and stores its extra couches. When Chicago takes off its coat, we hold it. We park its car.
Sometimes I say I am "from Illinois," but that feels as disingenuous as saying I am from "Chicago." I am not a rural kid by nature, nor am I urban. Nor am I suburban, with its connotations of safe, contained experience. Chicagoland anchors the city like a rivet on the Rust Belt. Joliet East High School's mascot was the Steelman. When Chicago turns fitfully in its sleep and remembers steel and the stockyards, Chicagoland nods its head and holds those stories in its contaminated chain-link squares of earth.
Chicagoland is Svengoolie, the weird zombie-clown host on 1980s local Chicago network television who introduced old horror movies and whose signature joke was to simply intone, "Berwyn!" Berwyn is a non-remarkable town due west of the city: take Cermak out past Cicero between the spokes of I-290 to the north and I-55 to the south. If you are from Chicagoland, you know that the drive out will be a stretch of strip malls and a mix of Mexican and Polish delis, Irish bars, fast food joints, nail salons, and auto parts stores. Berwyn once featured a strange tall sculpture called "Spindle" by Dustin Shuler, which was a tall spike on which eight cars were impaled like bugs.
"Spindle" was featured in a drive-by scene in the Mike Myers and Dana Carvey vehicle Wayne's World, which was itself set in Aurora, another Chicagoland town still farther west in the same pie-slice of highway. Chicagoland is Wayne and Garth, two metalheads in a shitty imaginary basement in Aurora, wanting to party but crying instead, "We're not worthy!"
Chicagoland is worthy in its secret ways and will take itself down a notch before you get the chance to. It is in the gleam in Wayne's eye and the pointed edge of the Spindle that was torn down to make way for a Walgreens. Chicagoland either is or is not Chicago itself, and Chicagoland doesn't need to know the answer to that question, because it loves Chicago like nobody else loves Chicago.
LaSalle Wrote It Down Wrong, 1687
gringoed the whole place after/word.
Chicagua wild garlic in Miami Illinois indigenous utterance. some funk music. some rampant weed returning. indefatigable perennial and persistent some dark malignancy.
Chicago is a mass of machinery built upon mass graves the beginning of a long death march an inadequate water down. an erasure, an eraser pink as the whiteman's tongue
PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED IN A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF CHICAGO (HAYMARKET BOOKS, 2017).
A Skillet of Suns and Oceans
I came to Chicago at the end of summer I was there when the first leaves changed colors and each day was a feast of so much beauty I didn't really mind the cold I got pregnant in December and my first trimester was in step with my first winter I didn't know if it was the one or the other but that's when I started craving for the tastes and smells of home and this tantalizingly complex, cultured city felt like a brutal abomination in its foreignness as my husband and I drove past different restaurants in the snow looking for a place to buy Philippine tuyo, stopping every so often so I could vomit on the salt-covered pavement amid the smells of steaks and hotdogs and burgers and gyros and tacos and fried chicken with secret herbs and spices and signature popcorn and the famous deep dish pizza feeling so alienated and alone and when we finally brought home the prized fish that is, in all actuality, a poor man's dish in my native country, I had to cook it with all the windows open in our eighth floor South Side apartment, out of consideration for our neighbors who might be offended by the aroma of sun-dried herring sizzling in corn oil breaths of ice from the lake and its glacial banks accepting the begrudging invitation, filling the place in gusts, coating the walls with frigid non-forgiveness like the inside of sickly lungs and there I was, wearing a two-hundred-dollar wool coat in my own kitchen, defiant, ashamed, homesick and hungry and fretful for the tiny life humming inside me, looking out at a world of too-early nights and frozen roads and seeing but suns and oceans in that skillet, standing in two places at once, nine thousand miles apart.
Notes on Summer (Or, Black Girlhood Is a Thing)
Dummer is fleeting and so am I. The me of a good summer is as temporary as the leaves on the trees, the thick viscosity that glides across our limbs we call "humid air." It is as temporary as a gelato cone, the remnants of which I'll lick off my fingers and down my hand and even across the tattoo on my arm some time later today and tomorrow and for the rest of the days when the heat feels equally brutal and rejuvenating.
When the me of a good summer arrives, I try best not to acknowledge it. To see the fulfillment of hot days and cold drinks pouring down my throat is like spotting an animal in the wild. This momentary thing is lovely and great until it is gone. In reality, I am trying to recapture the me of my youth.
I say I grew up in two places, and that is somewhat true. Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, is where I spent the majority of my time. We first lived in an apartment before purchasing our own home on the southwest side of the town. But, maybe through the lens of nostalgia, I recognize Austin as my home too.
My grandparents live in the Austin neighborhood in a beautiful and traditional American four square house. There, the sidewalks are wide and easy to maneuver. Sometimes I pounce across the concrete of my current hood, crimping my limbs against storefronts and light poles so as not to take up space as others — young mothers with rowdy children and strollers, packs of girlfriends out for a night on the town, aggressive young men looking not for a hand, but a pair of breasts and an ass to grab — pass me by.
But in Austin, I remember how wide the block seemed. Sometimes I sat down on the sidewalk and from my line of vision, the houses reached far beyond where the eye could see. Even now, when I visit as an adult, I can see the history there. When we moved to Oak Park, my sister and I tried to play outdoors, but we largely played inside. This was different than in Austin, where the freedom and joy of girlhood played out on sidewalks and in backyards.
When I say there is history there, I mean there is a history of childhood, of innocence, of the power of play. Our Oak Park block was quiet, but in Austin there was there there. There was the energy born out of time enjoyed. It was something I didn't know I needed until it was not there.
Strongest in my memory is a young girl named Nicole. She lived down the street from my grandmother. She had long, dark, curly hair and a pinched face that I thought was lovely at the time, but makes me wince now. I'm not sure why.
She was older than me, but didn't seem that way. I followed my older sister Kourtney around like a shadow and Nicole in turn did that to me. A part of me was secretly thrilled by this. No longer was I reliant on the whims of someone else. Instead, my ideas of fun, my actions, my words held precedence in the mind of another person. I was a leader who knew it but never got the chance to show it. It was not lost on me too that her name was my sister's middle name. There was a lineage in our girlhood, from the second name of my kin to the first name of my friend.
We played together in summertime, mostly. I was out of school and my parents needed our time to be spent. I remember this not because of the weather, but the amount of play. School is a blur, but summers stand firm in my mind. Play happened when the sun was heaviest. Friendships formed heaviest during this time too.
She followed me around to the corner store where we purchased cheap candies. She followed me a half a block down to the woman who sold sno-cones from her front porch. She followed me as I got into inappropriate arguments with my grandparents' next door neighbor, Mr. Underwood, about things he said that I found dumb. She followed me even as we ran up and down the block. I was a chubby kid, so I think she slowed down to follow me when we did that in particular.
I don't know when we met, but it's difficult to discern most things from one's early childhood. The way memories form during that time is that suddenly something or someone is a part of your life and that is that. So, suddenly Nicole was a part of my life. Suddenly she was there and I didn't question it.
Right now, I am thinking about my grandparents' large backyard. There is a rose bush square in the middle, surrounded by lush grass. My grandparents would inflate a kiddie pool and fill it with cold water running through a hose and we'd jump around and play. Nicole never really said much. Instead, she let me do the talking and talk I did: about how I knew mosquitos had it out for us, about how much better orange slices were than chocolate, about why my grandmother made the best macaroni and cheese in the world and no one could say differently to me.
Most importantly though, Nicole was an actual friend. She was there and she listened and she didn't question one's intentions. She was present. She laughed harder than anyone I knew and stomped her feet when she was stressed. She was human and viable.
"I hate when you are not here," she used to say and I felt the same way.
When you are a child, you need people like that in your life, and when you are an adult, or even just on the cusp of becoming one, you realize how difficult it is to find that in others. Suddenly, the realities of the world strike hard and fast and don't let go. Suddenly, there are responsibilities and sadness and men, hovering over your mind and your limbs, eager to take and take and take until they don't need you anymore. If you find a friend like that and you are not seven, you must hold on to them as much and for as long as possible. The world doesn't spin for young women with sturdy ground to walk on and grow.
Excerpted from "Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology"
Copyright © 2017 Belt Publishing.
Excerpted by permission of Belt Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Beyond the Belt Martha Bayne 7
City of Movement
Chicagoland Sonya Huber 11
Poetry: LaSalle Wrote It Down Wrong, 1687 Kevin Coval 14
Poetry: A Skillet of Suns and Oceans Iris Orpi 15
Notes on Summer (Or, Black Girlhood Is a Thing) Britt Julious 17
How to Buy Bread on Devon Kelly O'Connor McNees 21
Elsewhere in a Flash Kelly Hogan 23
Rust Never Keeps: Notes From the Detroit Diaspora Rob Miller 27
The Last City I Loved: Chicago Zoe Zolbrod 32
Fiction: The Book of Poems by the Lost Birds of Union Station Andrew Hertzberg 38
The Built City
It Is Not Waste All This, Not Placed Here in Disgust, Street after Street Kathleen Rooney 43
Poetry: Locative Andrew Cantrell 46
Where o is State Street Claire Tighe 50
Poetry: Database Raehel Z. Arndt 54
Poetry: Chicago by Water Carol Gloor 56
Beyond the Michigan Sea Garin Cycholl 57
Spectral Shorelines Chloe Taft 61
Cycling Scott Wilson 64
Poetry: Mornings with Sarah Jindra Eileen Favorite 69
Poetry: U.S. 41 Sandra Marchetti 71
The Divided City
North Sider, South Sider, Bi-Sider Bill Savage 73
1964 Red Buick Elaine Hegwood Bowen 77
Poetry: seven years Quraysh Ali Lansana 80
Fun Town: Chicago's Last Amusement Park Jake Austen 81
Poetry: Rogers Park Botanica David Mathews 88
All Sales Final Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin 90
The Pantry Michael A. Van Kerckhove 96
Fiction: Ballast Christine Rice 101
Hard Hat, Lunch Pail: The Myth of Toughness in Chicago Sports David Isaacson 115
Poetry: Disco Demolition, July 12, 1979 Kevin Coval 121
The Carnival Paul Dailing 124
Sixth City Paul Durica 127
The Conflicted City
Victory Auto Wreckers, Moo & Oink, and the Free Wilson Basketball Robert Dean 131
The Sediment of Fear Toni Nealie 136
Poetry: Four Poems Raymond Berry 141
Poetry: Ida B. Wells Testifies in the Ghost Town, 1995-2011 in the rubble of the Ida B. Wells homes Kevin Coval 144
Cotton Cobwebs: Hauntology and History at Stateville, Statesville, and Cook County Jail Logan Breithart 146
How to Win Reparations Yana Kunichoff Sarah Macaraeg 153
Fiction: Sorry Shit Sucks Wyl Villacres 161
The Living City
For Girls Who Straddle Seasons Ola Faleti 169
The Urban Rural Linda Garcia Merchant 171
Poetry: Thorndale in February Jacqvi Zeng 174
Slow Burn: Water, Oil, and Volcanoes in Indiana's Rust Belt Ava Tomasula y Garcia 175
Prairie Water, Lake Sky Gretchen Lida 183
Chicago Water Taxi: Romancing the River Dina Elenbogen 185
Poetry: Late Storm on Lake Michigan Laura Passin 190
City of Migrants
Illiana: Life on a Rust Belt Border Gretchen Kalwainski 193
Not From Around Here Gina Watters 196
Beneath the Willow Tree: The Early Death and Immortal Life of Linda Parker Mark Guarino 199
Last Call: El Trebol and the Cantinas of Pilsen Kari Lydersen 204
Chicago Notebook Ryan Schnurr 211
Poetry: The City Hasn't Killed Everything Sharon Doraberg-Lee 214
Chiasmus: A Narrative of Ascent Rayshcuna Gray 215
Wherever Naomi Huffman 218
CODA: Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List Aleksandar Hemon 221