One evening I was walking in Harajuku, Tokyo’s trendy fashion district, when I noticed a bright neon sign: “CHICAGO.” I went in. There is joy in finding evidence of home when you’re far away, plus a special insider delight in noting what they get wrong, like those palm trees on the sign. Or the fact the store sells used kimonos.
So when an email from the mayor’s office hit my inbox, announcing the “Chicago Not Chicago” publicity initiative, highlighting Chicago’s global impact, I felt ready to play along. Not to snarkily tick off the many ways the world misinterprets Chicago. But to elaborate on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s theme that “Chicago is truly a trailblazing city of firsts” that pulse out of our beating heartland and animate the world.
Where to begin? The city is right to stress architecture, one of Chicago’s most obvious global gifts to the world — Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, a parade of greatness right up to Jeanne Gang. When Tom Cruise does his stunts on the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” that’s a designed-in-Chicago building he’s bouncing off of, created by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Adrian Smith.
Next? Let’s pick music. The first composition considered to be jazz by musical scholars is Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jelly Roll Blues” published in Chicago in 1915; the New Orleans transplant so appreciated the welcome given him by Chicago, which he found not nearly as racist as St. Louis, he renamed the tune “The Chicago Blues.”
I could fill three columns with ways Chicago music rocked the world. The Rolling Stones are one of many bands sprung root and branch from the Chicago sound. Their name, remember, is based on a lyric from a Muddy Waters song, and they came to Chess in 1964 to record his “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” which a year later they reinvented as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
The mayor mentioned cell phones, debuted in the parking lot of Soldier Field. Don’t forget the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction was achieved at the University of Chicago, which also discovered REM sleep while inventing sleep research. Videotape debuted here. And loudspeakers. And shortwave radio.
The most iconic piece of technology to come out of Chicago has to be Shure’s Unidyne Model 55 microphone, its distinctive look inspired by the grill of a 1937 Oldsmobile, a rare piece of electronics almost unchanged for 80 years. To convey that a person in a picture is singing, and not just standing there with their mouth open, a Model 55 microphone is the go-to prop.
We’ve barely scratched the surface. “The Wizard of Oz” was written here. Edgar Rice Burroughs never set foot in Africa but did his research at the Chicago Public Library and the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just as the world gets Chicago wrong, we misinterpret the world. There are no tigers in Africa, which Burroughs learned after “Tarzan of the Apes” appeared in All-Story Magazine in 1912.
I haven’t even suggested the most globally important development to come out of Chicago. It might be a tie, between the Montgomery Ward catalogue (Amazon is really only Ward’s, updated) and the cables carrying animal carcasses through the Union Stockyards, which inspired Henry Ford’s assembly line.
“The idea came in a general way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers use in dressing beef,” Ford said in 1922.
But Neil, you might ask. Is this project not just a distraction from all the terrible things going on in Chicago? The murders and the school crisis and the drip-drip-drip water torture of COVID-19? Are you really falling for this?
Yes, I am. And I’ll tell you why. Because, if I felt we could argue and blame our way out of this situation, I’d be scoffing and crying doom with the best of ’em. And sometimes I am.
But part of saving something is realizing it can be saved and is worth saving. Chicago is both. Like every city in the world, Chicago has always had problems. Big problems. But we’ve always solved those problems, from jacking our city up eight feet to literally raise it out of the mire, to inventing the trunnion and bascule bridges that go over our river. Sometimes those solutions send ripples around the world. It’s happened before, many times. It’ll happen again.