I fell in love again
All things go, all things go
Drove to Chicago
All things know, all things know
Chicago by Sufjan Stevens
Maybe it comes from being born in London (one of the world’s greatest cities, by all definitions), or through punk and hip hop, or too much Marx, but something about the way people built when they were at their most industrious resonates with me. I love castles, forts, barrows, brochs, cathedrals, palaces, and shrines, but they can’t compare with humble brick or sandstone factories, mills, and houses.
When I’m feeling like a pretentious wanker (sometimes following whisky but not always) I might call them temples of human industry and resourcefulness – with concrete high rises as monuments to the engineering genius of human beings past and present, and a model for the future. Listen carefully, it doesn’t come out often, and when it does it’s invariably and hilariously preposterous!
But I’ve never had a chance to explore my relationship with early 20th century skyscrapers until now…
One thing I’ve enjoyed about discovering US history is how the first half of the 20th century (and consequently the second half) is not dominated by The Great War, therefore leaving space for other aspects of life to remain observed, recorded, and reflected upon. US cities form a breathtaking physical record of 20th century capitalism, in a variety of guises: manufacturing, retail, and finance.
For Labor Day weekend I visited Chicago, one of the the 20th Century’s great cities of commerce. Unlike Detroit, most of Chicago is still upstanding, and it’s a bustling modern city packed with growing businesses and a thriving tourist industry. It has all the trappings of the modern urban life: historic monuments, public transportation, landscaped green spaces, cultural institutions, public art, a summer jazz festival, late-night eateries…
And of course, there is Chinatown.
Chicago’s Chinatown has an interesting history, formed as it is from the settlement of Chinese people in the Midwest following flight from persecution on the West Coast. TheAmerican Chinese experience is something that I’ve never had the opportunity to learn about, so I’ve also picked up a book on the subject that I’m hoping to explore in further depth.
The sense of Chinese identity is strong here, although very different from what I know in the UK, given that this community was formed much earlier than the Chinatowns I’m familiar with (I never spent any time in Liverpool Chinatown, which does actually have a similar backstory to Chicago’s). The fare on offer is less familiar, too, although I was still able to find Cantonese egg custard tarts, and red bean mooncake, and my aching soul was soothed.
And I can’t talk about Chicago without talking about trains. They’re a glorious feature of the cityscape, and I was so enamoured with the views of the tracks appearing between buildings, spanning multiple lanes of traffic, running block upon block.
Thanks to repeated viewings of High Fidelity, a film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book of the same title detailing various perspectives on the relationship between pop music and romantic relationships, with Lisa Bonet’s life-changing (for me) statement
I think it’s okay if you feel horny and fucked up at the same time. I mean, why should we be denied our basic human rights… just’ cause we messed up our relationships?… I’m not gonna let that asshole come between me and a fuck.
it all felt like comfortably familiar. Anyone who has seen it will probably recall the constant presence of trains in the film, from Rob’s confessional journey to the repeated use of the sound of trains passing overhead or nearby during key outdoor scenes.
Living in London as a child, it took me a long time to realise how the sound of rattling trains isn’t something that makes everyone feel reassured and situated, but that’s exactly how they make me feel. And when you’re visiting a new place for the first time with people you don’t know too well, there’s something so welcome about that feeling.