Chicago, home of the absurd

I’m feeling right at home here in Chicago, but I don’t think that’s saying much.

Every transplant I’ve spoken to says they became fast friends with this town, despite the unfriendly winters and brutish traffic.

I’ve been wondering what makes this urban hub such a pleasant place for uprooted southerners and internationals, and the answer struck me the other day when I was out chasing a butter sculpture.

The Industry of the Ordinary, a group of guerrilla artists, were pulling a butter carving of Obama around the loop. I followed the greasy presidential entourage with my recorder and a camera to capture observers’ reactions to the absurd display in passing.

Onlookers were hesitant to answer my questions, likely in a pre-election jitter, but one answer was the perfect synopsis of Chicago’s uncanny personality.

“What was the first thing that came to mind when you saw “Obama butter” scoot by?,” I asked a man with his two-year old daughter bundled and grinning in his arms.

“It honestly didn’t startle me that much,” he said. “Just another Chicago spectacle.”

But he added that he thrives for scenes like these, especially for his daughter’s emerging imagination.

Luckily for him, Chicago is absurd, and such rarities are easy to find. Just look at the incongruous combinations that do so well here: bacon cupcakes, bike workshops that serve lattes, lofts in old meat packing factories and cabaret versions of fan fiction.

This town loves the arts, from operatic notes belted out of auditoriums — or El stations. I love watching small crowds of puffy-coated pedestrians form around street performers, and I’m astounded by the constant reinvention in free, public art. It’s a dizzying pageantry of mosaics, architecture and murals.

This town is black, white and gray. Some blocks are strictly defined, and others blend identities and flavors.

Restaurants tackle molecular gastronomy alongside frank presentations of beef tongue or pork belly. Churches steeples beckon every flavor of Catholic – those searching for a rowdy Guevara-style homily or a solemn, bejeweled Latin mass.

Chicago’s neighborhoods are still segregated, which is understood as a striking preservation of culture or a horrific manifestation of racism.

Some neighborhoods have personality disorders and overlapping identities, like a once Ukrainian hub turned Mexican. I get a lot of flack from you urbanites who say the south is racist; Chicago is harshly divided – more than 78 percent of the South Side’s population is black.

Trib Columnist Mary Schmich calls this citywide dissection the “two Chicagos,” but the mingling of millions leads be to posit that there are infinitely many Chicagos.

Gentrification is germinating in all corners of town. Cabrini-Green, once known as the most dangerous housing projects, is now a vacant lot. A developer’s sign touting “luxury shopping” stands in its place. Historically blue-collar neighborhoods are now yuppie enclaves. Property prices go up, and people are forced to move.

It’s an unnerving, yet exciting time to be here. The flood of young professionals and artistic talent could be the answer to Chicago’s ailments.

Merchandise Mart is filling up with young tech-minded creative professionals, and city government has committed more investment to the arts scene — so that it can become even more accessible and plentiful.

The World’s Fair is gone, but Chicago is still reinventing itself at a breakneck velocity. Incredibly, the city still manages to toss in that “Midwest warmth” into its rigorous spin cycle.

Chicago sends out mixed messages to the world. It’s home to greasy deep-dish pizza and refined Alinea creations. Art hangs on the pristine walls of the Art Institute and on the crumbling brick in Pilsen.

The variety and the multitude of personalities is what makes the city a home to anyone who isn’t Chicago-born, or those who simply cannot define themselves.

I am one of those people.

And that’s why my transition here has been buttery smooth.


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