Few cities mix the rough and the smooth with more relish than Chicago. It tends its art-deco buildings with love, lets sculptors loose on the streets, but still brawls at politics, and savours a folklore of darkness and corruption. “It used to be a writer’s town and it’s always been a fighter’s town,” Nelson Algren wrote more than 50 years ago in an essay from the sidewalk, and anyone who enjoys the clattering romance of the shadows and the noise in the elevated subway tracks along Wabash should remember Algren’s warning: “Every day is D-Day under the El.”
It was not surprising that Rick Santorum stayed out of town in his failed effort to turn the tide in this week’s primary against Mitt Romney’s machine (which outspent him by more than six to one), and not just because Illinois Republicans get more numerous the further away you travel from Chicago’s downtown Loop district. He seemed much happier in rural parts of the state, pausing to venerate Ronald Reagan’s hometown of Dixon along the way. His brand of conservativism (at one rally he introduced a family of 19 to demonstrate how great life can be without contraception) is exactly wrong for Chicago, a piece of America that has a twinkle in its eye when it observes Santorum’s exotic efforts to query evolution, warn of the dangers of going to college (you might meet a liberal), and promote the virtues of home schooling without teachers.
Romney, of course, is of a different stripe, though he has been covering that up for reasons of votes. He popped up in the heart of the city, on Obama’s old campus, and tried to make a joke about the famous vote-early-vote-often practices of Chicagoans on election days. Characteristically, he came a little unstuck – his jokes tend to tie themselves into knots in the womb – and sounded as if he was scolding the city. You could hear the grumbling in the air – why pick on us, just because another ex-governor has ended up in pokey? (When the Democrat Rod Blagojevich was given 14 years for corruption in December, the obvious angle for one local TV channel wasn’t that he was guilty, but that the sentence was a record for an Illinois governor. As he was carted off to jail last weekend, he told the cameras, “I’ll be seein’ ya around.” No doubt.) Politics will always be distinctive here, as the Republicans themselves know from 1920, when the nomination of Warren G Harding was decided in the original “smoke-filled room” in the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue. It’s a room the like of which Mitt Romney might have need of before this is all over.
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Primary day was preceded by a greater spectacle: St Patrick’s Day. I watched them turn the Chicago River green, an alchemy achieved by introducing into the water the unlikely agent of an orange powder. The offending colour was transformed in a flash as they stirred up the river. Then the parade took off in Grant Park – firemen and Teamsters and marching bands, Papal effigies and toddlers doing Irish jigs, various candidates for Cook County judgeships and other sought-after positions, hordes bedecked in shamrock beads and lopsided green hats, all washed along on a tide of stout. The mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is as un-Irish a figure as you can imagine, except in his devotion to tribal politics, but immersion in this ritual is an obligation as well as a privilege. The Democratic party machine here may not be what it was in the 1960s and 1970s – when a word from mayor Boss Daley would start the votes piling up in every precinct – but the undercurrents still surge through the city as if on ley lines.
In recent years, some Americans of Scots descent have been trying to drum up interest in a Tartan Day, as a rival feast. It is doomed, of course, because no one can trump the Irish trick, and I hope the idea fades away. The North Carolina Highland Games, and others like them, are more than enough. And I have the killer argument: try as you might, you would never be able to turn the Chicago River, or any other for that matter, into a recognisable tartan. Chuck it, boys.
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As with politics, the parade illustrated the ease with which Chicago first parties, then sobers up. As the gaudy procession headed towards the Art Institute and Symphony Center, I was reminded that no other American city can touch its civic pride and public culture. Architecture tours down the river reveal the stunning built heritage (with Frank Lloyd Wright still king of his domain in the western suburb of Oak Park), and the rich artistic life of the place is all around. The Lyric Opera has its over-the-top art-deco auditorium, the stained-glass museum preserves the flame of the city’s old glow, the 1880s Glessner House on Prairie Avenue is a glorious remnant of the old mansions and makes manifest the connections running all the way from the midwest to the Arts and Crafts movement at home. And in any street you might stumble across an exquisite pair of etched brass doors on a public building, just as they are pointing out to you an old speakeasy where Capone and his satraps conducted their affairs.
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There is one glaring contemporary blot on this beguiling downtown landscape. Outside the beautiful Tribune Tower – once home to a great newspaper now fallen on hard times – stands a white sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, giggling as her dress is blown up and she tries half-heartedly to keep it down, and it is a shocker. Fortunately, the effigy is disappearing on tour. The word on the street is that no one wants it back. In its out-of-scale awkwardness, the object rivals the pair of lovers at St Pancras Station in London, and achieves one remarkable feat: Marilyn’s legs fashioned so as to remind you of a hulking member of the Welsh second row. May it never return, and moulder away out of sight in some Hollywood canyon.
Better to remember Chicago as it was, because so much of that past remains. I visited an architectural salvage warehouse, surrounded by a cornucopia of lights and lanterns, sconces and grates and wrought iron, and thought of it as a distillation of the solid beauties of the city – a graveyard of its decorative glories. And in a nearby antique shop, I found something magical: a battered tin ballot box, still marked on the black lid with the legend “3rd District”. I opened it, peered inside and wondered for a moment what tales of the city it could tell. But I let it keep its secrets and walked away.
James Naughtie is a presenter on Radio 4’s ‘Today’