One evening, I was walking in Harajuku, the trendy fashion district in Tokyo, when I noticed a neon sign: “CHICAGO”. I entered. There’s joy in finding evidence of home when far away, plus a special insider’s delight in noting what they’re wrong, like those palm trees on the panel. Or the fact that the store sells second-hand kimonos.
So when an email from the mayor’s office arrived in my inbox announcing the “Chicago Not Chicago” advertising initiative, highlighting Chicago’s global impact, I felt ready to play along. forget the many ways the world misinterprets Chicago. But to expand on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s theme that “Chicago is truly a pioneering city of firsts” that springs from our beating hearts and drives the world.
Where to start? The city is right to emphasize architecture, one of Chicago’s most obvious global gifts to the world – Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, a parade of grandeur to Jeanne Gang. When Tom Cruise does his stunts on the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in ‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’, it’s a Chicago-designed building he bounces off, created by Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill .
Following? Let’s choose the music. The first composition considered jazz by music scholars is “Jelly Roll Blues” by Jelly Roll Morton published in Chicago in 1915; the New Orleans transplant so enjoyed the reception Chicago gave it, that it didn’t find it as racist as St. Louis, that it renamed the track “The Chicago Blues”.
I could fill three columns with how Chicago music shook the world. The Rolling Stones are one of many bands to come out of the sound of Chicago. Their name, remember, is based on the lyrics of a Muddy Waters song, and they came to chess to record his “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, which they returned years later to reinvent as as “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction).”
The mayor mentioned cell phones, which got their start in the Soldier Field parking lot. Remember, the atom was first split at the University of Chicago, which also discovered REM sleep while inventing sleep research. The videotape debuted here. And speakers. And shortwave radio.
Chicago’s most iconic piece of technology has to be Shure’s Unidyne Model 55 microphone, its distinctive look inspired by the grille of a 1937 Oldsmobile, a rare piece of electronics almost unchanged for 80 years. To make it clear that a person in a photo is singing, and not just standing with their mouth open, a Model 55 microphone is the perfect accessory.
We have 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 misinterprets Chicago, 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 significant development to come out of Chicago. It could be a link between the Montgomery Ward catalog (Amazon is really just Ward’s, updated) and the cables carrying animal carcasses through the Union Stockyards, which inspired the assembly line of ‘Henry Ford.
“The idea came generally from the overhead cart Chicago packers use to dress beef,” Ford said in 1922.
But Neil, you might ask. Isn’t this project just a distraction from all the terrible things going on in Chicago? The murders and the school crisis and the drip water torture of COVID-19? Are you really falling for this?
Yes. And I’ll tell you why. Because, if I felt we could argue and blame our way out of this situation, I would laugh and cry foul with the best of them. And sometimes I am.
But part of saving something is realizing that it can be saved and is worth saving. Chicago is both. Like any city in the world, Chicago has always had problems. Big problems. But we’ve always solved those problems, whether it’s lifting our city eight feet out of the mud, literally, or inventing the trunnion and weighbridges that cross our river. Sometimes these solutions have repercussions all over the world. It’s happened before, several times. It will happen again.