In Life magazine’s October issue, Chicago’s most distinguished resident, the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, now 71, writes eloquently of his home town.
Without meaning to compare myself to this eminent author in any way, I must say that I was struck by the similarity of his feeling for Chicago and mine for L.A.
Although Chicago has always had to bear that slightly demeaning epithet--"The Second City'--it has not perennially been vilified as a hick town and a cultural wasteland, as Los Angeles has.
Thanks to its beloved poet, Carl Sandburg, Chicago has always been known as the “city of the big shoulders”:
Hog butcher for the World Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight
Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling . . . .
Sandburg’s few lines gave Chicago its image of energy, lust and labor--an image that even the most sophisticated New Yorkers have not successfully satirized.
I remember how awed I was on my first visit to Chicago as an enlisted man during World War II. Its blocky skyline seemed to symbolize power and wealth. It was the hub of the heartland. The energies that would win the war were engendered here.
Bellow begins: “To be concise about Chicago is harder than you might think. It stands for something in American life, but what that something is has never been altogether clear. Not everybody likes the place. . . .”
Couldn’t that have been written about Los Angeles?
He goes on: “A Chicagoan since 1924, I have come to understand that you have to develop a taste for it, and you can’t do that without living here for decades. . . .” I don’t know how many times I have been asked, in conversation, by letter, or on television, “What exactly is it that you like about Los Angeles?” and I find it hard to say.
I have often answered, “Well, there’s nothing here for a visitor to discover. Disneyland. Knott’s Berry Farm. The Universal Studios tour. The Chinese Theatre. That’s about it. To find out why we live here, you have to live here.” Indeed, as Bellow says, you have to live here for decades.
By then, I suppose, some degeneration has taken place, in your corpuscles or your bones, and your critical judgment is lost. You sink into a glazed, hedonistic apathy. You are an Angeleno.
“Even after decades,” Bellow continues, “you can’t be sure of the reasons for your attachment, because the city is always transforming itself, and the scale of the transformations is tremendous. . . . To count on stability here is madness. . . .”
After the war, he points out, the demolished cities of Europe painstakingly restored themselves. Paris was Paris again. But Chicago is never restored; it is eternally new.
Los Angeles, too, is accused of instability; of having no roots; of idolizing the new.
Like Chicago, Los Angeles has built shimmering new skyscrapers. They spring up all over town, like toadstools after rain, and we wonder, as Bellow does, whether our banks and corporations will have enough interest in the future to keep it up.
Bellow notes that the Chicago of his hero, Augie March (“The Adventures of Augie March,” 1953), is no more. “That Chicago no longer exists. It is to be found only in memory and in fiction. Like the Cicero of Al Capone, like Jack London’s Klondike, like Fenimore Cooper’s forests, like Gauguin’s Pacific paradise, like Upton Sinclair’s jungle, it is an imaginary place. . . .”
Like the Bunker Hill of John Fante and Leo Politi. The great Victorian houses, the bordellos, the ma-and-pa Italian markets are gone, and the old folks rocking on their porches, all gone along with Angels Flight.
But what touched me most about Bellow’s eulogy was this: “You can’t be neutral about a place where you have lived so long. You come to realize at last how much feeling you have invested in it. It’s futile to think, like Miniver Cheevy, that you might have done better in another time, in a more civilized city. You were assigned to this one. . . .”
Bellow quotes the prophets of doom--urbanologists who say that the great northern American cities are obsolete, creations of 19th-Century capitalism that have no future.
Then, he notes, the Chicago Tribune reports that 200 businessmen have met at the Hilton to plan new stores outside the Loop. “Do they see a dying city fraught with conflict? They do not!”
I am reminded of a warning sounded by a prominent Eastern journalist in the early 1960s. He observed that all American cities were dying at the core, and he said that downtown Los Angeles was “already dead.”
The day his words were printed on Page 1 of our own newspaper, I took a walking tour and found that cranes and bulldozers were at work all over downtown Los Angeles, digging holes for the foundations of the new financial skyline.
To renew and refresh his love of the city, Bellow takes walks. He visits his cousin, the baker; he goes to see an old friend try a case in court; he lunches at the Bismarck with one of the late Mayor Daley’s assistants, laughing at the “comic opera” of city politics; he inspects the new apartment houses on the banks of the Chicago River. These adventures do not make him sad.
“After all, I am no mere spectator, for I have invested vital substance in these surroundings, we have exchanged influences--in what proportions I can’t say. . . .”
Perhaps we find no substance in a place until we have given it some of our own.