How Chicago undermines its own urban identity

by Admin
How Chicago undermines its own urban identity

One recent night, I was feeling hopeful, not hungry, so I walked to the Time Out Market on West Fulton Market. The weather was excellent, and I wanted to be around people. People are the source of joy in any city — we deal with traffic, crowds and high rents because it’s energizing to be among millions of people. 

Unfortunately, when I walked in around 5 p.m., the market was relatively empty. In the bar, six of us predictably looked at our phones. In the large dining area, a few parties were considerately spaced apart, each group contained in their own bubble. 

And so was I — though I had wanted to be social. I felt ensconced in my own personal space. The market is a good place to write but a bad place to make friends. 

Nonetheless, I did two laps around the food vendors. The food sounded too heavy, big portions, lots of sauce and salt. Plus, an unappetizing smell of deep fryers and wood-burning grills kept my appetite at bay. 

I looked around the big room and up at what appeared to be kitchen hood exhaust vents, a pair above each food stall. It’s possible that the function of these cylinders is not to blow kitchen exhaust into the air above the dining room, but it doesn’t look or smell that way. 

I texted a friend, an architect, no less, to complain. Eventually, he sent me a link to a 2007 article by the Project for Public Spaces. The article “What is Placemaking?” states that “an effective placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness and well being.”

The Time Out Market is undeniably good enough — I’m sure it provides passable lunches to nearby workers on the days when they are too busy to bother enjoying lunch — but does it add to our “health, happiness, and well-being”?

My favorite people-watching spot in Los Angeles is the Farmers Market at The Grove. Granted, The Grove is outdoors, and in addition to the prepared food stalls, the market makes space for butchers, bakeries, produce stands, two candy shops and a French market. But far and away the best part of The Grove is that every demographic in Los Angeles passes through the place from time to time. It offers more than just simple, clean meals, but it offers those too.

I went back to the Time Out Market the following day to double-check my observations. It was more crowded at lunch, but the unpleasant smell was still there and so was the feeling of isolation. I didn’t notice anyone older than 60 or younger than 25, to say nothing of racial or economic diversity.

I sat in the center of the room. A passing diner carrying a tray of food skunk-eyed me. I wondered, why don’t I like this place? Then the obvious answer sauntered forth — it has no character, no identity. 

Back on the street, I thought about our city’s identity. It’s more difficult to define now than it was when the hogs were being butchered or the steel mills were producing or Michael Jordan was winning. 

But we’re kinder than New York and tougher than L.A. In the melting pot of America, we could be Goldilocks’ desired porridge. Not too hot, not too cold. Not too big, not too small. But somehow a sense of “less-than” and “good-enough” pervades our public spaces and undermines our urban identity.

One thing my life taught me is that identity comes most into being when we try to do something really well.

Charles Berg is a Master of Liberal Arts candidate in creative writing at Harvard Extension School. He has made films, staged plays and taught yoga.

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