Rant: The Night Chicago Died

Suddenly, it's hard to be a sinner in the Windy City


Almost 20 years ago, I visited the Sears Tower in Chicago. Before being allowed to enjoy the view from what was then the world's tallest building, visitors had to sit through a promotional film about how rough and tough and great and booming the Second City was—never mind that the proud hometown of baseball's sad-sack Cubs had already slipped behind Los Angeles and was officially the U.S.'s third-largest municipality.

At some point in the film, the announcer—possessed of a tooth-rattling basso profundo usually reserved for more elevated art forms such as NFL highlight reels—proclaimed, apropos of nothing, that "Chicago ain't no sissy town!" He was, if memory serves, quoting an alderman or some other species of criminal native to the Windy City.

But it turns out that Chicago is a sissy town, and not because it hosted the 2006 Gay Games. Chicago—that "stormy, husky, brawling…City of the Big Shoulders," in Carl Sandburg's evocative phrase—seems hell-bent on putting a choke hold on just about everything that makes a city a city.

During the last year, reports Don Babwin of the Associated Press, Chicago snuffed out smoking "in nearly all public places" and pulled the plug on talking on cell phones while driving. In April the "Hog Butcher for the World" (Sandburg again) became the first city to ban the sale of foie gras. The denizens of Al Capone's old stomping grounds just couldn't bear the thought of serving a tasty treat created by force-feeding geese.

In July officials held hearings on banishing trans fat from Chicago's fast food chains, as if such a move could clear the arteries of the town that gave unto the world the deep-dish pizza and is, according to Men's Fitness, the fattest city in the USA. The Chicago City Council considered forcing dog owners to implant microchips in pooches for identification purposes. (Pit bulls wouldn't need the ID chips. If the council got its way, the breed would be no more welcome in Chicago than Mrs. O'Leary's cow.) Council members, notes the Chicago Tribune, "have threatened to use their legislative might to improve living standards for elephants…require taxi drivers to wear crisp white shirts and matching pants and socks [and] require cigarette vendors to display photos of diseased lungs prominently."

More recently, the council passed a "living wage" ordinance requiring big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target to pay a minimum of $10 an hour plus benefits by 2010 or face draconian penalties. (Perhaps a deep-dish plate of a kinder, gentler foie gras, or repeated showings of that old Sears Tower promo film?)

"Come and show me another city…so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning," wrote Sandburg 90 years ago. What a difference a near-century makes. Sure, the White Sox, a baseball franchise that rivaled the Cubs for long-term cellar dwelling, won the World Series last year. The team's previous crown came before the end of World War I. But how would Chicagoans even celebrate a repeat if such a miracle were to happen this fall? By not talking on their cell phones while driving? By eating soy paté? By paying Wal-Mart greeters a living wage—if you can call it living in a city of dead pleasures?

The worst part of Chicago's clampdown on seemingly every urban excess except for what Sandburg called the "painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys"—somehow pols never get around to really policing that—is that it's not even original. One need only look to America's two biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles, to see similar rules already firmly in place, and more in the pipeline.

In years gone by, people poured into cities to escape the conformity and monotony of life on the farm or in the small town. Now they go there to pick up after their dog. In this, alas, Chicago is every bit as much a lagging indicator as it is in population. No wonder, then, that demographers are calling the '00s "the decade of the exurb," with the fastest population growth happening way out in the boondocks, where a person might still drive and talk on his cell phone—assuming he can get a signal.