Matrimony, Montana, and the Machine

By Carter O'Brien

unison So, the topic du jour for this illustrious web-zine is "Union." (I'd like to take this opportunity to state what a great word "web-zine" is. I keep looking for Spider-Man's face somewhere on the screen.…)

Anyhoo, I imagine the choice of this topic might have something to do with the number of contributors to this web-zine, myself included, who got married this fall. But that would be too easy to write about, and I imagine many readers out there (uh, anybody?) have had their fill of marriage-related topics. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the bridal magazines plopped square in the middle of the coffee table. That was a subtle gesture. Fortunately these magazines were all geared to women, shockingly, so I found them easy to ignore, and useful as coasters for my beer.

Furthermore, I'm sure all of my non-married friends were beyond thrilled to get caught up and/or outnumbered in conversations that suddenly focused on the myriad of details that surround these rituals. Who wouldn't be fascinated by dilemmas like, "Do you think Fred will be hurt if I invite Jack but not Mary? Jack and Mary will lunge for each other at the jugular if brought within that court-ordered 500 feet of separation, but then again Fred is a second cousin-in-law to both of them. And man, that weird Uncle Anthrax—do we have to invite him?". There is nothing less disturbing than having to narrow down a guest list to come to grips with your fiscal reality (or unreality, or even surreality, depending on your situation). Trying to place your family and friends in some sort of hierarchy is an incredibly distasteful task. If you are going to get married, I suggest you do something to alienate yourself from everyone you know to be spared this horror. Mentioning you are a close relation of "Uncle Anthrax" might do the trick.

But back to business—business in my case being "Professional Crank, 1st Class", although I also hold a degree in "Advanced Ranting." Instead of marriage, I'm going to rant about the "union" of these United States of America.

Union: Such a great concept for a country. At face value it's beautiful. But I admit I have a hard time really sensing the unity of our country outside of the giant calamities that pit us against other countries. I wonder how Southerners feel about the word "union," as it was the banner for the North during the Civil War. If movies have taught me correctly (and I'm sure they have), I know that many Southerners do not believe the Civil War ever ended. At least that's what the drunken flop of a detective in "Cape Fear" said, so I'm sold.

SoldierAs evidence I offer the fact that more than 100 years after the Civil War has ended, some Southerners are STILL preoccupied with this stuff. My great-grandfather Henry D. O'Brien was a member of the famous 1st Minnesota Volunteer Regiment that charged the 28th Virginia Regiment (hopelessly outnumbered by 5-to-1 odds I might add) during the epic warfare of July 3rd at the Battle of Gettysburg. To make a long story short, my great-grandfather's regiment captured the Virginia regiment's flag, and through a strange course of events it wasn't returned after the war and is still sitting in a Minnesota museum. So as recently as March 2001, this was still making headlines in Virginia!

But while we're on the subject of the Civil War, in today's America I can see a good argument for the fact that our armed forces represent our country as a whole. Definitely. Well, unless you are a politician with a lot of clout or a Kennedy. If for some reason another country is foolhardy enough to take on America, or America's oil interests, they are going to get a heap of whoop-ass unleashed from cans made in all 50 states.

But outside of the army, and maybe a few other large federal agencies like the CIA, the IRS, etc., does the federal government really represent the entire country? I'm not so sure. I personally believe representation is more than a bit skewed towards the original 13 states.

Maybe way back when in 1790 it made sense for Rhode Island to be considered a state and to be given two senators, but nowadays I think it's a bit ridiculous that in the Senate they are as equally represented as California. I understand that the House of Representatives is supposed to balance this out, but I personally think that's vastly overstated. California simply does not get the same kind of clout per capitaas Rhode Island. It's that "per capita" issue that's so important. There are only 100 Senators and 400+ Representatives. In which branch of Congress do you think a lone voice rings louder? Nothing against Rhode Island particularly, mind you, I just don't see in this day and age any reason for political representation based on anything but population.

The mere geography of states is completely outdated. The property lines the Louisiana Purchase mandated don't have any bearing on today's economies and cultures. Southeast Wisconsin and Northwest Indiana mean more to Chicago's vitality (and vice versa) than downstate Illinois does, and the animosity between our mayor and the state politicians in Springfield reflects that perfectly. In a world where more and more business is done long distance via internet cables and phone lines, where multi-state (if not multi-national) companies run the show, states are just empty relics of the past.

I'm not foolhardy enough to suggest we get rid of them or anything, but it would be a good move to restructure our government to better represent all of us. Anyone familiar with Chicago politics knows that the words "supermajority ward" popping up in the news means that aldermen are tinkering with the political boundaries of the neighborhoods to try to get an enemy out of their hair or to get more of their own supporters in a place where they can take advantage of their votes. States are nothing more than wards but on a larger scale.

Perhaps I am a bit prejudiced against the modern-day concept of statehood due to the fact that my home city of Chicago is perpetually at war with the state of Illinois, thus rendering Chicago as a besieged fortress within a state. Or perhaps it's some of my out-of-state experiences. For example, I was pulled over in Montana in the summer of 2000 for going 75 miles an hour (which is slow in Montana, believe me—I was getting passed left and right!), and the cop made me sit in the car with him, which is bad enough, but then he said: "So, where you from?"

"Chicago. We came to go camping," I answered, truthfully but not completely, as I didn't think it was a great idea to tell him that I had been at a Rainbow Gathering with 25,000 other long-haired freaks that had descended on his state.

"Chicago? What are you doing out here? You can't find nothing to do in Chicago?

The conversation pretty much stayed at that basic single-cell organism plateau until I got out of the car. I think I can safely say that it's pretty clear that there are some pretty serious regional biases out there. I've had the same kind of reaction from people (ok, usually cops) in suburbs outside of Chicago. At least this cop didn't do the "rat-a-tat-tat" voice and say "Oh, Al Capone!". I'm never sure what reaction people expect when they do that.

The problem I see is that America was not really founded under the concept of a "union," except for the sole reason of uniting in the spirit of hostility to get those pesky Brits out of our hair. We may be the United States of America, with everyone supposedly equal according to the Constitution, but in reality some states, and some people, are a lot more equal than others. This of course does not even touch upon the fact that our original Constitution and Bill of Rights only really counted for property-owning white men. Some unity there, huh?

See, if we were really a union, the debacle of the 2000 presidential election would never have happened. OK, no need to squirm or to immediately point that cursor to your "Ziggy" bookmark, I'm not going to harp on the election—that's been done by far more politically sophisticated people than me. However, an important issue that was raised and has since died off almost entirely is our antiquated "electoral college," which is not even required to vote according to the wishes of the people. Every vote is most certainly NOT equal. If they were, Gore would be president, as he won the popular vote.

I don't believe anyone even tries to defend the electoral college. It's more like people just accept it like they accept the Cubs, with mild resignation punctuated with periodic bursts of hope. It is ingrained from the first day of social-studies class in grade school that voting is critically important in a democracy (which we are NOT, we are technically a Republic). Of course I agree with that, but then we have this little oddball thing that essentially undermines the concept. Electoral college—who are these people anyway? At least I hope they aren't getting paid. Maybe the theory is that they somehow channel the wishes of the 50% of eligible voters who apparently have better things to do than vote.

No, I think the greater sense of union we have in this country is the sense of community right where we live, and that is definitely a very precious thing. In Chicago all you have to do is watch the enraged neighbors gather when some politician tries to slyly run a proposal through to say, bulldoze a few square blocks to make room for a new fill-in-the-blank-giant-government-services-building. Like I said before, aldermen use these tricks to get rid of a group of people they consider enemies. Enraged neighbors and the like means someone is paying attention to the shenanigans in City Hall and is blowing the whistle. Now THAT's unity! Once you've gotten an in-depth understanding of the system you realize nothing has changed since the Machine politics (with the exception of Harold Washington's all-too-brief-tenure as mayor). Shenanigans are the rule, not the exception. The exception would be the school laden with asbestos and a leaky roof getting fixed if it doesn't bear immediate political PR points. Politicians love to cut those ribbons for new buildings, but they sure don't seem to worry too much about them afterwards.

On the upside, a city like Chicago does offer people a very rare opportunity to really live alongside of people from vastly different cultures. There are certainly large pockets of the city that are insulated from other parts, but I dare anyone to find me a city or other area that doesn't have this to a degree. I was proud as hell when, during the latest flare-up of violence in the Balkans, Chicago welcomed the single largest population in the world of displaced Serbian and Bosnian Muslims outside of (in some cases more than) some of the actual neighboring states in the Balkans. We may appear to ourselves to be a horribly segregated and intolerant city, but the rest of the world apparently sees us as the exact opposite. Besides the largest number of Polish people living outside of Warsaw, we are home to so many nationalities it would fill this page. How many cities have a Palestinian community? Assyrian? Romanian? Plus we are starting to get distinct Asian and African communities, which I think is great.

Exposure to people with different backgrounds than yours breeds tolerance. That's why segregation is such a dirty word to begin with.

I cannot even fathom living in a place without a diverse but unified community (if nothing else Michael Jordan sure brought us all together!). I find myself extremely uncomfortable in places where everyone is of a similar stock and background—not because that's necessarily bad, but because it seems completely alien to me. A co-worker of mine recently moved to Chicago from the even bigger and more diverse city of New York. To many people's astonishment he moved to Edgewater—not only because it was affordable but because its diversity reminded him of home. I wish more native and transplanted Chicagoans, and people in general, were this open-minded. Most newcomers to Chicago end up squarely in the Lincoln Park area (which, if you believe the realtors, goes all the way from the lake to the Target at the expressway and from Cabrini Green to the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland intersection).

This trend of newcomers segregating themselves has the potential to really ruin Chicago if it continues. It's not healthy for everyone moving into the city to get their urban etiquette from the cultural white-wash that is Lincoln Park. Today's Lincoln Park is starting to resemble some sort of horrible fast-food-laden strip mall out of a Big 10 college in the Midwest. These days it seems like every new building that goes up on the north side bears a remarkable resemblance to the conformity-factories that were student housing at the U of I in Champaign. The buildings are uniform, square, without character or green space. Of course these new condos cost $350K+ so maybe that's not a perfect comparison… oh, and water-proofing those cinderblocks is extra.

It's easy for a local townie like me to see what has happened as a result of this. We have a complete and total breakdown of the urban etiquette that in years past would have easily observable to a newcomer. Today, if you move to Lincoln Park from outside of Illinois, you get the mistaken impression that it is perfectly acceptable to, say, cruise down a busy street on rollerblades while wearing headphones. This is because there are almost no original residents of the neighborhood to tell you that you're being a selfish jackass and are going end up flattened underneath an SUV when a similarly self-absorbed jackass on their cell phone doesn't notice you veering in front of their vehicle. Don't think it will happen? Don't make me laugh. I've been here a long time, and we are a very reactionary city (as is our country for that matter), meaning nobody will care until a bunch of people end up in the morgue, and then the police will likely be blamed for not enforcing the laws prohibiting anything but cars and bicycles and the occasional horse-and-buggy in the street.

A related issue is that as people realize that there IS a world outside of Lincoln Park (even though Lincoln Park's borders seems to grow by the day), they move out and take these bad habits with them. I feel more unity with a jellyfish than I do with somebody who has decided that it makes sense to jog down the side of a busy street in Chicago (what, are they allergic to the sidewalk?), or who shovels out a parking spot by throwing the snow back into the street or on top of the car in front of them. Check out if you get a chance—they do a perfect job satirizing these people for their lack of urban savvy.

That's not to say it's all bad, or in any way unique to this group of newcomers, it's just a question of circumstances. The "rebirth" of Lincoln Park started in the late 70s when the economy began to rise out of crapper of stagflation sparked by the oil crisis. Few people would have recognized Lincoln Park in the 70s when I grew up, just as I would have barely recognized Lincoln Park in the 60s when it was a refuge for thousands of Puerto Ricans, and so forth back to the mid-1850s or so when the original Swedes and Germans settled there. Before then I think it was pretty much just a swamp.

In the 70s I was a kid making the journey to school in Lincoln Park from the "wrong side" of town—Lake View. A Lake View address meant I was ostracized from true Lincoln Parkers, as my neighborhood was seen as boring ol' blue collar, and therefore, less hip. My mom, who is not Irish, loves to say our part of Lake View was an Irish ghetto, full of factories and hard-working people who would drink off their pain at the end of each day in the local tavern, The Beartrap. Of course, my dad would point out there were an equal number of Polish, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Eastern European, and even Gypsy ne'er-do-wells. I kid you not when I say that friends of mine who lived a mile or two away were not allowed to walk or take the train to my neck of the woods, which today commands $400K for an empty lot. Both neighborhoods were more eclectic, with a lot of families living on the top floor of a two-flat while running a store below. Many homes and stores were decades old. This gave the neighborhoods a real human feeling, and the people who lived there often worked there and had a serious stake in the neighborhood.

I worry about the same neighborhood, now pock-marked with chains like Starbucks, Boston Market, etc. Back in my day Chicago was home to the first ever McDonald's that failed, and two more soon followed. That is almost unheard of, and certainly won't happen again soon. There are fewer and fewer people that plant roots there, and fewer and fewer people who work in the stores there who can afford to live in the neighborhood. One obvious result of this is the increasing traffic gridlock that is strangling Chicago. Another is that as Chicago's politicians have greedily turned old industrial-zoned areas into areas zoned for condo development for the increased property taxes, more and more jobs are leaving the city. Unfortunately, not many suburbs really want the poor, blue-collar people who live in Chicago that will be working those jobs.

A less tangible but still real problem I see is that people are getting very distanced from what it is that makes the world work. I have nothing against white-collar folks. Most of them perform serious and needed work. But you can't eat stock options, and you can't build a car or an engine out of legal briefs. A city with a sense of unity needs to save space for those people who do the manual labor, who work for the service economy.

You might not notice if the stock market shut down for a few days, but if your garbage pickup stopped I guarantee you'd see some distraught people.

For many people Lincoln Park seems like a nice place to live after college while they are working in the Loop and looking for that ideal romantic partner, so then they can get the hell out of the city to raise kids where schools are better and housing is cheaper. Believe me, I understand that desire. Real estate is a rip-off in Chicago, but it's the price you pay. While they are here (if they leave), these folks bring a lot of positive things to Chicago. A generally strong work ethic, an unwillingness to put up with street crime (while in other parts of the city people have been beaten emotionally and physically into submissive complacency), involvement in local community organizations, and pride in not having crap all over the streets. Newcomers, if a bit oblivious in traffic, are generally pretty nice people if you just start up a conversation with them.

Chicago Architecture I realize you can't stop the clock. I'm not some sort of nostalgia nut longing for a Chicago that never was, a peaceful idyllic place that was clean, crime-free, and friendly like Archie's Riverdale. I just don't understand why we can't take steps to preserve the character (not to mention putting some kind of cap on the density) of good neighborhoods, while still making them attractive to people from all walks of life all over the globe. If not for the density control and the beautiful architecture, for the food! People who have moved here from other countries have told me that often they find that their homeland's native dishes taste better in restaurants in Chicago than they did back home. This is because the people who cook this food have brought their family recipes with them—ever try to get a good pizza in Albuquerque? Don't. Just trust me on this. If there's no Italian community, just skip it on the menu. The best spices and other foodstuffs are sent to Chicago (and America in general) because we pay top dollar for them and many of us still have connections in those countries we came from. I'm sure plenty of people are extremely skeptical that eating burritos, curries, falafel, etc., actually improves human relations and our sense of unity. However, as a former teacher I know that a very popular "ice-breaker" project for classes with diverse student populations is to ask students to bring a food dish in that is unique to their ethnic group. This teaches people to appreciate the values of people different from them, in a way we all relate to.

So I guess even after all the negatives I do see a good case that this country is truly a union. I take to heart the fact that we grow more diverse with every passing census, and yet we find ways to bring ourselves together—not just in tragedy but in the everyday actions of living side-by-side. The problems have likely always been here, and they are as much part of the "human condition" as simply being specific to America. What America does offer is a chance to form bonds with people not just because they are similar to you in ethnic background, but because you share common interests and dreams. That to me is a truer example of union—uniting out of choice and desire—than any textbook definition.

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Copyright©2002 by Carter O'Brien.

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