The City of Stories…

Chicago. The City of Big Shoulders. City on the Make. Hog Butcher for the World. Urbs in Horto. Paris on the Prairie….

The city has always had many personas, from its working class neighborhoods, to its world-class cultural destinations. From its gritty industrial corridors, to its miles of unblemished lakefront parks and beaches. From the slaughterhouses to the world’s first skyscrapers.

Chicago’s history has always been documented by storytellers across media and narrative forms. Stories told through literature, to be sure—poetry, essays, novels and short fiction, from Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright to Ray Bradbury and Studs Terkel. But the narratives across this vast metropolis are also intrinsically woven into music: blues, jazz, hip hop and rock. Chicago stories also emerge in film, food, narrative radio, art, photography, architecture, journalism, dance, theater and beyond.

The spirit of any great metropolis is often most aptly captured by its artists. City of Stories is a First-Semester Experience class at Columbia College Chicago. The City of Stories class examines storytelling in Chicago, exploring how this dynamic and paradoxical urban landscape has shaped countless great creators, and how these artists, in turn, went on to irrevocably shape the city themselves.

The place we all create in is often central to our artistic identity.

This blog is an offshoot of the City of Stories class. Each week, students will examine Chicago storytelling in its myriad forms. Students will write about Chicago storytelling and storytellers—from jazz at the Green Mill, to readings at the Poetry Foundation. Students will venture out into the city as a sort of vast, urban classroom, exploring destinations of literary and artistic history, as well as vital destinations of present day storytelling. Students will write about their readings and their adventures right here. Each week, a select few essays from class will be posted to this blog. Students will reflect on the many voices of Chicago storytellers and, along the way, learn to discover the most important voice of all—their own.

And, here is the official City of Stories playlist!

(Sam Weller/Course Instructor)

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Ghost World

In “Ghost World”, by Daniel Clowes, I was reminded about my time in high school.

In high school people were constantly judging one another based on their appearances and personalities. The main character and her friend seem to always judge people together, and I believe that is the only reason why they remain friends.

In high school, I remember people basically separating people into groups. For example, the jocks, the nerds, the emo kids, the band geeks, the preps, and so many more! So far in college, I have not experienced such a thing. People at Columbia are so nice, and accepting of each other. I always see such positive, uplifting characters everywhere I go in the Columbia buildings. I do understand that it is almost a human instinct to judge people, but no one here has called anyone out for being “different” in front of me.

People in the city of Chicago also seem to be that way. Although there are some rude
characters out in the streets of this wonderful city, it is also full of so much positivity. I see strangers complimenting each other on the streets almost everyday!

Even though in “Ghost World” the main characters were being very judgmental, at the
end of the day they got home and did some pretty weird stuff. The main character came home looking for a toy she received when she was in elementary school, and her friend went home and watched a weird show with her grandmother.

(Karla Gallegos / CoS Student)

Food in Chicago

Upton Sinclair’s sinister view of the disgusting habits in the Chicago meat industry has always resonated with me.

Growing up my eating habits represented where I grew up. I am a Midwesterner through and through and I eat like one. Meat and Cheese was, and to an extent still are, the foundations of my diet.

A person’s diet comes from what they were raised on and cuisine from other countries and regions of the country can seem off-putting. This is a generalization, but the tastes of the Midwest are not very exotic by any definition of the word.

The problem with Chicago meat is much less extreme than it was in Sinclair’s day. The protein that has always given me trouble is seafood. I have attempted to eat seafood on many occasions in many different preparations, but nothing has ever clicked. I never grew up with a heavy seafood presence and my eating habits show it.

The problem with this is that Chicago has a booming seafood scene with many restaurants dedicated to it and this has always bothered me. Seafood comes from the ocean, and Chicago is not close to any ocean, just a lake. During the many times, I have visited Lake Michigan I am not exactly seen beautiful blue clear waters. The lake in many parts is full of garbage and dead fish. I am often very off-put by the idea of drinking water from the lake, but at least that has a filtering applied, the fish live in the gross water. Every Saint Patrick’s day they dye the river that flows into the lake green, that is disgusting.

The seafood that Chicago has offered me has been made mute by its proximity to the ocean and its water habits. I hope it is not too late for me to enjoy seafood. Maybe I just need to move to Maine.

(Dominic Galli / CoS Student)

Comic Strips & Homecoming

Through the use of her comics, Sarah Becan is able to give the reader a personal and in-depth view of her subconscious.

She reveals those deep thoughts that gnaw at the egos of everyone leaving them fragile and insecure. While she does this, she is simultaneously able to inspire her reader as well, offering moral advice and words of encouragement. She is also not afraid to voice her opinions. Whether it be her thoughts on appearances or her confusion on a construction worker’s possibly veiled comments. She gives the blunt honesty mixed with midwest charm that only a Chicago citizen can possess. Either way, readers are left with a more personal connection with Becan and Chicago.

I quite enjoyed her comics. I found them entertaining and insightful. They shed a sincere and humorous light into her life. We all can find humor in the mundanities of each of our lives. This past weekend, I traveled home to visit friends. I enjoyed my time back home but also found it eerily unfamiliar. I shared these feelings with my best friend who was visiting from LA. He described it as building a puzzle that represents your life back home and then taking the corner pieces and making a new puzzle for college. The constant shift is where the pieces get mixed up.

I found this analogy quite accurate. Ironically enough, as much as I wanted to get back to Chicago to start my life back up, I was forced to stay. My flight was canceled. On top of that, I became very sick that same day. I guess it worked out, if my flight hadn’t been canceled, I would’ve gotten sick on the plane. Now if that were to be the case it might make for a better a comic strip, but luckily, it was not.

(Corey Eaton / CoS Student)

606

The Bloomingdale Line, otherwise known as the 606 is a 2.7 mile elevated trail that runs east-west on the northwest side of Chicago.

To the normal citizen of Chicago this trail is a prime place to walk and look at the beautiful scenery. To me and my posse of friends the 606 turned out to be a wonderland. A wonderland of skate spots and excitement.
It was just a normal Saturday for my friends and I. We usually go skateboarding all day on the weekend but we had never been to this part of Chicago so we chose to explore. Exploring the 606 was crazy due to the fact that we found so many different places that we could skate. A perfect wall that we could ride on, a small ledge in the middle of the trail that we grind, and lastly a long curved ledge that we could slide on. Being in a posse of kids that are rowdy and looking for a good time can be dangerous sometimes, but on this day it was absolutely picture-perfect in my mind.

As we skated by people they seemed to be very excited to see us and the look on their faces were something I could never forget. It seemed as if they were happy to see such a youthful group of kids flying down the 606, exploring the new city they have just come to. Usually, if people see a group of skaters especially the size of mine, they would feel threatened and vexed that we are even skating, but not this day and not on the 606. The environment of this day was incomparable to any other day of skating i’ve had in my whole life and I think my posse could also agree. Overall, this day on the 606 made me understand that skateboarding in Chicago and living in Chicago is more than just trying to have a good time but rather trying to have a great time, all while making family with your new friends and creating an environment for yourself so that you and the bystanders around you feel comfortable. Even though people look at Chicago in a negative way due the news and terrible death rates, I found that Chicago is actually
a city that is more than welcoming and spreads love and positivity for everyone,
and I mean everyone. The 606 is one place in Chicago that I recommend to visit
because of the positive vibes that it gives off.

(Myles Liss / CoS student)

Ravenswood Used Books

I step out of 33 E Congress like a real Chicagoan, thinking that the 45 degree weather is warm compared to yesterday’s 32.

I take the brown line to Kimball, the golden sun pouring through the train’s windows endlessly, coating every surface in an clementine brightness, a soft flaxen hue. I look up from my book and feel myself just glad to be here, glad to be on the CTA, glad to be headed somewhere I’ve never been before. Passing pawn shops and nail salons, I finally spot my destination, Ravenswood Used Books, cuddled up between a home furnishings store and the post office. Stepping in feels like stepping into the basement library at my house, the whole place smelling like paper and ink, like books read over and over till they fall apart at the seams. It’s warm and soothing jazz plays over the speakers. The books are stacked two deep, forcing the customer to peel back layers like an orange, searching for the sweetest fruit at the back of the shelves.

The bookcases create a maze, leaving me breathlessly searching for its center, the place where I can catch my breath. Fairy lights hang from the ceiling and almost every book is a soft paperback. In the back of the store, an armchair sits in the adult fiction section, beneath a low-hanging metal lantern. I find a pile of Palahniuk books and shuffle through them until the shopkeep passes by and jokes that I should rearrange them since she has yet to organize them. She laughs at her own joke and walks to grab some scissors from the back room. I find a Camus book hidden in a corner and sink slowly into the armchair. It feels strangely like being home and I’m on the verge of tears, in this little corner of this little bookstore in Ravenswood. I call my mom and tell her about the bookstore. She sighs and keeps saying that it just sounds wonderful. I read her a bit of Camus and she eagerly tells me to buy it. I feel myself tranquil for a moment, holding myself in the vermillions and greens of the hanging fabrics. I just let myself be. Then I go to the front and pay 7 dollars for my book. The 45 degree weather is a little colder the second time.

(Joshua Horvath / CoS student)

Rats

Foreword: This little story is basically the tale of the rat from the opening pages of Native Son by Richard Wright. It just describes him from his point of view as the narrator (hence the narrator’s primitive and unfocused tone) as he goes through the streets of Chicago with ultimately a single, obsessive goal in mind throughout: survival. The story begins with him roaming the streets recapping things from just a little bit ago to when he stumbles upon Bigger’s home and then when he gets squished. It’s just supposed to be a fun little story idea from an aspect of the story that is over and done with pretty quickly.

Food. Food… I want food.

I need food.

It’s hard enough. I risk my life crossing these open spaces. Giant metallic beasts roar by
nearly killing me and my brethren. On top of that, humans refuse to let us near their foods. We resort to sneaking, we resort to theft, we resort to all of the things necessary to keep ourselves warm and fed.

Last night I was with two of my brothers looking for crumbs in the darkness. It was cold. We had been chased out of our previous residence. Some human with the dark skin tried to smash us, but we managed to flee.

Ugh, fleas. Pesky little things. Make me itch all over, make me hurt all over. Such a
bother. Why can’t they just get lost, nobody wants them here. They make sneaking so much more uncomfortable and difficult.

Last night I was with two of my brothers roaming the outside world. It was dark and there were no crumbs. The birds had taken them all. We roam at night because there are less metallic beasts hunting at that time. Roaming in the day is okay, but there are many beasts and many humans that would hurt us.

Last night I was with two of my brothers when we came inside of a big den. Many
crumbs tall. Enough crumbs to feed a family of brothers and sisters for each of their lifetimes. We chose to separate. Easier to find food. Easier to sneak. Easier to survive. We would live here until we were doomed to die or flee.

Ugh, I absolutely hate fleas.

I stumble upon a family of humans. All of the dark skin kind. There are a lot of those in
this portion of the den colony. Two are much bigger than two others. But two have shorter hair.

Those are usually the aggressive males. One is bigger and one is smaller. I will lay low for a little bit and wait for them to sleep, then I shall see what food they have for me to pick at. They surely have enough to share.

The big one with the long hair sees me and lets out a high pitched battle cry. She alerts
the males who take charge against me. I scurry back to the hole to slink back into my cave from where I came. I shall wait a little longer. They will forget about me soon.

Hours pass and I take the time to sleep. The humans sleep as well. Now I am rested and
am much more sneaky than I was before. They will surely not catch me. I creep out into the darkness and begin to scavenge. As I thought, the humans are all asleep and I have as much time as I need until the sun comes up. But something is wrong. I feel movement. I freeze in order for whatever is moving to not notice me. Perhaps another of my brethren is here as well, or perhaps the humans have a cat? No, I would have smelled such things…

A sudden light appears. This is not the sun! These humans have portable lights as well!
Many do, but the ones outside never seem to have any. It is always a risk. This light is hanging from the ceiling of the den and is now glowing brightly. The female lets out another battle cry and the males are after me again. The bigger one is chasing after me. I try to hide behind a large object. It does not work. I am discovered again.

No more. It is time to fight back. I snarl and latch on to the bigger male’s leg. He does
not seem to feel any pain, though his skin is soft. Almost as if cotton. I am launched away from him and hit the wall. I am hurt by this. Fighting is not a good plan. My only hope is to return to the cave. But, oh no! They have blocked up my cave. I do not know where to go now!

I scurry to and fro. One of the males throws something large at me. I manage to dodge
but I still cannot find an exit. Perhaps I can squeeze under the human entry way. Perhaps…

I freeze as I see another heavy object come hurling towards me. I have noticed it too late and I cannot move. I fear that this will not end well for me. And all goes black.

(Greg Baranovskiy / CoS Student)

Who Doesn’t Like Food?

“I’ve been to England, France and Mexico, but I don’t know how people live ten blocks from me. We know so little about each other. I just want to see. I want to know these people.”

When I read these four sentences pulled from Richard Wright’s writing Native Son I immediately think that this is Chicago. There are so many cultural neighborhoods throughout the Chicagoland area and especially the city. Part of me thinks that some people are too afraid to venture out and try the new things around them. Most Chicagoans don’t realize that they have a cultural experience in a five to ten mile radius of where they live. With places like Chinatown, little village, and neighborhoods that house Polish, Italian, African and basically every other culture there is basically no excuse for not being able to experience at least one different cultural living style other than your own. And the best way to do this is through food! Food is the one thing that everyone, not matter race, age, religion, sexuality or anything has in common. I mean come on! Who doesn’t like food? Exactly, no one! You can go a few miles south and get amazing authentic Mexican food, or to Mario’s Italian ice, or to basically any place in Chinatown. People these days are just afraid of new cultures which makes them unaware of new experiences. Which brings me back to the quote. It really makes me realize how ignorant and blind we can be sometimes. People always say they want to seek adventure and experience culture and they think the only way to do that is to hop on a plane for 8 hours and go to a new country. When in reality they a just hop on a 10 minute train ride and experience the same thing right don’t the block, in their Chicago.

(Alyssa Bonk / CoS Student)

Southside

I’ve lived in the Chicagoland area my whole life. I’ve been to the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry, The Willis Tower and Wrigley Stadium, and eaten my fair share of Chicago-style hotdogs and deep-dish pizza.

Despite this, one place I have never gone to, never even thought about going to, was the South Side. Growing up, I’ve heard plenty of jokes about the area, and how infamous it is for gun violence and gang activity, so naturally I decided to stay away. But I figured if I’m living in the city, supposedly having the Chicago experience, I couldn’t possibly get by without visiting an entire side of the city.

The first thing I noticed when my mom and I got there is that the area was very
unapologetically black. We parked next to a Baptist Church, and walked past a street vendor in full African garb selling photography of black people and cultural moments, including multiple black and white pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. For the first time in my 18 years, I was the only white person in sight.

We entered the building for a restaurant called Soul Vegetarian East, and it felt like going into somebody’s home, with carpet on the floors, and a TV showing a sports game on mute. Over the speakers, what my mother identified as stepping music played. We took a seat by the windows, and as I looked around, I saw the walls were covered with African art. One painting in particular, behind my mom’s head, showed three black girls playing violin. The people all around me seemed to be of all different age groups and occupations; I saw an old man in his Sunday best eating alone, a postal worker, a middle-aged couple on a date, a little girl in tiny Adidas shoes, an old woman talking to everyone and anyone around her. In fact, something I noticed is that it seemed like everyone was conversing with each other, whether they knew one another or not, across tables. Even the waitress stopped and talked to some of the tables for upwards of five minutes, which is definitely not something you would ever see at a typical white establishment. I heard one man talking to his significant other across the table about his Al Green record collection. At another table, a middle aged woman walked over to an old lady, greeting her and complimenting her outfit (these two knew each other from church, I later found out).

It was pretty clear to see, everything I had heard about the dangers of the South Side were nothing but scare tactics, meant to divide black people and white people. When people told me not to go south of Roosevelt, it’s not because Bronzeville or Hyde Park are dangerous. Because I had been to places in the northern suburbs worse off than those areas. People say that because, whether they recognize it or not, they still see black people as a threat.

I think if you are white living in the city, it should be mandatory to take a trip to the
South Side to see what it’s really like. Because all this fear mongering only breeds more
ignorance, when really, I met the nicest people on my visit. And I know every time I step out my (or my parents’) comfort zone, and experience other cultures, I am better for it.

(Grace Cepeda / CoS Student)

 

A Conversation for all the Women Out There

After reading all of the graphic novels, the one that stood out to me most was a short comic by Sarah entitled Not Pretty. I drew inspiration from the comic and decided to attach my favorite poem ever:

“So, maybe we’re the
generation of the selfie,
but we’re also the generation
that grew up in a tainted,
Photoshopped world
with every impossible beauty standard
shoved down our throat
through a tube
because eating has become
a guilty pleasure
and condemning beauty ideals
won’t go straight to our thighs.
And if, by chance,
we are able to destroy the
demons that you’ve planted
inside of us with your
constant advertisements and rules
that play behind our eyelids and
take root in our brains,
then let us take our fucking pictures
and capture that moment when
we felt beautiful because all this world
has taught us is that
our beauty is the greatest
measure of our worth.
Scoff at our phones all you like,
these delicate extensions of
our fingers, but know that
through this technology
that you couldn’t even
begin to understand,
we have smudged the entire
world with our fingerprints.
We are the generation of knowledge,
and we are learning more than
any that came before us.
So, frown at my typing fingers;
I am using them to grasp power
by the throat.
Try to invalidate us,
but we’ve heard our
parents talking about
the world’s crashing and burning
since we had sprung from the womb.
We know you’ve fucked up,
and we’re angry about it-
the kind of anger that
fuels knowledge,
that I feel in my veins every time
I read the news from my phone
before school,
that sticks in my throat like honey
in a debate;
the kind of anger that simmers,
that sharpens teeth into daggers,
that makes this generation more dangerous
than you could have ever imagined.
We are the generation of change,
and goddammit, we’re coming.”
—Emily Palermo, An Open Letter to the Men Who Told Me to Stay Out of Adult Conversations

I read this poem a couple years back and it really stuck with me. I believe the comic was
trying to do something very similar by telling men that, as women, we are not here to please you. Beauty standard this day in America are absolutely repulsive. Advertisements and social media make it increasingly impossible to feel accepted in today’s world and young girls everywhere are feeling that pressure every single day. The comic shows an almost devil like creature telling the woman over and over again that she is not pretty, and by the end the woman refuses to listen and basically says, “So fucking what if I’m not pretty? I will put on my makeup and do the very best that I can because who are you to tell me otherwise.”

Both the poem and the comic go hand in hand talking about the struggles women face to feel accepted into a society where looks are considered worth and men seem define who we are as women. I can’t say that this will ever change or that it will even ever get better. I think that from the beginning if time women have been judged by men based on how they look solely. This day in age with phones and technology being the very center of all of our worlds, the poem also looks into issues of older generations making jokes about the information we carry with us everywhere. I believe that both the poem and the comic touch on topics that are so important to powerful women in the 21st century. I can’t wait to see how society develops and if any of these issues ever come close to getting resolved.

(Maddie Grubich / CoS Student)

Victory Gardens Theater

We open on our scene in 1914 at a movie theater, designed by Samuel N. Crowen, named the Biograph Theater. The theater was nothing out of the ordinary, it appeared as any other movie house of the time. Fast forward twenty years to July 22nd, 1934 to outside the Biograph, as it is covered in the blood of the gangster, John Dillinger, who was shot by the FBI, and whose death resulted in the beginning of the end to the Gangster Era. Since then the Biograph was bought by The Victory Gardens Theater and now is a place of live-theater, though the sign for The Biograph still looms over its entrance. Curtain rises. Another 83 years in the future to a Friday in mid-October, where a young woman and her father will be watching the theater’s production of Fun Home.

Now when I first entered this theater, I did not know of its gruesome past that made it a historical landmark. All I remember was the cozy brick walls and the string of lights that hung from the ceiling, that reminded me of my bedroom back home. Hearing the whirl of small-talk that encompassed the lobby, as opposed to the echoes of gunshots from so many years past. There was a smell of liquor and freshly-brewed coffee that filled my nose and left me feeling at peace and safe. My heart was racing with anticipation as I waited for the doors of the theater to open. My father was with me and this would be the first show we had ever seen together. Ironically, back in 1934, John Dillinger saw his last film ever here.

Doors to the theater open. The audience fills in like pigs for slaughter, not knowing what lies ahead. They wait in their seats, reading their programs trying to uncover what the show will be about. Though the advertisements will do no help, they read the biographies of those in the play. They study them like FBI agents study the behavioral traits of their most-wanted. The sound of impatient-tapping feet and sighs of those who had a long week at work come to a halt with the ever-so slow fading of the house lights.

Fun Home was marvelous. The actors were phenomenal, there was not a moment that they did not have the entire audience’s undivided attention. The story was about a lesbian comic illustrator re-living her childhood up to her gay father’s suicide. My father was moved by the story and I saw tears in his eyes when he hugged me after curtain call. This show and theater really showed me a new side to Chicago Theater that I am now truly in love with. As I felt so comfortable in that theatre, on the way back home I decided to do some research on it. This was when I discovered the chilling previous event that happened outside The Biograph. I was fascinated by the history of the theater has and that theaters here are heavily intertwined with Chicago’s past lives. My warm feeling was accompanied by a wave of excitement and curiosity as I watched the theater slowly fading in the distance. Curtain closes.

(By Rachel McCumber/Student CoS)