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. (Sam Weller/Course Instructor)


Reading Gwendolyn Brooks

As I read Gwendolyn Brooks’ “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” I had little context of what the poem was about, but as I reached the fifth paragraph my stomach dropped to my feet the way it had when my older cousin showed me an image of a badly beaten boy she was doing a school project on laying in his casket. That boy was, of course, Emmett Till, and his story would become something of a horror story told to young black kids by their older relatives because history classes would rarely tell the true story, if they told it at all. It was a tale, then, that I knew all too well, or at least I thought I did. I kept reading and struggled to grasp on to the perspective Brooks spoke from, then it dawned on me: it was the white woman Till had dared to speak to, whose husband and brother-in-law took his life. Admittedly, it was a perspective I had never even considered exploring, one that I could not manage to relate human emotions and thoughts to. I thought of her, her husband, his brother and every white person they had every even known as monsters who deserved not a single ounce of the humanity they had stolen from that eternally 14-year-old, black boy. And yet, Brooks rarely even touched on the color of this woman’s skin as she described the suppressed feelings of guilt and shame she could only imagine this woman had felt. This woman was simply a mother, a wife. Truthfully, I care little about how her own actions plagued this woman’s life after they caused a child to be brutally beaten to death, but Brooks’ writing gave insight into a system of patriarchy and power that that woman would have fallen victim to time and time again until she made someone else, someone even more innocent, its victim.

Then, I read Brooks’ poem “White Girls are Peculiar People” and it brought me back to my all-girls private middle school, where my one continuous thought tended to be “white girls are peculiar people.”

I was one of six black girls in my whole class, and coming from a mostly black school I had never before been subjected to the mysterious world of white girls. Everything about them puzzled me, the way the spoke, the music they listened to, their clothes, it was all foreign to me. The one thing that would plague me and cause endless insecurities was the way their ponytails would swing back and forth as I walked behind them in the halls. My hair was too thick, even with the relaxer I had put in it to straighten (and destroy) it, to ever swing back and forth like theirs would. I would strain to try and make it swing on my own but that would just give me a crick in my neck. Although I still think white girls are peculiar, I now proudly wear my hair in an afro that reaches for the sky and ain’t gone move for nobody.

(Jourdan Walker/ Student)

The Chicago Cultural Center


This week I decided to revisit one of my favorite places in the city: The Chicago Cultural Center.  This is one of the most undervalued, unappreciated, forgotten gems of this city.  Passing by in their distressing hectic lives, no one stops to realize this building is more than four walls; it is a standing, living, mausoleum paying tribute to the strife and trials this city has tried to sweep under the rug. Chuckle to yourself as you bypass the bronze bull outside, curious as to why so many tourists flock to this one spectacle, obviously tarnishing specific areas of the statue.  Keep going, leave their flashes and noise behind you.  Pull open the doors thick with age, realize you are prying open the doors to history itself. Walking in, don’t just head for the stairs, don’t make that mistake.  Pause a moment and take a deep breath.  Smell that? That is the significance of rhythm, gospel, jazz, and hymns all harmonizing; their echoes still reverberating off the marble walls and if you stand there long enough I promise you’ll hear the ghosts of their melodies. Let each step forward take you a year deeper into the story that is Chicago.  When you reach the stairs go ahead and let them carry you away from the bustle and drive towards historical serenity.  Look up and to your left you’ll find the following quote:

“The real use of knowledge is that we should dedicate that reason which was given us by God for the use and advantage of man.”  -Bacon

Read it several times, do not let the initial mediocrity drown out the impact these memorializing words are screaming at you. Command yourself to pick apart each word and embrace its validity.  Now turn around.  Did your heart skip a beat? Mine did.  Almost as if you don’t want to interrupt the peace or disturb the deeply seeded silence, carefully walk forward.  Surrounding you is the hand crafted creation these architects painstakingly etched out so many years ago.  Bright marble protrudes from the built in temple.  You are in one of three rooms.  Looking to your left and right you’ll notice the adjoining rooms are just as grand as the first.  Now stare directly ahead: for in front of you is a token, an icon if you will, of what has been passed down from generation to generation.  In front of you is a Steinway grand piano.  The Gods of History have left this here as a reminder of what has remained consistent through the trials and through the chaos: music.  If you dare, play a single note and imagine who else has dared to do so before you.  Know you are among the greatest of souls but most importantly, you are among friends. Touching one single wall is synonymous with shaking the entire city’s hands.  I want to show you something.  Leave this grandeur behind and take the door leading away from the left hand side room and follow that illuminated hallway until you reach a doorway on your right.  You have left the flawlessness of empirical magnificence and into the underlying elements which give Chicago its dignity.  Lining these walls you’ll find countless tokens left behind by the ones before you, people bringing their own story yet leaving unified.  Keep going.  Entering the room at the end of the hall, in the far right hand corner you will notice what seems to be a small black hut covered in white dust.  Look closer. That is no dust; laid out in all its glory are hundreds and thousands of names.  This is the core of Chicago: camaraderie.  I know not who came before me and I know not of the first hand struggles; but, staring at the word “FREEDOM” drawn by some courageous soul before me, I know I am among the greatest of them all.  For me, my handwritten name upon an erasable surface is the metaphor driving me onward.  My time in this city is temporary but I cannot ignore the marks it has left on me and the impact I have had on its spirit in return. This museum is a tribute to the countless lives Chicago has touched, changed, and renewed.  We cannot let monuments to the painful past be diminished. They are a remembrance of what has come to pass; but more importantly, they are a promise of a glorious future.

(Hannah Sinarahua/ City of Stories Student)

Dispatch #1: Chicago Music Exchange


The biggest guitar store in the area where I grew up only had about 50 guitars in stock on a good day, so when I entered the Chicago Music Exchange, I was in shock.

As I looked around, I could see hundreds of guitars in all different shapes and styles. Guitars that I could only find online were suddenly surrounding me. Tossed haphazardly into every conceivable nook and cranny, they lined the walls, almost always three rows high. There were amps scattered all around the floor, stacked on tables, snuck between chairs, some guitars were even hanging from the buildings support columns. All around me were trinkets of my lifestyle, a tribute to guitarists both past and present.

It felt almost odd to be present there. Here were all these cool guitars that I desperately wanted. And yet I could barely afford the cheapest gear that was supplied here. It felt odd to see all this amazing stuff that I had only read about online, but feel almost hostile towards actually trying it out. The store almost felt like it was trying to say, this is a store for the rich folk. And it certainly is, with the average price of a guitar in the store ranging from two to three thousand dollars, it’s hard to imagine for people like me who struggle to pay for something even half that price. Everything was way out of my price range.

I knew that I shouldn’t be depressed, but nonetheless I was. I was in my dream, but only a visitor, one that would be removed at closing time. The handful of other times I’ve been here it was for a purpose, and I didn’t realize just how much that purpose drove me. Now it was gone, and here I was. A spectator to the rich business men who can afford to drop three grand on a hobby. And here I was, the aspiring musician already in debt after a semester and who couldn’t afford even three hundred dollars on both his business and passion.

I picked up a guitar, admiring the elegance of the paintjob as the paint blended into the wood to create a truly awesome display. I soon saw the twenty four hundred dollar price tag, and after sighing began to play. Feeling the strings vibrate as my hands glided along the fretboard. As I continued to play, I found myself reminded as to why I was truly here. I wasn’t here because I had to be here. I was here because I wanted to be here. Playing guitar is what I enjoy, and just because I can’t afford a fancy one doesn’t take away that enjoyment. So why should I not enjoy the time I have here? As I put the guitar back on the shelf, I said to myself, someday.

(Joshua Sperger/CoS Student)


I walked through the tall, crystal clear glass doors with one of my closest friends by my side.

Word of mouth was how the greats and even the new greats recorded here and even some famous commercials were made here. I thought this studio can’t be that great. “The Chicago Recording Company,” never even heard of it can’t be all that great, but the marble around the building and stairs as we strolled was slowly making me question that thought.

We entered the main room and it was low-lit and even through the studio room windows on the floor had low lights. Bowls filled with candy and water and a coffee machine welcomed us. Though still changing, this place is making me feel more comfortable. I ask an employee where the bathroom is and as I’m directed this wall, that wall, and the other snap my attention from my own issues to plaques with my childhood and still current inspirations. I see Aaliyah, R. Kelly, and MICHAEL JACKSON plaques. This is one of my new favorite places! The king of pop recorded here I’m fangirling and staring at the plaques in awe like the actually celebrities are in the building but they aren’t but their presence is and it’s apparent as we walk into the first studio room.


This studio room is the biggest I’ve ever seen or been in and I will record here one day and it’s the most high lit place in the building so far and there’s mini rooms inside of it consisting of 2 piano rooms and one writing room and the room where the magic takes place where the production and recording occurs. I am outdone and in love. The black couches along the wall welcome me to soak all of my surroundings and vibes in. Chance The Rapper just recorded coloring book in this very room and had a live choir in purple robes, at least I picture that part. I then seat myself in a chair by the black couches and envision myself writing a new hit and see myself in the booth where I see chance with his black 3 hat over his eyes peering at his paper where he wrote “no problem” this studio just simply tells me to get back to my passion. Its whole aura tells me that the greats have been here and I’m great, it simply tells me, be next.

(Jakayla Wells/CoS Student)

Trump Hotel: It’s Bigly Great




Trump Tower is more than just a luxury hotel, it’s emblematic of the Trump brand.

What better way to represent President Trump than by erecting a giant steel prison for foreigners? Come relax by the pool, experience the finest in KFC dining, or just cackle next to a pile of burning tax returns! You’ve heard of the Roosevelt Hotel and Lincoln Resort, but do you know about Dan Quayle’s Potatoe Eatery, Steve Bannon’s drink ‘till you drop cocktail lounge, and Putin’s smother-ready pillows, all a featured part of the Trump Hotel Experience? We even have the finest covfefe imported straight from Nambia. Drop by the entertainment complex to play classic board games like ‘Oligopoly,’ ‘The Game of Wife,’ and ‘Guess Jew!” Wonder at the shrine to Trump Hotel’s most notable guests, including Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, and the Great Gadhafi. More than anything, Trump wants you to feel welcome. That’s why our name tags come pre cut with your choice of a pink triangle or yellow star to help you find other guests just like you! Since the construction of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, some have claimed that our tower is too small, but we assure you, there’s no problem. Our tower is one of the highest — and you all know it! In fact, ours has been the largest audience to ever witness a hotel, period, both in-person and around the globe. So come check in today! Call now and we’ll even find a place for you in our Frederick Douglass suite, a man who’s actions today are being recognized more and more.

Phone: (538) 300-0000

Jobs wanted; bad hombres need not apply

(Asher Witkin/CoS Student)




Chicago Musician

Nat King Cole ranks alongside several of the great musicians such as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como as one of the famous Jazz singers during the late ‘40s to the mid ‘60s.

Nat King Cole was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1919. However, when he was only four years old, he and his family moved to Chicago. Cole, being born with natural talent had his first performance at the age of four where he sang “Yes, we have no Bananas.” As his talent began to flourish and become more evident, he began to learn to play the Organ from his mother, as well as receive formal lessons in music which opened him up to a variety of genres.
After a couple of trials and errors, the tall and smiling Nat King Cole stood in the spot lights among other great artists, playing his music in big venues as well as appearing in television. Furthermore, for his great music skills, Cole Park was named after him here in Chicago.
Even though all of Nat King Coles songs are amazing, inspiring, breath taking and soothing to hear, the song Smile is my all-time favorite. Whenever I feel as though there isn’t much to smile about after a difficult day, I turn to his music and drift away with the rhythmic melody of him playing the piano so soothingly. The violins and the sound of the piano creep in to my ears and cools the heat that once was fusing inside my head. As he begins to sing, it feels as though he is right beside me advising me to fight a heart break or a gloomy day with a smile. Even when I feel as though no human will understand my pain or sorrows, I know that Nat King Cole’s songs will, and it will magically make my worries fade away.
(Nadia Khan / CoS Student)

Hebru Brantley | Forced Fields – Elmhurst Art

Step in, waves of culture flood the room. Pale white walls harnessing the lenses to see into the past that we want to forget and a colorful future in which we hope for.

Hebru Brantley insists we embark on this journey of painful truths and long lost desires of a minority living in poverty. Now, walking through the streets of south side Chicago; a man drifts by with a look of desperation glistening in his eyes, ghostly floating on the strands of which he has left from the paycheck he got last week. Step right, Across the street, a dark boy, alongside his dreams, looks through a cracked fence that teases with a view of freedom and a new world, but holds back his chance to achieve that better life. Step left, the next block over, a group of friends standby, conflict stirs, a civil war has erupted. Signs, fists and friendships thrown without a second thought. An audience forms, witnessing the doings of the people they all grew up with. “BANG! click BANG!” smoke, martyr down, people hide, just another day in the south side streets that some call home. Step forward, beyond those streets are the ones who run free; free of the stereotypes, free of the bondages, free of the past they would’ve had if they stayed back home. They sprint head on toward the vision of prosperity and vision with no thought of the life left behind. Step out, “oh that’s right, I’m just in another white neighborhood.”

(Isaac Arreola/CoS student)

Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to Chicago, the City of Love

Off the Beaten Path

So you’ve decided to come to Chicago, the land of… uh… Chicagoans. Well, you’ve made an adequate choice!

So what will you do after seeing the Willis Tower (cough, Sears Tower, cough cough) and Cloud Gate a.k.a what literally everyone calls “The Bean” (unless you’re that guy). Well, I’ll tell you, my fine-feathered friend. You’re going to head on down to The Art Institute of Chicago, and if you’ve never been to the Louvre in Paris or The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, then you’re gonna love this place! Chicago Tourist Tip #1: Skip the basement exhibits and most of the first floor. Just go straight for the gold: the Impressionist wing on the second floor. After you’re done re-creating Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in front of George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” head on back and to the general left of the building for the modern and contemporary art wing of the Art Institute. Make sure to catch a peek of the Warhols now on exhibit at the museum, but please be advised that some works of art may be inappropriate for the kiddies.

Now that you’re experiencing an inflated sense of feeling cultured, head across Michigan Avenue where you’ll come upon the best fast food Chicago has to offer: Shake Shack! (Disclaimer: Shake Shack was actually opened in California and is in fact a chain with a convenient location in Chicago.) Chicago Tourist Tip #2: the entrance to Shake Shack is located in the Chicago Athletic Association lobby, which is stage right of the outdoor seating, but indoor seating fills up fast, so let the Missus and the kiddies go find a table while the head of the house orders the food at the counter.Whether it’s hot or cold (but especially hot), make sure to try Shake Shack’s chocolate cookies n’ cream shake (chocolate-y enough to get wifey to stop complaining about her cramps) or the blueberry pie concrete (it’s like Thanksgiving dessert in your mouth!).

Now that you’ve filled up on greasy- and dairy-goodness, it’s time to go shopping! Keep on walking north on Michigan Avenue and you’ll eventually be at the Magnificent Mile, which really is gosh darn magnificent! The Mile, as the locals refer to it, is a hidden gem and not widely known by tourists, so be sure to keep this secret safe! Need some suggestions on where to head for your shopping endeavors? Chicago Tourist Trip #3: If you have a daughter aged four to eighteen, she is going to just die over the American Girl Doll store located in Water Tower Place. And while your little angel is picking up her new favorite toy, let your little monster go wild across the hall in the Lego store! And, of course, don’t forget to stop by the Disney store on Michigan Avenue for some great Chicago-themed Disney gear! It’s a must-have for any family. Looking to spoil the Missus? Ditch the kids in Hershey’s Chocolate shop (don’t worry, the security guards don’t mind at all) and dash across the street to Ghirardelli where you can satisfy her sweet tooth with the best hot cocoa in the world (disclaimer: the best hot cocoa in the world is actually made at Angelina in Paris)! And you can’t forget about yourself! There are tons of sports merchandise stores all up and down the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue! Just head into any one of them and ask for a Green Bay Packers jersey; it’ll be like you’re all family.

Now that the munchkins are all tuckered out, tuck ‘em in bed and head out on the town with the Missus. Chicago is known for being the epicenter of all theatre and musicals (disclaimer: the epicenter of the world for theatre and musicals is in fact Broadway in New York City). Here’s your final Chicago Tourist Tip #4: Surprise the ole ball and chain by taking her out to see the Blue Man Group. It’s an up and coming show that is guaranteed to make it big in the next decade or so. Or, better yet, try  something called Hamilton; it’s so far off the beaten path, you can practically walk right in and buy two front seat tickets!

Well, I hope you had a great time here in the city of lights, and I hope you make the sub-par decision to return soon. Well, as the great Chicagoan Al Capone may have probably most likely once said, “I’ll be seeing you real soon.”

(Alexandra Yetter/CoS student)

North ​​Avenue​​ Beach

My first interaction with Lake Michigan was on my second night of college.

The seam of sky and water had blended completely, making the horizon a black hole. The water that lapped inches from my feet seemed cold and uncanny. My interactions with lakes henceforth had been minimal. When I was five years old, I swam in a lake in Texas. I remember clear water and scratchy rocks underneath my feet. Lake Michigan seemed far different.

As I spent more time in Chicago, my curiosity towards the lake increased. In English, we analyzed the lyrics of “LSD” by Jamila Woods feat Chance the Rapper. “You gotta love me like I love the lake / You wanna love me, better love the lake,” she sings in a lulling voice. Last week, I chose to respond to Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Lake,” because his description of the water as “a moment of green silence” entranced me. Back home, I had spent the whole summer fantasizing about becoming a Chicagoan. Under the raging LA sun, I imagined of a future of hot dogs and bitter winters and the L. I hadn’t imagined the lake as part of this picture. Which led me to ask, what made this mass of cold dark water so integral to Chicago identity? What was I missing?

I set out to answer these questions when I went to North Avenue Beach with Kami, a girl I met in an acting class I took once and then switched to ceramics, who is new to Chicago as well. I did not want to feel a question mark inside myself when I looked at Lake Michigan any longer. I wanted to engage and find the missing piece of my Chicago puzzle.

The lake shore was bursting with people catching the last few rays of summer. Families sat on beach towels, young adults played volleyball, couples hung their legs over the side of the pier. Skyscrapers watched us from a short distance. I ran knee deep into the water and called out for Kami, telling her how nice the water felt. And it felt so nice. It wasn’t like salt water, it was softer and clear. It felt pure. I wished I could swim like the Nirvana baby in this water. I loved it. And I finally got why the lake is so essential. It’s childhood, it’s a hot summer after a long winter, it’s family, it’s a body of flowing culture and identity. It was something I had to connect with on a physical level to understand. I left feeling like I could really call Chicago my home. And with some sand in my socks.

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(Maisie Pryor / CoS student)

Isolation is one of the worst feelings a person can experience. From a psychological standpoint, actual isolation can impair brain development and cognitive ability, creating a lasting negative impact on the isolated person’s life, even if they were to come out of it.

On the other hand, feeling isolated is unlikely to cause serious problems in brain function, but it hurts. In Bradbury’s The Emissary, Martin wasn’t truly isolated, he still had his parents after his teacher died and Dog left, but he felt that way. He fell into a depressive state in reaction to this, apathy and unhappiness at the forefront of his emotions while he could hear the world revolve around him but had no way to interact. Knowing there are people but not having any meaningful interaction, and being torn away from the people you love are two exceedingly painful feelingsthat leave you feeling vulnerable and afraid and alone. What drew me to this piece was those emotions, the echoes of them still painfully fresh. I had a day recently where, despite being in the heart of a city of thousands, despite living in a dorm filled 16 stories high with people my age, despite even getting along well with my roommates, I felt completely alone. Everyone I love is a thousand miles away and a lot of them are still together. My best friend, my boyfriend, my “babyninja,” they are all still in high school and get to see each other weekly. My friends who just moved away to their first year of college can hop on a bus or a train and go home for a weekend if they want. If I tried, I would get an hour and a half with people before having to turn right around and go back, it is a 23 hour train or bus ride from Chicago to Boston. When your physical connection is severed, it makes an impact. “The world was a picture under glass, untouchable. The world was dead.” It does not matter if you can see the children on the street down below your window, or your favorite person’s face smiling up at you from your phone screen, they are not there. You cannot laugh or run or hug or be with them. You can watch them live their lives, in solitude, cut off from all that you really want. Alone.

(Caitlin Dooks/CoS)