The Long Way Home

I grew up in the suburbs North of Chicago. That means that despite my close proximity to the city, I usually only went there for field trips and sporting events. Growing up, Chicago was a big and scary place where people walked on top of people for lack of elbow room, every neighborhood I went to was certainly a gangland shooting gallery, and the city was unequivocally made up of only the tall steel and glass titans that you saw in pictures of the skyline. When I learned to drive, I was afraid of taking my car into the city. I’d ask a friend to drive instead or I just wouldn’t go. What was I going to do-take the train in?

Then I moved away for eight years living in both Tucson and then Los Angeles. I wanted to get the hell away from the cold. I wanted to know what it was like to live elsewhere in the country. I learned these cities like my own reflection. Every corner, every restaurant or bar, I could look at and think of something that happened to me there. And all the while, I couldn’t help be feel a longing for home. Not the home that I grew up in, with strip malls and chain restaurants. I longed for Chicago. Or more accurately, I longed for an idealized version of Chicago. I mean, what the hell was so hard for T-town and LA to figure out about hot dogs and deep dish pizza? But as much as I reminisced about what I thought Chicago was, I had no intention of ever moving back. I was going to be a screenwriter if it killed me. And then the writer’s strike happened…

Long story short, I moved back home with my tail between my legs, only to end up back in the suburbs living with my grandparents. And that’s when my Chicago story (my true story) began. My best friend from high school was living in the city at the time and I would go down to visit him as often as I could. In one month my car was broken into twice. My iPod was stolen both times. Needless to say, my first impressions of the real city were on par with those of my childhood. But I knew living in your grandparent’s house was no place for a 20-something and made the move to Humboldt Park. Mind you, this was Humboldt before the hipsters ventured west. I heard gun shots on a daily basis, my roommate skipped out on six months of rent, and I couldn’t find a decent job to save my life. I was poor, directionless and ashamed of coming home. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was ugliness and a world I did not understand. I knew how to get around all of Los Angeles, but I had no idea where I was at any given moment in Chicago.

Then, gradually, it started to make sense. I mastered the L. I rode a bus for the first time. Believe it or not, these were major strides for me. I began to make friends, I went out, tried different foods, even had myself a taste of Malort. My shame fell away. I came to understand that Los Angeles and Tucson were parts of my life that were over. Chicago was becoming my home.

Skip forward a couple of years, and I was working as a delivery driver for GrubHub. Suddenly I was spending 6-12 hours a day in my car, navigating the streets of Lake View, Wicker Park, Logan Square, and even the loop. I got more than my fair share of parking tickets ($450 in one month at one point), learned street names, and most importantly, found my place in the city. You want to know the city? Drive down Clark St. from Andersonville going South into the loop with your windows down. Breathe deep. Listen carefully, and gaze at the lights and buildings and people. There is an entire compendium of stories located on every block you pass. You just need to pay attention.

Nowadays I drive for Lyft. I meet every kind of person this city has to offer. Transplants, tourists, seasoned veterans, and everyone in between. I drive through the roughest neighborhoods on the South side like Engelwood and Auburn Gresham, to the West Loop with all of it’s high end eateries, to the urban suburbs (or Urburbs as I like to call them) of Lincoln Square and Andersonville. I’ve now lived here long enough to see entire neighborhoods change their identities. And maybe most importantly discovered that of any city I’ve ever been to (Los Angeles, Tucson, New York, Paris, London, Bangkok, Hong Kong) there is no road in the world like Lake Shore Drive. No matter which end you start from, the view is spectacular, making the city look like living breathing work of art. Like Camelot on the lake.

On the night I was married, my new wife and I left the reception in an old antique Rolls Royce. The driver took us down LSD to the Mag Mile, past Millennium and Grant Park, back to Lake Shore and down to the Museum of Science and Industry. As we drove past the enormous buildings and layered up people I’d come to understand and accept as my own, I had a thought: This is my city. I am a part of it, and it is a part of me.

It took me awhile to warm up to living in Chicago. And for all of it’s corruption and greed, construction, humidity, and polar vortexes, I’ve come to love this city. Sweet home Chicago. (J. Ryan Sommers/ GTA)



The Story of Chicago is the Millions of Opinions that Live in It.


“The enormous amount of daily life in this city, much of it worth a story or two.”

I’m taking this line from Aleksandar Hemon’s book, The Book of My Lives (a somewhat/not-really introduction to which can be easily digested as an Internet Listicle here), to attempt to encapsulate what Chicago stories are. Whether that be stories about Chicago, stories that merely use Chicago as a backdrop, news events from across the city, or hell, even a friend taking another friend out for their first taste of a Chicago style hotdog and live Tweeting the experience.

I can safely tell you, reader, that this attempt will be a wonderfully biased failure.

But in a city of stories, of arguments, of ambiguous neighborhood borders and city dwellers’ conflicting opinions of what a “true Chicago” is (it’s the neighborhoods beyond the Loop, by the way), what else could an attempt such as the following hope to be?

That’s the point. Consider this another story on the shelf of the geo-socio-politico-econo-enviro-hashtagGoCubs-ical library that is the city of Chicago.

I moved to the city in the summer of 2014 from a small, Michigan town with a population of 4000 and to get an idea of who I was just two years ago, I offer this: On my first day of graduate studies, I walked up to the security desk of the 624 Michigan building. My classroom was 1405 and to me, that meant that it was either on the first or fourth floor. I didn’t want to wander the halls like I was some Podunk never-was so I took charge of the fact that I didn’t know which of those two floors my class was in. The security guard smiled, God bless her, and kindly told me that the class was on the fourteenth floor. I told her that I was sorry, made an easily forgotten joke about how tall these buildings were and quickly ducked into an elevator. I suppose I was red in the face for about a week and my cheeks are a little warm as I write this so perhaps I’ll never live that one down.

A month later, I was assigned to read the above article (which I highly recommend you read before you read any further). I printed it off and decided to read it one Friday night from the safety of my locked bedroom when I was too afraid of the city to go to a Roscoe Village bar with some folks I’d met (if you don’t understand how naively funny that is, just wait a while).

Ok, so this Aleksandar Hemon loves Chicago, eh? That’s cool, I thought, let’s see if there are any insider tips from somebody who transplanted into the city themselves. My first takeaway was, “What in the hell is the guy talking about?” Rivers of red and white as seen from the Montrose Harbor? We get it, the Cubs suck (because at the time, they still did). Rough winters you say? Dude, I’m from Michigan, bring it on. Where’s Devon? What’s so special about the skyline? And so on…

The only thing that stuck with me was, “Never trust a summer day in Chicago” because for Pete’s sake, NEVER TRUST one here.

I brushed this reading off as nothing more than one person’s love of the city and not something indicative of Chicago as a whole.

But then another month went by and I found myself at Montrose Harbor, then I survived winter, then I grew to hate staring at the sun as I drove west out of the city but love what the light did as the sun started to set, then I started to defend the city from friends who’d never lived here. I even started a new photo album on Facebook dedicated to my own favorite Chicago experiences. Basically, I did what everyone who lives here, especially Hemon, eventually does: I found how my life in Chicago became its own story and, thus, another “Chicago Story.” I don’t have the time write, nor do you have the time to read, my own list of what makes this city THE place to be for young artists so I’ll leave off with this:

Read Hemon’s “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List.”

For those of you who are new to the city, scratch your heads like I did. For those of you who are from here, I don’t know, roll your eyes. Whoever you are, though, start thinking about how you would tell your own Chicago story.

Is Hemon’s list personal? Hell yes. Does it fit for everyone? Hell no. But remember, that’s the point of Chicago storytelling. This is a city of stories and everyone has a few to tell. There are bound to be conflicting opinions.

What we’re doing is seeing how these people tell their stories, how one person’s voice may take up a whole novel when somebody else only needs a series of 140 characters to let their voice be heard. Where does YOUR voice fit in all of this? Let’s find out.

Finally, buy an umbrella, a 20% chance of rain during a Chicago summer really means an 80% chance. (RS Deeren/GTA)


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)