Last time? It was a magazine. This time? Right now? It’s more like a cultural fountain, bubbling over with the waters of innovation in a way that could quench anybody’s artistic thirst.
The resurrection of the long forgotten “Chicagoan.” This time, a lot more than a magazine. This time, more like a cultural parade.
If the cover from the 1920’s above suggests, “The New Yorker,” it was supposed to. In its nine year run from June of 1926 to April of 1935, the cover art was stunning. Just like the New Yorker.
Inside the covers? Not so much.
The kinds of stories that could paint pictures of people’s lives and then wrap those pictures around the throats of the readers till breathing got hard, those stories did not appear. The editors forgot that the writing should be good. So the Chicagoan was forgotten. It’s only complete collection located appropriately in The New York Public Library.
There were some attempts to breathe life into the project across the years. But none of them could color in a vision of what this bubbling cultural fountain could be. No one could describe the vision well enough to make a whole lot of people say, “This is a parade I want to join.”
But then cultural historian Neil Harris started speaking with “Stop Smiling” Editor J.C. Gabel. Harris had written a book. “The Chicagoan: A Lost History of the Jazz Age.” And the vision started to take shape. Become real.
The Chicagoan wouldn’t just be a magazine. It would be a non-profit media organization. Its mission would be the development of arts, culture, innovation and history through long form narrative storytelling. Not just for Chicago. But for the greater Midwest. And beyond.
Stop for a moment. Think about that vision. Think about that “and beyond” part.
Now, how do you make that vision real?
1. A biannual publication. A scrumptiously designed shimmering piece of art in the shape of a book. 26 stories. No advertising. Just tales from the city, literature that included short stories, essays, poems and interviews.
2. A web site that keeps all those cultural waters flowing every second.
3. The “Great Wide Open.” Dispatches from cities and towns across the Midwest.
4. Hosting cultural events across the city. Readings, panel discussions with artists and writers. Followed by parties. . . .
Not just a new magazine. A new kind of magazine has been born.
A place for stories. Like the one below.
To make a few introductions. Include some folks. Start the story telling. And most of all . . . . .
To welcome "The Chicagoan" home again.
A Chicago Parade
This story began not far from where Chicago's Kennedy Expressway paved over the Algren apartment at 1523 West Wabansia Avenue.
Just a bit north of that long buried apartment where Nelson Algren and Simone deBeauvoir, huddled together, would wander home from the corner tap on winter nights, their steps in unison on the cold sidewalk.
Years pass, the echo of those same footsteps now silent.
And an image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the concrete wall beneath where the Kennedy Expressway crosses Fullerton Parkway.
Obdulia Delgado, the first known person to see the image, was on her way home from work at the hospital. And as she drove down Fullerton Parkway, traffic thundering above on the concrete artery connecting O'Hare Airport with the towers of downtown Chicago, she looked at the wall and immediately pulled on over.
Drawn in salt stained runoff from the highway above, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It was the Virgin. Her image on the wall.
Obdulia Delgado saw this right away and then she fell to her knees and began to pray.
And then while Obdulia knelt and prayed and the traffic zoomed by overhead; at a train station just a little bit south near the loop, a tall, serene and radiant black man carrying a battered saxophone case stepped down off the train and through the railroad steps of smoke and time. He paused.
Finally, in hearing Obdulia cry, John Coltrane found his way to that underpass, knelt down next to Obdulia to lift his gleaming golden horn from its battered case, stood up tall, closed his eyes and began with the two perfect bell shaped notes of a piece he called.
John Coltrane's "Dear Lord" echoes out from that underpass, along with the news of what Obdulia found on the wall, that perfect sound heading off towards Division Street.
Nelson Algren hears Coltrane's howl and he wanders up to Fullerton to have himself a look.
A slight bespectacled man, a counterpoint to the massive presence of Coltrane, Algren stands off to the side to watch the fun begin. Algren listens and he watches and remembers a letter he tossed off once to a man, a Korean War vet who wrote to ask about what it was like to write "Man with a Golden Arm." Algren replied to the man:
"But there were never days when I felt I wouldn't complete it. I knew that, unless the army got me again or a Buick bumped me, I'd get a story put together, because I had the parts to put together. My self-doubts weren't concerned with whether it would be completed, but only whether it would say anything, and say it well, as nobody else could ever have said it, when it was done. All those things came true, to a limited degree, so I feel it was a lucky book, and a lucky time now past, and I was lucky to write it."
Algren smiles ruefully to himself, standing underneath that bridge -- knowing now that it was not about the luck. And when Algren chuckles, Coltrane stops for just an instant and joins in the laugh -- seeing Coltrane smile, much less laugh—like some sort of miracle or something!
In that instant of the pause and the chuckle, two new Chicago wanderers, this time from the South Side join in underneath that bridge. Appearing first with a scowl, till somebody from the crowd that is beginning to build around that image of the Virgin shouts out, 'Yo Studs Lonnigan, you kissin the old dump goodbye?'
When he hears those words, James T. Farrell breaks out in a crooked Irish grin, and as soon as Farrell smiles a new piece of music, dredged up as if the land itself, the dirt and the sweat and the layers of time comes bursting through the cement in a four bar blues, massive guitar, as unlikely a companion for James T Farrell than you could imagine, but still the voice of all the earth itself -- McKinley Morganfield--Muddy Waters growls,
C'mon baby don't you want to go?
Back to that same old place.
Sweet home Chicago
As Muddy Waters just roars, the crowd grows even bigger. A weary wandering con man, over there in the corner by himself, 57 year old Harry Lum stumbles in from the deserted bleachers of a cold September Cubs game, his last name L-U-M tattooed in prison purple on the back of his hand. Created by the Chicago writer Bill Brashler who stands over in a corner, arms folded, watching his character watch the growing crowd.
And just as Harry looks down again at his hand, another Chicagoan steps out of Miller's Pub underneath the El Tracks on Wabash, and joins the pack underneath the expressway. His belly full of beer and more gut level smarts about what mattered to people than the next six generations of baseball executives would ever even dream of, Bill Veeck hobbled over to join in the crowd.
With Veeck now here it was most certainly a party.
Muddy Waters yields the stage in this street shrine to an elf of a man who reached just about as high as John Coltrane's waist. Steve Goodman walks up to Coltrane, looks up, grins and says, 'Hey, how's the weather up there?' And once again a miracle. Coltrane laughs again!!
Then Goodman strums:
The streetlights are on in Chicago tonight
And lovers are gazing at stars
The stores are all closing and Daley is dozing
And the fat man is counting his cars!
And when the crowd gets to the chorus of "Lincoln Park Pirates"
Hey, hey blow um away!
The Lincoln Park Pirates are we!
A new line forms underneath that bridge with the Virgin on the wall and a parade begins to form!
Now the place is overflowing. The parade marches thru then back then around every square inch of that underpass with the Virgin on the wall. A slight pause to catch a breath and then just when you think it is about to wind down---still another voice bridges time and comes to stand next to Coltrane.
From the very kernel of the faith, a gospel sound of Mahalia Jackson:
We are traveling in the footsteps
Of those who come before
But we'll all be reunited...
Then Mahalia is surrounded by Pops Staples, Mavis Staples and her sisters all there too, joining in as if were a picnic in that big side yard next to the family building on the south side and you could smell the fried chicken .
Oh when the saints
Go marchin' in
Oh when the saints go marchin' in!
And as they all parade together, swirling in and around the expressway underpass, dancing Chicago spirits all, it is the same song, segued over to the Weavers, a crazy haired Woody Guthrie marching along right next to Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman, Lee Hays, and Ronnie Gilbert and look, there's Win Strache up there, his deep full tones leading Jeff Tweedy, Roger McGuinn, and everyone who ever even thought about picking up a guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
All hands clapping now the music and the words just resounding! That white haired crazy man in the fedora---Saul Bellow right in the middle of it all still writing, drawing out some grand idea he'd scribble down later at his desk in Hyde Park later while the flocks of blindingly yellow wild canaries blanketed the trees outside his window.
And over there. There's Royko holding a softball. Royko delivering the words every single day for years and years, he stands now with the others, tossing a softball up and down and looking for a game.
The music comes up again and--- Pete Seeger leads the crowd! The voice is unmistakable.
Oh when the saints!
Go marchin in!
And it's only now that this national treasure of a man in a red checkered shirt, Studs Terkel, thinks ---was it just last night that Pete and Woody spent the night on Ida's and my kitchen floor?
Studs Terkel leaves one memory and flows into another. He walks over to where Obdulia is praying, cocks his head and smiles.
Then he shuffles to the east, a strange, old man shuffle that is somehow, someway strangely young and sprightly at the very same time.
Studs Terkel walks out from underneath where the Kennedy Expressway crosses over Fullerton Parkway, Studs Terkel walks into the blinding, brilliant light of the sun coming up over the lake to the east---waves his arm motioning us all underneath and around that bridge to follow him.
And we do.
Studs Terkel lifts an ear and grins as he walks into that flowing light of an endless new Chicago morning. "Welcome to Chicago!" he says with a grin. "Curiosity" he tells us, "did not kill this cat!" Then he asks:
“This is Chicago. Listen! Can you just hear all that music?” And he adds:
“Welcome home to The Chicagoan!”