“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders: ”
So begins Carl Sandburg’s poem, Chicago.1
As I was looking out my window at the city of Chicago this week, I was struck by some of the unique features. Things that feel at home here would be foreign in other parts of the country and from the window in my apartment I have a clear view at two of the more striking examples: the downtown skyline dominated by the Sear’s Tower and the El. It would be inappropriate to try to characterize Chicago with a single defining attribute – particularly when the neighborhoods have such unique identities. None-the-less, the city has a connectedness and a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The subtle roar that fills the air as a train rolls to a stop, the vibration that rocks the floor as it pulls away, it effectively reached a boiling point for me this week when for a long stretch, I couldn’t look away or think about anything else. That men and women spent years building that infrastructure to serve not just a city, but so that a city could serve the world. It was empowering and reminded me of the big shoulders in Sandburg’s poem.
Coincidentally, it also reminded me of a coffee shop where the opening stanza is painted on the wall behind the cashier. I no longer live around the corner, so I have fewer reasons to go in there, but I happened to stop by today. It was early and the morning commuters hadn’t started coming in yet, so it was a little slow.
I was sitting at the bar and was able to chat briefly with the owner as he had a moment of quiet as he made his rounds. We’d spoken a few times in the past and I’d gotten to know him a little bit. He’s got a fascinating story and I loved hearing about his path through all of the facets of the restaurant world to being able to have an opportunity to open his own shop.
Today, however, we talked about the poem. When I mentioned the poem, his eyes lit up. It was the most natural response and he seemed infused with a different energy as we talked. He wondered aloud about the great Chicagoans like Gwendolyn Brooks and the men and women Sandburg refers to who “rolled their sleeves up” and built something. I saw a lot of Sandburg’s Chicagoan in him.
The more time I spend here, the more I’m realizing that Chicago is more than just a city – it’s a mentality. That a city has its own personality is not surprising. Go to New York, Boston, London, Paris, or even Wichita and the residents will have opinions about what makes their city unique. But in Chicago, there’s this energy. It’s hard to describe, but it’s this undercurrent that motivates people; that despite all of the problems and opportunities for improvement, cannot be restrained. Sandburg’s poem, written a century ago, is as befitting this city today as it has ever been. It’s a reminder of what’s possible.
1 Carl Sandburg, “Chicago” Poetry Foundation