Christopher Piatt: The Second City Complex

On March 6, 2010, Paper Machete host Christopher Piatt read the introduction to his series of essays called “The Second City Complex,” which he is writing as a project sponsored by the Driehaus foundation.  Here is the text.

In 1952, Americans who wanted to be in the “smart set” opened up their weekly copies of The New Yorker Magazine and read a description of Chicago that began on the beach.

“Large numbers of bathing-suited inhabitants of the steamy interior of the city arrive by trolley a couple blocks from Lake Shore Drive, bearing beach balls, babies, lunch hampers and fudgicles. The sun is strong even in June, when the water is still paralyzingly cold. Lying on their backs, the beachers gaze out to the empty surface of Lake Michigan, and the girls compare the discolorations of their legs. When they turn over on their bellies, they are able to look back at what skyline Chicago has to offer—a serrated wall of high buildings aligned along the lakeward side of the city. So viewed, Chicago seems like a big city instead of merely a large place.”

The writer, A.J. Liebling, went on to describe the downtown Loop district as “Times Square and Radio City set down in the middle of a vast Canarsie.”

To clarify, this was not a compliment.

The trouble had started in 1949, when A.J. Liebling’s Manhattan soles first touched Chicago pavement, and it became unclear whether he’d left town or arrived in it. Surely this seasoned cultural journalist, a native son of the Upper East Side, felt that he’d left town.

A.J. Liebling

And in fairness, he was credibly bewildered. Liebling was an island refugee. On said exotic isle from which he was temporarily displaced, he had access to an egg cream, a Richard Rodgers musical, a political debate with Alger Hiss, a post-show plate of pheasant and late-night bicarbonate all in the same few blocks. To be separated from this environment was surely disorienting.

Then he was placed down in a soot-covered hub of baseball fans and hotdog makers; where the shows playing were tours of entertainments he’d already seen in New York; where all the bars had dancing girls and penny-ante gambling, but no chanteuses; and where an enthusiasm for local gangster lore and a paranoia about civic corruption were curious sources of jingoistic pride. Liebling, an aesthete’s aesthete, had seen war during his assignments in Africa and France.

Though the battlefield horrified him more than Chicago, it’s possible that it offended him less.

A.J. Liebling, an unimpeachable writer on the first-string New Yorker staff, lived in Chicago on assignment for one hellish year, 1949-1950. After pulling up stakes and retreating back to the cradle of American civilization (that is, 1950’s Manhattan) he wrote only three essays criticizing Chicago—the Second City essays, as they came to be known—and to the residents of a city they believed to be perfect, this was at least five essays too many.

Reading the essays now, it’s clear to see that Liebling knew he would never again live in Chicago, which allowed him to write about it however he liked. He treated the project less like a New Yorker assignment than a National Geographic one.

To read his descriptions of these coarse, working-class meatheads playing dice games in saloons, subsisting on barbecued pork ribs in unrefined eateries, proudly drawing their identity from civic corruption and gangster lore, getting their news from a brain-washing polemicist editor at the Chicago Tribune, you’d think he had discovered a lost tribe of aboriginals, pooping into their own hands and throwing it against the wall.

Chicagoans were predictably incensed. Liebling received hate mail in tonnage—mostly postmarked from the outlying suburbs—Who, they demanded to know, asked you?

I first heard about the Second City essays before I even lived here, in an excellent lecture on the history of the Second City Theater Company.

That theater, as we all know, was started by a group of disenfranchised Hyde Park brainiac comics. Exactly 50 years ago, when they opened the doors of their cabaret onto the country—and unleashed more talent than any other sustained American theater movement, they called themselves the Second City—knowingly and ironically—as a knee to nuts of The New Yorker Magazine.

It’s important to note this, because a self-conscious sense of irony is something A.J. Liebling implied Chicago was lacking. There were so few influential writers living here at the time, that no matter where he went it seemed like he was always bumping into Nelson Algren.

If there were a chance of the city’s culture evolving into an ecosystem that contained professional irony, or the live arts, or native high culture of any kind, Liebling didn’t have the patience to wait for it.

He didn’t leave Chicago for dead. He left it for unremarkable.

50 years later, we know that the Second City Theatre is just one of countless Chicago cultural brands that have irrevocably influenced American life, none of which existed during A.J. Liebling’s Chicago year.

So as a travel guide, the Second City essays are now about as useful as a feminine hygiene handbook from the same period. The Chicago that Liebling visited had very few fine restaurants. The city’s opera house was temporarily dormant then, because the Lyric was not yet it in operation. There was no local theater scene to speak of.

In fact, QUOTE: “It is not considered smart to admit having seen a play in Chicago, because this implies either (a) that you haven’t seen the real play or (b) that you haven’t the airplane fare or (c), and possibly worst of all, that you are indifferent to nuances and might, therefore, just as well go back to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where you went to high school.”

End quote.

But as a psychological diagnosis, the Second City essays still haunt us.

Everywhere A.J. Liebling looked he saw self-regarding pomposity. He sees a sign on Ashland Avenue that says, “Chicago has the finest system of boulevards and parks in the world.” He sees a sign on Michigan Boulevard that reads, “This is the Magnificent Mile. It is lined with the finest and most luxurious shops in the world.” As for the Chicago Tribune, which was then under the leadership of the Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, Liebling, who was also a fierce critic of print media, found the subtitle World’s Greatest Newspaper to be a misnomer.

Now in full disclosure, even the most sentient Chicagoans still sometimes float through the levitating, slightly imaginary, falsely superlative version of Chicago A.J. Liebling observed a bunch or lowlifes dwelling in. That’s because what Liebling most keenly identified in the Chicago psychosis—a contented amazement at one’s surroundings, a swollen pride overcompensating for limited worldliness—is a natural bi-product of the Windy City’s hard-knuckle gerrymandering.

A city so rigidly ghettoized that its white north side and black south side have made it an American metaphor for segregation, Chicago is a congregation of neighborhoods famous for containing the same ethnic settlements for over a century.

(It should be noted that these enclaves were once naturally occurring phenomena, and that the tradition of keeping them separate to best control them long predates the notorious, easily exploitable mayoral legacy of the Daleys, who merely grew up within this urban planning strategy and manifested it. And although this distinction is made in fairness, it’s also akin to making a conciliatory historical footnote about Warren G. Harding’s excellent table manners.)

Even today, fighting against a tide of rabid whitewash gentrification, many of these neighborhoods remain strongholds for Irish, Poles, South Asians, Latinos, Germans and other immovables.

Naturally, when a person only interacts with others like himself, it can breed untoward confidence and a dangerous lack of curiosity, the very unflattering qualities Liebling so successfully skewered in The New Yorker.

Meanwhile, just below Chicago’s fatty layers of self-trumpeting bravado, A.J. Liebling noticed something else, a quietly sinking inferiority complex. A Second City complex. A self-doubt that led women with money to travel to New York to buy the same dresses they could find here, a tendency of local media to kiss up to out-of-town celebrities who were only ever passing through, a private suspicion that maybe—despite the promises the world’s greatest city offered its citizens—there were greener pastures.

As an adopted Chicagoan, my gorge rises a bit when I read these essays. It’s a defensive gag reflex, and I know New Yorkers have one, too.

And as a critic, I see exactly what where Liebling was coming from. After all, the craft of carefully considered observation, the practice of weaving the ugly truth about a situation into something the average reader can use, the monastic process of expressing one’s uncompromised, learned viewpoint because it is one’s duty to do so with comportment and style; this is as important as culture itself. A.J. Liebling knew a critic is obligated to be impeccable with his self-expression, because, after all, he’s asking the thing he’s criticizing to be the same.

Also, I understand where Liebling was coming from because every once in a while a critic must PEE HIS NAME IN THE SNOW JUST TO PROVE HE CAN DO IT.

And by his, I mean “gender non-specific first person possessive.”

Who’s usually a white guy.

So why re-circulate bad blood from over half a century ago?

Because the eyes of the world now are upon us. Because whatever damage the nation did to itself through its own greed, or negligence, or pride, now must be undone by a cabal of Chicagoans. After a decade of Wild West Texas cowboy vigilante reign, the entire world is about to get a lesson in Midwestern manners.

America has a new Axis of Evil. It’s Kanye West, Patti Blagoevich and the Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants.

We must criticize Chicago because it is the new standard bearer. A.J. Liebling once took a piss on us, and rightfully so. And now this city’s evolution is our last best proof that the American system still works.

In future weeks I’ll be reading more of Liebling. I’ll be criticizing Steppenwolf and Second City and the President and other Chicago institutions I love that drive me crazy.

Because to criticize in good conscience can truly be the right thing to do.

And cuz I can piss my name in the snow.

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