A little over a year ago, I made a choice to throw my life into a major upheaval. After graduating from the prerequisite courses I needed to peruse an education in physical therapy, I decided that I wanted a drastic change of scenery before starting the proper certification program and moved to Seattle. That made Seattle my third city of residence, after Buffalo and Chicago. The adjustment period wasn’t easy, and Seattle proved to be a more closed-off place than I expected, but I managed to get through it, and it’s home now. I’ll be here quite a bit longer no matter what happens.
It’s not making me forget about my other adopted home, though, by which I mean Chicago. (I’m a native of Buffalo; therefore, it doesn’t count.) That’s not because of some ill grudge I’m holding against Seattle, however. It’s because of the conditions under which I was forced to leave Chicago, which leave it as a sort of question mark. I had a life there which I had to leave in a sudden fashion. If it weren’t for social media, no one there would have known I left, or what happened that I had to leave. It’s also because of how much living there changed me. It blew my mind open and awakened me to my own potential as a person, setting me off in a few directions that I hope to continue walking while in Seattle. Also, a lot of the friends I made in Chicago had regular runs to and from Seattle. They had friends and contacts here, and a few made regular visits. Naturally, I decided that warranted an entry in my Ultimate Battle series: The Windy City against Rain City. The Second City against The Emerald City. So let’s do this! Chicago vs. Seattle. One day, I’ll learn.
The first thing you notice about both Chicago and Seattle is that both of them use directions to designate their street layouts. Every street in Chicago will be either north, south, east, or west. The point where the directions change confuses me, though; at least in the way that the east/west axis doesn’t make any damn sense. State Street is the dividing line between east and west, which is weird because the placement of State Street limits the east side. The east is fairly prominent if you’re on the South Side, but as you go north, it starts to get blocked by Lake Michigan. The east addresses start to limit themselves to double digits, and when you get up to Lincoln Park, State Street stops and there are no more addresses on the east. Despite this, though, Chicago’s layout is a logical grid, and although a few diagonal streets there can throw you off, it’s pretty easy to navigate and to pick a street you know and follow it down to the end. Seattle uses a fairly simple pattern of numbered streets: 1st Street is the one closest to Puget Sound, and they progress numerically. Unfortunately, Seattle sits on a thin little strip of land between Puget Sound and Lake Washington and gets interrupted by Lake Union, and instead of just building around them, they all got in on the layout and have a habit of tripping things up just when you think you’re starting to understand the pattern. If you’re on the western half of Seattle and try to head north, you’re in for a treat. West Seattle is cut off by Puget Sound the same way Lake Michigan leaves Chicago’s east side. Then when you make your directional adjustment and go through downtown Seattle, the whole grid makes a sudden shift to the northwest when you reach Denny Way. And when you throw in the fact that there are streets with north, south, east, west, northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast designations that otherwise have nothing in common with each other, you’re defining the street layout in Seattle as “a mess.”
Chicago. And it doesn’t help Seattle’s case any that no one there seems to know how to build a bridge. The number of bridges connecting popular northern neighborhoods like Fremont and Ballard to the business districts is limited and part of the reason traffic there can trip you up at midnight. In Chicago, the bridges crossing the Chicago River are nothing more than extensions of the street – you pick the street you’re looking for and drive into the sunset.
If you don’t like ferrying yourself back and forth, a good transit system is necessary to a city’s infrastructure. Although widely derided within the city limits, the Chicago Transit Authority – the CTA – usually comes through in spades. Consisting of an expansive bus network and a very good subway called the L – which has the unique quality that most of it is perched two levels over the ground instead of under it – the CTA has its problems, but it’s usually there when you need it. Nothing related to the CTA stops running, although they run with less frequency during lower travel hours. During peak hours, you’ll never worry about missing your bus or train because they come by so often that seeing one go by only means you have to wait ten minutes for the next one. The CTA is augmented by a commuter train network called Metra, which sends trains hourly to and from suburbs both close and distant. If you’re going into a near suburb, there’s a separate bus network called Pace which can help you around, but Pace is far from reliable. It runs only a few routes that don’t start to cover places you may need to get to. Seattle enjoys, well, I’m not sure what services are there. It’s not because I don’t know or have little experience using them, but because there are so damn many of them. There’s SoundTransit, which runs inter county buses, a lightrail called the Link, and a commuter train called the Sounder. There’s King County Metro, which is the bus system all to Seattle… And someone there also runs a streetcar system (which has two lines), a speed bus system called Rapidride, and a trolley system which is really comprised of electric buses. The advantage of Seattle’s transit system is that there’s a significant range which stretches into the local suburbs, which include more independent networks going in Snohomish and Skagit and Pierce counties. They’re not as effective as they could be, but they work, and they give people in those places a rung into Seattle. They’re also working together to simplify travel between those places, so they’re at least not as confusing as it seems. Seattle’s iconic Monorail doesn’t have anything to do with any of them – it’s a tourist trap used to get visitors in a time crunch between Westlake Park and Seattle Center quickly.
Chicago. Despite having eleventy billion public transit networks, there’s a reason Seattle’s traffic is so harsh: It’s because everyone who lives in the area knows you’re pretty much sunk if you don’t own a car. After years of being a holdout radical, I’ve decided to finally bite the bullet myself and get one. If you’re using the inter county buses, they have limited hours, and those hours are stupid. The SoundTransit doesn’t give a shit about you if you’re trying to go anywhere at noon; you’ll have to wait until the evening to get to Snohomish county. There’s a cute nickname for anyone living anywhere in Everett where the closest bus line is one of the circulators: “Walker.” The Sounder is next to useless. It goes all the way down to Tacoma. Are you planning to use it for a weekend trip to a Tacoma Dome concert or a Rainiers game? No you’re not – trust me on that.
One of the important things to remember about architecture is that cities in the eastern and western United States are defined by different styles. There’s a lot more neoclassical architecture in Chicago and cities like Chicago. The west tends to favor more glass and steel superstructures. Although there’s no avoiding the neoclassical buildings in Chicago, the city uses a wide mix of architectural styles. Its tallest building, the Sears Tower, is done in what’s called the international style – a style identified by its square shape, grid-like windows, and facade angles of 90 degrees. Neoclassical shows up in Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. Merchandise Mart combines three building types: The skyscraper, the warehouse, and the department store. The John Hancock Tower is an example of structural expressionism. The architects that have graced Chicago include luminaries like Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Fazlur Rahman Khan, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The crown jewel of Seattle’s skyline would be the Space Needle, an observation tower with a rotating restaurant that was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. Seattle also has numerous styles – its well-known Smith Building was once the tallest building on the west coast, and it’s a neoclassical structure. Seattle’s architects have included greats like Frank Gehry, Lawrence Halprin, and the architect of the new library, Rem Koolhaas. Seattle’s architecture has a way of blending into the rest of the city without a problem, while Chicago’s buildings look like they’re trying to fight each other for attention.
Chicago. I love and respect most of the architecture I see in Seattle, but there are two factors deciding this for me: One is that there is an entire school of architecture named for Chicago, which is frequently called commercial style. Commercial style has managed to spread out of Chicago and found itself in Australia and New Zealand. The other is the nasty wave of gentrification in Seattle turning decent neighborhoods into Tetris block structures, which is a clunky, unseemly, and very unpleasant way to look no matter where it is.
Chicago has one of the most famous food scenes in the world. The people there aren’t the pickiest eaters, but Chicago cuisine involves staples like the Chicago-style hot dog, Italian beef, and deep dish pizza. Although you can find pretty much any kind of food in Chicago, those three stand out as Chicago’s edible exports to the entire world. The pizza stands out – it’s not in everyone’s taste, but it’s known for being almost cake-like in its depth. If you’re curious about it, you can flag down Uno’s, which was founded in Chicago and brought it out on the national level both in restaurants and frozen foods. The hot dog has turned Chicago into a city of snobs who are almost cultish in their devotion – the bun needs poppy seeds, and the hot dog needs to be Vienna beef before they’ll talk to you. But Chicago is also home to the most famous hamburger in the world – McDonald’s is headquartered in Oak Brook, and the corporation has designs on moving into Chicago proper soon. I know that’s barely an argument, but Chicago also has the inarguable burgers served by the famous Billy Goat Tavern, a local chain which grills burgers plain and lets you dress them however you see fit. Seattle is a city that still holds strong to its marine heritage, and that means its food icons were all pulled out of the ocean not too long ago. Fish and chips with tartar sauce, lemon, and ketchup are a common dish. Salmon is a signature of all people in the city, whether they’re decorating it with caviar or cooking it at a backyard barbecue. Smoked, grilled, or turned into chowder, salmon is something that’s going down your gullet at some point. If it’s a quick fix you’re looking for, you can find Asian food everywhere. The argument then turns into what kind of Asian food you’re after. Teriyaki or pho? Also, Seattle is one of the world’s leading producers and sellers of chocolate.
Chicago. I give Seattle a lot of credit for having healthier options overall, but all those seafoods tend to strain the account after awhile. Also, Chicago’s foods are more versatile (except the food snobs’ fucking hot dogs); they can be cooked in more ways, include different kinds of ingredients and toppings, and leave more room for experimentation. Yes, Seattle’s chocolate is an enormous strength, but if a decent chef in Chicago gets ahold of the right stuff, you can bet your ass they’ll find a way to cook it into a pizza.
Chicago’s reputation for liquid nourishment comes from two sources: Intelligentsia coffee and Goose Island beer. You’re not going to find very many detractors of either brand. Goose Island brews 312, a signature beer they named for Chicago’s area code. Frankly, there’s not a weak spot in Goose Island’s beer lineup, and most of their stuff is comparable – and even preferable – to other popular microbrews, including Ohio’s beloved Great Lakes. Intelligentsia was founded in Chicago in 1995, and it spread out to locations on both coasts since then. Of course, those locations are New York City and Los Angeles. Although it’s pretty hard to place anything official on a review of Intelligentsia, their coffee is generally held in high regard. As for Seattle, it can counter Goose Island with, well… Microbrews. Dozens of them, if not hundreds. I haven’t found a defining Seattle brew since I moved to the northwest, but I think that’s because the city is renowned as one of the microbrew capitols of the United States, and people can argue about their favorites the same way they argue about their favorite teriyaki joints. As for coffee, Seattle has, you know, Starbucks! Around Seattle, Starbucks is known as the coffee everyone loves but are ashamed to admit it. Starbucks is basically the coffee god, which you can say about a chain with over 23,000 locations everywhere in the world. For those who not only claim to hate Starbucks but attempt to act on that hate and avoid it (HA!), they have to contend with Seattle’s Best, a subsidiary of guess who! Starbucks! And Seattle’s Best has also managed to penetrate Burger King, Delta Airlines, and Borders back when that was a thing. If you’re trying to avoid Starbucks, there’s also Tully’s, a chain which was started in Seattle and is now trickling into prominent cities in the western United States.
Seattle. Chicago never stood a chance here. The biggest statement to Seattle’s power here is that you don’t find many people in Chicago going out of their way to get to an Intelligentsia bar if there’s a nearby Starbucks… And Starbucks has a presence in Chicago which is almost as ubiquitous as it is in Seattle. While Goose Island seems to have designs on becoming a go-to brew on a national level the way Samuel Adams has, it still has to compete with Samuel Adams, and don’t think for a second that it’s ever going to catch on in Seattle.
I trust everyone reading this is familiar with the classic Chicagoan stereotype: Tough, takes no shit, but friendly in a midwestern way and able to ward off the most epic bad weather there is. Yep, it’s a long-running narrative, and there’s a good reason for that: It’s because it’s pushed endlessly by overgrown frat megadouchebros who graduated from Big 10 schools and used their lineage and connections to grab six-figure jobs immediately. You see them in Chicago all the time, even though they’re concentrated around Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville. The tough person angle gets pushed because those are the guys running the Sun-Times and the Tribune, and writing Redeye, the city’s most prominent free rag. Seattle has an image attached to its people as well: Friendly, but a little bit standoffish and hard to crack. But educated. There’s a good case to be made that Seattleites really are like that, but if you walk up to any random person and end up striking up a few words, they can be pretty chirpy as well. And while there aren’t any weather stereotypes that go with Seattle’s residents, let me say this: I’ve never seen people more resilient to a straight-up drenching. They may not run around announcing their waterproofing to the rest of the world, but why should they? You, the transplant, knew the city was rainy when you moved here. If you’re not willing to learn how to deal with it, tough shit.
Seattle. There’s no gentile way to say this: Chicago’s people are just dicks. Despite everything you hear about their national reputation, they get so caught up in trying to act HARD that it can be difficult to get straight answers out of people you don’t know. And that’s all the hardness is: An act. Stand your ground against any of those posers and they’ll back down. If they try to start a scuffle, get in their faces and watch them run. The weather toughness is bullshit as well; ten inches of snow and these people buy out the grocery stores before locking themselves up for the next month. Chicago would let itself get invaded by an army of hipsters. It was two or three years before people stopped trying to impress me with how tough and broad-shouldered and cold-weathered Chicago was. When they did, they fell back on the old excuse that hey, they’re sure it’s nothing compared to Buffalo. Which it isn’t, so they better drop the fucking act and stop bragging about their toughness or they need to start fucking backing it up! I don’t pretend Seattle’s people are flawless, but they do know how they are, don’t delude themselves into thinking otherwise, and make the effort to improve.
Let me clear up a couple of things: First, Chicago’s brutal winters are old hat to anyone who has ever spent any considerable length of time living in a cold weather area. Seattle’s rain is manageable because so much of it comes in droplets, sprinkles, and mist rather than the all-out downpours we northeasterners have come to associate with the wet stuff. That being said, both cities have their reputations for good reason. It gets cold in Chicago and rainy in Seattle. Both places brag about their summers, though, but it’s only Seattle that really gives its people reason to do so; Chicago’s summers are steam baths, and unlike Buffalo, it doesn’t have the Lake Effect there to air condition the city when the harsher summer elements set in. The jet stream blows to the east, and Chicago is situated on the west side of Lake Michigan, so the cool breezes that prevent Buffalo from becoming a sauna are nowhere to be found in Chicago. Seattle’s weak season is the winter, which is the rainy season. Winters in Seattle can bring rain every day for weeks, to the extent that meteorologists talk about Sun Breaks. But the corollary is that Seattle’s climate is pretty temperate for most of the year. There’s none of the incredible extremes that regularly terrorize Chicago. And for a rainy city, there’s surprisingly little humidity.
Seattle. The rain can barely be called rain, and between that and the moderate climate, it makes for yearlong bicycling weather. It helps that when Seattle isn’t raining, the weather is the next best thing to perfect.
Okay, let me be clear about something here: When I say sports, I don’t mean the number of teams or championships won by the area. I mean knowledgeability and reaction to the local sports teams. Chicago has teams in all of the big four, plus MLS, and they’re one of two (three if you count Los Angeles) cities with two baseball teams. With the Cubs’ World Series victory, every team in Chicago has won at least one title during my lifetime, and they’ve all racked up respectable totals: The Bears have nine titles – one Super Bowl – which is good for the second-most in the NFL; the Bulls have six, which is better than all but two teams in the NBA; the Blackhawks add another six, tied for fourth-best in the NHL; and the White Sox and Cubs both have three, the third of which came for both after extended droughts. We can add an extra if we want to count the titles the Arizona Cardinals won when they were still Chicago’s team. Of course, the big question is more: Are the fans aware of all that? Well, during the time I lived in Chicago, I received more unwanted information about the 1985 Bears than about the current Bears, or any Bears for that matter. They think 1985 is still the trump card in a bar argument. The Blackhawks spent the last six seasons fielding what advanced stats proved is one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history, but before the 2010 Stanley Cup victory that kicked it off, people forgot the Hawks existed at all, and I’m not saying that as a colloquialism; I wore Blackhawks gear around the city during the last couple of bad years, and people constantly asked me what happened to the team. There was a large chunk of fans who thought they moved, and many other people thought the city’s AHL team, the Wolves, was the primary team in the city. To their credit, though, Chicago’s baseball fans are the best I’ve ever seen. Seattle has teams in two of the big four, plus an MLS team. The more dominant team of them is the NFL’s Seahawks; they’ve visited three Super Bowls, winning one with the most dominant defense since the 1985 Bears. They’ve also been robbed of a storied NBA team which had also been a champion at one point. Their MLB team is the Mariners, who have a large group of core diehards and a contingent of foreign fans due to their willingness to sign Japanese players. The MLS team, the Sounders, is one of the league’s most popular teams, and Seattle is also familiar with its sports history: There are fans who still wear Sonics gear, and I’ve even seen a Metropolitans shirt or two. The Seattle Metropolitans were the first American hockey team to win the Stanley Cup before folding sometime in the 1920’s. But that doesn’t mean the people of Seattle have forgotten their hockey history. This is a hockey city that just happens to not have a team.
Seattle. Big sports fans is another one of those megadouchebro-fueled myths that started with the frat people running the Chicago media and got around the country. While Chicago’s baseball fan base is unquestionably one of the best in the country, they don’t make up for Chicago’s “fan” missteps: They know nothing of football at all outside the ’85 Bears. They literally forgot they had an NHL team. I guarantee the dumbasses writing for Redeye have discounted the 2016 Golden State Warriors from any discussion because their 73-9 team lost the Finals while Chicago’s 72-10 team won the title. In Seattle, no one forgot the Seahawks’ 2014 title against Denver, and they know their team well enough to take on any Bears fan, but have already put that behind them to enjoy some of the best football in the league waiting for the next one. Seattle hasn’t had a major league hockey team since the 1920’s, but there are hockey fans in Seattle and they recognize my Nordiques and Whalers logos when I wear them; both of those teams have been defunct for at least 20 years. In short, Seattle’s fans may not have Chicago’s exposure or accolades, but they know about and appreciate what they’ve got.
Accompanying Body of Water
Chicago, of course, has Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is one of the Great Lakes, which – if you can believe this – is the largest collection of freshwater bodies in the world. Back when the Rust Belt was the undisputed trading route of the country, Chicago was the largest city on the Lakes, and so a lot of ships have come in and out of Chicago, and there are even a few famous shipwrecks at the bottom of the lake. Seattle is located on the eastern bank of Puget Sound, an inlet of the Salish Sea that eventually opens up into the Pacific Ocean. Given Seattle’s location in the northwest, that location made Seattle an ideal transportation hub and port. The mariner culture which grew up around and in Seattle is still prevalent.
Seattle. It’s clear that the culture of sailing had far more of an influence on Seattle than on Chicago. Puget Sound also has a much more direct route to the ocean. A ship on Lake Michigan has to go east through the other Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, so there are limits on the kinds of ships that can get there. That means Seattle has also hosted a wider variety of ships than Chicago – Puget Sound has had Nimitz-style aircraft carriers dock, and those are ships the Great Lakes are too shallow to let pass. You may make the argument that since Lake Michigan is freshwater and Puget Sound is saltwater, you can drink the water in Lake Michigan. As someone who’s spent most of his life so far in Freshwater Nation, I don’t buy it. Chicago’s location and history mean Lake Michigan spent decades as an industrial hub which shamelessly polluted the water with every chemical known to man. It wasn’t until less than ten years ago that fisherman were given the all-clear to actually eat the fish they caught in any of the Great Lakes, and even now, you’re an idiot if you actually try to do that.
Here’s the question of how well Chicago and Seattle have been represented in popular culture. Chicago has a huge early start here, since most of the population of the country was scattered throughout the northeast and northern midwest back at the start of the 20th century, and Chicago – after having been burned to a crisp during the 1870’s – grabbed its spot as the second-largest city in the country and didn’t let it go until Los Angeles pulled itself into second during the 80’s. Not that Chicago lost very much – it’s still firmly in third, which means that anything on a worldwide tour WILL make it there. That means Chicago is a place which has had a good century and a half to capture the imaginations of producers and entertainers everywhere. First, there’s no getting around Chicago’s comedy scene, especially if you want to specialize in sketch or improv; you’ll pass through Chicago at some point before a decent troupe even considers you. Sketch and improv are to Chicago what theater and music are in New York City or screen entertainment is in Los Angeles. The list of musicians who have written songs glorifying Chicago is long and includes heavyweights like Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Wilco, Common, Elvis Presley, Weird Al Yankovic, Brian Wilson, Buddy Guy, The Doors, and Frank Zappa. Books set there include The Razor’s Edge, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, and Upton Sinclair’s law-changing classic The Jungle. Plays include American Buffalo, A Raisin in the Sun, and Glengarry Glen Ross. Films are too numerous to even begin to cover, but include classics like Ordinary People, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, High Fidelity, The Fugitive, The Blues Brothers, Eight Men Out, A League of Their Own, Risky Business, and almost everything John Hughes had anything to do with. TV shows set in Chicago include The Bob Newhart Show, Chicago Hope, Early Edition, ER, Family Matters, Married… With Children, Perfect Strangers, and The Untouchables. Seattle hasn’t gotten the attention going back that far; right until the 60’s, all Seattle had to draw attention to itself was Boeing. Attention was pretty slow to find Seattle, and the remains of the old industrial identity are still all over the place. But during the second half of the last century, Seattle started getting more people until it began to boom. The cultural tributes to Seattle aren’t even close to what they are with Chicago, but there’s some definite quality to it. Songs about Seattle include Arthur O. Dillon’s “Seattle the Peerless City,” which is the city’s official song. It was written in 1909. After that, save a couple of odd time signature appearances in the 70’s and 80’s, Seattle falls off the map until – yeah, you guessed it – the 90’s. At that point, the music scene exploded, and Seattle found itself with numerous songs shouting out to it by the Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Macklemore, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Queensryche, Harvey Danger, Duff McKagan, Soundgarden, and Marcy Playground. Sherman Alexie emerged as a popular literary voice for places all over Washington, including Seattle. The list of movies set in Seattle is long and very respectable. It includes Singles, Sleepless in Seattle, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Ring, Wargames, Say Anything, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. TV Shows include Frasier, The 4400, Millennium, Reaper, Six Feet Under, Twin Peaks, and Weeds.
Chicago. Come on, even if Chicago’s insane head start was factored out, it’s still going to swamp Seattle. Although Seattle’s music scene is a who’s who that can fight blow for blow with anyone – for god’s sake, Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix came out of Seattle before it was cool – there are surprisingly few songs ABOUT Seattle. Seattle isn’t a referential must or a place comics move to hone their skills in anything, while the influence of Chicago’s comedy is apparent in almost every variety and sketch comedy on the air. I couldn’t find any live theater set in Seattle; they NAMED a whole musical after Chicago. (Even if it was a lousy musical.) The most important book set in Chicago changed food regulations to make sure corporate greed didn’t make us sick. True, Seattle’s TV settings are damn good – Frasier remains one of the best and best-aged sitcoms there is and one of the few real adult sitcoms ever made; Reaper was an experiment with an edge that was popular on the WB when it was here but which wider audiences just weren’t ready for; Six Feet Under and Weeds were popular everywhere; and Twin Peaks is a beloved cult classic which there are constant rumors of a revival of. Chicago’s TV shows were popular, but a lot of them were popcorn schmaltz – Miller/Boyett liked to set sitcoms there. But even if we cut off Chicago before 1962 – which is the year of Seattle’s World’s Fair, which was sort of the city’s coming out when the Monorail and Space Needle opened – Seattle is still getting washed out.
Neither city is lacking here. Chicago has the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the country (yes, it’s called the Sears Tower, and no, a panel of New York City-connected architects handing its title to Freedom Tower doesn’t change how tall it is), and Seattle has the Space Needle. Chicago has the John Hancock Tower, Seattle has the Smith Building, which was the tallest building on the west coast for decades. Seattle has the Monorail, Seattle Center, and Pike Place Market while Chicago has Lincoln Park… You know what?
Fuck it, this one is a tie. I’ll let Seattleites defend their landmarks and Chicagoans whine about how I didn’t give this to them all they want, but this really is one of those fanboy things. Both cities stand out.
Bicycling has been making a hard charge to establish itself as a viable form of transportation in recent years. That means cities have been racing – okay, well, more or less, anyway, in Buffalo it’s WAY less – to set up a workable infrastructure for cyclists. Chicago activated a plan a couple of years ago to set up a citywide network of bicycle paths, and progress so far is pretty good – I spotted traffic lights during my last trip to Chicago which were there strictly for bicycle traffic. But that’s nothing compared to Seattle, which already has every possible line painted on its streets and every possible trail set up for bicycling back and forth. Of course, if civil rights can teach you anything, it’s that even if the laws change, the people don’t necessarily go along with them without kicking and screaming. Especially in Chicago, where the people specialize in kicking and screaming. While I was living in Chicago, the city barely did anything to adapt to cyclists beyond painting a few lines on the side of the road. Bicycle lanes still don’t exist for a lot of streets, including the most prominent street in the city, which is Western Avenue. I’ve already noted that the people in Chicago are whiny little assholes about a lot of things, and cycling is one of them. Pedestrians still don’t look around when flinging open car doors. If the need should arise to get onto the sidewalk – and it will – don’t be surprised by physical assault. Yes, there’s the Lake Shore bicycle path, but that’s pretty well out of the way, and the floating trail which cuts through Wicker Park isn’t that long. Seattle, of course, is in the place that spearheaded the return of bicycling – the pacific northwest. It shows, too – trails and lanes are a dime a dozen around the city, and they’re pretty much everywhere in the park system. Despite the difference in terrain – Chicago is flat while Seattle is replete with spectacular hills and inclines – Seattle has managed to normalize bicycling to such an extent that Seattleites had to come back around from the other direction to make it niche again: The Naked Bicycle Ride was created in Fremont! Yes, there is a share of people who hate cycling in Seattle too, and no doubt there are those who like to assault cyclists, but Seattle as a whole is recognized as one of the best cities in the United States to commute by bicycle.
Seattle. Chicago isn’t outwardly hostile toward bicyclists, but its been playing a huge game of Follow the Leader. There isn’t anything Chicago has done yet that wasn’t done – and likely done better – in other bicycle-friendly cities already. The fact that it took Rahm Emanuel to sign the current bicycle plan into law should tell you just how far Chicago is behind its contemporaries.
Destructive Historical Fire
Because a good city should have a good comeback story, okay? Chicago’s fire ran from nine at night on October 8, 1871 to October 10. If you’ve ever been to Chicago, you already know the tale of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, but for those outside the Chicago bubble, here’s the story. Or the sentence, rather: The was a family called O’Leary. The Wife, Catherine, owned a cow. The cow kicked over a lamp and the fire spread out of control. That’s the popular tale, anyway. Another version blames a group of gamblers who happened to be using James O’Leary’s barn. The most common cause is probably related to a bunch of other fires that were going on in the midwest that day, but the truth is that no one ever determined who or what started the fire. What we do know is that the popular building material in Chicago at the time was wood. Held together with tar. During an unusually dry summer. In trying to control the fire, watchman Matthias Schaffer sent the department to the wrong place, and the fire destroyed damn near everything in Chicago, killing 300 and leaving 100,000 people homeless. But in stunning contrast to the way the people of Chicago today would have reacted to such a disaster – they would kick, whine, and scream about never becoming a world-class city LIKE NEW YORK CITY before spreading to places in Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin and leaving the remains to rot – Chicagoans back then WERE tough. I like to imagine two Chicagoans looking at each other in the ashes. One asks, “Well, what now?” The other replies, “Get some tools and start buildin’.” The way Chicago built itself back from the dead is the reason it’s called The Second City. Only five structures from then are still up: St. Ignatius College Prep, St. Michael’s Church, the Chicago Water Tower, Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, and a cottage at 2121 North Hudson. Seattle’s fire happened on June 6, 1889. Seattle was going through an unusually dry summer – not that rain would have helped, because the rain would only have spread out the thin turpentine all over the floor when the fire started. See, the fire was started by an assistant named John Black at the woodworking business of one Victor Clairmont in Pioneer Square. Black was trying to heat glue over a gas fire, but the glue boiled over, caught fire, and spread all over the turpentine and wood chips strewn about the floor. Seattle’s fire department did get there on time, but there was so much smoke that no one could find the source of the fire. So the fire was free to spread to a nearby liquor store, which of course blew the fuck up, which presumably helped spread the fire to… At least two saloons. The booze fire quickly wrecked an entire block. Attempts to fight the fire were inadvertently thwarted by Seattle’s own sewer system, because the pipes back then were made of wood. You can guess how that went. An attempt to stop the fire by blowing up a block went wrong when the fire skipped that block. After burning for two hours, everyone knew downtown Seattle was going to be a weird rumor very soon. Smoke was visible from Tacoma. The fire finally fettered out at three in the morning, and by then, 120 acres of Seattle were ash. Although thousands of people were displaced, damage was between $8 million and $20 million, and 5000 workers now had to find new jobs, the actual loss of life was apparently pretty low. But like Chicago, no one spent too long complaining. Not only did Seattle rebuild, the people also raised the street levels by 22 feet. In the year right after the fire, the population doubled, which made Seattle the largest city in Washington and a leading contender in being the terminus of the Great Northern Railway.
Both of these are awesome stories, but I’m giving the edge to Chicago. For one thing, it’s really cool that there are tours of the underground which take people through old Seattle from before the fire. But one of the remaining structures of old Chicago, the Water Tower, has become one of the city’s civic icons, and so it sits perched in a prime sightseeing area right at the northern end of Michigan Avenue. Also, we know the exact cause and trajectory of the Seattle Fire. We don’t have nearly as much info about the Chicago Fire, and there’s just something about that which screams CHICAGO! Perhaps it’s the fact that no one ever found the real culprit, and that the reporter who wrote the story – a fellow by the name of Michael Ahern – admitted in 1893 that he pulled the O’Leary’s cow out of his ass just to find a reason to bitch about the Irish. While the family was never charged with anything, the poor cow was so entrenched in local mythology that the city took the ridiculous step of exonerating the O’Learys and the cow in 1997. But the myth still lives on to such a point that the Chicago Fire Academy is located at its start (speculated) starting point. Besides, the Chicago Fire did more damage to its city. The four square miles it destroyed was pretty much all of Chicago.
Okay, this one is getting a bit too epic even for my tastes. We have a tie at six apiece with one draw, and I don’t want to be bothered anymore with trying to get one of these cities to lose this thing. If anything, I think I’ve sufficiently proved that no matter how many other ways you can think of to measure these two cities against each other, neither is a loser. Although I do have one note to give to one of them:
Chicago, stop whining. NO ONE finds your inferiority complex with New York City endearing.