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The Ultimate Battle of Yours Truly’s Adopted Home Cities

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.

City Layout
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.”
Winner
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.

Transit
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.
Winner
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.

Architecture
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.
Winner
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.

Food
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.
Winner
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.

Drinks
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.
Winner
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.

People
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.
Winner
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.

Weather
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.
Winner
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.

Sports
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.
Winner
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.
Winner
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.

Popular Culture
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.
Winner
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.

Landmarks
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?
Winner
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
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.
Winner
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.
Winner
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.

Things I Miss Least About Chicago

Things I Miss Least About Chicago

I lived in Chicago for five years and was hoping to set roots down. It’s not the world’s best-kept secret that I miss the place, and so I briefly considered a list of things I miss about it.

When I started giving it some real thought, though, I realized such a list would be completely impossible. There are several reasons why, but I won’t regale you with the boring ones. I’ll just mention the big two: The first is that such a list would be a bit too personal for my own tastes and include concepts that are way too broad. Some of the stories I have from my life in Chicago go on quite a bit, and trying to condense them all in a list would necessitate the creation of an entire blog. (Which, by the way, I created a couple of years ago!) I would have to explain a lot of background details and in-jokes for a list like that to really fly.

The second reason is that there are simply way too many things I miss about The Windy City. It brings me a second time to the problem of it making the list too long.

Oh, what to do, what to do, what to do? Well, as I sat in a luxury hotel room on the set of a movie I was working on recently, me and a few other staffers and cast members conversed about this nasty heat that’s been holding the entire east coast hostage. As we lamented the heat in Buffalo, we began comparing it to the heat we had all felt in other places we had visited. Of course, the Chicago summer was what I had easily the best acquaintance with, so it became my immediate conversational victim. Then the idea hit me: I’ll write an anti-Chicago list, featuring everything I hated about the city! And that’s how we got to this point!

Summer
The warmest season and I were never on the best of terms in Upstate New York, but while the humidity could be unbearable, the heat was at least usually temperate. People from Buffalo take great delight in telling those from out of the area the city has never had a 100-degree day, and that the city averages only three 90-degree days per year. The big lake next to Buffalo sort of conditions the air.

Chicago’s summers have the very same type of weather, but with a quantification of about ten times. It gets hot, sticky, and uncomfortable. The sun beats up on people on clear days, and when it rains, it’s like the sky is taking one of those ongoing, powerful drunken leaks. All storms are severe – my first summer in Chicago, there were three tornadoes that stopped just short of the city in one month. In Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams wrote this about New York City: “A lot of the inhabitants of New York will honk on mightily about the pleasures of spring, but if they actually knew the first thing about the pleasures of spring they would know of at least 5,983 better places to spend it than New York, and that’s just on the same latitude.” Ditto Chicago in summer.

Whenever I discuss the weather in Chicago, people always ask me about the cold. I always tell them that if you’ve spent any real time living in Buffalo, the cold isn’t anything they can’t handle – it’s the summers they have to watch out for.

Lack of Civic Pride
Buffalo knows it’s never going to be the world class metropolis New York City is, and there’s a kind of dignity in knowing that which lets the people here attend to their business without a care about what happens there. Yes, we hate the place politically, but that’s mostly because it’s so disproportionally represented at every political level. Beyond that, though, the only real thing in New York City that’s of concern to upstaters is the fortunes of the New York Yankees, the favored baseball team across the state.

In terms of civic pride, Chicago is a classic bully. Chicagoans will always be the first to attack any other city to make themselves feel good about living in Chicago, even though Chicago is a world class city in every possible way. Unless, of course, there’s a possibility that the city in question might actually be some kind of rival to Chicago in some way – attacks on major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Atlanta inexplicably aren’t seen that often. And if New York City is dragged into the equation, well, a cursory glance at any of the newspapers or civic websites reveals the motherload of inferiority complexes; newspapers and civic websites are always clogged with people moaning about how Chicago will never be like New York City.

Redeye
A daily free rag published by the Chicago Tribune, Redeye may be the most insipid newspaper on Earth. I’m saying this, and I grew up reading The Buffalo News. Redeye has lists of bars, restaurants, and events, but those lists are microscopic in terms relative to the size of the city. There’s two or maybe three pages of substantial news events, all overshadowed by sports and celebrity coverage which is equal that length, written completely in bullets and blurbs, and consisting mainly of photographs and captions. For the first few years I was there, it also featured a sex column written by a womanizer.

Redeye may be the very symbol of Chicago’s inferiority complex. All other city-bashing starts in Redeye, and the celebrity buzz tends to treat celebrity sightings like the most amazing thing since Al’s Italian Beef, even though several celebrities call Chicago home and can be found roaming the Lake Shore Trail or soaking in Cubs games.

A friend of mine once delivered a speech at a religious convention in which she used the day’s Redeye as a prop. She mentioned the cover, which contained a picture of George Clooney, and got a laugh. Then she said – tongue completely in cheek – that she opened it in the hopes of finding something substantial, and got the biggest laugh of the convention.

Chicago is Not Broad-Shouldered
The Windy City is called The Windy City because the title was bestowed by a journalist who was covering Chicago’s notoriously corrupt politics. He called it The Windy City in regards to the fact that the local politicians were blowing hot air. Well, when the people there tell you how tough they are, they’re also spewing hot air. They take the smallest slurs against Chicago to heart. Most of them don’t know anything about how to properly weather out a bad winter, either, unless it’s by going to Florida for the season. This is not a populace that would ever think to lower itself to picking up snow shovels and digging out of a storm manually, as Buffalo did in 2001 when eight feet of snow fell in four days. They’ll buy out the local grocery store and wait for the city plows to bail them out – and that’s not a guarantee, since the snow removal department tends to run out of money.

Living Costs
My apartment in Chicago was one of those stereotypical walk-in closet-sized spaces. In Buffalo, it wouldn’t have been $400 a month. In Chicago, it cost $800 a month, and was considered a steal. I was rarely able to buy meat.

Buffalo is one of the worst cities in the country in taxes, so people in Buffalo have a hard time believing Chicago is even worse. The city has a ten percent sales tax, which was reduced TO ten percent! With the nasty income taxes being what they were, I was basically reduced to life on a $20 budget every week because I was an independent contractor who was making sub-minimum wage before taxes. This is why my life suddenly went south – it was too expensive to live there.

Parking
You would think that in a city with such excellent public transportation (and I mean that; yes, I complain about the CTA, but it never fails to get me where I need to go. If you don’t like it, try using the NFTA in Buffalo for a month!), more people would be willing to catch the bus and the L. Then again, there are 2.8 million people who live there.

I can’t forget the time my sister visited me and had to park two blocks over from my street. Or the time me and a girl I befriended at a local hostel tried to go to Millennium Park for an afternoon, but there were no open spaces in The Loop. I didn’t own a car, so this didn’t affect me most of the time, but tell any car-owning out-of-town buddies to bring their walking shoes.

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are one of the crown jewels of Major League Baseball, and one of its most popular teams. Yet, the fans always appear convinced that there’s some great baseball conspiracy against them which keeps them out of World Series contention. Listen to fans complain about the collapse of 1969 or some rule about where the 1984 NLCS was played which they pulled out of their asses.

In my article about the Cubs, I made a few particularly harsh blanket remarks about the fans. Now, I didn’t mean them using complete blanket terminology; there are good people and devoted, knowledgeable fans in the Cubs’ base. Unfortunately, there tends to be a frat party mentality surrounding Wrigleyville, and during games with big opponents or at certain times, drunkenness takes over and invites a lot of boorish behavior which isn’t confined just to the stadium. Being in Wrigleyville during a Cubs game can be a trial of patience because the stadium, unlike every other baseball stadium, is right in the middle of the neighborhood. The team seems to encourage this – the Harry Caray statue in front of Wrigley Field comes off as an endorsement, and the celebrity rotation singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” doesn’t help.

Also, the owner of Wrigley Field doesn’t mind endangering the fans. The field is clearly falling apart – some spots are literally held up by nothing more than loose fishnetting – but it’s privately owned, and so the owner keeps refusing to repair the place. The fact that he’s using the White Sox’ public funds as leverage to get taxpayer cash of his own is the single greatest argument American sports has against public money being involved in professional sports.

Cycling in the Wind
Yes, The Windy City gets its share of the blowy stuff. If you’re into cycling, trying to ride a bicycle in the wind is like drinking a potion that allows you to walk through walls, then trying to walk through a cliff.

The Bid for the 2016 Olympics
So Mayor Richard Daley decided he wanted to wipe out a large public space in a poor neighborhood to build a big stadium and athlete housing which would have been used for two weeks. He wanted to add a fifth star to the Chicago city flag representing an Olympics he hadn’t even won yet.

This bid in and of itself, by the way, cost $50 million in taxpayer dollars. You want to know where all the tax money is going? Here’s your answer. The most offensive part is that his entire urban development plan seemed to hinge on getting the Olympics.

Frankly, one would have to be a complete fucking moron to even want and apply for the Olympics after knowing the kinds of wreckage they’ve been responsible for leaving in their host cities. Chicago would, in preparation, have gone through terrible traffic delays, small business shutdowns by the special, gestapo-like Olympics Police, construction, and poor people being herded out of the areas they lived in so the athletes could take over for two weeks. All on the public’s dime, of course, and in a city which wasn’t able to pay for it.

Through the Country

Forgive the lack of recent updates. I made three separate sojourns into the countryside.

Two of them connected me with people whose existence I had almost literally forgotten about. The first drive into the country was to visit my Uncle Mike, cousin Nicole, and nephew Aloysius in Dansville. I was an ankle-biter the last time I saw any of them, and in fact I had never met my nephew at all.

The second drive was to the resort village of Ellicottville. Ellicottville is a fairly urbane little village, and it’s pretty rich for a small town cuddled up in the mountains. It had that hip, brick small store look to it, a bunch of recently-built condos, and one of the prettiest churches outside of the Buffalo area.

The third was out to some random stretch of road. A sentence like that is a way in which many horror movies begin, I know, but this drive was to buy a piece of pottery from a local small farm potter.

Ellicottville was definitely the prettiest of the three, and the most active. There were motorcyclists and bicyclists roving everywhere throughout the main road, and while the architecture was created in an old-fashioned way, it was cleaned up to give it a nice sheen.

I enjoyed going through the hills and looking at the sights and the local wildlife. At one point, we passed a shop that crafted iron sculptures, adding to the local color. The nicest thing about the drive was getting to know the wilderness once again. The mountains in New York seem bigger than I remembered – although I guess five years of seeing flatland made me forget what a mountain can look like. But this is the state I grew up in, and the state I knew as a kid. Not Manhattan or Brooklyn with the huge steel and glass pillars as far as the eye can see and the urban noise and clutter, but the peaceful, quiet wilderness and greenland.

I didn’t get to see much of the country in Illinois. What I saw was mainly on trips through Ohio and Michigan.

A Tale of Two Winter Cities

Springtime in Buffalo was met with Ma Nature’s traditional greeting for New York state: Snow. Seven inches to be precise, along with a nod in the national news. Because snow in Buffalo is so unusual and the people in Buffalo run around outside screaming “Hark, the sky is falling!” I’m sure.

Must have been a very slow news day. Buffalo ends up in the national news at least a couple of times every winter for being completely buried. If seven inches dropped in North Carolina or Georgia or Maryland, it would be a complete burial by the standards of those places. But up here in the harsh winter crannies of New York, seven inches is barely a dusting. Even pausing to brush the car off, seven inches doesn’t so much as slow down rush hour traffic.

As it happens, I was still in Chicago during the “Snowpocalypse” in February. The coverage of that winter storm was the kind reserved for real disasters like the recent tsunami in Japan or Hurricane Katrina. The city was in the news for a week. A week afterward, the Chicago weather was back in the news again because the temperature had jumped up to the high 50’s and nearly all the snow was melted.

The Snowpocalypse dumped over 20 inches onto Chicago and the populace didn’t know what to do. My opinion of Chicago’s vaunted broad-shouldered winter toughness is rather low, and one of the things I quickly learned was that the reason so many people believe in the myth of winter-tough Chicago was because Chicagoans constantly compliment themselves on it. They are classic cases of talking the talk but saying “I could, but I don’t wanna” when challenged to back it up.

I probably wouldn’t be pointing this out if Chicagoans were a bit more honest about their assessment of their ability to weather a winter. But Chicago doesn’t seem to make a distinction between the toughest large metropolis and actual toughness. The city businesses begin to close down if so much as three inches hits the pavement. The city services slow down at the first sign of a snowflake. A few years ago, Chicago ran out of its snow removal budget, and this presented me with two thoughts which I still can’t quite wrap my mind around: That the big, tough, broad-shouldered, windy winter city didn’t have enough foresight to prepare for such a scenario, and that city budgets have whole piles of money set aside for the sole purpose of getting snow out of the way.

Buffalo was always so good at snow removal that I had never stopped to think of it as a city service before. The one time the white stuff piled up faster than the city could remove it was during the infamous Gridlock Monday winter storm of 2000, and that was only because of the rapid pace of the snow buildup and the timing of the storm, which occurred during the evening rush hour. That was the only time I’ve ever seen people in Buffalo spend their nights at their workplaces and schools. Those who were trapped in their cars simply got out and walked, leaving their cars behind to be dug out the following morning. My mother spent the night at her workplace, and I helped dig her car out. My father just barely made it home.

City-slowing winter storms in Buffalo, however, are anomalies. Buffalo gets hit by at least a couple of storms per year which drop 20 inches. We know the drill here and we routinely work it to perfection. 20 inches means it’s time to break out the shovels and snowblowers. It seems the national media makes a bigger deal out of snow in Buffalo than is warranted. It paints pictures of people terrified and confused by the snow, who stock up on canned goods for storms driving snowmobiles to the stores, and sit nervously in front of the traffic reports, waiting for the opening to get out. But the reality in Buffalo is that we break open a cold six-pack, and the only time we watch The Weather Channel is to make fun of the poor bozos in North Carolina as they slam their cars into telephone poles at five mph. (And yes, we really do those things.) Although we frequently do wish for warmer weather, those are arbitrary wishes which are often shrugged off immediately afterward with the phrase “It’s Buffalo, what are ya gonna do?”

As for Chicago – scared, panicky, confused during slight dustings, 20 inches really can be interpreted as the end of the world. The Snowpocalypse made for an interesting look at a post-rapture Chicago. The largest, busiest streets in the city were completely barren for two days. Meanwhile, I grabbed my camera and had fun. The Snowpocalypse contained a simple truth that Chicago is too busy kidding itself to admit: That all those national stereotypes which are applied to snow-buried Buffalo are far better applied to Chicago.