Saturday, December 28, 2013

Chicago Impressions

The Chicago River
The Chicago River Flows Through The City of Chicago
Welcome back to Old Highway Notes, as we begin to touch down on Route 66. "It winds from Chicago to LA" and the time has come to start digging into a city with a rich musical history that will be our focus for a while as we add tracks from my collection to try to tell at least a bit of the story of Chicago. James Taylor, in the song "Mexico", sang "I've never really been so I don't really know." That could be me talking about Chicago. It is the third largest city in the US, so when it is mentioned a lot comes to mind even without having experienced it firsthand.

Chicago is a city with a lot of history. Chicago’s first permanent resident was a trader named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a free black man from Haiti, who settled in the area in the late 1770s. Fort Dearborn followed  In 1837 the Illinois and Michigan Canal was opened connecting the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River. It grew as a transportation hub as it became an interchange of several train lines due to the access to the canal. The transportation access led to a huge meat packing industry as well as varied manufacturing and sales. Sears was founded here and remains a significant company to the local economy.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871
More history, in 1871, Mrs O'Learys cow kicks over a lantern and an inferno ensues. The city so young built on wooden foundations was destroyed. As so many great cities who have suffered disaster throughout history it was made to better and more enduring.  The foundations were built on stone and the opportunity was taken to construct some of the first steel framed skyscrapers. To this day the downtown area of Chicago is densely packed with very high towers and skyscraper architects are a local specialty. When the city was rebuilt the flow of the Chicago River into Lake Michigan was causing runoff from the busy city to pool near the mouth of the river making the area both a health risk as well as just downright unpleasant. The city actually had engineers design an elaborate pumping system that actually reversed the flow of water into to the Mississippi instead of Lake Michigan! The World's Columbia Exposition of 1893 that was held in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the Americas was in many ways the culmination of the rebuilding as it drew 27.5 million visitors to the city and showcased its architecture via the beautiful White City and its personification of the City Beautiful movement.

St Valentines Day Massacre
St Valentines Day Massacre
The city continued to grow, immigrants from around the world settled there. As is often the case rapid growth and immigration also helped foster a certain level of crime. When Prohibition was made the law of the land, the criminal elements would be develop an underground network to distribute the contraband alcohol. A large workforce of European immigrants who came from countries where alcohol was a routine part of the social life of the community provided a ready clientele and the era of the Chicago gangster began. Famous mobsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran practically ran the city as political connections that were unwilling to prosecute and a population unwilling to testify left them free to sell their wares and enforce their marketplace with ruthless and bloody efficiency. The blood would occasionally flow heavily when the gangsters would commit mass executions such as the notorious St. Valentines Massacre, where seven mobsters were murdered in broad daylight, capturing the nations attention.

The repeal of prohibition and the arrest of several major crime figures ended the gangster era in Chicago. Chicago though retains a reputation for questionable political practice and machinery, In the 1960's, when the city was host to the Democratic  National Convention, riots occurred between peace protesters and the city police who were televised nationally exhibiting police brutality and unwittingly contributing public opinion to the anti-war movement. Today Chicago still has a certain reputation for crime as street gangs in the Chicago housing projects are reported to be some of the best organized and most vicious gangs in the country.

In addition to its colorful history, Chicago is know for food. Chicago deep dish pizza is world famous. New Yorkers will always say they make the best pizza but many a fan of Chicago style pizza will say otherwise. The Chicago Dog is also iconic with its mustard, neon green relish and dill spear. People also relate Chicago to weather. The wind off of Lake Michigan is famous enough to earn the city the moniker "The Windy City". Every winter sever storms make national news as the wind brings blizzard conditions to the city.

Chicago is a sports town as well. The Bulls, The Bears, The White Sox, The Cubs, The Blackhawks all call Chicago home. Chicagoans take pride in their teams and every one I have ever met was a devout sports fan, even fans of the Cubs who notoriously can't seem to stay involved into the playoffs, even if they do have one of the nicest ballparks in the country..

Chicago is also a music town. That's where we can really dig in, and we will in future posts. During World War II, many southern blacks left the Mississippi delta and relocated to the Chicago area. This led to a the development of a lively Blues music scene. Here is a short list of notables from Wikipedia:
Muddy Waters
Chicago Blues Legend, Muddy Waters
Well-known Chicago blues players include singer/songwriters such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Earl Hooker, Slim Harpo and Koko Taylor; guitar players such as Freddie King, Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Magic Sam, Magic Slim, Syl Johnson, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, Robert Lockwood Jr., Bo Diddley, Mike Bloomfield, Homesick James, Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, Floyd Jones, Eddy Clearwater, Mighty Joe Young, Billy Boy Arnold, Phil Guy, Lil' Ed Williams, J. B. Hutto, and Elmore James; harmonica players such as Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, Junior Wells, Corky Siegel, Billy Branch, James Cotton,[6] and Jimmy Reed; and keyboardists such as Otis Spann, Lafayette Leake, Blind John Davis, and Erwin Helfer[7]
Needless to say,we have a treasure trove of music to explore in Chicago. Stay with me as I continue my exploration of the city at the start of Route 66 next Saturday. And join tomorrow for a little bit more curio hunting in Tijuana Mexico, off old Highway 101.

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