Sunday, November 6, 2016

Chicago, That Toddlin' Town

"Bet your bottom dollar you'll lose your blues in Chicago, the town Billy Sunday couldn't shut down." (Fred Fisher, 1922)

Billy Sunday couldn't tame the city by the lake -- at various times the country's railway hub, butcher shop and jazz mecca -- and neither could anyone else.

Chicago ages well, and some good things have been happening there lately. So here's a tribute, with all the passion I can muster, to the Windy City, where they do things they don't do on Broadway. Reminiscences are uneven at best, the highlights clear and most everything else airbrushed away. But here goes.

Eons ago I did graduate work in chemistry at the University of Chicago, where my wife got her undergraduate degree. We lived in a fourth-floor walk-up in a building that backed on the Illinois Central tracks. The building shook every time a train went by. Muggings in our courtyard were a common occurrence. Once, while driving a fellow student home, I witnessed a gun battle on Cornell Avenue. You can't make this stuff up.

Chicago was tough then and, I suspect, still is. I remember a wonderful lead in the Chicago Tribune: "The sound of gunfire echoed once again in the ears of Roger Touhy last night" (a notorious gangster gunned down on the west side). The last of the burlesque houses were still open on south State Street, complete with peeling paint, dirty saxophones and top-banana comedians with baggy pants.

Jazz was everywhere -- Louis Armstrong between movies at the Chicago Theater, Dizzy Gillespie at the Blue Note, Jack Teagarden at the Brass Rail. You could nurse a beer for hours and listen to the Dukes of Dixieland. German waiters at the Berghof made change right at your table from pockets full of money. Theater was ubiquitous -- from "The Sound of Music" to "Garden District" to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Severn Darden, Alan Arkin and Anne Meara headlined at The Second City. The Art Institute was free and Ravinia only a short train ride away. A young black minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., mesmerized congregations at Rockefeller Chapel.

But why reminisce now? After so many years. Two reasons.

The first is the University of Chicago, a source of pride for its consistent ranking as one of the world's great universities. But I pay tribute for a much different reason: Chicago is taking the lead in upholding the tradition of free speech on college campuses. If that sounds like a no-brainer, consider what's been going on.

  • Yale students recently fought attempts by liberal faculty to ensure free speech because it wasn't liberal enough.
  • Wesleyan students tried to shut down the campus newspaper for printing an op-ed critical of Black Lives Matter.
  • Princeton undergraduates demanded renaming the Woodrow Wilson School because Wilson, a Democrat, was a segregationist in his youth.
  • Protesters at Amherst College decried free speech because of a lecture that offended their sensibilities.
  • Muslim students forced the University of Michigan to scrap the screening of "An American Sniper," arguing it propagated the myth that terrorism comes mostly from Muslims.
  • Campus riots forced the resignation of the University of Missouri's president because of his alleged insensitivity to racial slurs.
  • A Harvard professor's classroom was invaded by screaming students who didn't like what he was teaching.
Vetoing commencement speakers has become a cottage industry. Recent victims include Christine Lagarde, Colin Powell, Jerry Seinfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had the temerity to criticize Islam. Forget about diversity. Many elite schools demand a lockstep march to the left. Balanced dialogues are savaged. Political correctness reigns.

It may seem surprising that Chicago, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, is leading the fight for free expression. But that tradition goes back many years, reflected in comments by past presidents.

Robert Hutchins: The cure for objectionable ideas "lies through open discussion rather than through prohibition."

Hannah Gray: "It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or evenly deeply offensive."

Chicago's current president, Robert Zimmer, amplified the point: "Free speech is at risk at the very institutions where it should be assured. Invited speakers are disinvited because a segment of a university community deems them offensive, while other orators are shouted down for similar reasons."

Chicago's policy is made clear to entering freshmen: "Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others."

Hail to Chicago. That's my school.

The other reason for celebrating is, what else, the Chicago Cubs! World champions again -- after 108 years! Ending a drought that makes the problem in California look like a warm snap. Exorcizing demons, real or imagined. Lifting generations of self-inflicted misery. Charlie Brown finally kicked the football.

It happened with a lineup of mostly young players who had no sense of history. And it happened in dramatic fashion, as the gods would have it, with the Cubbies overcoming a three games to one lead by the Cleveland Indians, themselves without a world title since 1948. It happened despite some of the worst handling of pitching in recent memory; manager Joe Maddon made one hare-brained decision after another. But none of that mattered. The Cubbies won game seven 8-7 in extra innings. The curse has been officially lifted.

So, for two very good reasons, I lift a glass to Chicago. Van Heusen and Cahn wrote it and Sinatra sang it: "My kind of town, Chicago is." And it is indeed my kind of town. Here's to the Windy City. Bottoms up.

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