Posted by: George | August 4, 2010

Road to Chicago

August 4, 2010

Last week, I made a quick trip to Chicago to move Jay, my older son, into housing at the University of Chicago, where he will start graduate school in the fall.

Here is a summary of the drive up there: leave Little Rock (rice, rice, rice, rice, rice), take a left (corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn), arrive in Hyde Park.

Here is a summary of the drive home: leave Hyde Park (corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn), take a right (rice, rice, rice, rice, rice).

We did have a good time while in Chicago, which I consider to be my spiritual hometown. I grew up in Virginia Beach. However, when I moved to Chicago for my first job after graduate school, I felt immediately connected to the city. It felt like home to me from the start.  And yes, in many ways, you can’t go home again.

In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck visited the Monterey Peninsula, his spiritual hometown, and he was shocked at the changes. He wrote, “They fish for tourists now.” The town had changed, and he had changed. He met with Johnny Garcia, an old friend. They shared memories, and then they both fell into an awkward silence. Steinbeck says that he was a “ghost” now: “When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness.” He concludes: “Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”

When I lived in Chicago (from 1979 to 1984), I had an apartment close to Wriggleyville, the area around Wriggley Field. I lived about three blocks from the park, a little closer to the lake, in a neighborhood of struggling young professionals, sandwiched between a Jewish community and recently immigrated Cubans. Wriggleyville was working class (except for a small Japanese population), a little run down, on the border of being seedy. When I first moved to the area, I was a little concerned about walking around Wriggley Field at night. Eventually, I realized that it looked more dangerous than it was.

At that time, I could sit in the bleechers, the seats in the outfield, for $2.50. The kids who lived in the Brownstones and Greystones on Waveland and Sheffield, the streets behind right and left field, who couldn’t afford $2.50 to watch the game, hung out in the streets, glove in hand, flagging down homerun balls.

The neighborhood began to turn even before I left. They put lights in Wriggley Field. The Brownstones and Greystones were converted to condos. Upscale bars and restaurants began to appear.

On this trip, Jay and spent an evening driving around on the north side. Wriggleyville, that working class neighborhood, is now a clean and well-lighted place, packed with trendy bars and expensive restaurants, all with oversized neon signs. The area plays to young professionals and tourists; it has the feel of Disney World.

In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck commented on his concern for the loss of local culture. He saw the same corporations and chains everywhere he drove. Now, you can travel around the country and find Disney World everywhere. Every city fishes for tourists. Even the French Quarter in New Orleans now has chain restaurants and is family friendly. Well, at least more family friendly than it used to be.

I had a very mixed reaction to the changes in Wriggleyville–and Chicago in general. I miss the old Chicago. Nelson Algren once said, “If you love Chicago, you have to love it for its alleyways and back streets.” I think I have that quote more or less right. He meant that Chicago was a tough, working class town. To be a real citizen of Chicago, you needed to take a walk on the wild side. I found myself missing Algren’s Chicago, my Chicago.

At the same time, most people would say that the city is much improved. It is safer, cleaner, prettier. To me, it just doesn’t seem to have as much character.



  1. I’ve enjoyed following your travels, but this particular entry really touched me. I grew up on “Travels with Charley” and always dreamed of following Steinbeck.

    In 1996, as my marriage was ending, I visited Monterey for the first time. On the Saturday morning of Thanksgiving weekend, I sipped coffee and read the local paper while sitting in a corner table of an old mom-and-pop diner on Cannery Row. As I watched the tourists arrive, I saw them as outsiders in my home. As I walked the Row and explored the streets, the feeling grew. I was more at home than I had been since my childhood in Arkansas. Since then, Monterey has been my “spiritual home.”

    Years later I returned, only to find that home had already changed forever. You see, that old mom-and-pop diner had become a Starbucks.

    That’s why this entry moved me so deeply: You’re speaking straight to my experience, with Steinbeck’s echoes all around.

    Thank you for taking us along on your journeys.


    • Thanks for reading.


  2. I will enter through your Disney-World-reference door to say that we just got back from WDW. Loral is at primo meet-the-Disney-princesses age, so it was well timed for her, as well as for James and me. We felt emotionally fed by the childhood joy. I know that to many WDW is akin to one of the Circles of Hell, but to me it is a deep experience, with ties to childhood imagination, imagery, and story. At the same time, I understand and appreciate your reference to the changes you observed. Although I miss my valued next-door neighbor on campus, I encourage you to truly BE on sabbatical this semester, regardless of where you are geographically.


    • I didn’t mean to say anything bad about Disney World. I think it is a wonderful place. I just don’t want the rest of the world to look like it.

      I hope you have a good trip.


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