“It feels like in Chicago, there’s such a strong sense of neighborhood identification,” says Rachel Hyman, editor of the website Anthology of Chicago and a resident of Hyde Park. “You say the name of a neighborhood and it leads to a cascade of associations. It shows what team you’re on.”
Anthology of Chicago, which Hyman started up earlier this year, collects essays, poems, and stories that evoke the spirits of different neighborhoods. (So far, it’s chronicled Pilsen, Logan Square, and Hyde Park.) In the spring, it attracted the attention of Paul Dailing, who lives in Noble Square and writes 1001 Chicago Afternoons, a website that, in the spirit of Ben Hecht’s 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago column that ran in the Chicago Daily News from 1920 to 1922, will attempt to post 1,001 stories from around our fair city. (Hecht only got to 425 stories before he was fired.)
Dailing and Hyman started talking over Twitter and then over coffee about their work, about Chicago, about neighborhoods. Why not, they thought, organize a reading of Chicago writers sharing work about their neighborhoods? Chi Lit: Tales of the Neighborhoods is finally happening next Tuesday, August 13, at 8 PM at Cole’s Bar in Logan Square. There will be readings, and drinks, and a
n auction raffle of a wide array of stuff, ranging from a haircut in Bucktown to a first edition of The Neon Wilderness by Nelson Algren, who lived most of his life in Polish Downtown. All proceeds will go to Open Books in River North.
The readers are a mix of male and female, black and white, experienced and unpublished, and they’ll be covering a wide swath of Chicago, from Rogers Park to Beverly, in short stories, poems, and personal essays. Hyman and Dailing recruited them from people they already knew, from random connections (like the woman in Dailing’s community garden who happened to know Shannon Cason, of NPR’s Snap Judgment, who will be telling stories about Bronzeville), and from cold calls (like Bill Savage, a Northwestern prof and Rogers Park bartender who happens to have written the introduction to the University of Chicago Press edition of Hecht’s 1001 Afternoons in Chicago and, more recently, coedited, with Pilsen resident Paul Durica, who will also be reading in Chi Lit, an annotated edition of Chicago by Day and Night, a guidebook to the 1893 World’s Fair).
There will also be a mix of tone. Some of the work is political, like that by Molly Meacham, a Chicago Public Schools teacher from Roscoe Village whom Dailing first met at a poetry slam, where she was performing poems she’d previously read at protest rallies during last fall’s strike. Some is historical, like Robert Loerzel’s story about how Lakeview used to be a gigantic garbage dump. Some has been performed or published before. Some is completely new.
“The main theme running through,” says Dailing, “is ‘What is a neighborhood?’ What makes a neighborhood? Do you go by the official city ‘community areas’ or by the 200-odd nicknames?”
“It’s hard to pin down,” Hyman adds. “Do people make the neighborhood, or does a neighborhood make the people?”
“Or developers,” says Dailing. “Like Streeterville. It was a landfill. Or the villages that were annexed into the city. I like that Bucktown was named after how all the Polish people who lived there kept goats.”
“You can point to different things,” says Hyman. “There’s culture and collective memory. I look at the map a lot to figure out where I am. But where you are, the perception of the thing is more important than the thing itself.”
“When I first moved here,” Dailing says, “I lived in Bucktown. My roommate and I would hang out on our porch drinking and chatting with the people who walked by. There was an old lady who was always with her dogs. She would tell us stories about the way the neighborhood used to be. She’d point and say, ‘That used to be Hooker Alley.’
“There are no ‘Chicago stories,'” he continues, “no ‘this is a story of Chicago wrapped in one parcel.'”
“There can never be,” Hyman agrees. “With these eight or nine neighborhoods, it’s a start, step one in wrapping our heads around what Chicago is and what neighborhoods are.”