It’s been 65 years since the New Yorker‘s A.J. Liebling dubbed Chicago the Second City, a “not-quite metropolis.” As it’s now reached retirement age, the notion ought to be collecting its gold watch and hitting the links and one day in the very near future gumming down its last spoonful of pudding before dying in obscurity. But alas, Chicago’s also-ran self-image persists: the city as subordinate, generally lacking, suffering by comparison. Like other destructive afflictions that just won’t quit—trickle-down economics, the “good guy with a gun” theory—Chicago’s Second City syndrome shows no signs of subsiding.
This entrenched inferiority complex in our DNA adapts to the contemporary moment, often mutating into a superiority complex. Witness the overinflated sense of civic standing with which Mayor Rahm Emanuel declares Chicago a “world-class city.” And all while he’s once again closing public schools or making corporate giveaways or coercing a gutless City Council into voting with him. As he does so, Emanuel always manages to sound like the leader of a lawless backwater, soon to be overtaken by rebels, addressing a skittish crowd from a palace balcony while the sound of cannon fire approaches.
In Chicago it seems no perceived slight can go unanswered, in a tone verging on desperation. If the alleged insult involves a comparison between Chicago and New York City or Los Angeles, Chicagoans will unleash a litany of reasons this city is cleaner, greener, less expensive, kinder, more bikeable, and with smaller cockroaches too. But here’s the thing: coastal elites don’t give a rat’s ass about such comparisons. As someone who once lived in New York, home of the $23 grilled cheese and the apartment you could hide under a bath mat, I can attest NYC residents will take your insults as evidence of your soft-headed inability to see manifest greatness. In LA, home of unironic reiki for dogs and, until recently, sanctioned serial sexual assault by film producers, residents are too epically self-obsessed to take heed of disses lobbed at their city.
So if I were to act as Chicago’s—hmm, what to call it?—municipal life coach, I’d urge the city to put aside its middle-child bullshit and play the long game. In another 65 years, when New York and LA have been claimed by rising sea levels, Chicago will vie with no one for primacy. v