25 in 12: Never A City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz

I’ve seen and heard about the “52 Books in 52 Weeks” meme, and marveled that anyone could read that many books in a year, even though I’m a huge fan of reading literature and non-fiction. Between reading blogs, devouring new issues of The Economist, and listening to podcasts, the amount of free time I have for reading books often falls by the wayside so 52 in a year would be impossible. If I added in comic books, though…

I’ve decided to make more of an effort this year to hear that delicious sound of a newly cracked book spine, and will be blogging about it to keep myself on track. But my goal is modest, hence “25 in 12.”

The first book I read was one I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while, and it was this month’s Gaper’s Block Book Club selection. I was unable to make the actual discussion, but I’m not sure that it interfered with my appreciation of the book. Because I think for any Chicagoan, Alex Kotlowitz’s Never A City So Real feels like a very personal look at his or her city, whether they see themselves in it or not.

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and by extension a city of persons (not people, but persons). It’s (we’re?) a city that’s often derided – even shamed – for corruption that silences the voices of individuals in favor of the groups that wield power in both the city and county. Despite their efforts, a walk around the city still reveals the power of the individual in shaping the city as a whole, and Never A City So Real is part of a series of books that explores just that.

Kotlowitz references the great Chicago chroniclers like Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg – both directly, and in the stories he tells. The most direct line can be drawn from Terkel’s Division Street: America. Like Division Street, the story of the city is told here by those affected by the actions of the larger forces at work in the city. But unlike Division Street‘s arms-length storytelling, Never A City So Real shows us Chicago through Kotlowitz’s friends and acquaintances, whether it’s the owner of a diner that begrudgingly serves as a way station for migrant workers, a lawyer who describes her job at 26th and California in terms usually reserved for those that speak of their work as “a calling,” or the former union steelworker who takes his students on field trips through the forgotten parts of a once vibrant industry.

The one quibble I have with Never A City So Real is that it doesn’t stop to tell the story of the Chicago transplant, which is as much a legitimate part of the city’s history as the stories of its natives. Kotlowitz himself says at the beginning of the book that when he arrived here, he planned to stay for only two years, which turned into 20-plus. Chicago hosts plenty of temporary residents who see the city as a way station to somewhere else or as a place to carve out an identity before moving onto another life. But there are also many who move here and find it to be home. Why does that happen? What is it about this city that allows people to thrive? Why is it a city that’s often the right mix of comfort and challenge? I have my own theories, but it’s a story that ought to be told from more than one viewpoint, just like the story Kotlowitz tells here.

Kotlowitz plays to his strengths here, as he’s a storyteller who’s been on the front lines of the toughest parts of the city; his earlier, indispensable book There Are No Children Here offers a similar, sadder tour of the city’s forgotten areas. Throughout his works, we find a central theme, and that is this:

This is a city of fighters. Some of us fight silent battles, while others of us use whatever means at our disposal – our voices, our connections, our jobs, our keyboards – to rise above the din and carve out a niche that feels like home as we offer a counterargument to the conventional wisdom. It’s expected that you will meet people who challenge your point of view, while embracing your challenge all the same. The Chicago motto is “Urbs in horto” or “City In A Garden”, but I think we’d be better served with “In Varietas, Civitas”: “In Differences, Community.” *

* I never took Latin, so if that’s an inelegant translation, blame the Internet.

3 comments for “25 in 12: Never A City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz

  1. January 25, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    i read that book a few years ago when i first moved here.. good one!

  2. January 29, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    I’m with ya, a book a week is too much. Give it about 2 weeks on average, that’s a much better idea.

  3. February 2, 2008 at 3:27 am

    I read Kotlowitz’s book last summer, right around the time I was joining the <>Time Out Chicago<> staff full time. While it gave me further insights into the city I’ve adopted as my home over the last seven years, I’m with you in wishing he had covered all the Southerners (and Coasters) who’ve moved here thinking it was temporary and decided to stay. Natives are a large part of the story, but still only a part.

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