Of antennae, pizza, the French and Goats: What’s worth fighting for in Chicago?

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Chicago points of pride, both real and imagined. How upset you got over these slights depends on whether you see Chicago as a real place or some kind of carnival ride. Based on our collective reaction, it’s sometimes tough to tell the difference.

First, there was the Sears/Willis Tower losing its status as the world’s tallest building because of an antenna. This one’s in the carnival ride category. New York has a bigger antenna, we have a higher occupied floor. At this point, it’s almost a literal dick-measuring contest and it does not behoove us to separate fly shit from pepper, as my mom used to say. You could maybe argue there’s a real economic loss here due to the possible tourism dollars that flow into a city with the tallest building in the U.S. but since we long ago lost the title of tallest building in the world it always struck me as a bit of a booby prize.

Besides, everyone knows the view at the Hancock is better anyway.

Then there was the whole “Jon Stewart insulted our deep dish pizza” thing, which is really just an outgrowth of the tallest building thing so come on now. It was a master class in trolling as Stewart drew Chicago in a gloriously caricatured sketch. Mayor Emanuel added his own flourish with a faux tough guy response, mailing a dead fish to Stewart – the fish, in this case, being anchovies on top of a pizza. Again, a carnival ride.

Besides, everyone knows the best Chicago pizza is served on a thin crust and cut into squares.

A better man than me, Chicago Tribune‘s Phil Rosenthal, sums up the above thusly:

Civic pride should be a knowing grin, not a battle cry. It’s the world stage on which Chicago wants to play, not some Montessori schoolyard. You are how you beef.

Speaking of the world stage, let’s discuss the French travel advisory which states its tourists may want to avoid the South and West Sides. You’d think this one could be easily dismissed with a Jerry Lewis joke, but no.

One one hand, there’s obvious ignorance at work here and ignorance should be mocked, whenever possible. Leave it to the inventors of the Maginot Line to determine that everything north of 59th Street is A-OK just because the Museum of Science and Industry and Hyde Park are down that way. But even arguing that point reinforces the idea that some neighborhoods should be avoided, that they are unsafe, that they should be left to rot. Just this week, Gapers Block published a post that deftly sums up this ignorance that makes it all too easy for some to decide kids in Englewood are animals.

Yet French idiocy is somewhat useful here. If anything, it demonstrates there are real problems on much of the South and West sides of the city and we aren’t dealing with them well at all. Those problems start at home though so let’s worry less about what the French think and more about why most of us are fine with taking the Dan Ryan to head south through the city but would avoid Wentworth Avenue at all costs. If we’re going to silently endorse the mindset of the French, we don’t get to be upset about it. Especially the mayor. *

Finally, there’s the likely (perhaps temporary) move of the Billy Goat Tavern (nee Billy Goat Inn) from its cozy, dark corner of lower Michigan Avenue. At first blush, this is a carnival ride issue.

It’s the place from the Saturday Night Live sketch! Royko drank there! And they put the curse on the Cubs! That’s Chicago history! 

All of those things are true and they’re worth preserving, in some way. Perhaps in a museum. But it’s not why it’s important for the Billy Goat to remain a vibrant part of Chicago’s downtown.

For some, the Goat’s as much a caricature of Chicago culture as deep-dish pizza: a tourist trap with lousy, overpriced burgers or a calcified tribute to the greatness of Old White Guy Journalism. And for those reasons, we should be glad to see it go. But these are folks who haven’t been to the Goat in a while – if ever – or have been there during lunch when it’s all too easy to bump elbows with, well, French tourists.

The key to understanding why the Goat remains worth fighting for is knowing The Goat at, say, 7pm or 10am is far different from the Goat at noon or 5pm. In the off-hours, you’ll see cops, construction workers and, yes, a couple of journalists. As someone who’s eaten there recently, I can tell you the burgers are a helluva lot better – and cheaper – than most of what you’ll find nearby (though too much bun for my taste). It’s still a place where you can find – in the words of my friend, Chicago Tribune reporter James Janega – “a bit of the realest Chicago I know…A credit to our future and this city’s value. [A reminder] of who you were comfortable being.”

A bar that serves a blue-collar customer in the basement of the National Association of Realtors building is literally underground subversion and that’s what Chicago – especially downtown Chicago which is too often given to showering developers with TIF funds intended for the city’s neighborhoods – still needs. The original Billy Goat Inn opened in 1934 on West Madison, near the old Chicago Stadium (itself replaced by the United Center which went on to create more Chicago history). In 1964 – post-curse but pre-SNL – the Goat moved to a tony Michigan Avenue address but lost nothing of what made it essential to Chicago.

I would prefer the Goat remain intact in its current location. But if the will of real estate developers means that can’t happen and we need to create the Billy Goat Mark III, let’s remember the great Chicago architect’s words “form follows function.” It’s more important to have a place off Michigan Avenue where people can still feel “comfortable being” instead of wringing our hands because you won’t ever hear cheezbooga, cheezbooga again (though I acknowledge the revenue from the latter probably allows for the former). Picture frames, old tables and chairs and tap handles can be moved with all their worn corners intact – if it can happen with Miller’s Pub**, it can happen with the Goat. But their use needs to continue. Move it, yes, but not behind glass lest the Goat turn into an amusement park like its namesake on Navy Pier.

Chicago needs to maintain its active third places to preserve its history and its future. It might keep us from having to pitch fits over pizza casserole and antennas and help us maintain the communities we have instead of abandoning them and letting the French pretend they don’t exist.

* After I wrote the above (but before I published it) Chicago Tribune‘s Mary Schmich pointed out Chicago’s tourism board doesn’t exactly endorse the South and West sides as tourist destinations. 

** Thanks to NBC Ward Room’s political columnist Mark Anderson for the above link.

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3 comments for “Of antennae, pizza, the French and Goats: What’s worth fighting for in Chicago?

  1. Matt Stratton
    November 21, 2013 at 10:47 am

    I concur with your assessment of the Goat’s burgers. I used to work across the street from the one at Van Buren and Wells, and they are second only to the Diner Grill in my opinion.

    First hipster asshole who replies to this with something about Kuma’s loses at life.

  2. Matt Stratton
    November 21, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I’m also confused, slightly, by the talk of all the “moves” of the Billy Goat(s)…the original location is still there, yah?

  3. Scott Smith
    November 21, 2013 at 10:57 am

    The original 1934 location was in a slightly different place than the one that’s on Madison now.

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