Hmmm ... If only our curiosity had an anthem

What makes Chicago unique? You gave us answers. We wrapped ‘em in song.

February 13, 2013

Jennifer Brandel

What’s the best breeding ground for curiosity? We can think of none better than a laundromat, in particular the one in Albany Park called “Rags to Riches.” That’s where we met Chicago newcomer Brenda Guzman. Here’s what she asked us after we asked her to ignore her laundry chores:

“What can you get in Chicago that you can’t from any other place?”

That question sang with possibilities; after all, what did she mean? Unique objects? Unique experiences? Maybe ... unique people? Brenda told us something like “anything goes” — she’d be open to whatever we could find.
 
Given that, we asked for help immediately, since — let’s face it — the public radio braintrust might not be up to the job. We asked you for help (via Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and, man, you delivered some great answers. But, there was a problem. Each answer begged the same followup question: Can you not find this _____ anywhere else? Really?
 
Some ground rules
 
Here’s how we decided what made the cut. If you can answer “yes” to any of the following, then your answer didn’t make it:
 
  • Is this “unique thing” available online? (e.g., Malort, a wormwood liquor)
  • Can it be shipped outside Chicago? (e.g., Lou Malnati’s pizza)
  • Does this “thing” somehow travel or perform in other cities? (e.g., The Chicago Bears, Kanye West)
  • Are there other stores or places where you can get this “thing” outside of Chicago? (e.g., Garrett’s popcorn, which is sold in Las Vegas and other locales)
  • Did it make our editor groan because it’s inappropriate or too easy? (Ask editor Shawn Allee about this when you next bump into him.)

We collected your offerings and vetted them (with an admittedly light touch at times). You can see our thoughts at the bottom of this article, or here. It’s a great list — some 150 suggestions strong — but we’ll admit there’s little sex factor in a spreadsheet. Chicago (and you) deserved better.

A song? No! An anthem.

We tapped Chicago musician Nick Gage to set your suggestions to music. We had heard of his lyric-writing prowess at Second City shows and Star Kids productions (consider Holy Musical B@tman!).
 
To see more about his creative process and how he tackled the assignment, check out our reporter’s notebook. But the finished product, called "Only in Chicago," awaits your listen. 
 
Lyrics can be found here.

Curious City is a news-gathering experiment designed to satisfy your curiosities. You ask your questions about Chicago, the region and the people who live here, vote for your favorites, and together we discover answers. It’s your Curious City.


Hear our conversation with musician Nick Gage on the Afternoon Shift: 

A serious note

Our quick vetting process did make us wonder if we’d missed a huge point, however. If our Curious Citizens are having a tough time coming up with stuff that’s actually unique to Chicago, is this difficult for everyone? And, are globalization and instant, mobile media constraining our experience of what’s unique?

CUNY Sociology Professor Sharon Zukin has insight on this, as her most recent book, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, details how trends have driven out the authentic places, experiences and products specific to a locale.

Zukin believes that over time, we’ll experience fewer and fewer unique experiences and handle fewer unique products but, she says, “On the other hand, people want to believe in the local. They want to believe in the specialness of their experience and the uniqueness of the place they come from. So people will keep saying things are unique to their locality, unique to their city because they want to be proud of those things.”

Endangered species

Zukin explains there are long-time processes contributing to this depletion of the unique. Globalization is one factor. Zukin says “There is always a give and take between the local and the global. New things are introduced - like in ancient days when camels brought caravans of spices through the desert. But those new things were brought into a place and became local when they were used - they were re-territorialized.”

She points to an example in Chicago: bratwurst and beer. The city’s become famous for those cultural products, despite the fact they both originated in Germany.

Zukin says forces such as gentrification also endanger “uniqueness,” as longtime communities are pushed out and chain businesses replace mom-and-pop places. Zukin says now is the time to search for means and strategies to keep the local alive and preserve a city’s unique identity.
 
“We’re really in danger of losing local identities with displacement of people, mobility, with social media, chain stores expanding all over the world,” she says. “We have to find some means — whether that’s laws or customs or communities that keep the ‘local’ local.”

So what does ‘local’ need to thrive? According to Zukin, it helps for communities to establish little areas of their own.

“In order to keep these authentic experiences, you have to preserve the differences,” she says. “You have to keep small stores, artisanal businesses and not have them leveled by stores or businesses that make everything look alike.”

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