Excerpted from Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology.

By Martha Bayne

Chicago is built on a foundation of meat and railroads and steel, on opportunity and exploitation. But while its identity long ago expanded beyond manufacturing, the city continues to lure new residents from around the world, and from across a region rocked by recession and deindustrialization – and the patterns and problems of the Rust Belt don’t disappear once you hit the Skyway headed west. In fact, they’re often amplified, as the scale of the third-largest city in the country would demand.

A city defined by movement that’s the anchor of the Midwest, Chicago is bound to its neighbors by a shared ecosystem and history. A city of migrants and a city of strivers, at once part of the glittering global economy and resolutely tied to its geography, Chicago’s complicated – both of the Belt and beyond it; the buckle, as it were. At Belt Publishing, we thought that the question of what Chicago’s relationship is to the region at large deserved a book of its own.

[blocktext align=”right”]…the patterns and problems of the Rust Belt don’t disappear once you hit the Skyway headed west. In fact, they’re often amplified…[/blocktext]It’s not an easy question to answer, though, as I learned editing this anthology. This is the ninth in a series of city anthologies published by Belt, but where the other books have sought to tell the stories of often overlooked (and underwritten) communities like Flint or Youngstown, Chicago is neither. Rather, twenty-first century Chicago is defined by a (justly) intimidating literary legacy that stretches from the Midland realism of Dreiser and Sinclair through Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Saul Bellow, past Nelson Algren, and on to Studs Terkel, Stuart Dybek, and Sandra Cisneros. Chicago has been the subject of novelists, poets, journalists, and scholars for more than a century – and they’re not letting up anytime soon. Who could hope to compete with that? Who would want to?

The initial call for submissions for this book went out in early 2016, and the response was overwhelming. By October I’d whittled down the candidates to a manageable 40 or so stories, poems, and essays – and then Donald Trump was elected president. In the aftermath of the election, I reassessed, and sought out additional work that spoke to one of three themes: deindustrialization, and the economic space Chicago shares with Flint, Detroit, and, Gary, just around the bend in the lake; the shared landscape and ecosystem of the Great Lakes states; and movement, always movement.

Chicago’s famously a city of immigrants, from the historically Irish enclaves of the South Side to the Mexican neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village and the Devon Avenue corridor that’s one of the largest South Asian neighborhoods in North America. And across the twentieth century Chicago famously was the destination of choice for the millions of African Americans who left the South as part of the Great Migration, and came to indelibly shape the city’s culture and politics.

But with the Rust Belt thrust into the post-election spotlight, Chicago’s function as a big – and at least relatively thriving – blue city in the middle of the Midwest itself seemed worth recognizing as well.

Thus, this book – as you’ll see – is bookended by migration: whether it’s Britt Julious migrating from the West Side to Oak Park, Gretchen Kalwinski leaving her inner Region Rat behind in northwest Indiana, Rayshauna Gray tracing her family’s path from the South through Chicago and on to points unknown, or Rob Miller remembering the waves of Detroiters who made the journey down I-94 in the 1990s and on into the twenty-first century. Journalists Kari Lydersen and Mark Guarino go deep into Pilsen’s Mexican bars and Uptown’s Appalachian music. And we’re honored that Aleksandar Hemon, who landed in Chicago from Bosnia in 1992 and never left, is letting us reprint his “Reasons Why I Will Never Leave Chicago,” an ode to the city originally published in 2006.

But it’s not all about movement; some stories are fixed firmly in place, like Michael Van Kerkhove’s remembrance of a north-side food pantry, and Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin’s chronicle of the last days of River North’s Clark & Barlow Hardware. Meanwhile, Kathleen Rooney walks the streets of downtown, on the move, sure, but her feet squarely grounded in the city’s strict geography.

Much of the work in these pages overlaps, defying easy categorization. Linda Garcia-Merchant’s “The Urban Rural” is as much about division and dislocation as it is about place. Wyl Villacres’s “Sorry Shit Sucks” uses fiction to create an intimate articulation of Chicago’s crisis of police violence – something the city shares with Cleveland, Detroit, and other Rust Belt neighbors, and a subject addressed with journalistic clarity and precision by Sarah Macaraeg and Yana Kunichoff, in their article “How to Win Reparations.”

As an editor, I hear the writers collected here singing to each other like the bird on the cover – an Arctic Bunting that artist Tony Fitzpatrick notes has no business being in Chicago, yet first popped up in his birder’s eye perched on a mailbox downtown in the early 90s. At times the song soars in harmony (just count many times that lake comes up!) and at others sounds in strategic dissonance. What truths about Chicago sports can be teased out from the conjunction of Kevin Coval’s “Disco Demolition” and David Isaacson’s “Hard Hat, Lunch Pail”?  What can be extrapolated about Chicago’s industrial past and future from the multiple views offered here on the flaming factories of East Chicago, Hammond, and Calumet – and the beauties of the natural world that persist in such toxic turf?

There are gaps, to be sure – multiple books can (and have) been written about Chicago’s endemic segregation, only touched on here, and a condition common to Rust Belt cities region-wide. Chicago politics, rich and mythic though they are, barely get a nod! It’s one book, one song, responding to one cacophonous city. I hope the gaps speak as much to the poems, stories, and reporting still to be created as the work here testifies to what’s been done.

Excerpted from Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, out from Belt Publishing August 10, 2017. For more information and to preorder a copy see our online store. For publicity and other inquiries, email Cat Eves at cat@beltmag.com.

Banner photo by W. Rickman