Excerpted from Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, coming in August from Belt Publishing.
By Paul Dailing
When I was a kid, I thought Chicago was a perpetual carnival.
It was a place where the Cubs lost and the Sox won, but I didn’t care because the Sox were pooey dumb-dumb heads who smelled like poo. And I loved the Cubs.
I loved the Cubs because of ivy and piss troughs, because of Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, and Andre Dawson. I loved the Cubs because the Cubs meant a two-hour drive out of my hometown to that place I thought was a perpetual carnival of sports and fun and a pre-1:20 lunch at that novelty fifties diner downtown where the waiters were paid extra to be sassy.
My hometown was not a carnival. It was the worst city in America.
That’s not me saying that. That was Money Magazine’s yearly ranking of the nation’s 300 largest cities. Year after year, that damned magazine would look at our shitty schools, high unemployment, high crime, and low prospects and name us the worst place to live in the nation.
We lived at the bottom of that list so long, The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn did a snarky segment congratulating us when we moved up to number 299.
Not Detroit, not Flint, not Gary, or East St. Louis. Rockford, Illinois, was the worst place to live in America.
“Rockford, Ill.—so named because it was founded at the site of a ford across the Rock River—is a pleasant, tree-smothered city 90 miles northwest of Chicago,” Life Magazine wrote about us in 1949.
“A hardscrabble town in the middle of America, the place is not much more than an intersection of interstates and railway lines,” Rolling Stone wrote in 2008.
We never really recovered from the factories closing. A Chrysler factory in nearby Belvidere is still a major employer, as is Woodward Governor, which makes airplane controls. But the furniture companies and—this was the big one—screw factories linger on as shadows of what they were.
In the early eighties recession, Rockford’s unemployment hit 21 percent, the highest in the nation. The New York Times did a story on us.
The Times came back in 2011 when we hit 16 percent, the highest in the nation during that economic slowdown.
“Parking meters line the streets of the shopping district. A fleet of cabs lines up at the station to meet the seven daily passenger trains. On Saturdays farmers pour in from the surrounding county to shop while their children go to the movies or roller-skate at a rink across the street from C.I.O. headquarters.”—Life, 1949
“Finding a meaningful target to blow up in Rockford isn’t easy.”—Rolling Stone, 2008
But then there was the carnival.
Two hours away there was a red and blue Terra Magica at Clark and Addison. Smiling men tried to sell T-shirts and tickets the moment you stepped off the Red Line and everyone was, whether the team won or lost (but usually lost), happy.
When Harry Caray thrust the mic out the press box window in the middle of the seventh, we all sang with joy.
My life in Rockford was sadly good. My father was executive director of a legal services nonprofit. Free lawyers for people who couldn’t afford it. The Reagan years were tough at times—I’ll never understand Bonzo’s post-mortem canonization—but I grew up aware of poverty without suffering from it.
After afternoons of basketball and taunting each other, I went to sleep each night in a lovingly-restored, early Victorian manor in a historically protected district. My friends Dale and Tyrell had to cross the rickety bridge literally to the wrong side of the tracks to their beds at the Jane Addams Housing Projects.
I went to college. Dale and Tyrell went to prison. Because I was a rich kid in a poor town and that’s the only thing that can happen.
“Furniture industry…American Dream…as nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be.”—Life, 1949
“Backwaters … sad-sack…the lone claim to fame of being the hometown of Cheap Trick.”—Rolling Stone, 2008
But this isn’t about my sad-sack hometown, which has improved by leaps and bounds and strides and where I would move in a second if there were still such a thing as a job there.
This is about Chicago. And the Chicago Cubs.
In the years, yeah, decades since, my dream became my home, I realized Chicago wasn’t a carnival but a deeply troubled and divided city. I realized I wanted to write about Chicago, not party there. I realized that if I could do one thing for this city it would be to fix it.
But I still loved the Cubs.
I grew to see the economics that took the bleachers from the bums to the richies. I see the owners’ donations to Donald Trump and the cushy cabinet jobs they’re tossed as recompense. I grew to see the political favors and aldermanic oneupmanship that made my childhood carnival happen in a bleeding town. I see every complaint you’re about to lodge against the Cubs and Wrigley and I find it difficult to care.
Because the Chicago Cubs taught me to believe.
They didn’t teach me to believe in the goodness of the world or that stuff just works out or any of those terrible life lessons that give the warm fuzzies. The Cubs taught me to believe that, with enough work, even legendarily bad things can be fixed.
My hometown’s poverty, my new town’s segregation, a lack of investment in the battery—all could be worked on, tinkered with, given a deeper pitching bench, and fixed.
My childhood carnival is my troubled, bleeding home. And now the Sox lose and, as of the moment I typed the first draft of these lines, the Cubs just won it all. A World Series for Wrigley.
The obligatorily snarky will tease and prod about if it’ll be another 108 years till the next one and to grow up because it’s just a ball team, but we know better. For me, the Cubs were Chicago and joy via piss troughs and ivy. The Cubs were my first step toward what would become the new broken midwest town I want to fix.
I can never thank them enough.
Paul Dailing is a Chicago-based writer, magazine editor, and tour guide. He is the creator of 1,001 Chicago Afternoons, a twenty-first-century version of Ben Hecht’s famed 1920s Chicago Daily News column. The project won a Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism in 2013 and is currently featured as part of the Chicago History Museum’s “Chicago Authored” exhibit. He is also the creator of the Chicago Corruption Walking Tour, has lectured on election fraud for Atlas Obscura, once found a triceratops femur, and co-organizes the Welcome to the Neighborhood illustrated reading series.