As a little kid, my world consisted of the suburb where we lived, my grandparents’ farm some distance away, and downtown Chicago. In my mind, that was the entire world. My dad worked for an airline so we traveled a fair amount, but those trips did nothing to dispel my belief that Chicago was the center of the universe. How could it be otherwise when we had the ’85 Bears, Frango Mints, McDonald’s headquarters, and all the good Impressionist paintings? By the way, eventually I came to understand that ‘Chicago’ for suburbanites generally means ‘Chicagoland’ and that this all-encompassing perspective tends to annoy bona fide Chicago residents; back then I didn’t understand the distinction.
A big factor in shaping my worldview was watching movies that took place in and around Chicago. If Chicago was the universe, John Hughes was the creator. Why wouldn’t Ferris’s carpe diem day include a Cubs game? Why wouldn’t the Breakfast Club have detention in my dad’s high school? Why wouldn’t the Griswolds live in a neighborhood that looked like those I’d driven through my whole life?
Chicagoland, even in fictional iterations like Shermer, IL, was a character in its own right. Not that I even paid much attention since Chicago as backdrop was a given. And although they navigated some improbable situations, the characters embodied endearing Midwestern traits that rang true for me: Molly Ringwald’s angsty naiveté, John Candy’s earnestness, Anthony Michael Hall’s impishness.
At some point, I found out that Chicago was not, in fact, the center of the universe. Or did I? My innocent ethnocentrism grew into an arrogant one that proclaimed this city as the best, if not the only, one. The older me watched the same movies again (and again) with a very conscious sense of pride.
I feel a version of that pride when I watch Showtime’s Shameless, which also features Chicago as a vital character. Like Hughes, the creators of Shameless mythologize certain aspects of the city in order to develop context for the storylines, but also, I think, to pay homage. They just do it through a much grittier lens. Which is the real Chicago? Hughes’s blend of suburban comfort and ennui, or the urban edginess portrayed in Shameless? Neither one tells the whole story, of course. Hughes’s films and Shameless are more layered than they might seem at first glance, reflecting both beauty and ugliness, acceptance and rejection, transcendence and degradation.
I see these dichotomies in Chicago as well. After more than a decade of living here – in the part of the city that I didn’t even know existed as a kid – I see it as vibrant, stressful, dangerous, exciting, indifferent, compassionate, ugly, and stunning. It’s the city of Sunday morning farmers markets and daily drive-by shootings, of iconic architecture and the shameful failure of public housing, of people that inspire and people that irritate. It’s hard to reconcile this love/hate relationship. As you-know-who wrote, we see things as we want to, “In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions”. But the complicated reality is that my city is neither the best in the world, nor the worst, but somehow also both.