Stuart Dybek’s Chicago Coast

Stuart Dybeck - The Cost of ChicagoWhy did no one tell me about Stuart Dybek before? These stories were extraordinary. Just as a writer I found the quality of his prose alone making my little heart beat faster, these stories are breathtaking. But these are also stories of a working class kid growing up in a fucked up but well-loved Catholic, half Polish half Mexican neighbourhood. A view and a voice that is all too rare, and perhaps explains why no one has told me about Stuart Dybek before. It involves memories, beauty, urban myths, cross-race romance that brings shame and wonder, music, weed, wandering, the ordinary overlaid with magic.

Mrs. Kubiac’s building seemed riddled with its secret passageways. And, when the music finally disappeared, its channels remained, conveying silence. Not an ordinary silence of absence and emptiness, but a pure silence beyond daydream and memory, as intense as the music it replaced, which, like music, had the power to change whoever listened. It hushed the close-quartered racket of the old building.

Then of course, there is the short story ‘Blight’ that so embodies the lived experience of urban renewal — everything I care most about, have fought over.

During those years between Korea and Vietnam, when rock and roll was being perfected, our neighborhood was proclaimed an Official Blight Area.

This is the relationship with power poor people know far too well:

Still, in a way, I could see it from Ziggy’s point of view. Mayor Daley was everywhere. The city was tearing down buildings for urban renewal, tearing up streets for a new expressway, and everywhere one looked there were signs in front of the rubble reading:

SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE
ANOTHER IMPROVEMENT
FOR A GREATER CHICAGO
RICHARD J. DALEY, MAYOR

A series of paragraphs I have gathered that seek to understand what this declaration of blight means, the point of view the young men who live there — who are themselves more than likely seen as blight by the men in suits:

It was the route we usually walked to the viaduct, but since blight had been declared we were trying to see our surrounding from a new perspective, to determine if anything had been changed, or at least appeared different. Blight sounded serious, biblical in a way, like something locusts might be responsible for.

Nor did anyone need to explain that Official Blight was the language of revenue, forms in quintuplicate, grants, and federal aid channeled through the Machine and processed with the help of grafters, skimmer, wheeler-dealers, and army of aldermen, precinct captains, patronage workers, their relatives and friends. No one said it, but instinctively we knew we’d never see a nickel.

Blight, in fact, could be considered a kind of official recognition, a grudging admission that among blocks of factories, railroad tracks, truck docks, industrial dumps, scrapyards, expressways, and the drainage canal, people had managed to wedge in their everyday lives.

What its last days were like, and the vibrance that existed there before the destruction:

It was an old neighborhood that Mayor Daley, despite his campaign promises, was preparing to demolish to make way for a new university. But life went on that summer as it always had — daily newspapers printed in strange alphabets; nuts, cheeses, dried cod sold in the streets; the scent of crushed lemon from the bakery that made lemon ice; Greek music skirling from the restaurant downstairs.

It is not all easy to sympathise with, honest in the lines of race that divided neighbourhoods and their changing contours:

Douglas Park was a black park now, the lagoon curdled in milky green scum as if it had soured, and Kapusta didn’t doubt that were he to go there they’d find his body floating in the lily pads too.

And always a sense that the past hardly exists:

It was hard to believe there ever were streetcars. the city back then, the city of their fathers, which was as far back as a family memory extended, even the city of their childhoods, seemed as remote to Eddie and Manny as the capital of some foreign country

What past there is is constantly under threat, actively being destroyed through the destruction of the city:

The past collapsed about them–decayed, bulldozed, obliterated. They walked past block-length gutted factories, past walls of peeling, multicolored doors hammered up around flooded excavation pits, hung out in half-boarded storefronts of groceries that had shut down when they were kids, dusty cans still stacked on the shelves. Broken glass collected everywhere, mounding like sand in the little, sunken front yards and gutters. Even the church’s stained-glass windows were patched with plywood.

This feeling — I know this feeling.

Things were gone they couldn’t remember but missed; and things were gone they weren’t sure ever were there…

At times, walking past the gaps, they felt as if they were no longer quite there themselves, half-lost despite familiar street signs, shadows of themselves superimposed on the present, except there was no present–everything either rubbled past or promised future–and they were walking as if floating, getting nowhere as if they’d smoked too much grass.

I know I’m just quoting the things that touch upon all I obsess over in thinking about cities have been made, could be remade. It’s almost like Marshall Berman writing crystalline stories of coming-of-age perfection to encapsulate his pain of losing the Bronx. There is so much beauty and life here beyond that, and this last line is splendid:

He had special windows all over the city. It was how he held the city together in his mind.

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