If you asked me to tell you what Chicago looks like, I would tell you it looks like this: a thousand cars, a thousand streetlights, a thousand jumbled brick buildings, a thousand miles of sidewalk, all of it repeated without end till they disappear beyond the curve of the Earth.
Chicago is utterly Jeffersonian. Here there were no inconvenient hills or lakes or coasts to interfere with the perfect geometric grid of streets. The spirit of the westward expansion, of the surveyor’s hand wiping away the chaos of unordered nature, found perfect expression in flat, unbounded Chicago.
Chicago is very often not a pretty place. Its commercial arteries are often harsh and graceless expanses of concrete, seeming to lack any amenities like street trees. The city’s grid can be pitilessly rational, extending without curve or bend to the horizon, its progress demarcated with ruthless regularity by street lights, power lines, railroad tracks, mass-produced houses and apartments. If there is anything picturesque to be found in the city, it’s surely by accident.
Vast amounts of land in Chicago are given over to the functional, the necessary, the purely purposeful. The Interstates are vast rivers carving up sections of the city. Power plants create vast islands. Industrial swaths chew apart neighborhoods. Railroad embankments form unpassable barriers.
Yet this is also part of the city’s personality, for better or worse. This is a city that Does, that Makes, that Deals. The city may not always have time for nicities, but it’ll get the job done.
There is beauty and awe to be found in the city’s sheer size. On a scale unmatched anywhere between the coasts, Chicago stamped itself into being, an ever-growing machine devouring land and churning out city. Any common object you find in Chicago is repeated on an unimaginable scale — streets, light fixtures, houses, blocks.
Sometimes the result is graceless and ugly. The mind may well boggle at the sheer volumes of land consumed by the city, at just how many miles are layered with unrelenting cityscape.
But… look close. What is horrific in the aggregate may turn out to be composed of many beautiful little pieces.
And the raw, unmitigated ugliness is often an illusion. Step off the main arteries and you are likely to be submerged in an urban garden, lush street trees framing beautiful houses and gracious sidewalks.
…not to mention the famous bits downtown.
Within Chicago’s rigid framework, there is vast freedom — freedom to move, to travel, to settle, to carve a niche, to declare yourself and your individuality within the box.
There is always a horizon in Chicago. Even in the heart of the Loop, one can look down a street that recedes into infinity, and the lake is ever-present. Suspended between prairie and water, Chicago offers a horizon as vast as the sky, promising something new and different just out of sight — you just have to keep moving toward it.