Chicago after the attacks

September 19, 2001
Today was the creepiest day to be in Chicago since the day of the World Trade Center attacks. As a blanket of mist rested against Chicagoans’ faces as they walked to work, the foggy sky descended onto the city’s sturdy skyline.  All last week we wondered what it would be like without the Sears in the sky; today we found out, as much of the upper half of the massive office tower was shrouded in fog, disappeared behind thick terrestrial clouds.  The Aon Tower, the white tube building meant in structure and appearance to emulate a World Trade Center tower, was similarly lopped off halfway up, as the clouds collided with it.  

What has it been like to be in Chicago during and after the attacks on New York and Washington?  The day itself, I couldn’t say; I was in Oak Park, a nearby suburb, and stayed the hell out of the Loop until that night. Then I rode on the El back into a city strangely quiet and black. The skyscrapers had dimmed or darkened most of their lights. A few cops, bums, and students wandered down the otherwise empty streets.  I couldn’t find a place with a TV on to watch the president’s address; by the time I found one somber pub, the president’s brief remarks were over.

Since then, the sense has been not of a city scared to realize it could be next, though maybe we should be.  Of course, the global weight of the landmarks the terrorists chose, international monuments of commerce and the military, almost creates some distance between them and us; Chicago’s an international city, to be sure, but always takes a back seat to New York in dominance, and often to D.C. in prominence.  So while we’d be next on the list, I guess we’re assuming (perhaps rashly) that we’re still a long way down.  The only delectable target terrorists would want here, besides remote O’Hare, if you can so grimly speculate, is the Sears, and it would seem that with less of an element of surprise, and under heightened security, the encore would be resistable. 
This, of course, assumes there is a brand of reason to these creatures, which is sketchy. 

So Chicago, for better and worse, is not running scared.  Instead, it is surging with on-your-sleeve patriotism.  The Hancock Tower, typically necklaced with a luminescent band of lights along the roof under its needles, has lit the band red, white, and blue.  Also lit in patriotic colors is the terraced top of the Bank One Building, and even the floodlight-drenched crown of 311 South Wacker, just south of the Sears. Tonight I saw the office lights on the south face of the Blue Cross Blue Shield building coordinated to arrange the letters “USA.”  

Flags? Everywhere. In most of the store windows around and through the Loop, often along with a sign: “God Bless America.” The Sun-Times, which included a pull-out flag with one of its editions, affixed one pullout to every one of its windows on its building along the river.  Four flags at right angles to each other on every lamppost on State Street.  Businessmen with flags pinned to their suits. 

It’s a mix of sheer patriotism with a sort of exuberant relief the city was spared, I suppose. With New York wounded, Chicago seems to take it upon itself to show off the gleam of freedom and prosperity. 
 Not all moments are as clear to me. I couldn’t believe my ears when we sang the fourth verse of “O Beautiful For Spacious Skies” at Fourth Presbyterian Church this Sunday.  (The preacher did balance such odd handholding of faith and patriotism by blasting Jerry Falwell for claiming the terrorist attacks were God’s punishment for our moral decline.) 

More oddities: A car of drunks zooming around the Rush St. nightlife district last Saturday, hooting and hollering, stammering over a chant of “USA! USA!” A huge flag draped over the roof.  I didn’t take it for granted that they didn’t wipe the bear foam from their chins with Old Glory. 

So yes, America’s “way of life,” its finest points and its embarrassments, all seem to have survived.  And not since the 1893 World’s Fair, perhaps, has Chicago been so proud to display itself to the world. 

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© Copyright 2001 Nathan Bierma