NEVER A CITY SO REAL

A Walk in Chicago

By Alex Kotlowitz. Crown Journeys. 159 pp. $16 Alex Kotlowitz is an accidental Chicagoan. A New Yorker, he arrived in America's prairie colossus 20 years ago as an urban affairs reporter for the Wall Street Journal. His interest in society's underbelly drew him to a dispiriting housing project that became the setting for his first book, There Are No Children Here, which the New York Pubic Library named as one of the most important books of the 20th century. In 1993, Kotlowitz left the Journal but remained in Chicago. He is still there because he finds it "a city so real," a town without pretense, peopled by the kinds of robust characters that would have delighted Dickens. "Once you've come to be part of this particular patch," he cites Nelson Algren as saying, "you'll never love another."

Kotlowitz finds New York "obsessed with status. Money. Beauty. Power. It's how you're measured there. Everybody, though, finds a place in Chicago. People are taken for who they are, not for what they have or haven't achieved." Post-millennium Chicago has a hard time living up to its epic reputation. The city's rise from mud hole to metropolis in a mere 60 years is one of the thrilling sagas of 19th-century America, whose insurgent spirit the city mirrored exactly. Chicago was built for business, and it embodied better than any other place the brutal and inventive vitality of America's buccaneering capitalism.

Like New York, it was a gateway city, a fabulous opportunity center for immigrants and outcasts, but also a boiling cauldron of racial and economic discord. Rebuilt entirely after the Great Fire of 1871, it was ahead of its age, a place that writers from all over the world visited to see the new machine age in its full splendor and squalor.

Chicago has changed. No longer Carl Sandburg's brawny "hog butcher to the world," it is now the globe's candy capital, where more sweets are made than in Hershey, Pa. A cholera-infested mud flat in its early days, it has been transformed into one of the world's handsomest cities. Yet to a remarkable degree, Chicago is what it was, its character forged by its lusty origins. A magnet for hustlers and visionaries, the city has been forever in flux, always re-inventing itself, as new groups -- Syrians, Mexicans, Serbs and Vietnamese -- continue to gather to its promise.

It's a tough, straight-talking town, "too impatient for hypocrisy," as Norman Mailer famously described it, "in love with honest plunder." And it remains a city of deep contrasts, renowned for its reckless cupidity and monumental corruption. No other metropolis has a stronger civic spirit; its business barons are modern Medici in their public largesse and self-promoting splendor. Chicago's new immigrants, like those who came before them, feel the sting of prejudice, but many of them embrace their new homeland with heart-stabbing fervor. Each spring, restaurant owner Oscar Esche and his family, recently arrived from Thailand, drive four hours to Springfield, Ill., to kneel at the tomb of Abraham Lincoln and "offer thanks for what they have." In its short, explosive history, Chicago has built some of the world's most spectacular engineering and architectural achievements and has been the nurturing ground, as well, for far-reaching experiments in social justice. This tradition of doing things in a big way endures. Millennium Park, the city's new lakefront pleasure ground, with works of eye-popping audacity by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry and London sculptor Anish Kapoor, has reaffirmed Chicago's reputation as a center of architectural experimentation. And the city's current campaign to tear down all of its 82 high-rise public housing projects -- a feat equivalent to dismantling an entire city of 200,000 people -- reprises the civic idealism of the town's master planner, Daniel Burnham, and its patron saint, Jane Addams.

Kotlowitz sees Chicago as "a stew of contradictions," whose greatness has always rested on its uneasy balance between order and energy, restraint and opportunity, cockiness and uncertainty. The city's messy vitality is its defining genius.

Kotlowitz locates the city's "soul" not in the Loop, its thickly concentrated business and government center, but in the modest, self-enclosed neighborhoods that fan out from it, each with its own story and spirit, each energized by crisis and contention. This is not a book about great buildings or the big boys who put them up. Wittingly or not, Kotlowitz takes his inspiration from Aristotle, who wrote that a city is its people. His characters are ordinary folks, a good number of them his friends and first guides to Chicago. One is a barrel-bellied retired steelworker whose life mission is to keep alive the memories of the South Chicago mill hands who shaped his and his declining community's identity; another is a black maintenance worker who doubles as an itinerant artist, "a kind of Diego Rivera of the projects." His name is Milton Reed, and he paints murals of impossibly beautiful tropical beaches on the bleak cinderblock walls of tenement living rooms. Most of his clients are young, abandoned wives, struggling to raise their children. "I'm giving them something that they can never have in their life unless they was rich," he explains. Yet as different as Kotlowitz's characters are, they all see the city "from the vantage point of outsiders, and as a result they have perspective. They see things that you would miss if you were on the inside looking out."

What we lose in breadth in this deliberately incomplete view of the city, we gain wonderfully in detail. Kotlowitz's characters -- many of them throwbacks to the "rogues and roustabouts" who built the original pioneer town -- evoke the character of his adopted city and, by inference, America itself, for he, like others before him, sees Chicago as this country's most representative city.

Finley Peter Dunne, the legendary Chicago reporter and Irish-American humorist, a self-described chronicler of "the inconsequential," once wrote that most histories are like post-mortem examinations. They tell you what a civilization or a city died of. Kotlowitz's two previous books are deeply essential explorations of racial injustice, the insidious cancer of the modern metropolis. In this new book, he gives us what Dunne's famous fictional character, the Irish saloon keeper Martin Dooley, found missing in the handful of histories he happened to read. "I'd like to know," Dooley confides to one of his customers, "what a place lived iv not what it died iv." *

Donald L. Miller is the author of "City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America," which was made into a television documentary series by American Experience.