Chicago gets two of its most famous nicknames from literature. Carl Sandburg deemed it the “city of broad shoulders,” while lifelong New Yorker A.J. Liebling tagged it the “Second City” in a 1952 New Yorker article. It’s a city that has given us or inspired novelists, poets, and journalists like Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Sandra Cisneros, Mike Royko, Margo Jefferson, Aleksandar Hemon, and more than a few other great books. It’s a shining example of a truly great, often terrible American city.
And then there are the Chicago suburbs. Everything around the city, all the way into Indiana and even up to Wisconsin, at some point or another has been labeled “Chicagoland.” These suburbs, more specifically the suburbs to the north of the city, have come to define what we see as the all-American suburbs in popular culture, for better — bucolic, quiet, safe — or worse — insular, bland, blindingly white.
When you think of the suburbs in American literature, your mind probably wanders first to John Cheever or John Updike or Richard Yates or John O’Hara — drunk WASPs along the east coast. The Chicago suburbs tend to enter the conversation when talking of 1980s movies, e.g., Risky Business or John Hughes’s famous “teen trilogy” of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But it’s the books about this collection of towns to the north of Chicago that set the stage for those movies.
“Glencoe is thirty miles up the lake from Chicago,” Rich Cohen writes in his memoir, Lake Effect. “It is a perfect town for a certain kind of dreamy kid, with just enough history to get your arms around.” Once you leave Chicago’s city limits, Glencoe is the fifth suburb you hit on your way north if you’re driving along the lake. Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe; followed by Highland Park, Fort Sheridan, Lake Forest, and then Lake Bluff. Keep driving fifteen minutes north from there, past the Great Lakes Naval Base, and you’ll hit Waukegan, home of Ray Bradbury and the basis for Green Town, where he set Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer. Although it’s a few scant miles north of Lake Bluff, Waukegan traditionally isn’t considered part of the North Shore. Lake Bluff’s median income, like other neighborhoods in the North Shore, is well over $100,000 per household; Waukegan’s is $42,335. Every town on the North Shore, save for Evanston and Wilmette, count over 90% of their populations as white. Near half of Waukegan’s population is Hispanic, with almost 20% African-American, and 30% white. The towns considered part of the North Shore are consistently called “affluent,” while 13.9% of Waukegan residents fall below the poverty line. You’re either on one side of the tracks or the other.
In Bradbury’s autobiographical fiction, the stand-in for early 20th century Waukegan was the all-American town; yet Bradbury didn’t shy away from commenting on the sinister aspects of the suburbs. A serial killer called the Lonely One stalks the residents of Green Town in Dandelion Wine (the chilling chapter was originally published in 1950 as “The Whole Town’s Sleeping”), while Something Wicked This Way Comes can be viewed as an allegory for growing up and realizing the world, the people you know, and the place where you live aren’t as innocent as you believed when you were a child. Bradbury, who was born in 1920 and whose family relocated to Arizona before his tenth birthday, was too young to know that Waukegan’s chief of police at the time was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and probably didn’t notice the town’s population grew nearly 75 percent between 1920 and 1930 as African-Americans moved to the area looking for manufacturing jobs. By the 1960s, those jobs started to dry up and the divisions between black and white, rich and poor became even larger — school and housing segregation pushed people into certain parts of town (the rich, mostly white citizens along the lake to the north; the poorer, black and Puerto Rican communities to the south). The “racial powder keg” exploded in the Waukegan riot of 1966. The things people tried to hide underneath Green Town finally came to the surface.
Hog Barbecuer for the World,
School Segregator. Mower of Lawns,
Player with Golf Clubs and the Nation’s Wife Swapper;
Bigoted, snobbish, flaunting.
Suburb of the White Collars…
So wrote “Carl Sandbag” in his poem, “Chicago Suburb” for Mad magazine in 1974. Around the time of the publication of the satirical poem, Dave Eggers was growing up Lake Forest. He’d famously go on to write about the experience of living in the suburb in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. According to Eggers, his family was “white-trashy” for the town; he was surprised, during an audition interview for MTV’s The Real World, that anybody had heard of it. “I didn’t know any rich people,” Eggers claims in his book.
“Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter a few decades before the Eggers would move there. Lake Forest, just like the rest of the area to the north of the city, slowly started to grow in the years after the Civil War. German farmers settled what would become Wilmette. Methodist ministers would buy the land that would become Lake Bluff in 1875. 24 years earlier in 1851, another group of Methodists bought land to the north and founded Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute. As an alternative, in 1857, rich Presbyterians came together for the founding of Lake Forest College. Soon enough, with the post-Civil War boom we today call the Gilded Age, secluded Lake Forest became a playground for the rich who could do their business in the city, but needed an escape. It was just the kind of place that Fitzgerald, who had fallen for Ginevra King, one of the more prominent young women from the Chicagoland area in the days leading up to the First World War, could obsess over.
A lesser-known author looked at the darker side of the supposedly tranquil Chicago suburbs. Judith Guest’s 1976 novel Ordinary People (the source text for the film directed by Robert Redford) serves as a perfect regional depiction of the things happening behind the closed doors of nice houses (think Updike’s Couples and Judy Blume’s “adult” novel, Wifey), Later, writers like Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides), A.M. Homes (Music for Torching), and Karolina Waclawiak (The Invaders) would explore real suburban doom and gloom. Guest laid the groundwork for these later experiments.
Ordinary People describes a father who is trying to keep it all together after the death of his oldest son in a boating accident and the attempted suicide of his younger son. His suburban idyll was disrupted by “an unexpected July storm on Lake Michigan,” she writes:
He had left off being a perfectionist then, when he discovered that not promptly kept appointments, not a house circumspectly kept clean, not membership in Onwentsia, or the Lake Forest Golf and Country Club, or the Lawyer’s Club, not power, or knowledge, or goodness–not anything– cleared you through the terrifying office of chance; that it is chance and not perfection that rules the world.
Karen Hollander, the narrator in Kurt Anderson’s True Believers, is from Wilmette. In one passage, she talks of a place along the shore of the lake known as No Man’s Land, Illinois. An actual unincorporated area that “was the most urban, foreign-seeming place we could reach easily by bike,” for a kid in the early sixties. Anderson, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, says he knew of the city because of its high school, New Trier, which his own suburban high school emulated. While the story eventually moves on from Wilmette, Anderson perfectly captures the bored kids in the suburbs looking for things to entertain them, making their own fun. Running around during the Cold War years, pretending they’re spies and secret agents along the leafy streets of their hometown, getting their thrills from the part of town the narrator describes as the “sketchier” side of her little corner of the world — the underdeveloped area near the water. This part of Karen’s town is where you’ll find “the foundations of a couple of failed private clubs and casinos from the Depression and the charred remains of a Jazz Age roadhouse” dotting the landscape — cast away. Out of sight, out of mind is a major part of the suburban phenomenon. The suburbs were built on the idea of keeping people out, specifically poor, African-American, Jewish, and immigrant communities.
White flight away from cities is largely considered a post-war phenomenon, but the area where Anderson set his novel was shaping itself into an exclusive world for white and rich citizens even before the 20th century. Kenilworth’s history is one of the best examples of this. Founded by businessman Joseph Sears in 1889, the village that today is considered by Forbes the fourth most affluent place to live in America, has an ordinance stating, “Large lots, high standards of construction, no alleys, and sales to Caucasians only.” As of the 2010 census, there are only seven black residents living among Kenilworth’s 2,153 residents. Jews weren’t welcome either. In 1959, according to Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism, the Anti-Defamation League reported, “The North Shore suburbs…are almost completely closed to Jews,” and that “Kenilworth’s hostility is so well known that the community is bypassed by real estate agents when serving prospective Jewish purchasers.” Jews weren’t admitted into the town until the 1970s.
There were alternatives, however. The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg’s bestselling 2013 family epic, takes place a little off the lake, away from the WASPs of Guest and Anderson’s novels, and peers into the life and times of Edie Middlestein. Her family made the move from the city to the suburbs sometime during the same post-war boom that saw countless American families leave behind the cramped apartments of the cities for the space, lawns, and backyards of the burbs. Attenberg’s novel struck a chord with me instantly as a native of the suburb where Edie’s family settled, Skokie, Illinois. Located just over the northwest shoulder of Chicago, Skokie isn’t a North Shore community. It rubs up against Evanston to the east and Wilmette to the north. Skokie, during the second-half of the 20th century, was known as “The World’s Largest Village.” A place that welcomed a large Jewish population who made it out of Europe alive after the Second World War, as well as a number of other immigrant and ethnic communities, including a 25.3 percent of its present-day population made up of people of Asian heritage according to the most recent census. A diverse city, especially compared to its neighbors to the east that stretch towards the north, Attenberg paints a picture of the promises the suburbs held, and continue to hold, to the people that move there, from the wealthy and established to immigrants and their American-born children. Early on in the book we see Edie’s family, a decade into their own suburban experience. There are some very minor cracks that, over time, grow into larger ones as Edie’s life progresses.
It’s film that has helped fix the area in the minds of most people as the quintessential suburbs. From Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and the Ordinary People adaptation two years later, both set in Lake Forest, to the boring house in Highland Park that Tom Cruise’s teenage character turns into a brothel in Risky Business, and John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, movies have helped solidify the Chicago suburbs as the American suburbs. Those films gave a very visual idea of what the suburbs are supposed to look like, the “rows of new “ranch-style houses either identical in design or with minor variations built into a basic plan, winding streets, neat lawns, two-car garages, infant trees, and bicycles and tricycles lining the sidewalks,” as sociologist Bennett Berger observed in “The Myth of Suburbia” for the Journal of Social Issues. A few decades after the post-war buildup of the suburbs, when living outside of cities had become more commonplace in America, the promises that suburbia held, the new way of living, a safer and more peaceful place for the “upwardly mobile” and “well educated” who “have a promising place in some organizational hierarchy,” as Bennett pointed out in the 1961 article, were starting to unravel. Books like Ordinary People and The Middlesteins show this; films often did not. In the cinematic version of the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, there are problems: teens can’t get the boy or girl they like to notice them, bullies bully, college looms on the horizon, parents seem totally oblivious, bills have to get paid, but all in all nothing too bad. Movies are there to sell fantasy, that everything is ultimately fine in the suburbs; books tell a different story. They tell you that marriages fall apart and habits consume people (The Middlesteins), security is just a myth (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), and that there’s a whole fascinating world beyond the city limits for kids just willing to go out on a limb and explore it (Lake Effect). The suburbs are an idea that you have to be willing to buy into. Once cracks start showing, you’re supposed to do your best to look away.
There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life, “You’ve reached your top and you just can’t get any higher,” as Ray Davies of The Kinks sings in “Shangri-La,” a song about his own country’s middle class in the years after the war. But as Cohen writes in Lake Effect, “What mattered to our parents could never matter to us. What mattered to us — a sense of style, of experience-collecting — seemed so simple and pure we were afraid to talk about it.” Things change; the facade slowly strips away and unveils the truth that no matter how well-kept or filled with smiling people, money, and good schools they may be, there’s something sinister about the suburbs.