Chicago: City on the Make

1951 essay by Nelson Algren

Chicago: City on the Make (1951) is a book-length essay by American writer Nelson Algren.

It's every man for himself in this hired air. / Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.

In this "prose poem" or "lyrical essay", Algren satirizes 120 years of Chicago history as a tangle of hustlers, gangsters, and corrupt politicians, but ultimately declares his love for the city. It remains one of Chicago's most popular local books.


Quoted from the 1987 edition, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-01384-7.

Chapter 1. The hustlers

  • To the east were moving waters, as far as eye could follow. To the west a sea of grass as far as wind might reach. / Waters restlessly, with every motion, slipping out of used colors for new. So that each fresh wind off the lake washed the prairie grasses with used sea-colors: the prairie moved in the light like a secondhand sea. / Till between the waters and the wind came the marked-down derelicts with the dollar signs for eyes. / Looking for any prairie portage at all that hadn't yet built a jail.
    • Opening lines.
  • In the Indian grass the Indians listened: [...] the first sounds of a city that was to live by night after the wilderness had passed. [...] / That was to forge, out of steel and blood-red neon, its own particular wilderness.
    • About the Pottawattomie Indians. (See also the title of his earlier collection: The Neon Wilderness, 1947.)
  • Yankee and voyageur, the Irish and the Dutch, Indian traders and Indian agents, halfbreed and quarterbreed and no breed at all, in the final counting they were all of a single breed. They all had hustler's blood.
  • They'd do anything under the sun except work for a living, and we remember them reverently, with Balaban and Katz, under such subtitles as “Founding Fathers,” “Dauntless Pioneers” or “Far-Visioned Conquerors.” / Meaning merely they were out to make a fast buck off whoever was standing nearest.
  • When Big Bill Thompson put in the fix for Capone he tied the town to the rackets for keeps. / [...] Big Bill greeted his fellow citizens correctly then with a cheery, “Fellow hoodlums!” / The best any mayor can do with the city since is just to keep it in repair.
  • Yet the Do-Gooders still go doggedly forward, making the hustlers struggle for their gold week in and week out, year after year, once or twice a decade tossing an unholy fright into the boys. And since it's a ninth-inning town, the ball game never being over till the last man is out, it remains Jane Addams' town as well as Big Bill's. The ball game isn't over yet. / But it's a rigged ball game.
  • Good times or hard, it's still an infidel's capital six days a week. / [...] Where only yesterday the evening crow crossed only lonely teepee fires, now the slender arc-lamps burn. / To reveal our backstreets to the indifferent stars.
    • Closing lines.

Chapter 2. Are you a Christian?

  • It's still an outlaw's capital – but of an outlawry whose colors, once crimson as the old Sauganash whiskey-dye, have been washed down, by many prairie rains, to the colorless grey of the self-made executive type playing the percentages from the inside. Under the pale fluorescent glow.
    • Opening lines.
  • For always our villains have hearts of gold and all our heroes are slightly tainted.
  • It's every man for himself in this hired air. / Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.
    • (Also quoted as: "Yet once you've [become a] part of this particular patch, you'll never love another.")
  • Jane Addams too knew that Chicago's blood was hustler's blood. Knowing that Chicago [...] forever keeps two faces, one for winners and one for losers; one for hustlers and one for squares. / [...] / For all the poolroom tigers in checkered caps who've never seen a cow, and all the night-club kittens who've never seen a cloud. / [...] For all our white-walled asylums and all our dark-walled courtrooms, overheated district stations and disinfected charity wards, where the sunlight is always soiled and there are no holiday hours. / For hospitals, brothels, prisons and such hells, where patronage comes up softly, like a flower.
  • It isn't hard to love a town for its greater and its lesser towers, its pleasant parks or its flashing ballet. Or for its broad and bending boulevards, where the continuous headlights follow, one dark driver after the next, one swift car after another, all night, all night and all night. But you never truly love it till you can love its alleys too. Where the bright and morning faces of old familiar friends now wear the anxious midnight eyes of strangers a long way from home.
  • The city divided by the river is further divided by racial and lingual differences. [...] / So if you're entirely square yourself, bypass the forest of furnished rooms behind The Loop and stay on the Outer Drive till you swing through Lincoln Park. Then move, with the lake still on your square right hand, into those suburbs where the lawns are always wide, the sky is always smokeless, the trees are forever leafy, the churches are always tidy, gardens are always landscaped, streets are freshly swept, homes are pictures out of Town and Country. And the people are stuffed with kapok.

Chapter 3. The silver-colored yesterday

  • I used to hang open-mouthed around that sort of thing, coming away at last feeling nothing save some sort of city-wide sorrow. Like something had finally gone terribly wrong between the cross atop St. Columbanus and that wrought-iron gate, out of an old wrought-iron war, forever guarding the doubly-dead behind us. / [...] With the city spreading all about. Like some great diseased toadstool under a sheltering, widespread sky.
    • In 1919 (age 10), the year of the Black Sox scandal.
  • However do senators get so close to God? How is it that front-office men never conspire? That matinee idols feel such guilt? Or that winners never pitch in a bill toward the price of their victory?

Chapter 4. Love is for barflies

  • Before you earn the right to rap any sort of joint, you have to love it a little while.
    • Opening line.
  • A town of many angry sayings, some loud and some soft; some out of the corner of the mouth and some straight off the shoulder. / “You make rifles,” the Hoosier fireman told ten thousand workingmen massed at a Socialist picnic here, “and are always at the wrong end of them.” / “Show me an honest man and I'll show you a damned fool,” the president of the Junior Steamfitters' League told the visiting president of the Epworth League. / “I don't believe in Democracy,” the clown from the National Association of Real Estate Boards reassured his fellow clowns. “I think it stinks.” / “I'll take all I can get,” the blind panhandler added, quietly yet distinctly, in the Madison Street halfway house.
  • Yet the city keeps no creed, prefers no particular spire, advances no one color, tolerates all colors: the dark faces and the blue-eyed tribes, the sallow Slavs and the olive Italians. All the creeds that persecution harassed out of Europe find sanctuary on this ground, where no racial prejudice is permitted to stand up. / We insist that it go at a fast crawl, the long way around.
  • You can belong to New Orleans. You can belong to Boston or San Francisco. You might conceivably – however clandestinely – belong to Phildadelphia. But you can't belong to Chicago any more than you can belong to the flying saucer called Los Angeles. For it isn't so much a city as it is a drafty hustler's junction in which to hustle awhile and move on out of the draft. / That's why the boys and girls grow up and get out.
  • Big-shot town, small-shot town, jet-propelled old-fashioned town, by old-world hands with new-world tools built into a place whose heartbeat carries farther than its shout, whose whispering in the night sounds less hollow than its roistering noontime laugh: they have builded a heavy-shouldered laughter here who went to work too young. / And grew up too arrogant, too gullible, too swift to mockery and too slow to love. So careless and so soon careworn, so challenging yet secretly despairing – how can such a cocksure Johnson of a town catch anybody but a barfly's heart?
    • ("heavy-shouldered": see the earlier "City of the Big Shoulders" in Carl Sandburg's 1916 poem "Chicago".)
  • Yet on nights when, under all the arc-lamps, the little men of the rain come running, you'll know at last that, long long ago, something went wrong between St. Columbanus and North Troy Street. And Chicago divided your heart. / Leaving you loving the joint for keeps. / Yet knowing it never can love you.
    • Closing lines.

Chapter 5. Bright faces of tomorrow

  • Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now.
  • Now it's the place where we do as we're told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance to prove ourselves more abject than anyone yet for expenses to Washington and return – You Too Can Learn to Trap Your Man – and applaud the artist, hanging for sale beside his work, with an ancestral glee. And cannot understand how it can be that others are happier than ourselves. And why it seems that no one loves us now as they once did.
  • Out of the Twisted Twenties flowered the promise of Chicago as the homeland and heartland of an American renaissance, a place of poets and sculptors to come, of singers and painters, dancers, actors and actresses of golden decades yet to be. [...] / Thirty years later we stand on the rim of a cultural Sahara with not a camel in sight. The springs dried up and the sands drifted in, and the caravans went the other way.
  • The city today is more a soldier's than an artist's town. [...] You can't make an arsenal of a nation and yet expect its great cities to produce artists. It's in the nature of the overbraided brass to build walls around the minds of men – as it is in the nature of the arts to tear those dark walls down.
  • Wise up, Jim: it's a joint where the bulls and the foxes live well and the lambs wind up head-down from the hook. [...] / A town where the artist of class and the swifter-type thief approach their work with the same lofty hope of slipping a fast one over on everybody and making a fast buck to boot. “If he can get away with it I give the man credit,” is said here of both bad poets and good safe-blowers.
  • Make the Tribune bestseller list and the Friends of American Writers, the Friends of Literature, the Friends of Shakespeare and the Friends of Frank Harris will be tugging at your elbow, tittering down your collar, coyly sneaking an extra olive into your martini or drooling flatly right into your beer with the drollest sort of flattery and the cheapest grade of praise: the grade reserved strictly for proven winners.
  • The very toughest sort of town, they'll tell you – that's what makes it so American. / Yet it isn't any tougher at heart than the U.S.A. is tough at heart, for all her ships at sea. It just acts with the nervous violence of the two-timing bridegroom whose guilt is more than he can bear: the bird who tries to throw his bride off the scent by accusing her of infidelity loudly enough for the neighbors to hear. The guiltier he feels the louder he talks. That's the sort of little loud talker we have in Chicago today. He isn't a tough punk, he's just a scared one. Americans everywhere face gunfire better than guilt.
  • These are the pavement-colored thousands of the great city's nighttime streets, a separate race with no place to go and the whole long night to kill.

Chapter 6. No more giants

  • It used to be a writer's town and it's always been a fighter's town. For writers and fighters and furtive torpedoes, cat-bandits, baggage thieves, hallway head-lockers on the prowl, baby photographers and stylish coneroos, this is the spot that is always most convenient, being so centrally located, for settling ancestral grudges. Whether the power is in a .38, a typewriter ribbon or a pair of six-ouncers, the place has grown great on bone-deep grudges: of writers and fighters and furtive torpedoes.
    • Opening lines.
  • Town of the flagpole sitters, iron city, where everything looks so old yet the people look so young. [...] And of that adolescent who paused in his gum-chewing, upon hearing the sentence of death by electrocution passed upon him, to remember ever so softly: “Knew I'd never get to be twenny-one anyhow.”
    • The novel popularized the phrase, "I knew I'd never make it to twenty-one anyway." (From the 1941 trial of 19-year-old Chicago murderer Bernard Sawicki.)
  • Town of the small, cheerful apartments, the beer in the icebox, the pipes in the rack, the children well behaved and the TV well tuned, the armchairs fatly upholstered and the record albums filed: 33 rpm, 45 rpm, 78 rpm. Where the 33 rpm husband and proud father eats all his vitamin-stuffed dinner cautiously and then streaks to the bar across the street to drink himself senseless among strangers, at 78 rpm, all alone.
  • A Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of burg, where one university's faculty members can protest sincerely against restrictive covenants on the blighted streets bordering their campus – not knowing that the local pay roll draws on real estate covered by covenants like a tent. Let's get back to them saints, Professor. It's awful cold out there.
  • The giants cannot come again; all the bright faces of tomorrow are careworn hustlers' faces. / And the place always gets this look of some careworn hustler's tomorrow by night, as the arch of spring is mounted and May turns into June. It is then that the women come out of the summer hotels to sit one stone step above the pavement, surveying the men curb-sitting one step below it. Between them pass the nobodies from nowhere, the nobodies nobody knows, with faces cut from the same cloth as their caps, and the women whose eyes reflect nothing but the pavement.
  • The nameless, useless nobodies who sleep behind the taverns, who sleep beneath the El. Who sleep in burnt-out busses with the windows freshly curtained; in winterized chicken coops or patched-up truck bodies. The useless, helpless nobodies nobody knows: that go as the snow goes, where the wind blows, there and there and there, down any old cat-and-ashcan alley at all. There, unloved and lost forever, lost and unloved for keeps and a day, [...] there were they chop kindling for heat, cook over coal stoves, still burn kerosene for light, there where they sleep the all-night movies through and wait for rain or peace or snow: there, there beats Chicago's heart. / [...] For the masses who do the city's labor also keep the city's heart.
    • Last line is engraved on the 1998 Nelson Algren Fountain in Chicago's Polish Triangle.

Chapter 7. Nobody knows where O'Connor went

  • An October sort of city even in spring.
    • Opening line. (Also quoted as: "[Chicago is] an October sort of city even in spring.")
  • By days when the wind bangs alley gates ajar and the sun goes by on the wind. By nights when the moon is an only child above the measured thunder of the cars, you may know Chicago's heart at last: / You'll know it's the place built out of Man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself. Out of Man's endless war against himself we build our successes as well as our failures. Making in the city of all cities most like Man himself – loneliest creation of all this very old poor earth.
  • It's hustle and bustle from day to day, chicken one day and feathers the next, and nobody knows where O'Connor went.
  • Yet on nights when the blood-red neon of the tavern legends tether the arc-lamps to all the puddles left from last night's rain, somewhere between the bright carnival of the boulevards and the dark girders of the El, ever so far and ever so faintly between the still grasses and the moving waters, clear as a cat's cry on a midnight wind, the Pottawattomies mourn in the river reeds once more. / The Pottawattomies were much too square. They left nothing behind but their dirty river. / While we shall leave, for remembrance, one rusty iron heart. / The city's rusty heart, that holds both the hustler and the square. / Takes them both and holds them there. / For keeps and a single day.
    • Closing lines.

1961 Afterword

Nelson Algren, "The People of These Parts: A Survey of Modern Mid-American Letters", an essay added from the 2nd edition (1961) onwards.
  • I submit that literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by a conscience in touch with humanity. [...] The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.

1968 Epilogue

Nelson Algren, "Ode to Lower Finksville" (also called "Ode to Lower Slobovia", sic, by Algren), a 29-page poem exclusive to the 3rd edition, Angel Island, 1968. (100 copies special-printed for Algren had its title changed to, "Ode to Kissassville: or, Gone on the Arfy-Darfy".)
  • If my City of the Big Shoulders / Stormy, husky, bawling / Yipping, yapping, yessing, crawling / Would only stop giggling like a farm-boy wearing earrings / On North Wells Street for the first time / Maybe we could find out what kind of joint we're living in.
    • ("City of the Big Shoulders" and "Stormy, husky, bawling" are quoted from Carl Sandburg's 1916 poem "Chicago".)
  • Again that hour when taxies are deadheading home / Before the trolley-buses start to run / And snowdreams in a lace of mist drift down / And paving-flares make shadows on old walls / When from asylum, barrack, cell and cheap hotel / All those whose lives were lived by someone else / Who never had a choice but went on what was left / Return along long walks where thrusts of wintry grass / By force of love have split the measured stone.

Quotes about Chicago: City on the Make

  • Algren's Chicago, a kind of American annex to Dante's inferno, is a nether world peopled by rat-faced hustlers and money-loving demons who crawl in the writer's brilliant, sordid, uncompromising and twisted imagination.
  • What Algren observed fifteen years ago applies today in trump. And in that prose-poem put down some twenty-odd years ago – and what odd years they've been – the ring of a city's awful truth is still heard. Only louder. As with all good poets, the guy is a prophet.
  • The famous “prose poem” Chicago: City on the Make, originally an essay in Holiday magazine, remains a pungent but sentimental overview of the city [...]. Easy to miss within it is Algren's baseline concerns: how can a society nurture literature when that society devotes itself to consumerism and war?
  • In the three years after Golden Arm, Algren wrote two short books, both nonfiction, both brilliant, unique, and unflinching in their critique of the country's changing ethos. The first, Chicago: City on the Make, is a book-length prose poem that relays Chicago's history through the lens of criminality. It may be among the most beautiful and brutally honest love letters ever written.
  • Looking at Chicago after reading Chicago: City on the Make is like looking at sunflowers after seeing the Van Gogh painting – the subject has changed because of the artist's vision.
    • Mary Wisniewski, Algren: A Life, 2016.
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