Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Father Of Chicago

Bust of DuSable, Chicago's founding father, at Pioneer Court.
There's a common tactic of the travel business that promises to show tourists and curiosity seekers the "hidden" or "forgotten" or "insider's" side of a certain city or neighborhood--the draw being that everyone likes to feel they can be trusted with a secret and everyone wants to feel like they fit in no matter where they go. So there are travel articles galore divulging the top 10 best-kept travel secrets for visitors to Seattle or Paris or Tokyo, and innumerable travel guides offering a "local's guide to" anywhere on earth you find locals (which means everywhere). Sometimes the places revealed are the real deal--places that really are out of the way or little-known, sights that offer genuinely unique insight into the area or a truly authentic local-like experience. Sometimes they're just weird or even contrived--like those quirky little roadside attractions or pop-up museums devoted to some local oddball's obsession with Tupperware or porcelain frog figurines. (Don't get me wrong...I love those kind of places too.)

The "forgotten history" hook of these sort of tours and advertising is sound though, because every place does have a forgotten or hidden history to it. But the most overlooked histories have less to do with quirk or sights off the beaten path and more to do with the people and individuals whose accomplishments and contributions tend to be pushed aside or even suppressed in favor of more powerful groups in a society. Women, people of color, gays, the local poor or working class, disabled citizens--all these groups have members who've made important contributions to world and local histories alike, but often you won't hear that in "the official guide to" anywhere or even the so-called local's guides. One example of this from my own hometown, Chicago, is the story of the city's founding father, a man named Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable.

Looking north across the Chicago River, Tribune building is on the right. This is where DuSable's homestead was from the 1780s to the early 1800s.
While the story of DuSable as the first non-Native American settler of one of America's largest and greatest cities has never really been much of a secret in Chicago, it took a long while for DuSable's name to get the front and center recognition it deserved. Though Chicago was incorporated as a city in 1837, it took nearly a hundred years before anything in town was named after the guy (the first being a high school on the south side in 1934), and there was another decades-long dry spell before any more naming honors occurred. That's unusual in a city that's been name-dropping its earliest settlers, traders, and explorers all up and down town from the get-go. Long before DuSable got any recognition, Chicago and the state of Illinois had streets, bridges, parks, harbors, schools, and everything else you can think of sporting names like Lasalle, Marquette, Joliet, Kinzie, Caldwell, Wilmette (Ouilmette), Hubbard, Wolcott--all men who explored or settled in the region well before its incorporation and all men who got their local credit by 1900 if not long before then.

So if DuSable was the guy who actually started it all, who first settled in the area for more than just a few weeks or months or a couple years at most (as did the French and French-Canadian explorers who first came to the region in the 1600s) and built the future city's first substantial homestead and business, what took so long for Chicago to honor him, to stamp his name around town?

DuSable Bridge (aka Michigan Ave. Bridge), downtown Chicago. The bridge essentially runs from original site of Fort Dearborn on the south bank to original site of DuSable's home on the north bank.
It's probably as simple as the fact that DuSable was black. Which also answers why no one ever speaks of Chicago's first pioneer in the usual terms for American frontier settlement: "first European settler" or "first white settler." Because Chicago wasn't founded by a white man or a European family. It was founded by a black man from Haiti with a Potawatomi wife.

Like the life histories of a lot of American pioneers, DuSable's comes with many gaps in the record. Here's what we seem to know about him. He was born in Saint-Marc in Haiti around 1745 or 1750 to a white Frenchman and a black Caribbean woman of African descent. He was free born and made his way to North America and the Great Lakes region by the 1770s. He was married to Kittihawa (also known as Catherine), the daughter of a Potawatomi chief, by 1778, when their marriage was registered in the Catholic Church after a ceremony performed by a priest at Cahokia, a town on the Mississippi River in southern Illinois that has an ancient history as a once-immense Native American settlement. A tribal marriage ceremony most likely predated the 1778 Catholic one, but by how much time isn't known. DuSable and Kittihawa had two children, a son and a daughter.

DuSable and his family may have been living and trading in the area that would become Chicago as early as this time, while some biographies place him at present-day Peoria, but most biographies claim he was living in Indiana by the late 1770s, at present-day Michigan City (just south of the Michigan border and just northeast of the Indiana Dunes). In 1779, during the American Revolution, he was arrested by British forces for suspicion of sympathizing with the Americans and was detained at Fort Mackinac in Michigan. From 1780 to 1783 or 1784 he managed for his captors a trading post on the Pine River near present-day St. Clair, Michigan.

After the Revolution, DuSable made his way (back?) to the Chicago area. By 1788 he was definitely settled there, with a homestead and a thriving trading post located in what is now downtown Chicago, on the north side of the Chicago River, right by the Tribune Tower and the start of Michigan Avenue's "Magnificent Mile." He lived and traded there until 1800, when he sold his property to a man named Jean Lalime, a trade agent with ties to another trader named John Kinzie. Kinzie eventually took over DuSable's former property, and within a few years the U.S. government would build a fort right across the river from the old DuSable homestead. Fort Dearborn, as it was called, would draw more settlers to the area, despite the instability at the time caused by volatile relations between the remaining Indian tribes in the region and the increasing number of settlers from French Canada, Europe, and the American East Coast. Fort Dearborn was decommissioned in 1837, the same year Chicago became an official city. The city would eventually plant markers at the sites of the fort and the "Kinzie House" (sometimes even ludicrously referred to as the "Kinzie Mansion")--never mind that the Kinzie house started out as the DuSable homestead.

Sculpture on the southwest bridgehouse at Michigan Avenue and Upper Wacker depicting Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812. This bridgehouse is at the approximate site of Fort Dearborn, on the south bank of the Chicago River.
Marking site of Fort Dearborn on south riverbank sidewalks.
After selling off his home and land in Chicago, DuSable moved to St. Louis, where he stayed the rest of his life. He died in August 1818. While the earlier histories of Chicago never entirely erased or forgot about DuSable, little was made of his accomplishment, of his existence and thriving business before any white settlement in the area, for a long time. Instead, the title of founding father of Chicago was usually granted to John Kinzie, in spite of the fact that DuSable predated Kinzie by at least a decade. Part of this is owing to a history of early Chicago written by Kinzie's own daughter-in-law, Juliette Kinzie, who trumped up her husband's family's importance in the settlement of Chicago.

John Kinzie's grave in Graceland Cemetery. Originally buried at Fort Dearborn, Kinzie's remains were moved to the City Cemetery on the north side, then again to the cemetery grounds at what is now Lincoln Park, before finally finding their permanent resting place (one hopes) at Graceland. His grave is the oldest in Graceland Cemetery.
Crediting John Kinzie with Chicago's founding not only whitewashes some of Kinzie's less savory qualities and behavior (the most notorious is his murder in 1812 of Jean Lalime, the same guy who sold him DuSable's property), it also whitewashes Chicago's early complexity and multiracial/multicultural beginnings, undermining not only DuSable and Kittihawa but the various French and French-Canadian explorers, Jesuits, trappers, and traders who came through the area and often intermixed with the Native Americans to the extent of creating mixed-race children, marriages, and relationships. (Indeed, another of Chicago's earliest residents, Billy Caldwell, was biracial, the son of a Potawatomi woman and a British officer. His Indian name was Sauganash, now the name of a neighborhood in Chicago where Caldwell owned land.) Chicago was diverse from its earliest formation. It remains a city of tremendous ethnic diversity to this day, as well as a city notable for producing powerful and globally influential black leaders in business, politics, and the arts. It's also a city consistently troubled by institutional racism and segregation--negative counter-influences and systems of erasure apparently as old as the days of the Kinzies.

The reclamation of Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable as Chicago's true founding father began in the 1930s, when black Chicagoans campaigned for DuSable to be recognized in some way at the city's second World's Fair, which indeed featured a replica of DuSable's cabin. (The replica was actually much smaller than the real thing--maybe only a 3rd of the size of DuSable's actual home.) A school on the south side eventually graced DuSable's name, but it wasn't until the 1960s when another reclamation movement made strides. In 1963 Mayor Daley proclaimed the 3rd week in August DuSable Week. Within a decade, a museum in Washington Park devoted to African American history renamed itself the DuSable Museum. More recently, there are proposals of a DuSable Park, the Michigan Avenue bridge across the Chicago River has been renamed after DuSable, and a bust of his imagined likeness stands at Pioneer Court, a plaza on the north bank of the river near the Tribune building, where DuSable's old home used to be.

Bust and plaque commemorating Jean-Baptiste DuSable at site of his home.
The bridge with two names--Michigan and DuSable.

Currently we're at a time when a black man is employed in the highest office in the U.S. and holds the most powerful position on the planet. We're also at a time when there seems to be a systems-wide campaign of aggression against so many black citizens in the U.S. (Personally I don't think it's coincidence--I think the whites in this country who are attacking ordinary black citizens with such persistence lately are really going after President Obama by proxy, punishment for the "crime" of gaining power, rising above racism, and subverting white supremacy.) In the midst of so much accomplishment and oppression, the celebration of one American city's early black resident and mixed-race pioneers with a few prominently placed plaques and street signs might seem frivolous or small compensation. To some degree it is small compensation--but it's also visible compensation, a sure way of making the forgotten and the suppressed and the erased finally visible and known and appreciated. If you want a local's guide to Chicago, you should start with Chicago's first local--Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Rivering

Chicago River, main stem (downtown), looking west
Chicago River, looking west from Michigan Avenue (DuSable) bridge
The past few months I've been working in a museum on the Chicago Riverwalk. The Riverwalk is a partly new addition to downtown Chicago. The city has been chipping away at it since 2001 or so, gradually building a pathway along the main stem of the Chicago River from the mouth at Lake Michigan to (eventually) Lake Street, where the main stem breaks off into two branches, one heading north and one south. As of this summer, the Riverwalk extends as far west as Lasalle Street and has been the focus of a lot of official city fanfare, including an opening weekend of new Riverwalk businesses such as cafes and boat rental docks, free concerts and family day activities, and visits by that Rahm guy.

The McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum and Michigan Ave. bridge
Chicago River, at night looking east towards Clark Ave. bridge, with new River Theater at right
Wendella water taxi at River Theater stop on the Chicago Riverwalk
Kayakers in the river, Marina City towers at left, State St. bridge at right
The museum I work in is actually a history museum devoted to educating visitors about the Chicago River and is run by an environmental group called Friends of the Chicago River. Friends of the Chicago River has been working to improve the health of the river and raise awareness of this often overlooked "other coastline" of Chicago since 1979. The museum, called the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, is inside an old bridgehouse connected to the Michigan Avenue bridge. At the museum, we give tours about the history of the Chicago River and the Michigan Avenue bridge, and we offer visitors a chance to see the underworkings of the bridge, such as its huge gears, and learn how the river shaped Chicago and vice versa and why the river has proved to be such an important factor in Chicago's growth and greatness.

Ft. Dearborn tour boat passing under State St. bridge, Blackhawks hockey banner in background
On the south branch of the river, looking at downtown and Sears Tower
Ping Tom Park in Chinatown on the south branch of the Chicago River. See the geese?
At the confluence. Chicago River where it branches south, with view of Merchandise Mart.
View of the river from the Brown Line el train, just after Merchandise Mart stop
Working at the museum has taught me so much about my home city that I never even knew or just took for granted. As well as learning more about the rich and complex history of the Chicago area, I've learned more about the hidden or forgotten sides of the city, everything from Chicago infrastructure to the Chicago River's surprisingly diverse and resilient wildlife (with much thanks to the efforts of Friends of the Chicago River and its dedicated volunteers). And the best thing is that nearly every day I get to start and end my work day by a walk along this waterway and track its changing moods from month to month, day to day, hour to hour. I've seen the river pummeled with fierce rain, gusted by strong winds, thronged with tour boats and kayakers, peppered with geese and ducks and gulls (and yes, the occasional expired fish), and flooded with sunshine and with rain too. In seasons past I've seen it frosted and frozen. I've seen it dyed green, even though on sunny days it's really already green enough, downtown near the mouth of the river where the lake water comes in. On some sad days I've seen it littered with trash, the work of thoughtless hands and thoughtless minds. I've seen it looking gloomy on overcast days. I've seen it rushing along faster than commuters at the start and end of their work week. I've seen it taking its time, as old rivers are known to do.

Wake waves. On the south branch.
Riverside graffiti, on the south branch.
The Chicago River in winter. South branch between Washington and Madison streets.
Same section as in pic above, but in the fall.
Green, gray, and gold. Below the Franklin St. bridge.
Urban kayakers downtown.
Yellow water taxi, pink flowers, green wall, red bridge (State Street).
Looking east close to the mouth of the river, just before Lake Shore Drive bridge.
Since I'm working on the river (so to speak) this year, I decided to put up a couple posts related to the river and downtown history this summer. It surprised me when I realized I've never posted specifically about the Chicago River here before (apart from this post about a disaster on the river 100 years ago and another about the Clark Street bridge)--though I do have a few posts already about Chicago's more attention-getting coastline and waterway, Lake Michigan. What took me so long? The pictures in this post are mostly from the past few months, with a few oldies from the last 6 or 7 years thrown in. They are nearly all pics of the main stem and south branch of the Chicago River. There is far more to the river than what you see here--a whole other branch heading north, as well as dozens of smaller forks and stems all over the city and its suburbs. If you'd like to learn more about the Chicago River and how important a waterway it's been and still is, stop by the museum sometime or spend an afternoon canoeing one of the river's quieter avenues or helping to clean up one of its banks and forests. In the meantime, enjoy the pics.

Denise Gilmore-McPherson of DGM Photography snapping shots of Ping Tom Park on the south branch.
Approaching Amtrak railroad bridge on south branch (Canal St.)
Awesome old Amtrak vertical lift railroad bridge on the south branch of the river.
The River Theater (between Lasalle and Clark, looking east) downtown at night.
Fall sunset on the river, between Clark and Lasalle streets, looking west.
Dearborn St. bridge, with Clark St. bridge being raised beyond.
The river at Michigan Ave. No, not dyed green here--just mostly lake water at this point (close to the mouth) reflecting sunny blue sky.
More green. Plants on the Riverwalk.
Kayak near Michigan Ave.
Rainbow of kayaks, downtown, main stem.
On the banks, at Urban Kayaks.
River Theater, with water taxi, Marina City, and Clark St. bridge in background.
At the confluence where the river branches north, with Kinzie St. railroad bridge saluting.

Bridges, barges, tour boats, and skyscrapers. Busy day downtown on the river.
A more relaxing scene, east of Michigan Ave., by Chicago's First Lady docks.
Beautiful Chicago. The Michigan Ave. (DuSable) bridge, the Wrigley Building (left) and the Tribune Tower (right), start of the Magnificent Mile.
Michigan Ave. (DuSable) bridge, going up.
Me (at right) and museum friends Joanne and Corey, on a Wendella river boat, with Chicago flag waving and Lake Shore Drive bridge and mouth of the river in background.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Disorderly Poems

One for the poetry fiends...The summer 2015 issue of The Writing Disorder went live today and features three new poems of mine. You can check out the whole issue here and my poems here. The issue offers visual art as well as written works, and I recommend checking out this month's art features by James Lipnickas and Daniele Serra--they are both really great.

My poems in this issue are titled "Bioluminescent Bay," "Aisling," and "Coconut." I have to thank The Writing Disorder's ed-in-chief, C.E. Lukather, and poetry editor, Juliana Woodhead, for accepting and publishing these poems and Woodhead in particular for her kind comments upon acceptance. I'm not sure if it's gauche for me to share her comments here, but since no editor has ever bothered to add such nice things at length about my work before--and for all I know no editor ever will again--I decided to include Woodhead's comments in this post. Take your validation whenever and wherever you can get it--that's my motto. Woodhead said my poems "have a wonderful air of surrealism (or perhaps magic realism is more accurate) imparting a sense of the extraordinary strangeness of the ordinary - each of the poems like a meditation on the small wonders of the world."

So what are you waiting for? Go read 'em!

For the curious, these poems were inspired by a blend of the real and the imaginary, in the world and in my personal experience. "Bioluminescent Bay" was written about a real place, a real series of glowing bays, in Puerto Rico, one of which I visited earlier this year. But I actually wrote the poem before visiting one of the bays, as an experiment to see how accurately and imaginatively I could describe a real place before setting eyes on it. After visiting one of the bioluminescent bays (I hit the one in Fajardo, on a nighttime kayaking trip), I revisited the poem to see whether what I imagined had any basis in reality--or maybe whether what I experienced in real life had any basis in the imagination. All I can say is, kayaking the real bioluminescent bay at night with a bunch of strangers is as surreal and lovely and absurd an experience as you're likely to get outside of a dream or a poem.

That's me on the lower left, looking a bit stunned not to mention overexposed, while kayaking in the bioluminescent lagoon at Fajardo in Puerto Rico. The other ladies in this pic were all from the U.S. as well, but I can't remember which states and I never even got any of their names. I suppose we are all just little lights banging around the universe, no different than the dinoflagellates in the bay anyway.
"Aisling," however, is pure dream. The poem is based on a very vivid dream I had not long ago that seemed straight out of an old Irish epic like The Cattle Raid of Cooley but with a setting in the dunelands along Lake Michigan close to where I'm from. So there's the imaginative and the real coming together again, I guess. I remember waking up feeling like everything about the dream had been both very foreign and very familiar to me. Aisling is an Irish word that means vision or dream, and is also the name of an old poetic form in Irish literature that usually featured the poet/speaker recounting a visionary encounter with a very old or a very beautiful and young woman who was understood to represent Ireland. For my poem, the title refers to the simple "dream" definition of the word.

"Coconut" is an attempt to marry emotion with a scent. Maybe all I got out of that coupling was another dream of a scene.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy the latest poems.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Wow

Another update post. Got word a couple days ago that three of my poems will be published at The Writing Disorder this summer. This acceptance was a real surprise to me, especially coming so soon after another accepted piece at Drunk Monkeys. It's rare to get two acceptances so close to each other--instead it's usually one acceptance for 80 rejections or some discouraging math like that. The poetry editor at The Writing Disorder even added some really nice comments along with the acceptance note. Maybe I'll share them next time.

I will post another update when The Writing Disorder's summer issue is up.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Apple Heart Monkeys Story

Hooray!! A new story of mine was published today at Drunk Monkeys lit journal and film blog. My story is called "The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care." It's fiction, rather short, and something of a fairy tale. You can read it here.

This is my first ever published piece of fiction (not counting some stuff when I was back in high school over 20 years ago). I'm really happy it found a home at Drunk Monkeys, and I'm thankful to Matthew Guerruckey and Tegan Elizabeth, the ed-in-chief and fiction editor, for accepting it. I also love the art chosen to go with my story, so whomever at DM picked that out, thank you too!

If you've never read any of the pieces at Drunk Monkeys, treat yourself and check out the stories, poems, and reviews there. There's a lot of good work on the site, and I'm glad to be a part of it now.

Since my story has an apple theme to it, I'm sharing the pic below to go with this post. It's my mom, me, and my sister Arla at an apple orchard in the early 70s. I'm the bald one in the middle. Some things never change. ;-)


Friday, May 22, 2015

Update

I made this blog private for awhile, and I most likely will again soon. I started a new job recently as well as a new big project, and I realized this blog has been dividing my energy and focus at a time when I really need to be conserving them. I also was feeling a bit uncomfortable with some of the viewership of this blog. So I made it private and also "unpublished" a number of posts, new and old, that I felt either weren't worthwhile or were outdated in certain information.

For now though, I'm re-opening the blog just to post a couple updates. I finally broke my long rejection streak that began last September and got an acceptance on one of my pieces recently. It's a short story, fiction, that will appear at Drunk Monkeys at the start of June. I'm thrilled. Drunk Monkeys is a cool digital literary journal and film blog helmed by Matthew Guerruckey. It features a  truly interesting and eclectic range of articles, stories, poems, reviews, and such, and I think the story I wrote found a perfect home for itself there.

I'll put up another post when the story is published. In the meantime, here's some photos of some buffalo running across the Illinois prairie, at the Nachusa Grasslands run by the Nature Conservancy. Yes, real wild buffalo, or bison. Click on the pics to see them a bit bigger and closer. Not that this has anything to do with my upcoming story, but this gives you an idea of some of what I've been doing with myself since the blog has been shut down: watching the buffalo roam, basically.

Here they come! No, I couldn't get any closer. They're wild animals, not pets.
Running wild buffalo, at Nachusa Grasslands, Illinois.