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ONE, TWO, T’REE: Local History Vs. Bulldozers and Bistros

For whatever reason, the most random, obscure thoughts that have been buried for years – or even decades — sometimes resurface like a forgotten sitcom star who now narrates late-night infomercials. Some of those old memories, such as the late-1970s advertising jingle, “the new Dodge Omni does it all,” have come back to haunt me without warning or provocation.

There is one memory that stands out; one memory that has made me realize that I have been living a lie, sort of.

No, this isn’t the kind of proclamation that would warrant a pseudo-congratulatory phone call from the White House – this lie involves my Mid-Western ethnicity.

Recently, I have recalled sitting in a grade school speech therapy class. If my memory is correct, my crime was the onset of a Chicago dialect. According to the City Elders, such as my grandfather, the number “three” is pronounced “tree,” “south” is “sout,” explaining directions to a gas station or house includes the phrase “over by dare,” etc. These Chicago natives had an influence on my variation of the Queen’s English at an early age. However, some nameless bureaucrat – or teacher – or maybe even a parent or two had different plans for my vocabulary.

If not for this intervention, perhaps I could have thought of myself as the inspiration for the Superfans.

Local dialects, restaurants and food, buildings, and radio stations, among other physical and intellectual landmarks, have been targeted by proponents of gentrification. A summer in Wichita Falls, Texas was a reminder that a deliberate or unintended effort was underway to transform the US into one giant suburb.

While shopping at a Wichita Falls Walgreen’s, an individual from West Virginia said that walking around the non-descript, cookie-cutter pharmacy/mini-mart felt “just like home.” Sadly, I could’ve said the same thing.

That northern-Texas city – at least the parts that I had visited – was different than northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin in the fact that while local restaurants are the dominant eating options up north, the usual chains, plus Whataburger outnumbered the “little guys” in this city about half-way between Dallas and Oklahoma City. The local mall had the same chain stores that now infest probably every shopping mall in the industrialized world.

While the Chicago area has held onto its local identity, despite the efforts of former mayor Richard Daley 2.0 to eradicate it via bulldozers, bistros and generic retail outlets, there are cities – especially with large transient populations – that have succumbed to the seemingly-inevitable. In fact, areas of recent urban sprawl around Denver, Colorado – an area with an unmistakable local personality — now sport strip malls that are identical to examples that surround and occupy Chicago.

Since its start under Ray Croc, the McDonald’s chain has insisted on uniformity among every restaurant. While uniformity helps maintain consistency, the lack of individuality is also a lack of unpredictability – both good and bad. This predictability could lead to contempt – especially if a house or business with a storied local history is bulldozed to build “another CVS”.

In 1990, I had lunch at a Denver-area Woolworth. While eating at a lunch counter in any store is a rarity today – if it is possible at all — it was business as usual only a generation earlier.

In fifty years, will preservationists fight to save an otherwise unloved former Walgreen’s that had replaced a seventy year-old gas station, or century-old general store? While losing a landmark to a fire or tornado is a tragedy, what is the deliberate destruction of an irreplaceable part of history called?

A former drawing teacher of mine once said that architecture is a career field filled with big egos. If one of those architects has an opportunity to replace a Louis Sullivan designed structure with one of his own, would he or she fight for the preservation of the current structure, or would the thought of one of their works “replacing” that of an architectural pioneer stroke that inflated ego?

While buildings and businesses are visual ties to the unique character of a city, town or neighborhood, local radio told the story.

In addition to lost jobs, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has deprived cities and towns of all sizes out of loudspeakers that once broadcast their local personalities to people who not only live there, but to others who are “just passing through.”

The fight to preserve local character may be as old as the earliest restaurant chains or discount stores. As time passes, and large businesses contract or disappear, the few remnants of their existence may blend in to local history – despite the fact that those remnants’ construction came at the expense of a building with greater historic value.

Radio has a slim chance of returning to local ownership. However, a demolished structure is a permanent loss – a loss that no amount of photographs could replicate.

Losing and/or ignoring history – especially about the establishment of the United States – is the act of cheating present and future generations out of an appreciation of what they have and where they are; a big picture isn’t possible without small details.

While money is a popular justification for the eradication of the past, one has to determine the true cost of destroying the irreplaceable before making the commitment to do so.

Appreciation is the enemy of gentrification.

So, this effort to reclaim my Chicago identity has left me with a dilemma: do I try to resume speaking in my native dialect, or do I continue living a watered-down lie?

If I choose to talk like my local predecessors, my new-old accent technically isn’t a fake along the lines of Madonna Ciccone’s currently-running failed attempt at a British accent; an accent that is so weak, it gives credibility to the many accents used by Kevin Costner in his version of Robin Hood. Instead, I’m only picking-up where I had left off.

As for the Dodge jingle, yes, I also remember the music that it was set to. Is there a therapy class that helps oppress memories of old jingles?

Image: http://id2124par.wikispaces.com/Stephany

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Chuck Gruenwald

About the author, Chuck Gruenwald: Born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Cook County, Chuck Gruenwald developed an unfavorable opinion of machine politics quite early in life. In addition to cars, electronics, law enforcement, and politics, Chuck enjoys writing, and is also a horse racing fan. He has recently written op-eds for uncommonshow.com View all articles by Chuck Gruenwald

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