When established in 1833, the Town of Chicago incorporated fewer than 200 people into its new borders. Within seven years—the city’s first decennial U.S. census—more than 4,000 people lived there; after another 10 almost 30,000 people did.
The city kept growing, both in size and population. In 1880, half a million people lived within its borders. In 1890, that number had doubled. At the turn of the century, 1.6 million people called themselves Chicagoans, and the city was the fifth largest in the world.
Something happened on the land we call Chicago that had happened nowhere else before. In the span of a lifetime, the city went from nascence to dominance—and since then, people have been trying to figure out what that new place is and what it can be.
A new Twitter account does the job rather stirringly. Created by Luke Seemann, a designer and developer at Chicago magazine, @whatschicago retweets tweets that begin with the phrase “Chicago is.” It works better than it sounds like it might: @whatschicago creates a live monitor of popular opinion of the city, an ongoing index of how people define the midwestern metropolis.
Seemann says he was inspired by the Google autocomplete maps that showed what what the site suggests when you type “Why is [state] so…?” (For Chicago’s home, the search engine suggests “Why is Illinois so corrupt?”)
“Mostly it was as an excuse to teach myself how to write a bot, and to give myself something to do on a really cold Sunday afternoon,” says Seemann in an email. “I suspected that it would be easy enough to execute and would yield some fun and interesting results. Happily enough I was right on both counts.”
I like the bot because it fits into a long tradition of countenancing the city—and gives a kind of improvised, unplanned reply. In his 12,000 word lyrical ode to Chicago, City on the Make, Nelson Algren wrote:
Once you've come to be a 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.
@whatschicago, meanwhile, turns up:
Chicago is ugly— gang$ta bri (@brirene_) February 12, 2014
Chicago is by far the realist place I've been— #HoldDat (@HoopFever_5) February 12, 2014
Carl Sandburg, in the opening of his collection Chicago Poems, addresses the city as “tool maker, stacker of wheat,” then admits its flaws:
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
Sandburg’s Chicago was first published in March 1914. Nearly a century later, @whatschicago answers:
Chicago is rough man— Cheap Homie Twan (@Twan624) February 11, 2014
chicago is so corupt people dieing for nothin and they gettin away with it #chiraq— ChrisVit∆lien® (@HumbleBaller28) February 11, 2014
“Chicago”—as a word—can refer to entities other than the city. Many of the tweets @whatchicago finds reflect a different, less municipal kind of institution:
Chicago is the funnest team to watch in the NBA. No one passes the ball better and their defense is soon strong— Mike Mcgowan (@mmcgowan184) February 9, 2014
Chicago is putting that thannnnng on the Lakers 👌💪🏀— Relle☺️✨ (@ShirelleDenise) February 9, 2014
Or a different kind of Chicago:
Chicago is my all time favourite film🙌— bee (@BethGwyther) February 11, 2014
Chicago is a misleading title call it LADY MURDERERS WHO SING— Harry (@hdeee) February 11, 2014
@WhatsChicago recalls @MayorEmanuel, a Twitter account that mocked Rahm Emanuel during his first mayoral run but which also served as a testament to the city. As my colleague Alexis correctly judged nearly three years ago, @MayorEmanuel was “the best fake Twitter account ever.” It was also, like @whatschicago, an attempt at elucidating what made the place special.
Holy fuck, it's motherfucking cold as motherfucking shit outside.— Rahm Emanuel (@MayorEmanuel) December 7, 2010
That winter—2011—wasn’t even close to as cold as this winter has been. And @whatschicago testifies:
Chicago is the only city I know where we have our own words for shit, we should have our own dictionary— T Y L U R (@twerk4tylur) February 9, 2014
Chicago is sooooo cold! Ugh— Zaria (@NaturalSoul_) February 12, 2014
Chicago is a place of magic and mystery. The magic is felt in a winter's chill. The mystery is why the hell am I typing outside.— Dirty Devlin (@dirtydevlin) February 11, 2014
Kanye. Sufjan. Robert Johnson. Or House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, about a young Latino girl growing up in the city’s west side. In that novel—it’s almost more a collection of scenes—the young narrator remembers:
We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can't remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot.
Chicago is a board I been stuck on for too damn long— player 1 (@thedumbfoundead) February 11, 2014
Chicago is gonna be a great start for me!— Carsen Britt (@TheFitGentleman) February 11, 2014
The house on Mango Street is ours, and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom.
Chicago is forever home— ⚡️ Almighty Zeus⚡️ (@jessetheprophet) February 10, 2014
Chicago is my home.— Alpha ⚽ (@AlphaMejia) February 11, 2014
Chicago is callin my name I miss Home 😩— Te'Andre (@Juiceddupp) February 11, 2014
CHICAGO IS MY CAMPUS, BITCH— Rayna McKinley (@RaynaMcKinley) February 9, 2014
Chicago is home— Josh Cooper (@GovernorCooper) February 11, 2014
Chicago is so perfect. pic.twitter.com/L0BJYDpikP— Nereeeita :) (@_nereanereita) February 10, 2014