Using "Chicago-style" as a signifier of corruption is nothing new, but does the phrase also insinuate something "un-American" about cities?
If you’re not sure, don’t worry. Plenty of people will be glad to help you fill in the blanks. When Rahm Emanuel was briefly thrown off the ballot for major of Chicago, Salon called him a “victim of Chicago-style politics.” When William Daley was named Obama’s new chief of staff, William’s brother and longtime Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was forced to deny the appointment was proof of a “Chicago mafia” swallowing the White House like a canoli. Even in small towns like Aspen, Chicago is a reference point for local problems, like when a recent letter writer to the Aspen Times wrote, “It all smells of Chicago-style bully tactics. Crush the opposition, send out your cronies to defame them.” Sounds like we’re living in the perfect era for The Chicago Code, which debuts February 7 and features cops battling—you guessed it—corruption.
Ever since he took office, President Obama has been accused of “Chicago-style politics,” giving new life to an old slur. As a Chicago resident myself, I thought it was worth taking a break from my daily routine of shakedowns, kickbacks, and racketeering to see what “Chicago” really means and how it’s been used over time.
Chicago has been defined by its history of corruption. The political dealings are captured in phrases like “Chicago-style shakedown politics” and “Chicago-style backroom politics." These terms blossomed as Obama opponents hammered the President, but many similar comments have been made over the years. The saying “Vote early and vote often” dates from the mid-1800s and didn’t originally apply to Chicago, but it became closely associated with the city. Over the years, there are hundreds of references to Chicago as shady and sketchy, such as a 1994 Philadelphia Inquirer story on Dan Rostenkowski that discussed how his “... flair for Chicago-style back-room dealing and horse trading propelled him to the upper ranks of Congress.”
For a detailed look at those backrooms and horse trades, check out Mike Royko’s Boss, a journalism classic that describes the first Mayor Daley’s regime. In fact, any collection of Royko’s is a loving portrait of everything Chicago is and was, good and bad. In one column, Royko explained “clout,” a term as Chicago-style as they get: “...what ‘clout’ is in Chicago is political influence, as exercised through patronage, fixing, money, favors, and other traditional City Hall favors.”
Besides political shenanigans, the mafia aspect of Chicago also lingers. The word “Chicago-style” has often been linked to “gun battle,” “gangs,” “murders,” and “gangster.” Anyone who calls Obama’s White House crew a Chicago mafia is playing on this history. One of the most memorable movie quotes ever cemented “Chicago” as a synonym for “brutal.” In The Untouchables, Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone summed up Chicago-style like so:
You want to get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way!\n
Crime and corruption aside, “Chicago-style” is a word soaked in deliciousness and culture. For every reference to “Chicago-style mob slayings,” you can find many more on Chicago-style hot dogs (artery-clogging details here) and Chicago-style pizza (deep-dish). “Chicago-style long-form improv” refers to the Harold, a comedy form developed by Del Close and an important part of Chicago’s amazing comedy history at Improv Olympics and Second City. Speaking of improvisation, jazz mavens know “Chicago-style” when they hear it. “Chicago style” is also shorthand for the Chicago Manual of Style, one of those writing guidebooks that helps and tortures writers, just like MLA and APA.
As a word, “Chicago” is getting more play lately in the title of The Chicago Code. With the tagline, “He built on empire of corruption. These cops are going to bring him down,” it’s pretty clear that “the Chicago code” is synonymous with the shady senses of “Chicago-style.” It remains to be seen whether the show will do justice to the city, but it’s 100 percent filmed in Chicago and created by Shawn Ryan, who helmed The Shield—two very promising facts.
While “Chicago-style” is mainly a synonym for “corrupt,” there’s a broader kind of branding going on when Obama gets slapped with the label. Such insults are part of the hokum that says “city” = “un-American.” As Peter Feld put it in Esquire:
Chicago is only the most recent in a decades-long, almost systematic GOP program to debrand cities of their Americanism, one after another, according to the immediate needs of those who need it. New York and sometimes the whole Northeast; San Francisco; Massachusetts and especially Boston; and now Chicago have all gotten the treatment, remade into symbols of the ‘other,’ far from what Sarah Palin might consider the ‘pro-America areas of this great nation.’\n
Playing the cities against the “real Americans” is a tired old game, but if forced to play, I’ll suit up for the city I love and cities in general. If it’s us against them, I’d bet on us. Like it or not, Chicago-style tends to be a winning style.
Illustration by Sara Saedi