“You’re from Chicago? Nice to meet you. Da Bears! Pretty dangerous there, huh? I hear you should stay away from the South Side. The food is good though, right? I’ll bet you love deep dish pizza and hot dogs.”
If you’ve ever gone out of town and introduced yourself as a Chicagoan, you’ve heard all the stereotypes. Like most stereotypes, if they were ever true, they haven’t been true for decades. Here, then, is a list of the biggest misconceptions the rest of the world has about Chicago—and how Chicagoans can answer them.
We eat deep dish pizza: When Jay Leno broadcast a week of the Tonight Show from Chicago in the 1990s, one of his gags was a hotel that left a deep dish pizza on the pillow instead of a mint. Yes, deep-dish pizza was invented in Chicago, allegedly at Pizzeria Uno, which opened on the Near North Side in 1943. And Chicago is still the capital of deep-dish, the staple offering not only of Uno, but of Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, and Gino’s East, to name four tourist trap restaurants.
Most Chicagoans prefer thin crust, tavern-style pizza, which has its own Chicago origin story: here pizza was served mostly in taverns, often as an enticement to drink alcohol. Since taverns didn’t have silverware or plates, the owners sliced the pizza into little squares, which could be set on napkins. Chicago tavern owners hand-rolled their dough, instead of hand-tossing it, eventually using mechanical sheeters, which produced an even thinner crust.
We’re Hog Butcher to the World: The Union Stockyards, which inspired that line in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago,” closed in 1971. Their alleged legacy was a culinary culture obsessed with hot dogs (without ketchup!), Italian beef sandwiches, and “Polish sahhhsage,” as the Superfans called it. In 2003, The Onion reported that “[a] deadly meatwave swept through the Chicago area over the weekend, leaving an estimated 40 residents dead of steaks, chops, ribs, bacon, and various other forms of meat exhaustion.”
Chicagoans are not the nation’s leading hot dog consumers, though. According to 24/7 Wall Street, “Chicago likes to call itself the hot dog capital of the world, but in fact Los Angeles consumes more wieners than any other city—about 31 million pounds annually—beating out second and third place New York and Philadelphia. Chicago is number five on the list.”
The South Side of Chicago Is the Baddest Part of Town: In his song “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” Jim Croce placed his street hustler on the South Side. Croce was from Philly, so what did he know? West Garfield Park, on the West Side, often holds the title of Chicago’s most violent neighborhood. A mural painted on the side of a building at Madison and Kostner, shortly after the George Floyd murder, lists statistics that “reflect the neglect and inequity that this community has faced for years”:
Life Expectancy: 69 years
Near North Side: 82 years
Median Household Income: $24,591
High School Graduation: 72%
Oak Park: 96%
Households in Poverty: 42%
Median Home Value: $164,500
Lincoln Park: $593,000
Al Capone Runs This Joint: A century after the Roaring ’20s, few Americans associate Chicago with rumrunning gangsters wearing pinstriped suits and carrying “Chicago typewriters,” a.k.a. Tommy guns, in violin cases. That image was still very much alive in the 1950s and ’60s. In Some Like it Hot, Chicago musicians Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dressed up as women to go undercover after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Cartoon blowhard Commander McBragg boasted that he’d “cleaned out the Chicago racketeers,” who were led by “Al Baloney.”
Geraldo Rivera helped kill the stereotype in 1987, when he came here to open Al Capone’s vault, and found a few broken bottles. It’s still alive among foreigners, though. Years ago, I met a Latvian sailor in port here. He pointed at the four-star flag on a police car.
“Flag for Illinois?” he asked.
“Chee-cago,” he cried. “Gangster movie. Brother 2.”
He was referencing a Russian-made gangster flick that is set here and was released in 2000, yet still includes a character who dresses like Capone. Then he cocked his fingers and made machine-gun noises with his lips, pretending to spray the street. That was international sign language for Chicago.
Lake Michigan is a pond: To most Americans, the word “lake” suggests a small body of water surrounded by cottages and plied by pontoon boats. Hence the shock of East Coasters and West Coasters when they first encounter a Great Lake. The most common response: “Wow! You can’t even see across it!” The first Frenchmen to see the Lakes had the same reaction, calling them “seas of sweet water,” surprised they could drink out of what they first assumed was the Pacific Ocean.
We Talk Wit Dat Sooperfans Accent: Remember when the Geico gecko came to Chicago? He stood under the ‘L’ on Wabash Street, and announced, “I’ve been practicing how to talk like a true Chicagoan: ‘Switchin’ ta Geico could save ya hunnerds o’ dahhlers on car insurance. Da Bears!’” Do people talk like that in Chicago? A few older white ethnics in outlying residential neighborhoods still do. I was watching a Bears game at a bar in Beverly when someone shouted, “Hey, what are da squares for dis quarter?” The answer: “Zero and chree.” White ethnics no longer dominate Chicago, politically or culturally, and younger generations have been washing the Classic Chicago Accent out of their mouths—ironically, say linguists, because they don’t want to sound like a Saturday Night Live parody of a Chicagoan.
We Drink Old Style: As actor, ex-cop and professional Chicagoan Dennis Farina declared in a series of 1990s Old Style ads, “it’s ours and no one else can have it.” No one else wanted it. Every city has its own hometown watery lager. Old Style was Chicago’s, sold at Wrigley Field and advertised on hundreds of tavern signs.
Not even Chicagoans want it anymore. According to Chicago beer historian Liz Garibay, “Old Style signs are a relic of 1970s industry. They hearken back to a time when neighborhood bars like Frank & Mary’s opened at 7 a.m. to serve drinks to factory workers coming off overnight shifts.” The most popular beer in Chicago today? Modelo Especial. It recently surpassed Miller Lite, making it the fifth market in which Especial is tops by dollar sales, along with Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Las Vegas.
Our Crime Rate Is Proof Gun Control Doesn’t Work: After a mass shooter killed 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas, Donald Trump’s White House compiled a list of talking points to argue that it wasn’t a gun that enabled to him to inflict so much mayhem. Among them: “[S]ome of America’s cities with the strictest gun laws have the highest rates of gun violence. Examples include: Chicago last year had over 4,300 shooting victim [sic.]” Texas senator Ted Cruz made the same argument after a mass shooting in Odessa: “Gun control doesn’t work. Look at Chicago.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded that 60 percent of illegal guns seized in Chicago were purchased in other states—including 21 percent from Indiana, which does not require a permit to purchase a firearm. There are 390 million guns in the United States. The Chicago Police Department can’t inspect every car that crosses the city limits to make sure there’s not one inside.
It’s windy: Once, after a bumpy landing at Midway Airport, our stewardess declared, “They don’t call it the Windy City for nothing!” Does anyone in Chicago call it the Windy City? I hope not, because the nickname is not meteorological in origin. It was first used in an 1876 Cincinnati Enquirer headline, to refer to Chicago’s capacity for boastfulness and self-promotion. A tornado on May 6 of that year provided the Enquirer with the opportunity to crack that not only was Chicago’s weather full of wind, so were its leading citizens. Chicago does not even appear on this list of 30 Windiest Cities in the U.S. So stop with “the Windy City”—and all the other stereotypes on this list, too.