Searching for Local Identity in “The Bear” and “Chicago Party Aunt”

Searching for Local Identity in “The Bear” and “Chicago Party Aunt”

Searching for Local Identity in “The Bear” and “Chicago Party Aunt”

The FX drama and Netflix animation both attempt to embody the city of Chicago. That’s an increasingly difficult task when the city itself is a jumbled simulacrum of its own past.

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Chicago isn’t listed as a cast member of The Bear—but it probably should be.

The Second City’s presence is so central to the new FX drama that it’s like an ambient character whose unsure sense of self casts a shadow on much of the action and dialogue, like the train cars rattling on elevated tracks over people walking downtown. “The Bear Is the Great Chicago TV Show,” proclaimed GQ. As such, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto isn’t just the title character; he’s the embodiment of Chicago and its existential crisis: Is the city still dwelling in the provincial past, or has it fully emerged into the global present?

The city’s much-maligned ad campaign launched earlier this year (“Chicago Not in Chicago,” about the city’s footprint in other states and countries) was proof of the same confusion. So it goes with The Bear’s young chef, who is torn between the long-held traditions of his white working-class family and the cosmopolitan culture of the upscale restaurant where he came of age as an adult.

Carmy’s anxiety grows, as does the chasm between his lived experience in the gentrified city of white-collar transplants and the gritty, blue-collar Chicago he remembers from his childhood, which includes the failing Italian Beef sandwich restaurant his family owns. Those warring forces collide via his tough-talking cousin Richie, who represents the Chicago of a previous generation, and Sydney, the bright young Culinary Institute of America–trained chef who is ambivalent about the city’s history.

“Stop fucking with this place. You let up a little bit, and everything changes,” Richie tells Sydney in episode seven after lamenting the shuttering of an old tavern next door to their restaurant. “You don’t realize this is a delicate ecosystem; it’s held together by shared history, love, and respect.” Before Sydney can respond, a gunshot rings out, and a bullet cracks the storefront’s glass. Maybe, The Bear suggests, the Chicago of old can’t be preserved any longer.

It’s safe to say that American cities everywhere are facing some level of this identity crisis—but not all of them get multiple streaming TV shows about it in the same year. In addition to The Bear, the Netflix animated show Chicago Party Aunt plays that same dynamic for laughs.

Like Richie, Diane Dumbrowski, the eponymous party aunt, is portrayed as frozen in amber sometime during Michael Jordan’s run of six NBA championships for the Bulls. The Reagan and Bush years were an era when Chicago’s idiosyncratic cultural and sporting institutions, the nasally Sha-caw-go accent, and deep-dish pizza all became prime cultural exports to the rest of the nation. Thank (or blame) the sporting success of the Da Bears and Da Bulls, movies like The Blues Brothers, the broadcasting might of Chicago’s “Superstation” WGN-TV, Oprah’s megapopular Chicago talk show, and Saturday Night Live (which was full of Second City improv comedy alums). Dumbrowski represents a spiky-haired female offshoot of the characters from SNL’s iconic “Bill Swerski’s Super Fans” skits: a blustery Mike Ditka–worshipping tailgating type with a penchant for salty language and a salty diet who insists that true Chicagoans live in Cook County, gulp Old Style beer, and shop at Jewel, a regional chain of grocery stores.

But that version of Chicago and the ones that preceded it are long dead. It’s more than a century since Carl Sandburg mythologized Chicago as the “City of Big Shoulders,” the rugged blue-collar town that made things, and more than a decade since the last of the Daley clan ruled the city with an iron fist. Before he slunk off to Japan to be US ambassador for Joe Biden, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel helped fulfill his promise to help turn Chicago into a neoliberal “global city” dominated by finance, tech, and the borderless information workers of the New Economy. Sandburg’s city of stockyards and steel now caters to people who work on their laptops instead of with their hands.

The demographics of this ascendant group, which dominates the city financially and culturally, more closely mirror current Mayor Lori Lightfoot: multiracial, highly educated, liberal-leaning transplants. A higher share of adults in Chicago now hold college degrees—38.5 percent—than in New York. As cultural critic and former Chicagoan Thomas Frank has noted, “Chicago [has] changed from a city of Nelson Algren to a playground for the ‘creative class.’”

Da regional accent, meanwhile, took flight to the distant exurbs along with the white ethnics with funny Eastern European names. It’s no surprise that the Bears recently bought a racetrack in Arlington Heights and may relocate there. These days, Soldier Field is a haven for the NFL’s prime demographic: middle-aged suburban men who tend to vote Republican. Some of their nostalgia for the Chicago of yore no doubt contains a racial element as well, as they wistfully remember a time when white people were catered to more explicitly.

But what if there’s little to fill the void of the past? Organic local culture itself is petering out, a victim of networked technology, globalization, and gentrification. What’s supplanted it is the shared culture of screens: social media and the all-consuming blob of national and global media representations—the Spectacle, as theorist Guy Debord once called it. Cheeky pop culture fans might label it The Matrix. It’s not only increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the airy industrial-chic of the newfangled coffee shops, craft breweries, and boutiques that adorn the trendy neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Austin, Seattle, and Berlin but also to distinguish among the people who frequent them. Regional accents are increasingly being replaced by the flat speech patterns of most media figures.

“Authenticity is not a stage set of historic buildings,” noted Sharon Zukin in Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, but “a continuous process of living and working, a gradual buildup of everyday experience, the expectations that neighbors and buildings that are here today will be here tomorrow.” In other words, local culture is stagnant and sterile without the “thin trust” between strangers and acquaintances as described in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, or the complex web of social relations between local families, neighborhoods, or institutions that are passed on to future generations.

Ever resourceful, capitalism has provided an answer to city dwellers’ desire for places that feel unique and authentic in a time when everything feels roughly the same: Turn local identity into a branding exercise. Take elements of a city’s rich history and appropriate, commodify, and recontextualize them as goods and services to be sold back to rootless transplants to help them experience a sense of grounded identity. Hence the recent proliferation of city flags or old slogans sold in gift shops or sewn onto trucker hats, framed subway maps hung in apartments, and tattoos of skylines and area codes—like the one Carmy wears on his bicep.

Save for perhaps New York City, no city has perfected this art of remixing the past with the present quite like Chicago. In the age of Hollywood sequels, reboots, and metaverses, this city is quietly building its own fantasy realm in the physical world, an uneasy pastiche of the Prohibition era and the present.

Over the past half-decade, the Ricketts family reconstituted Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood into a vintage Cubs-themed playland for the nouveau riche. Hotel Zachary, a luxury lodging across the street from Wrigley Field, brags that it was “inspired” by the architect who designed the Cubs’ home in 1914 and “effortlessly brings together history and style to create an authentically Chicago hotel.” Before it closed during the pandemic, the St. Jane Hotel in the Loop was rebranded in the image of progressive social reformer Jane Addams. In the old meatpacking district of Fulton Market—Chicago’s attempt at a lakeside Silicon Valley—young Google workers stroll along newly laid cobblestone streets, past murals depicting factory workers in hard hats and smocks and upscale bars made to look like vintage laundromats or greasy spoon diners—but serving $18 cocktails. You can even purchase “Chicagwa,” the city’s new self-branded tap water with local artists’ renderings of old-timey Chicago-themed art for the cans.

Paradoxically, the more contrived this identity-as-consumer-good feels, the more locals try to adjudicate what’s real. In recent years, the Chicago Sun-Times has printed two editions of the “Chicagopedia,” a guide to outdated local culture and slang. Every other news site has Buzzfeed-style lists like “10 Ways to Tell You’re a True Chicagoan” or “23 ways to tell a real vs. fake Chicagoan.” What’s telling is that the criteria are never about personal connections; they’re a laundry list of curated individual consumer choices rooted in the past. Do you watch Bill Murray movies? Drink Malort, the hipster-approved local liquor? Deep dish pizza is only for tourists. Put ketchup on a hot dog? You must be a poseur!

The latter rule is quoted by Richie in an episode of The Bear. The middle-aged local gets offended by the sight of ketchup meant for a Chicago dog at a children’s birthday party. He and Diane of Chicago Party Aunt are both Authenticity Cops in a deeply inauthentic time.

A few frigid winters ago, a Chicago street artist ruffled some feathers with his faux-bar-within-a-real-bar art installation.

The pop-up, dubbed the Light Times Club, was the brainchild of Don’t Fret, Illinois’s answer to Banksy, whose colorful murals (and Chicagwa tap water can art) exude a nostalgic yearning for the Second City of a generation or two ago. This time, he’d transformed the entire back room of an alehouse frequented by millennials into a self-described “conceptual watering hole”—a graphic-novel version of the kind of gritty working-class beer-and-a-shot joint that now gets slapped with the semi-ironic label “dive bar.” Patrons could sip on a gin cocktail called “Da Ghost of Studs Terkel” while sitting among friendly-looking cardboard cutout bartender illustrations and other ghosts of Chicago’s past (Harry Caray, Walter Payton, Mike Royko). Close your eyes, and you could almost whiff the phantom aroma of the mock Italian beef sandwich stand next to graffiti-strewn buildings and rough-looking pawn shops.

Not everyone was in on the meta-joke. The consensus of “Chicago Twitter”—an online clique of provincial media figures, academics, and minor politicos, all vigorously patrolling the Authenticity beat—was that it was distasteful for a newish craft beer bar located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood to celebrate the kind of establishment it had ostensibly replaced, much as if a big-box retailer designed a store to resemble a family-run corner bodega. What I think offended some critics of Don’t Fret’s caricature is that it revealed an uncomfortable truth: All of Chicago was becoming a real-life Light Times Club, a paper-thin Disneyfied simulacrum of its own past.

But it’s never too late to try something new, argues The Bear. Perhaps heeding Karl Marx’s famous warning that “the traditions of all the dead generations burden, like a nightmare, the minds of the living,” Carmy holds a staff-only dinner in the ramshackle confines of his family’s restaurant in the final episode and announces that he’s dumping the old beef joint and rebranding it The Bear. Something old, something new, something borrowed…

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