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TODAY

Monday, July 22

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Airbags

"To do this any other way would have been needlessly contentious..."
--Richard M. Daley, on the destruction of Meigs Field

In the twilight hours of March 31, 2003, Richard M. Daley, Mayor of Chicago, moved demolition equipment onto picturesque, 55-year-old Meigs Field and destroyed it to make way for something new. Daley had instructed his crews to bring spotlights with them to shine into the cameras at Adler Planetarium; he knew he had to be covert. Most Chicagoans couldn't remember a time when Meigs was just Northerly Island. Just like that, in a flash, a Chicago institution was destroyed, never to be seen again.

Destroy the past, if it means an exciting new future. That's the Chicago we know and love. The Chicago that cares only about the future.

I've known Chicago my whole life. I know it's always going to be my home. And I've learned that to know it is to always be expecting it to change.

On a personal level, it fits my personality. I have a terrible personal memory. I can quote books I read 10years ago, but remind me of that promise to pick you up from the train station yesterday and you may as well be telling me for the first time. It takes me a minute to remember what year I graduated from high school, or went to Europe for the first time. Oh, we met at a party last summer? I made fun of your dress and punched your boyfriend? I got nothing.

Chicago may suffer from that infamous Second City Complex, but it does not obsess over its history. It tries to shed that history; we're known for tearing it down, getting money from the heir to a department store fortune and trying to build a better, more rust-resistant one. Because more than any other city, Chicago's history is its future. It would like to forget that the term "get laid" comes from the name of the infamous Everleigh bordello. St. Valentine's Day what? Hog-butcher, huh? Sounds kinda gross. Now that you bring it up, I do seem to remember something happening in or around 1968…what exactly, I'm not sure. And sorry I punched your boyfriend.

At a small, generic Middle Eastern restaurant on Taylor Street, I asked the owner why he didn't accept credit card purchases. "Why?" this one-time cab driver asked, "I won't be here too long. A few years, only. Then I sell it."

He didn't think he'd succeed?

"Who knows? In Chicago, restaurants open, close, open, close, always. I'll make some money now, and then I'll go."

Fair enough. Every neighborhood needs some cheap, safe Middle Eastern food. And in Chicago, as in America, everybody could use the money. He'd shaken hands with the people in the neighborhood with a wink and a kefta kabob and shrugged toward the future.

My restaurateur friend has the same idea of Chicago that I have: nothing lasts. Nothing is stable. What happened yesterday may as well have happened a century ago -- or never at all. We can never do anything about what has already happened: but what has yet to happen is a set of infinite size, and what we call our history is useful only insofar as we can apply it toward our future. The best cure for the Second City Complex is to keep guessing, keep throwing everything we have toward the chance that when the facts are in, we made the right guess. The quidditas of Chicago is that we strive to be The Future, Today.

It is no accident that a type of commodities trading known as "futures trading" first started in Chicago. With the development of the telegraph, early Chicagoans came up with a brilliant idea: What if we were to sell contracts basically betting on how much corn or hog bellies we'd get in from Iowa/Tennessee/Virginia next year, on the way to trading it further West? We could make a killing. So between 1849 and 1851, two types of future trading, "to-arrive" and "forward" trading, became the vogue at the modest Chicago Board of Trade at 101 S. Water Street. Forward contracts meant you could sign a contract with a farmer for X amount of corn, wheat, etc. for X amount of money, and it would be delivered at that equitable price, ensuring a profit for both. Soon, the contracts themselves were being bought and sold. Chicagoans started buying and selling the future.

But this wasn't just a slick trader's trick. It meant agriculture, like industry, had to be standardized and systemized. Strange, sub-par, or degraded product could mean a breach of contract. It was better for a farmer to produce a sure-fire mediocre or average product than to experiment and try to improve his product.

In the midst of growing competition in the 1980s, the European (Franco-Swiss) futures trading giant Eurex decided it would be best to seek the aide of the number-one futures powerhouses, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Board of Trade. That alliance, which lasts to this day, solidified Chicago's place as the City where the future will be bought and sold.

Walk the streets of Boston, along the cobblestone strip they call the "Freedom Trail," and you quiver at the sight of the church where grown men in Indian costumes awaited their Tea Party. You stare in awe at the gorgeous old town hall, complete with welcoming pineapple on top, that gestated our nation's democracy. Walk, probably drunk, through the winding impossible streets of Rome and you are surrounded by the ground zero of Western Civilization.

Many who understand the spirit of Chicago cheer the erection of some ineffable building, some sheen inscrutable monument. We learned at a young age to abandon the silly desire for comforting stasis. In Chicago, the future is the thing, and the only thing that belongs to us is a fascination with it. It is fitting, then, that Seneca, a Roman, provides us with our creed and consolation:

"Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.
Nothing, whether public or private, is stable;
    The destinies of men
No less than those of cities, are in a whirl.
Whatever structure has been reared by a long
    Sequence of years, at
The cost of great toil and through the great kindness of [Fortune], is scattered
and dispersed in a single day...
We live in the middle of things which have been destined to die...
Reckon on everything, expect everything."

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