Friday, March 19, 2010

agnosia, aphasia, and adventures in Chicagoland

I just returned from a longish visit to the suburbs of Chicago and my eyes still hurt from so many days of having nothing whatsoever to look at. Downtown Chicago interests me, and Oak Park really interests me, but once you get out to places like Romeoville, where we were, there's simply nothing but nonstop generica.

It struck me that all the directions anyone gave us seemed to involve turning left (or right) at a CVS. And all the CVS installations looked exactly like this, and they were all, invariably, across the intersection from a bank that looked suspiciously like a CVS, and one of these banks was named, in consummate generica-speak, the "Third Fifth Bank." No fooling.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines sense of place as "Those things that add up to a feeling that a community is a special place, distinct from anywhere else." This distinction is what gives us identity; the tragedy of the Chicago suburbs is that the gobbling-up of farmland for CVS-style development has resulted in an endless, interchangeable strip of nothing at all.

I'm not exaggerating, not even a little: This sameness has penetrated and overtaken everything, to the point where there are not even place names that offer any traction to the mind. They all seem to come from some depraved developer database that combines words and ideas in a kind of weird, Prozac-induced interchangeability: Bay Meadow, Meadowlark Run, Woodlands Glen. Give these a good shake and all you get is more of the same: Meadowlark Bay, Woodlands Run, and Meadow Glen. And the bay has no water, the run has no path or rill or any feature other than a flat, straight access road, and as for glen, forget it.

At one point we drove past a structure with a flat roof and a shortage of windows that was named, alarmingly, General Memorial Hospital. I don't want to criticize, but I have to--for a species that supposedly named all the animals, we've fallen very far indeed when we evoke a general memory of hospitals and think we've done something meaningful. It made me eager to come home to Vermont, where we have a Frog City, a Tommy Squatter, a No Nothing, and a rocky, infertile, useless lump on the landscape known as Government Hill.


  1. Amen--paint manufacturers manage to come up with more evocative names than the monikers most suburban tracts are saddled with. Thank you for a timely reminder that the work I do matters.

  2. Texas has a town called Swiss Alp. Which, as you might imagine, is overstating things a bit.

  3. There's a town in Utah that makes much of being Swiss, but for some reason it's called Midway. Which, weirdly enough, sounds a lot like a town in Texas.