$24 in hardcover from McSweeney’s
I wanted to read and talk about this book because it’s about Pilsen, the neighborhood of Chicago wedged in between the Loop and Little Village, the South Branch of the Chicago River, and the University of Illinois, the highway, and the train tracks, the factories, powerplants, and a lot of desolate, abandoned, urban wasteland in-between space. It’s only maybe a mile from the Willits nee Sears Tower, but it feels like it’s almost in Indiana. So it goes in the city. I lived in Bridgeport once for a minute – the neighborhood just south of Pilsen, home to Mayors Daley, Chicago’s China Town, and the Chicago White Sox. Pilsen is on the south side — it starts around 18th Street and ends around Cermak or 22nd.
I lived at 35th and Archer in a huge dusty loft apartment that used to be a dance hall. It didn’t really work out. I moved up north after a few months. Pilsen, like Oakland where I live now, has been the next big neighborhood / next casualty of gentrification for years. But it never quite happens. The art galleries are there. There are even on-trend bars. But it hasn’t been converted wholesale into condos and there still isn’t particularly good coffee. You can still get a shitty clapboard coffin of an apartment for a couple hundred bucks a month, just like when the narrator of Painted Cities was growing up.
The narrator of Painted Cities is called Jesse, though the real narrator seems like the neighborhood itself. Jesse is maybe something close to autobiographical for Galaviz-Budziszewski but that doesn’t matter. It seems like Jesse is here to provide a mirror for the neighborhood. A kid that isn’t a total fuck-up, maybe has enough of an advantage that he doesn’t get sucked into the world of street gangs – he eventually goes to a private school and gets a job working at a law firm downtown. While he doesn’t become a casualty of the violence present in the neighborhood, he is shaped and affected by it.
The collection of stories ranges from fun, innocent, funny, to chilling, frightening, and fantastical. The stories, told by Jesse, reflect a kind of magic – the magic of a neighborhood. It’s also about how childhood makes things look: the frame of childhood makes the world look sepia-toned, mysterious, and wonderful, and ultimately unreachable.
It’s also a book about authenticity – not in a simplistic way, but in a confused, and engaging way. It’s about how you define where you’re from, and what you are. In “God’s Country” Jesse wonders about the difference between first generation and second generation immigrants:
“It was strange that Chuey didn’t adopt more of the neighborhood style. He had grown up in Pilsen, just like the rest of us. In fact, Chuey’s roots were deeper in the neighborhood than any of ours were. Our parents had come straight from Mexico. Marcus, Alfonzo, and I were first-generations. Our parents worked in factories, didn’t speak English. Chuey’s parents were gangbangers, old gangbangers, sons and daughters of immigrants. Chuey seemed a step ahead. Like if we ever had kids they’d come out like Chuey, a little more worldly than we ever were.” (Painted Cities, 93)
But on the other hand, the Mexican neighborhood is aware of its own shifting. Street Gangs and lovers disappear, while the tattoos are a lot harder to shake. The Polish origins of the neighborhood, and the name itself, are tattooed on the city. The speaker of “Blood” explains it:
“You see that thing sitting down there, hunched over like he got a lump on his back? Well, he does. That’s Sammy. He’s a mope, a drunk, been one all his life. Got that lump from leaning over bars. He can tell you about when the neighborhood was all Polish. I bet you didn’t even know that. See, you learn shit. Bet you thought it was always Mexican. Hell no, the Polacks were here first. That’s what Sammy is – a Polack. Shit, I bet he’s the only one left, him and his mother. He lives with her over on Coulter Avenue. You see that stool he’s on? Tony from Mitchell’s Lumber built it for him. That’s Sammy’s stool. You don’t ever sit on it – you’re damn right the that’s a seat belt on that motherfucker. Doesn’t work, though. He just falls over and the stool follows him. It’s worse than before.” (Painted Cities, p. 123)
Like any good story, or set of stories, Painted Cities is about stories. It’s about telling stories, and how around those stories, people, community, family are made. The neighborhood is made out of these stories – like the one about Casper, the one about Buff, and the one about Capone, the one about the glowing canal, the one about the fires, and the one about bringing things back to life. This book is like an oral history of a neighborhood – or even more specific maybe, one brief cross section of a neighborhood. A drama in miniature, or the struggles of many people, trying – A synecdoche of the neighborhood as a whole, told through the experiences of a boy “coming up.”
In that way the stories read like a bildungsroman – but it’s not like a traditional coming of age novel where the trajectory from young and innocent to mature and experienced is relatively linear. Painted Cities is very exciting in the way that it treats this subject. The book enacts a Foucauldian sense of self. The lives here are fractured, fragmented, and discursive, and built not from within, but from without. The community, the place, the interactions, the family, the media, all go into shaping the self and the individual that comes out – it’s a process not a product. It’s obvious in the writing, that the neighborhood and the narrator aren’t a closed book – they’re continually being written.
That’s another way that Painted Cities feels like an oral history. It seems like it is in the process of being told, and in the telling it is constantly being written and rewritten. It takes on qualities of the mythic and is more true than ever for it.