The United Center Casts a Long, Uncomfortable Shadow Over Garfield Park and Lawndale: On the Road with Springsteen in Chicago, and the Price We Pay for “Our Most American City”

By Carson Starkey

Little girl down on the strand

With that pretty little baby in your hands

Do you remember the story of the promised land

How he crossed the desert sands

And could not enter the chosen land

On the banks of the river he stayed

To face the price you pay

I saw Ta-Nehisi Coates speak at Roosevelt University (my wife Suzie’s graduate school alma mater) on October 9th, 2014. He was on a tour of America’s campuses, promoting his spectacularly important article “The Case for Reparations” that appeared in the June 2014 edition of The Atlantic. His appearance in Chicago was significant because his article focuses on the long-term imposition of economic misery on the overwhelmingly black neighborhoods of the city’s west and south sides. He spent the first thirty minutes or so of his time at the podium summarizing America’s history of political/economic choices that encourage white people taking from black people (Social Security, the GI Bill, housing ordinances). He pointed out reparations, at least the version he proposed in the article, are not meant to address historically distant outcomes, but rather present day injustices. He explained that we don’t have to talk about individual payments to/legislative spending aimed at descendants of slaves based on outcomes that are hundreds of years old (other arguments for other occasions) because the nonwhite people that have suffered under systematic, legalized cheating are very much alive in parts of America (the people that he interviewed during his research who live in Chicago to this day). After a question-and-answer session during which white liberals delivered statements about themselves that lacked relevance, discernible points, or punctuation, most of all question marks, and consumed substantial amounts of time, Mr. Coates described Chicago in a way that I will carry with me forever. “When my European friends ask me about which cities they should visit when they come to this country, I tell them, don’t go to New York or Los Angeles. Go to Chicago. I say that because Chicago is our most American city, for all that entails, both good and bad.” Amen to that.

I was reminded of that moment, and its many layers of truth, when I made my first of three holy pilgrimages to The United Center on January 19th, 2016 to see Bruce Springsteen perform on the second night of “The River” tour. It was one of those moments, along with the time we spend surveying the demographics of Springsteen crowds, that makes/should make every Springsteen fan uncomfortable. Allow me to explain why that is the case. The United Center occupies its own patch of highly profitable real estate in the Near West Side, just slightly set apart from the West Loop, east of Garfield Park and Lawndale. While the United Center is one of America’s rare exceptions as sports stadiums go in that it owes its existence to private funding, the owners of the United Center (Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz and (Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf) fall firmly within the mainstream of the our nation’s mega-rich, as they derive astronomical financial benefits from property tax subsidies (“Nothing But Net Profit: Jerry Reinsdorf, Property Tax Relief, and Corporate School Reform on Chicago’s Near West Side,” January 2013).

If showering billionaires with welfare handouts doesn’t upset you, because that’s just the price of freedom or whatever the socially awkward, celibate, casually bigoted young National Review readers are claiming these days, you might choose to examine The United Center’s location in relation to the neighborhoods around it, specifically Garfield Park and Lawndale. Garfield Park and Lawndale, both overwhelmingly black, are often found among the top ten poorest, most violent neighborhoods in our nation. So of course their residents should be able to cast their gaze regularly upon an enormous monument to obscene, publicly subsidized excess, because they wouldn’t be able to put that same money to use in their neighborhoods, obviously. Because investing money in black people is always welfare fraud. Because white people need The United Center to be of top notch quality so that they can enjoy professional sports competitions and live music concerts…that most residents of Garfield Park and Lawndale can’t afford to attend. Because Chicago is “our most American city.”

As I mentioned two paragraphs ago, most Springsteen fans have to confront at least one other unsettling experience when they attend his live performances-the demographics of their fellow travelers. After we finished our meals in the West Loop, strong recommendation for Kaiser Tiger, we hiked to our gate and stood among the trembling faithful (trembling from a mixture of blistering wind and joyful anticipation). Nothing but smiling white people, as far as they eye could behold. Some were talking about how many Springsteen live performances they’ve seen, which one woman in her early sixties estimated to be around twenty-plus. Some were talking about the urgent need, as this was early in the current tour, for Springsteen to add more dates in Europe because, in the words of an Englishwoman, she wanted “more than anything in the world,” and would “pay any amount of money to hear ‘Born in the USA’ live in London.” Whatever they were talking about, everyone was talking about spending substantial amounts of money, and everyone was white. I won’t insult your intelligence by claiming that I refused to buy merchandise because my baseball hat, t-shirt, and poster (all made in America) are intensely cool. But the truth is that I was uneasy with the fact my musical hero, our most vocally left-wing rock n’roll star national treasure, draws a fan base of such minimal diversity. There is no pithy segue or smooth transition for this conclusion. Just discomfort.

We found our seats. I wasn’t entirely certain about how I would respond to “The River.” It’s never been my favorite album. Prior to this tour, I have always been loyal to “Born in the USA,” “Born to Run,” “The Seeger Sessions,” and “Wrecking Ball,” in that order. Although the more I read about this tour, the more I found that E Street Band members all say that “The River” is their favorite album because it replicates the live concert experience with the greatest authenticity (“Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’: Steve Van Zandt Looks Back,” Rolling Stone, February 11th, 2016, and “Max Weinberg on ‘River’ Tour: What He Learned From Bruce Springsteen,” Rolling Stone, February 9th, 2016).

Suzie and I shrieked along to the first five songs (“Meet Me In The City,” “The Ties That Bind,” “Sherry Darling,” “Jackson Cage,” and “Two Hearts,”), standing and dancing in place with total disregard for rhythm or talent. I won’t spend much time explaining Springsteen’s material that deals with fast cars, attractive women, and weekend road trips because there’s no need to do so. These are the songs that everyone can agree upon for any occasion. If you seek bipartisanship/the spirit of compromise anywhere in America, in any form, put members of different communities, or different political views in a sedan and play “Pink Cadillac.” You will have earned a genuine respite from the crushing sadness of ideological rancor that afflicts our society.

We sat down, as standard stadium rock concert etiquette dictates when ballads are playing, for “Independence Day,” which is the definitive father-son airing of grievances-irreconcilable differences among generations anthem of contemporary Western society. Bruce graced us with one of his famous monologues before he started the song, which captured the attention of every person in the building with the collectively somber reverence usually reserved for presidential speechmaking prior to a major war. The signature “Springsteen: Just the Stories” moment set me up for what followed, undoubtedly because I was swept away with overwhelming joy when he started speaking. Those that know me complain, frequently, that I rely on humor far too often to draw attention, deflect sadness, or derail conversation that I find less than compelling, but I swear on my devotion to collective bargaining, that after the first verse, I was sobbing hysterically. Not quiet sniffles followed by watery eyes that went unnoticed. Choking, gasping, uncontrolled spasms of weeping, chest heaving, cascading streams of tears, cheeks glistening, without a shred of self-awareness. Totally out of nowhere. Suzie didn’t know what to do. Nearby spectators must have thought that I was having a nervous breakdown. I would have assured them, no, not the case at all fellow Americana enthusiasts. Just a supernova of emotional clarity, human compassion, and self-reflection. Every petty, savage, low-stakes argument that I ever had with my father came flooding back…battles over car repairs, the 2000 presidential election, Paul Wellstone, my younger brother, my return from the Iraq War…I was vowing to do better, because I couldn’t imagine feeling this way ever again. I don’t remember when, or at what point in the song exactly, I stopped crying. Not terribly important. What I do remember is feeling exhausted…six songs into the show. That can be problematic if the specific performer you’re seeing is famous for consistently delivering three to four hour marathon concerts.

I pulled myself together, and was composed for most of the remaining songs. I strained muscles in my back, shoulders, ribs, neck, and stomach singing along to “Ramrod” and “Cadillac Ranch” because they are my favorite tracks from the album, and because I live under the comical delusion that my Springsteen impression gets magically better for those particular songs. I thought that I would be okay until at least the fan favorite portion of the show (greatest hits that he plays after he completes “The River” album in its entirety) until we reached “The Price You Pay.” Easy to pin down the reason for this meltdown in retrospect. Story of working class misery, same style as “The Promised Land,” he even uses the phrase in the song. Important note-I always cry while screaming along to “The Promised Land.” One of my top five favorite Springsteen songs. So…maybe I was consumed with sadness about America’s vast economic inequality. Maybe I was thinking about Chicago’s ugly contradictions. Maybe I had other, more subtle, below the surface, selfish reasons for that outburst of tears. All I know is that I “felt” everything, deeply, maximally, and with unbridled severity.

Bruce finished “The River,” and moved on to the fan favorite portion, which is synonymous with “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” those marquee climaxes of any Springsteen live performance. Before he reached those two most cherished icons, he threw in “The Rising.” All of the Millenials stood and wailed in unison, as we time traveled back to the heady, exuberant summer days of 2008, when we knocked doors for Senator Barry Obama, when The Boss traveled with Senator Barry, rallying stadiums full of liberals, when Senator Barry himself explained his reason for wanting to reside in the White House (“Because I can’t be Bruce Springsteen,” “Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel Form Supergroup for Obama in NYC,” Rolling Stone, October 17th, 2008), and we shook the pillars of American society with our illustrious optimism born from disgust with Iraq and overt Bush administration criminality. I had to stop smiling like a lunatic, and take stock of it all. Damn Bruce…why does everything have to be so “real” with you?

I was fine during “Born to Run.” No tsunami of emotions. Again, I can’t explain it. I know that it’s supposed to be every Springsteen fan’s favorite song according to the standard music critic/journalist narrative. Sang every word, loved it, but nothing compares to “Thunder Road.” I stood, sang, cried, swayed, hugged, and felt my knees buckle numerous times. There is no drug, prescription or illicit, no artificial substance in the universe that can replicate how I feel when I’m singing that Springsteen song.

After three hours and twenty minutes of crowd surfing, mad dashes between stages, and ZERO set breaks because anything less than one hundred percent effort is for America-hating subversives, it was over. Bruce and the E Street Band stepped away from their instruments, bowed, and walked backstage. We had just “seen the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary E STREET BAND!” That’s Springsteen’s bit at the end of every performance…basically an homage to James Brown, although most reasonably informed fans know that a majority of Springsteen’s live act is an homage to James Brown. Another examination for another day, valued readers, no doubt.

I was disappointed that he didn’t play “Glory Days” or “Born in The USA,” (bucket list goals) but such is the reality of “The River” tour. Too many songs, not enough time in an evening to hit everything before municipal police forces shut down operations, although I would argue that all Springsteen concerts should be legally required to run five hours, minimum. The more complicated problem, as far as seeing those two particular songs, is that The Boss tends to reserve them for his European shows, where the audiences sing with evangelical fervor when they have opportunities to appropriate American cultural experiences. To paraphrase the colonel from “Full Metal Jacket,” inside every European, there is a Bruce Springsteen fan trying to claim American citizenship. I’m not exaggerating when I say that contemporary industrialized society sometimes can’t handle the length and ferocity of live Springsteen performances (“Bruce Springsteen’s Microphone Switched Off at Hyde Park Gig,” The Guardian, July 14th, 2012).

We left The United Center, fatigued, satisfied with our artistic sensibilities, pleased with our intellectual superiority, and filled with security in our status as comfortable white people.Many thanks to Allan Branstiter for allowing public use of that copyrighted term.

We still had to face a world in which a war with Iran (2018, ask Troy Olson) looks inevitable, where The United Center mocks the poverty of Garfield Park and Lawndale with total impunity, and where millionaire welfare checks constitute wise investments but social insurance for working people means big government waste in the language of “respectable” (code for always wrong about outcomes) political/policy discourse. Bruce Springsteen’s concert didn’t and couldn’t solve our problems, and as he would be quick to point out, only we could do that by voting, fundraising, and persuading our fellow citizens. We didn’t have comforting answers, but we had the power of rock n’roll. That would have to suffice as we navigated the perils of “our most American city” in the New Gilded Age.

Let’s hope that Bruce Springsteen and Ta-Nehisi Coates hold a joint event together at some point. The combined fan bases interacting with each other would be worth any price of admission. All proceeds would go to worthy liberal charities. #LeftyLifeGoals #GreatestLiveEventEver

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