Robinson Meyer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers climate change and technology.
Chicago is ugly. Chicago is real. Chicago is a place of magic and mystery.
When established in 1833, the Town of Chicago incorporated fewer than 200 people into its new borders. Within seven years—the city’s first decennial U.S. census—more than 4,000 people lived there; after another 10 almost 30,000 people did.
The city kept growing, both in size and population. In 1880, half a million people lived within its borders. In 1890, that number had doubled. At the turn of the century, 1.6 million people called themselves Chicagoans, and the city was the fifth largest in the world.
Something happened on the land we call Chicago that had happened nowhere else before. In the span of a lifetime, the city went from nascence to dominance—and since then, people have been trying to figure out what that new place is and what it can be.
A new Twitter account does the job rather stirringly. Created by Luke Seeman, a designer and developer at Chicago magazine, @whatschicago retweets tweets that begin with the phrase “Chicago is.” It works better than it sounds like it might: @whatschicago creates a live monitor of popular opinion of the city, an ongoing index of how people define the midwestern metropolis.
Seeman says he was inspired by the Google autocomplete maps that showed what what the site suggests when you type “Why is [state] so…?” (For Chicago’s home, the search engine suggests “Why is Illinois so corrupt?”)
“Mostly it was as an excuse to teach myself how to write a bot, and to give myself something to do on a really cold Sunday afternoon,” says Seeman in an email. “I suspected that it would be easy enough to execute and would yield some fun and interesting results. Happily enough I was right on both counts.”
I like the bot because it fits into a long tradition of countenancing the city—and gives a kind of improvised, unplanned reply. In his 12,000 word lyrical ode to Chicago, City on the Make, Nelson Algren wrote:
Once you've come to be a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.
@whatschicago, meanwhile, turns up:
Carl Sandburg, in the opening of his collection Chicago Poems, addresses the city as “tool maker, stacker of wheat,” then admits its flaws:
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
Sandburg’s Chicago was first published in March 1914. Nearly a century later, @whatschicago answers:
“Chicago”—as a word—can refer to entities other than the city. Many of the tweets @whatchicago finds reflect a different, less municipal kind of institution:
Or a different kind of Chicago:
@WhatsChicago recalls @MayorEmanuel, a Twitter account that mocked Rahm Emanuel during his first mayoral run but which also served as a testament to the city. As my colleague Alexis correctly judged nearly three years ago, @MayorEmanuel was “the best fake Twitter account ever.” It was also, like @whatschicago, an attempt at elucidating what made the place special.
That winter—2011—wasn’t even close to as cold as this winter has been. And @whatschicago testifies:
"The house on Mango Street is ours, and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom."
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.