Tributes lie in St. Ann’s Square on May 24, 2017, for the people who lost their lives in the Manchester Arena terror attack. Britain is on critical alert following the apparent suicide bombing. (Andy Rain / EPA)
Manchester — whose big Lancashire heart was broken into pieces Monday night — is England’s Second City.
It’s not the second-biggest city in terms of population: Birmingham, in the Midlands, is larger. But then Los Angeles sprawls more than Chicago. And even if Houston’s population will soon eclipse that of our flawed but sweet-souled home on Lake Michigan, the Second City we will remain.
The same is true of Manchester, the city of my birth and youth. Aside from getting an education, I’ve only really lived in two cities. Two decades in and around Manchester. The best part of three in and around Chicago. I love both places, which is not surprising, since they are much the same.
Second Cities have things in common. They’re proud. They’re diverse. They grit their teeth and put up with bad weather. They’re welcoming to newcomers, when they are at their best, and thus are filled with immigrants. They are known for their self-deprecating senses of humor. And since government officials and bankers have built their edifices and stored their yachts elsewhere, their roots are industrial and their native populations mostly descendents of factory workers.
Even with all the urban renewal and redevelopment, the fancy new arenas and the riverwalks and the lofts sprouting where cotton once was woven or meat packed, Second Cities remain working-class communities at their core.
Evidence of a proud industrial past is everywhere — whether that means the old cotton mills I once walked past every day on the way to school, or the brick ruins I still see from my car on an over-stuffed Chicago expressway. Both are cities that work, each fountainheads of the great industrial revolution.
And they love sports and the arts above all else. Manchester has Manchester United, the most famous soccer team in the world (we won’t discuss Manchester City). Chicago has its beloved Cubs (we won’t discuss the White Sox). These teams — yes, all four of them — aren’t just objects of admiration and fandom and crosstown rivalries, but deeply entrenched institutions inextricably at the core of their towns and a crucial part of a Second City’s self-definition. First cities like their sport too, I know, but it’s not the same relationship.
These Second Cities are not the center of the cultural businesses of their nations. They don’t reward artists as they should. In fact, being so rooted in grit and grind and suspicious of flimflammery from the overprivileged and overeducated, they are suspicious of artists. So it takes particular tenacity to be an artist in either of them, and it requires a preference for the integrity of the work rather than the rewards. Thus a cultural explorer can find the deepest and most honest artistic work therein.
Ensemble driven, risk-taking and fervent, Manchester theater is much very like Chicago theater. Both cities have distinguished classical orchestras — the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1891, and the Halle Orchestra, founded in 1858. Chicago has a more diffuse music scene than Manchester’s inter-related grooves, but Wilco and Smashing Pumpkins are not so far from New Order or Oasis.
An apparent suicide bombing during a concert by singer Ariana Grande in Manchester, England, left 22 people dead and scores more wounded on May 22, 2017.
It was a young American singer, Ariana Grande, who was the star of the concert at which so many of Manchester’s mothers and daughters were killed. Many of the wounded — dads and sons also among them — were taken to the hospital where I was born.
More and more, the phrase "soft target" seems to mean a cultural gathering place: a concert or street festival. And thus these attacks strike especially at the heart of a Second City, because proud Second Cities particularly love these things.
The explosion took place right where parents were awaiting their children, especially parents who couldn’t afford tickets for everyone Monday night. For anyone whose family includes ‘tweens and teens (as does mine), that locale cuts you to the quick.
Many parents struggle with the initial decision of whether to let their kids go to mega concerts alone, and they often end up agreeing after some act of grand persuasion, and then they find themselves waiting anxiously at the designated pick-up point. We are trying our best to stay out of the way of a young person’s great night out, but remaining close at hand in the event of a problem.
For that to prove to be the worst place to stand suggests an unfathomable level of human cruelty. Manchester did not deserve that. No place does.
Chicago is all too familiar with losing children to violence. There are many more guns in Chicago than in Manchester, a truth that often causes those I know in the latter city to shake their heads in wonder at why, still, now, so little is done.
But now Manchester has troubles, and funerals of teenagers, that are all of its own.
Chicago should understand better than any other city in the world. It suffers in the same way, and it draws from the same reservoir of strength.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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