Chicago's grit is the stuff of legend. The city's hardscrabble history conjures images of wind-beaten dock hands; rugged immigrants working punishing factory jobs; and 500 acres of slaughterhouses and their hard-time killing floors.
At the same time, Chicago has always adopted a work-hard/play-hard mentality.The city drank its way through Prohibition; its brothels became legendary, as author Karen Abbott detailed in a great new book, "Sin in the Second City"; and though Chicago today has a well-earned reputation for fine dining and cutting-edge cuisine, it is more known for sating its hunger with a greasy kielbasa, a thick steak, or an inch-deep slice from Gino's East.
But Chicago seems to have lost a bit of its hard edge. The town that poet Carl Sandburg called "a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities" has itself gone soft, thanks to meddlesome politicians and public health officials who think Chicagoans aren't capable of making their own decisions about health, risk and vice.
The blues bars of "Sweet Home Chicago" are smoky no more, thanks to one of the most restrictive city smoking bans in the country. Chicago is one of just a few cities in the world to limit the use of trans fats in its restaurants. Even a place once christened Hog Butcher for the World engaged in an embarrassing public debate over the discomfort of fatted geese.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of an aggressively anti-alcohol mayor, the tipsy town that used to boast more than 7,000 taverns in the postwar 1940s now sips its suds in barely 1,300 bars. And you can forget about owning a gun in this town. Chicago has some of the most restrictive gun laws in America.
The fact is, a lot of "little soft cities" have become brassier and freer and, well, funner than Chicago.
At Reason Magazine, we recently took a look at how the 35 most-populous cities in the United States balance individual freedom with government paternalism. We ranked the cities on how much freedom they afford their residents to indulge in alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex, gambling and food. And, for good measure, we also looked at the cities' gun laws, use of traffic and surveillance cameras, and tossed in an "other" category to catch weird laws such as New York's ban on unlicensed dancing, or Chicago's tax on bottled water.
The sad news, Chicagoans, is that your town came in dead last. And it wasn't even close.
Chicago reigns supreme when it comes to treating its citizens like children (Las Vegas topped our rankings as America's freest city). Chicagoans pay the second-highest cigarette tax in the country, and the sixth-highest tax on alcohol. Chicago has more traffic-light cameras than any city in America (despite studies questioning their effectiveness), restricts cell phone use while driving, and it's quickly moving toward a creepy public surveillance system similar to London's.
Chicago isn't alone, of course. Many of America's big cities are moving toward a suffocating sort of paternalism. Chicago is just the worst.
Fifteen years of a booming economy and encouraging drops in violent crime have given America's city councils a proverbial case of idle hands. Without more urgent matters to worry about, city politicians can spend time and political capital on alleged "quality of life" issues, such as how much space there ought to be between strippers and strip-club patrons (good work, Seattle!); monitoring the blood sugar levels of their residents (snoop on, New York!); or drawing up building codes for doghouses (I'm looking at you, San Francisco!).
In cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore., this embrace of "for your own good" paternalism has at least been offset by a more tolerant attitude on issues such as gay rights, or taking an approach to drug use that's more oriented toward treatment than punishment. In many cities, it may soon be easier to smoke a joint than a cigarette.
Chicagoans, however, get hit from both sides: A City Council oriented toward the blue state public health fanaticism of cities such as New York or San Francisco, and a more reddish state legislature still prone to occasional bouts of moral prudery.
Still, Chicago need not cry in its beer too much. Even a last-place finish does not mean the fun's over.
Today's cities are large enough to afford most residents the anonymity to indulge forbidden pleasures in black and gray markets without much fear of getting caught. The information revolution has provided myriad ways for us to transcend old boundaries of home, family and neighborhood. The short-lived foie gras prohibition may not have given rise to an Al Capone of fatted goose liver, for example, but Chicagoans with an affinity for the dish knew what restaurants would serve it up with a wink and a secret handshake.
So, let's turn our backs on a Windy City Nanny State. Chicagoans didn't need sage aldermen to tell them how to live their lives when the city was populated by farmers and meatpackers. There's no reason to go wimpy now that the city is home to traders and tech geeks, either.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun