Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud
to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”
Each city has its very own set of noises. The streetcars in San Francisco sound different lumbering down the street than the faint sound the Metro emits up onto New York City streets, reminding residents they never have to stay in one place. New York’s taxis provide the famous honking. The drivers shouting. Sometimes brakes screeching someone to a halt. Sound machines try to mimic it, this city chaos, which ends up calming.
What is Chicago’s most city sound? The website Favorite Chicago Sounds is a hub of noise where Chicagoans can submit audio snippets from their lives here in the city. You can listen to clips of a crowd at Wrigley Field or wolves howling at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Automated announcements at the train station or waves from Lake Michigan.
From here, I can hear the El pass by, about a block and a half away, a soothing rush of metal that’s been worn down so much it’s aligned, that could put you to sleep if consistent. It’s comforting in its familiarity, it’s certainty. In my neighborhood, a small triangular pocket in Logan Square, children are usually out playing on the street, and their small, bright voices are my city sounds. When the sun is out, like today, even on a colder-than-normal March Sunday, I hear, faintly, the sound of the sparrows gathering in the trees that line Francis Place. My cat hears them too, and replies with weak chatters, every so often.
Cars pull up outside, honking alerts or just idling and sitting, engines cooing loudly, then falling silent. In a few months the ding of the bell on the concessions cart will become commonplace again, the man pushing his wagon down the wrong side of the one-way street, hoping for children to stop and buy a cotton candy or freshly made duritos. At the end of summer, one week a year, you can hear the fighter jets practicing for the air and water show, which always startles me, airplanes ripping through the sky.
Dogs bark at each other while out for walks; you can tell which are small and which are large by the pitch and velocity to which they chirp in annoyance or glee. There’s a baby next door who screams. The TV echoes from the woman who lives below, in the garden unit. The hammering of a construction site nearby. Church bells at noon. Sirens that fade in and out, barely reaching conscious recognition anymore. The stomping of the upstairs neighbor who loves to wear high heels and comes home at three in the morning. Couples talking or fighting while on a Sunday walk through the neighborhood.
I know that at the beach now, seagulls are dancing, announcing the wind. Children splash in the faces of Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. The bucket drummers start to play each afternoon, echoing into the millions of offices that ascend above downtown. On the Blue Line a male’s voice repeats that the doors open on the right in the direction of travel. Cars clank across rusty Chicago River bridges. Music is seeping out from bars as you walk down Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park, any time of day. The rush of waterfalls gets louder and softer in the Fern Room at the Garfield Park Conservatory, patrons peeling off their winter coats in the dense humidity.
Looking over the city from the Hancock Building, everything becomes quiet and compact; no sounds of the everyday, little grievances reach that high, 1000 above Michigan Avenue. City sounds are personal and impersonal at once; they blend with all the lives being lived. The sounds become a collective hush to which we sleep.