What You Need To Know About Chicago Before Watching The Chi

Photo: Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME.
In case you missed it, you don’t have to wait until January 7 to catch the season premiere of The Chi. The new series, created by Chicago native and Emmy winner Lena Waithe, is available to stream on the Showtime app. But if you haven’t watched it yet, and aren’t sure what to expect, I’d like to be of some assistance. I, like Waithe, was born and raised on the Southside of the midwestern metropolis, and I found myself appreciating the show more because of this insider knowledge. To help make sure you don’t miss out on any of the series’ richness, let’s go over three important points about the city that will help you appreciate the show even more. Don’t worry, there are no major spoilers.
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Chicago is big, diverse, and extremely segregated. Places like New York and Los Angeles are known for their huge populations. They represent the most and second-most populated cities in the country. Chicago is the third. Any city that is home to millions is bound to attract a diverse group of people with the promise of jobs and opportunity. And while all three places can call themselves diverse, only Chicago is considered to be one of the most segregated. According to data compiled by MSN Money based on 2016 Census information, over 50% of Black people in Chicago live in predominantly Black neighborhoods. There is also a class component at play. Diverse neighborhoods in Chicago are more expensive to live in.
In other words, you need to forget everything you know about Chicago from shows like Shameless, which are great but completely ignore these racial dynamics. The Chi is set in the city’s poor, Black underbelly. It’s reflected in the way people speak (characters refer to main streets like 79th as ‘the 9’) and in how they relate to the rest of the city. If you notice that the Northside is referenced as if it’s a world away, that’s because it is.
The culinary scene is huge. Google "best food cities in the U.S.," and Chicago will be on all the lists, claiming its seat at the table. I have spent too much of my time as a New York transplant arguing with natives that Chicago’s food surpasses theirs, and not just at the fancy dining opportunities, either. A piece of fried chicken from Harold’s will change your life.
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One of the main characters on The Chi has dreams of one day opening a restaurant of their own. It could be a real game changer for them should it come to fruition.
It is corrupt. There, I said it. Fun fact: Chicago is not nicknamed the Windy City because of the actual frequency and strength of the breezes there, although they’re pretty prominent. The moniker stuck after an editor blasted the hot air that Chicago politicians were known to spout. Several mayors of the city have been accused of dealings with the mafia, and even the current mayor Rahm Emanuel has come under harsh criticism for neglecting education and racial justice issues in the city. Corruption is a theme that has seeped into the fabric of the city from dealings with the police, to the school system. Poor people of color in the city navigate their lives with an acute awareness that the institutions that exist to provide public services can do more crime than good.
The Chi's characters are constantly navigating these institutions. What Waithe got right about Chicago is how entire communities form and exist under conditions that are less than ideal, and in some cases downright toxic. Trailers for future episodes suggest that the series will also take a look at how joy and unity function right alongside tragedy and chaos in the city’s most ignored spaces. That’s the Chicago I grew up in, and I’m glad that people are finally going to be paying attention.
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