As 2023 begins, reflecting on the twists and turns of 2022

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The end of each year, and the start of every new one, is a cliffhanger, unfolding in real-time.

We forget because we don’t have to wait too long to see what happens. Our narrative never stops. Season 2023 will begin playing soon, have patience. Its trailer was the past 12 months of 2022, and as always, by the end of that season, some details were resolved, but much — the story arc, the plot, the What happens next? to the characters — remained vague, until further notice. That knot in your stomach meant you were one of the characters. So pause to reflect, while you can. There were twists: Who had Bennifer: The Marriage on their 2022 bingo card? And threads we saw coming: Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s approval rating, depending who’s asking, hovered between 48% and 25% most of the year.

But our stage itself, as always, looks different 12 months later.

Even haunted.

The closed Victory Gardens Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park on Dec. 15, 2022. John Dillinger was killed there in 1934.

That’s the cost of adding more and more to the story. Once innocuous, familiar locations take on unexpected resonance from here on out. Layers of history acquire new layers. The Victory Gardens Theater closed after nearly 50 years, and now it’s just another story for tourists who swing by to find the bullet holes that killed John Dillinger in 1934, when Victory Gardens was the Biograph Theatre. The lot in Lake in the Hills that holds the UpRising Bakery and Cafe is no longer just another mundane suburban strip mall but a line in the sand for LGBTQ rights after the bakery’s owners tried to host a drag brunch, drawing protesters, hate crimes, counterprotesters and flags. Even if the Chicago Bears decide in 2023 to leave Soldier Field for Arlington Heights — a cliffhanger within a cliffhanger, which does not look good for the city — you can already picture parents telling kids that the NFL played here once.

Messages left on plywood that once covered the front windows broken by a vandal at UpRising Bakery in Lake in the Hills, shown on Dec. 19, 2022, where protesters demonstrated against drag brunches.

Like any large city, there’s drama behind every facade, sometimes literally: The lunch hour staple Mr. Beef on Orleans Street is now inseparable from the fictional Italian beef joint in Hulu’s “The Bear,” which reframed the River North hole-in-the-wall as Original Beef of Chicagoland (and was among the year’s best new series).

The Original Mr. Beef, where exteriors for the show “The Bear” were filmed, on North Orleans Street.

If you want to feel the resonance of uglier history, go to the intersection of 2nd Street and Central Avenue in Highland Park, where a gunman opened fire on its annual Fourth of July parade, killing seven and injuring almost 50. You will likely find an odd hush there. Or perhaps it just seems that way. As it did in July, those wide commercial boulevards now feel like a reminder that not even the most seemingly placid community is untouched by our collective narrative. In a town full of Jewish residents, it also became a reminder of the steady increase in antisemitic incidents and hate crimes nationally. Not that you have to go to Highland Park to be reminded: There’s a wall on Lake Street in Fulton Market that, until last autumn, held a large, admiring mural of Chicago’s native superstar Kanye West (now known as Ye). After he buried his career beneath an avalanche of antisemitic comments, the mural’s artist painted over West, physically erasing him — leaving a dark space, as hard to ignore now as that old image of Kanye West.

A building that once featured a mural of Kanye West in the 900 block of West Lake Street in Fulton Market, on Dec. 19, 2022.

You might say we saw that last twist coming.

Same with the 30-year federal jail sentence handed to R. Kelly.

But the very real possibility of a nuclear exchange in Europe?

When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock during the Oscars, I got seriously nervous. Not out of fear for Smith’s career. But because, in our greater cosmic narrative, that slap, at that moment, felt like misdirection. The fate of the planet was being threatened yet the planet seemed temporally paralyzed by a shocking public act of ego deflation. You could sense the multiverse made popular in “Loki” and ”Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — the multiverse being the narrative device of 2022 — tinkering with our moral destiny.

How else to explain Chicago suburbs, once thought somewhat safe from censorship, being the latest battlefront in a national spike in ideologically motivated library challenges? Or the end of abortion rights 50 years after the Roe v. Wade decision? If it was ever unclear, 2022 was a reminder that years, not progress, move chronologically.

The world, culturally, made itself unrecognizable to many last year, regardless of their politics. TikTok memes became the new hit singles — and often the driving force behind hit singles. Tom Cruise — Tom Cruise! — landed the biggest hit of a long career with “Top Gun: Maverick,” a movie that had no right being as thoughtful as it was. Serena Williams no longer plays tennis; Queen Elizabeth II is dead; and though you associate it with apocalyptic DMV lines and bureaucracy, Google now owns the Thompson Center.

Oddly, that last part feels right.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush talks to supporters after Vice President Kamala Harris gave a speech on the midterm elections on Nov. 6, 2022, in Chicago.

Perhaps because: After Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson resigned in February after being convicted of lying to the IRS and filing false tax returns, the city government faced its first time in a long time without a Daley. And after making history as the longest-serving speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, Mike Madigan was indicted on federal racketeering charges. As for more honorable Chicago plot twists: U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush announced his retirement from government after 40 years (including 30 in Congress).

Chicago is different now.

Kiersten Taylor, 24, left, and her cousin Madyson Hurst, 14, sit inside a tent as rain begins to fall as they wait outside the United Center after Harry Styles postponed his show on Oct. 6, 2022, in Chicago. They said they were planning to camp outside the United Center for another night's show.

Culturally, the changes spurred by the pandemic accelerated. With few exceptions, movie theaters looked gaunt and lonesome, still not drawing the crowds of yore. Masks left the scene at large stadium events — think Chicago native John Mulaney’s three United Center sellouts, Harry Styles’ six sellouts, Bad Bunny’s massive Soldier Field show. And yet, cultural leadership upheavals haven’t slowed: Barbara Gaines, after 36 years as the artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, announced her retirement, part of a wave of such departures. Dinkel’s Bakery announced its retirement from the doughnut scene after exactly 100 years. Lollapalooza announced a deal to remain in Chicago through 2032, but Riot Fest, though not retiring from Chicago just yet, became an embattled sore spot in Douglass Park. You see acres of green. Others see fields of mud and trash every September.

If there was a lesson from pop culture in 2022, it might be that even the seemingly harmless flotsam of our lives — buying Taylor Swift tickets, hating Amber Heard, gossiping about the Royals, believing QAnon — doesn’t move through a frictionless world. In fact, the year felt like a loud reminder that culture often points out where we are and what is worth fighting for. Just ask the people of Ukraine, whose social and military resistance to the Russian invasion has given the world a clearer portrait of Ukrainians, their temper, their art, their land. Every now and then we need reminders of who we could still become.

Last year was one of those years.

This year will be one of those years.

Choose your own adventure.

Just don’t think because the stage beneath your feet looks the same as it did a year ago, it won’t change. It already has. And the new year will change it again. Have a good new year. But if you’re wondering where this storyline is headed, consider those places around you and remember: Nothing remains the same. Nothing looks one way forever. What’s coming next? Everything everywhere all at once, of course.

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