Chicago is like America on a propaganda film, with every colour, age, language and class on the sidewalk

Chicago! When Charles Dickens first came here, his train conductor called it "The Boss City of the Universe", but although the radio station of the Chicago Tribune is still called WGN (for World's Greatest Newspaper) few Chicagoans would offer such a brag now.

It is still a place of old-fashioned civic pride, all the same. I was a guest the other night at a cultural fund-raising dinner ($300 a plate), and thought the occasion marvellously redolent of 19th-century aspiration. Were those genial men in tuxedos the great-grandchildren of hog-slaughterers? Were those ladies' diamonds inherited from con-men?

Perhaps, but cultivated Chicago has long outgrown its rude beginnings, while retaining a Samuel Smiles sort of optimism. My dinner-table partners were not yet disillusioned by the world. They were aiming upwards still, and they boasted chiefly not of civic size or wealth, but of the impressionists in their Art Institute, the scholarship of their universities and the particularly interesting pastas at Spiaggio's restaurant.

Most of the people at dinner that night lived well beyond the endless malls, tenements, shabby houses and dingy industrial wastelands speckled with pompous multi-denominational churches that surround the inner city. Next day, I took a train out to one of the best-heeled of the outer suburbs, Lake Forest, and this, too, was an experience partly nostalgic, partly unsettling. The train itself was decidedly old-school. Its rolling-stock was modern - double-decked commuter coaches - but its crew was straight out of the old movies. They patrolled their cars smart and observant as sergeant-majors, keeping an eye on our postures. Direct from the spittooned past came their mellow announcements when we approached another station - Evanston next stop, Oak Park next, Highland Park in two minutes, Highland Park coming up!

Lake Forest station was rather the same. It has an improving air to it. A train bell on the platform honours the memory of some eminent local philanthropist, and on the noticeboard there are memos of advice to those wishing to restore historic houses. The waiting-rooms are genteel, the lavatories are spotless, and I noticed in the telephone booth a pile of small change left behind, I liked to think, by some considerate commuter for the convenience of the next customer.

My companion and I walked up the road for a buffet lunch at the apparently half-timbered Deerpath Inn. My, what comfort awaited us there! The maitre d' greeted us with sweet effusion, the lunchboard groaned with salmon, turkey, roast lamb and meringues. Outside our window, as we ate, a Jewish wedding party was being elaborately photographed in the garden - a Rembrandtesque scene of family affection and propriety, with frustrated children kicking their legs in impatience for the meringues.

All around us here were mansions. They are the norm in Lake Forest. If it had not been for the Chardonnay, I might have been a little ideologically affronted, in the old New Statesman manner, as we trundled back to Chicago's Union Station through the twilit ticky-tacky miseries. By the time the vinous effects had worn off, though, I was walking along the downtown Miracle Mile, joining half Chicago in its seasonal Festival of Lights. If there is social resentment among the Chicagoan masses, it certainly did not show there. It was like America in a propaganda film. Every colour, every age, every language, every class jostled one another down the sidewalks, illuminated by a million fairy lights strung among the bare branches of the trees, and by the streaks of laser beams darting here and there. The opulent shops were all ablaze; policemen swaggered genially about; little black boys fell upon each other in hilariously virile games, while small white girls looked at them enviously over their shoulders, safe in the grasp of daddy's hand.

We were all delighted. If we had recently migrated from Equador, or Sicily, or Madras, or Vietnam, we were congratulating ourselves on our marvellous passage into Paradise. If we were in town from Siloville, Illinois, we were wondering how they would ever get us back on the farm. And if we were visiting from Llanystumdwy, Gwynedd, Wales, we were thinking that, well, perhaps Abraham Lincoln was right when he called American democracy the last, best hope on earth . . .

As Churchill told us, democracy is a rotten system, but on the whole it's better than all the others. I had felt the worst of it on our way back through the grunge from privileged Lake Forest, but on the Miracle Mile that evening we were experiencing the best: the fun, the hope, the opportunity, the comradeship. Nobody was pushing, or fighting, or squabbling, or whingeing. Even as we strolled, the garbage-men were out with their brushes and machines, cleaning up after us. The decorations were beautifully stylish. Nothing was vulgar. All was kind.

Perhaps, I thought, if communism had managed to give such pleasure to its people, it might have won its mind-battle after all; for the truth is that the lucky masses of Chicago are almost as helplessly manipulated by the corporations, the admen, the media and the politicians as ever the huddled masses of Moscow were by the Politburo. But dear God, be honest, which would you rather have?