Saturday, May 6, 2006

Chicago and the Thumbtack

One of the memories I recall often is a fairly ironic one. Before I went to graduate school, before I even went to college, sometime in high school I remember having a giant map of the United States and Canada on my bedroom wall. One day, in Muncus Agruncus fashion—"And on his desk were the maps and plans/For the next time he might find some time on his hands."—Muncusagruncus(a good children's book, if you ever have a chance to read it - as a young child I memorized it), I had some time on my hands and I decided to mark all the cities I had visited, and to figure out all the places in the United States I wanted to visit at some point in my life. Every city that fell in either of these two categories was marked with a thumbtack. New York was marked, as was Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Vancouver, Montréal, Toronto, even Denver and Albuquerque were marked. I saw Los Angeles on the map, and experienced a little conflict. I don't feel a special bond to Los Angeles, and in fact, to this day I still haven't been there. The smog, the temperatures, the gangs, the lack of a downtown (Although apparently Gehry's working on that, see NYTimes April 25th): it just doesn't seem like a particularly satisfying place. I'm probably wrong about this, it probably has many redeeming characteristics, but I can't recall them off-hand. I suppose most of our media comes from there, and there's the film history, and those are interesting things. Anyway, I remember finally deciding that I should at least visit Los Angeles for a few days, to do touristy things like visit Hollywood and so on. So Los Angeles got a tack. And then I remember noticing that Chicago wasn't marked on the map. I felt at that moment that I didn't have a particular desire to ever visit Chicago. I had even less inclination to visit the place than Los Angeles. No second cities for me. I did have an uncle there, however, and he might be worth visiting. Holding the tack over the city, I finally decided that on some flights I'd probably have a stopover in Chicago anyway, so I might as well extend the stop-over by a few days and visit the place. So with a little rationalization, I managed to convince myself that I wasn't being irrational when I put that last tack on the map.

The irony is that I ended up going to graduate school in Chicago, and I've now lived in the city I never particularly wanted to visit for almost a decade. A whole third of my life! It's funny how fate sometimes can produce these twists. I have to say that when I first arrived in Chicago I didn't like the place. I arrived in the city after almost 30 hours on a bus (with a stopover in Tennessee), and two suitcases. One was full of clothes, the other was full of books - something that neither I, nor Ms. Wright, who was kind enough to help me move those suitcases through New York's subway system, are likely to forget. Despite the fact I had an uncle in Chicago, he couldn't meet me at the bus station, so I had to make my way over to the University of Chicago on my own. I arrived in the housing office (having finally been assigned an apartment two days before), got my key, and then went to my apartment in the city I didn't even want to visit. My first time ever in Chicago.

Chicagoapartment01Although my first apartment wasn't great it had some pluses. For one thing it was located immediately adjacent to the Midway park, and so in the afternoon after class I could collapse on my sofa, with the windows wide open and listen to Louis Armstrong on the stereo while looking across a tree-lined corridor at the front facade of the U of C. Viewfrom60th That was nice. What wasn't nice was the fact that there were almost never any people on my block (the buildings below 60th were far more isolated back then), and the garage in back of the building was given the ominous title of "the garage where people get shot." Crime was a bit of a problem back then. The area was getting better at that point in time, but shootings were still routine. Well, for the shooters and the police I guess, certainly not for the victims. I remember getting a ride from a woman one night during that first winter, and she asked me how I liked Chicago. I said that I was getting tired of the gray cold winter days, and that I was looking forward to spring. She told me not too hope for spring, "People don't hang out on the streets in the wintertime," she said, "they only do that in the summer. So when the temperature rises, you are more likely to be shot. If you know what's good for you, don't wish for summer." She was speaking from a bit of authority because someone she knew, was actually shot dead on the Midway when he made the mistake of walking between two rival gangs. But, even though this was the case, I still think the routineness of things was perhaps a little too overstated even back then. Yes, there has always been crime in Hyde Park - the side effect of having a prestigious and wealthy school, and one of the more wealthy neighborhoods surrounded on all sides by extremely poor and struggling neighborhoods, but it's not as bad now as it was in the 80s/early 90s. Even so, when I had to cross the Midway at night I did choose my course quite deliberately. I'd walk along 59th until I saw a section of the park that had no people on it, and then in a quick dash I'd make for the shadows and disappear into the darkness before emerging on my street corner. With all the negative publicity, each midnight crossing felt a little like an adventure.

Needless to say all this talk about crime, getting shot, not wishing for summer, and the emptiness of my block did not make me feel especially warm about Chicago. I mean, I enjoyed my time here even in those years - I did have some great friends and I loved taking classes at the U of C - but I didn't have any inclination to stay in the city longer than I had to. This was further emphasized by my forays in the downtown region. Not knowing about the Northside, all my intuitions about the city were determined by the "Loop" area. And these were not good intuitions. For instance, I discovered that it was impossible to get a decent cup of coffee in the evening, since everything seemed to close at 6 PM. Even the Starbucks joints were unavailable after that time. The only people downtown were businessmen in suits and naive Midwestern tourists that had the annoying habit of always stopping suddenly and unpredictably on the sidewalk.

But, I have to admit that over the years Chicago has grown on me. Part of this is the result of changes in Chicago itself, the most striking change being the construction of Millennium Park,Millenniumpark which I think has been one of the city's greatest successes. Now, it is not uncommon to see crowds of people downtown at 9 or 10 at night, dancing in the open air, or listening to music and so on - I mean, nothing compared to New York, but it's progress. There are also coffee shops open in the area, and there is always a wonderful green space to collapse and listen to free concerts by the CSO and other world-famous ensembles. GehrypavilionThere is nothing quite like collapsing on a lawn listening to Dvořák and looking around at the fabulous architecture, and even seeing a few stars. Even the tourist crowd seems to have become far more interesting and multi-national. I mean, there are still hordes of Midwesterners who stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk, but now there are German and French - and I think that was Finnish? - people doing the same thing. I suppose we've always been an international city, but it is only recently that everyone has begun to congregate outside of the ethnic neighborhoods.

Chinatown01Besides these changes, part of my increased appreciation of Chicago comes from a recognition of how many great things the city has to offer. The first of these things is the lake. It's so wonderful to wake up in the morning, and to run along the shores of Lake Michigan. It just helps alleviate the sort of claustrophobic feeling I get in Chicago when I think about how far it's from the ocean. I suppose I have an unusual connection to the ocean. Provincetown01 I grew up on a house immediately adjacent to Provincetown bay - it was a hotel that my parents ran - and the water after a full moon was literally six or seven feet from where I slept. Actually, as an aside, the house could be sort of frightening in a storm. When the waves hit the concrete embankment just outside my bedroom window, the spray would actually make it over the five stories of our building, and flood the street on the other side. My mother even remembers one Christmas when they almost abandoned the building because of a storm. This wasn't an irrational fear: about a decade before we moved in the water had flooded the entire first floor to a depth of three or four feet (there was a mark next to the front desk to indicate this).

LakemichiganLake Michigan is not an ocean, and it won't give you that wonderful salty spray, and you're not likely to see whales going by. But it's also not a mere lake, not only because you can't see the other side, but also because it sort of has a very strong personality, complete with moods. Sometimes it appears to be the most wonderful happy blue, and beckons a day of pleasant sailing. Other days when it is more reflective, it seems clear and flat like a mirror. But it sometimes wears a quirky shade of neon green, or it becomes rough and gray. Or on a few occasions after some especially violent storms it is s tumultuous brown, and everyone knows not to mess with the lake on that day. All these effects are just changes in the lighting or the turning up of the bottom in a storm, and so on, but they do make the lake interesting, and the "mood" metaphor soon seems a rather good way of describing the changes in the lake. In the past few years, my appreciation for the lake has grown as I've discovered the joy of sailing on it. Yes, you can sail in other cities, but there is something rather incredible about leaving Grant Park harbor and being out in a beautiful expanse of water, and yet having a completely unobstructed view of the entire downtown. It can be a particularly inspiring view at night.

Another thing that Chicago has going for it is its city architecture. Chicagobuilding1Emporis recently gave Chicago the distinction of having the fourth greatest skyline in the world based on the number of buildings with an index for the height of the buildings. It has only been exceeded by New York (number 3), Seoul (number 2) and Hong Kong (number 1). All of these cities have far more high-rises than Chicago, but what Chicago lacks in numbers it makes up with in quality. AonbuildingYes, a lot of cookie-cutter skyscrapers have gone up in recent years, but buildings like the Hancock Tower, the Sears Tower, the AON center (my favorite skyscraper in the world from its exterior), the Monadnock building, some of the finest examples of van der Rohe architecture in the world, Koolhaus buildings, dozens or Frank Lloyd Wright structures, and perhaps even a Santiago building in the near future give Chicago a distinctive look.

And then there are the wonderful public spaces. Like the parks along the river: unlike cities such as New York that are actual ports, Chicago's lakefront is entirely devoted to recreation. Chicago has miles and miles of parks along the water, including basically a single waterside park running 16 miles from the south side up to Evanston. In addition, there is Millennium Park, Grant Park, various smaller parks spread out throughout the city, and the old Meigs field that is being turned into a park with grounds set aside for migrating birds. And with two firework shows every week during the summer, bike paths, free concerts, free outdoor movies, music festivals, and so on, Chicago is a wonderful place to be during the summer, and few cities can rival it.

ChicagorivernightSo, now after spending almost a decade in this city I didn't even want to put a thumbtack into, I can say that I actually like the place. This is not to say that I still don't have complaints. In particular the dating scene sucks compared to New York - well, at least for the sort of people I'm attracted to. It's also so difficult to do things late at night. Yes, there are places on the Northside one can go to, but in New York you can almost always count on being able to get a wonderful pizza or sandwich delivered from one of the pizza joints, or from the all-night delis: concepts that seem to be almost completely lacking in the 9-5 culture of Chicago. And that really is the culture here. I mean, I've recently been doing work downtown, and have been a part of the morning rush, and it really is incredible. It reminds me a little of what New York was like during the subway strike. But then at 5 PM everyone disappears.

It occurs to me that I also live quite a distance from downtown Chicago. Waterfountain01I live in Hyde Park, which although it's a great neighborhood (modulo the comments above), it's still about eight miles from the Loop. I often wonder how much more enjoyable Chicago would be if I actually lived in the heart of the city? Actually, I'm seriously considering moving downtown this summer. I suppose part of it is that I just need a change. Eight years in a Ph.D. program begins to wear one down a little. But part of it is also the fact that I think I'm getting a rather poor deal with my apartment. Although $800.00 a month is far cheaper than the $1200.00 is costs to live downtown, the difference in locale might be worth the difference in price. Actually, in my apartment hunting so far, I've learned that $1200.00 is sort of a magic number in Chicago. That is, if you want to live downtown that's what it costs to get a studio or a one bedroom. And it doesn't matter where the studio is. If it's in an old building that's falling apart with no amenities, and minimal services, it's $1200.00. If you want a studio in a swanky apartment building with swimming pools, saunas, air conditioning and heat, wireless internet, free cable and a balcony, it's $1200.00. I take this to be a sign of a young housing market. For the fact is that Chicago has seen lots of construction over the past few years, and barring any dramatic bursting bubble this will continue in the future. In one year I think something like 14 high-rise apartment buildings were built, and I'm talking about 40 story buildings - and the buildings keep coming up at a maddening pace. But I also note that things are getting a lot more expensive from month to month. It may be that the magic number will have gone up to $1300 in a month or so. Anyway, I have narrowed my decision to move down to two buildings, and am just waiting for an opening. So, hey, if any of you all want to visit Chicago again in the near future, you might want to wait until I find myself a new pad right in the heart of it all!

Yes, I have complaints about Chicago, but on those days when the sun is bright in the sky, Riverwalk02when a gentle breeze is blowing across the lake, and the sounds of a concert drift in from the distance, and you're reclining on a beautiful grassy space beneath trees and surrounded by freshly planted flowers, Chicago is pretty damn cool.

1 comment:

  1. Great description of the lake! When I lived in Hyde Park (at 51st & Cornell, in a wonderful building called Scholars Corner,) I had a view of the lake out my window. It's no surprise, then, that I composed a full album's worth of songs in that time. With the lake to inspire me . . . ahhhh! It was perfect!
    Here in New York, my current apartment looks across an alley at the Alvin Ailey Dance Studio. Watching dancers practice can be compositionally stimulating . . . but, in all honesty, it can't compare to that lake! I miss Chicago.