We went to Chicago this past weekend for Market Days. It was my first trip to Chicago in exactly two years, since we went for Market Days 2009.
I am a latecomer to urban living. Growing up in a small town, our closest neighbor of any size was Saginaw, which gave me pretty low expectations of what a city should be. My family didn’t travel much, and when we did it was mostly to rural northern Lower Michigan or to the Owen Sound area of Ontario.
So when we went to Chicago every few years, it was a thrilling experience. I started visiting more frequently beginning my senior year of high school, after my best friend enrolled at University of Chicago. My visits took place mostly in winter and tended to center around Hyde Park, which, although it has a certain distinguished charm, is not the most glamorous neighborhood. Consequently, I had a view of Chicago as a gritty place with nasty weather and early sunsets. (Having learned how much difference the time of year makes in shaping a visitor’s perceptions, I’m only more infuriated by the criminal mis-timing of the North American International Auto Show.) Over the years, more and more of my classmates from Bay City moved there. (As I’ve grown older, this strikes me more and more as a feature than as a bug.) Familiarity bred a little bit of contempt, and I never seriously considered following them.
I know, this coming from somebody who then voluntarily moved to metro Detroit. How embarassing.
My first visit to the city in 2008, after I’d been living in Detroit, transformed my perspective. The first glimpse from the Skyway of the distant Loop revealed a shimmering ziggurat of new construction, reflecting blue from the lake and the sky; it was as if I’d never seen the place before. I’ve often remarked in this blog on how spending a lot of time in Detroit changes the lens through which you see large cities. For me, visiting cities like LA and Chicago fills me with wonder at busy streets with shiny new skyscrapers, block after block of occupied buildings in good condition filled with successful tenants, and herds of that elusive species, the unicorn — I mean, (mostly) attractive, eligible gay men, which you very rarely find outside of big cities. Chicago seems even more remarkable and anomalous in comparison with other cities in the Great Lakes region, in that it has the extreme density and rich texture of age that most newer, “successful” cities in the Midwest and Sunbelt lack. As I’ve delved into its history, I’ve grown to appreciate that Chicago is not just another big American city; it was the original “shock city” with a fascinating birth story, exploding almost overnight faster than any place before it.
When you spend as much time reading about cities as I do, it’s always refreshing and instructive to occasionally make the effort to get out and see them yourself. I’ve read a lot of hand-wringing and naysaying about contemporary Chicago since I started this blog. There was the wave of horrendous gang violence on the South Side a year or two ago. When Mayor Daley announced he wasn’t seeking re-election, many commentators questioned his legacy, painting the city as a Potemkin village, with the Loop a playground for the rich while other parts of town stagnated. It escalated further in response to the population loss that the 2010 Census revealed.
This weekend’s visit plainly revealed the divide between north and south. I was struck by the density of the former, with new development crowding right up to the very rails of the L, whereas on the south side there is plenty of underutilized space. People are paying through the nose and building ever higher in the Loop (none of that fear of height so dominant here in Ann Arbor), but there doesn’t seem to be even a fraction of that demand trickling south. We make a big deal about 8 Mile Road in metro Detroit; riding the L, you can experience a similarly stark economic divide without crossing a political border.
From the vantage of my friend’s 11th-story apartment on the Near North this past weekend, however, Chicago has never looked better. In the struggles of the neighborhoods outside the city’s favoured quarters, I suggest Detroiters can draw some hope; success can coexist with failure within the borders of a single city. There has been a lot of complaint in Detroit that the greater downtown is a similar kind of Green Zone, an enclave for the young, well-off and white while the rest of the city continues to decay. Chicago has been getting the same criticism. To me, that’s a significant improvement over a city with nothing but decay. I’ll take a pocket of promise over none at all. Struggling, low-income families on the South side of Chicago aren’t necessarily doing much better than struggling, low-income families in Detroit, but I doubt they’re doing much worse. You have to start somewhere. I’m starting to hear (probably premature) wailing about gentrification in Detroit. That does nothing for the people it is supposedly intended to help, and should be the last thing anybody worries about.