Sunday, June 03, 2012

11+ Things I'll Miss About Chicago

22 boxes and counting
When I first sojourned in Chicago for the spring 2001 quarter, and then returned again to teach and live in fall 2002, people would ask me, Do you like it t/here?  Even before I ever lived here I visited many times, and believe without hesitation that Chicago is a great city, one of the grandest, most exciting and livable big cities in the US. But I would often find myself giving a mixed answer, because there were and are many things I like about it, but there are things I have not liked so much.

A few years in, Chicagoans no longer asked me the question, assuming I suppose that I was still here I must like it as much as they did, but people who came to visit or people I met in other cities who found out that I spent part of each year here would ask me about the city, and almost always whether I liked it. Again my usual response usually proceeded with praise for the city's many amenities, which I would then counter with a statement about the winter. This sufficed, because almost everyone I've come across has an image of Chicago's glamorous downtown skyline (which has grown only more impressive in the years since I've been here), yet shudders with fear over having to spend a winter alongside this side of Lake Michigan, especially after the Snowpocalypse (which really did blow snow through my locked window sashes up onto the inner panes of my apartment's double-paned windows), though as a colleague reminded me yesterday, this was a very mild winter.

Over the last few months I have been thinking of what things I really have enjoyed about Chicago and what I'll miss, and what I have enjoyed less so. Here then are two lists, which do not include my family, friends, students and colleagues (who'd appear in the first).


1. My neighborhood, Rogers Park. It's one of the most diverse and affordable neighborhoods on Chicago's north side, quite safe (even though one of the main strips was for years an open-air, 24/7/365 illicit drug mart that cops drove past without batting an eye), full of artists and immigrants and queer folks and people of all ages, colors and religions (I used to live near an Episcopalian Church, Ethiopian church, a Korean Christian church, and a mysterious African-derived church that held ceremonies all weekend long, it seemed, and now live right across the street from a Christian Science outpost), with an accessible beach, lots of cut-rate but tasty restaurants, and proximity to Evanston, which has meant a fairly easy commute to work. The El's and Metra's trains both stopped in the neighborhood. Getting downtown is always a hike, and necessitated my getting a car when I had to teach on the Chicago campus, but there's also a lot to be said for not being in the midst of everything, or being in the midst of other sorts of things that are amenable and livable. That Rogers Park is.

2. The various literary and artistic communities of Chicago. Rarely do they meet, but I have tremendously enjoyed interacting with and in some cases participating in many of them. Alongside my university creative writing, Poetry and Poetics Colloquium, and literary studies colleagues and students, I've had the invaluable benefit of linking up to a range of smart and energizing wordsmiths, artists and performers. From the Reconstructon Room and Second Sun and the Silver Room, who brought visual art, poetry and performance together, to the Red Rover Series, which never failed to bring something innovative and unexpected to its events, to the Human Micropoem, which put the "p" in "people," "poetry," "politics," and "possibility," to the Homolatte series at Big Chicks, which paired queer performers and music in exciting ways, to the Myopic Reading Series at that incomparable bookstore (cf. below), to the Danny's Reading Series, which brought so many friends to town and gave a whole new meaning to reading in bar full of enthusiastic patrons, to the Poetry Foundation and its multiple, enlightening programs, to the Gwendolyn Brooks Conferences at Chicago State University, which I had the good fortunate to be able to speak at and attend, meeting Dr. Haki Madhubuti, James Alan McPherson, Edward P. Jones, and the late Octavia Butler, among many others, to all the projects that Krista, Toni, Nathanaël, Abegunde, Jen, Erin, Amy, Joshua, John, Jennifer, Quraysh, Kelly, and Reg, and a vast extended crew of other writers and artists and programs have gotten going, I never lacked for language and art.

3. WBEZ, Chicago's main public radio station. Though it relies perhaps far too heavily on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for programming--on any given day, if I switch on WBEZ, half the time, it seems, I hear Canadian accents talking about Canadian topics, which is okay in small doses, fond as I am of our neighbor to the north--WBEZ is far superior to WNYC in New York. Unlike the latter station, it has a more racially and ethnically diversified local lineup of reporters and hosts, and far more diversified programming. It also featured one of the smartest, most informative programs I've ever heard, Odyssey, hosted by Gretchen Helfrich. That show has gone and Helfrich is in (or has finished) graduate school, but it alone made WBEZ worth listening to every weekday. Also, it broadcasts weekly speeches from the Commonwealth Club of California; features a show called Vocalo that plays house music for hours on end; and yet also features all the NPR staples, including Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk with Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Fortunately I can stream it online, so I won't have to forgo it, but I'd much rather be able to tune all my radios to it rather than the New York metro-area dominant WNYC.

4. Metropolis Café, Charmers Café, Caribou Coffee's branches along Clark Street, The Common Cup, Chava Café, and all the great cafés from Rogers Park to Boystown to Wicker Park. I am a coffee person and a café person, and Chicago has many of the latter serving very good cups of the former. Metropolis has excellent coffee, and I've enjoyed sometimes running into favorite colleagues hard at work there, and even met a talented Afro-Colombian artist who'd exhibited his work there.  Charmers is very neighborhoody, and I once stumbled upon a film being shot there. At the various branches of Caribou I have graded many a paper or reread a short story or novella revision; unfortunately I've also always managed to miss Rod 2.0! When we're both in town we seem to operate like two subatomic particles that settle at the exact other Caribou at the same time.

5. Landmark Century Cinema, the Music Box, Gene Siskel Film Center, and all the other venues for seeing new and unusual films, and alongside the theaters, all of Chicago's vaunted film festivals, which are the real thing. The city has tons, you can see films you'd only see on the coasts, and most of them are affordable. There's even a mainstream theater in walking distance from me, right near the Loyola University of Chicago campus, that features very cheap matinees.

6. Lots of cheap, affordable, delicious restaurants. I have mostly cooked since living here, but I can vouch for the fact that Chicago has some of the best food in the US, high, middle and low end, and if you are looking to economize, it also has a number of excellent fairly affordable restaurants, with almost every cuisine you could think of available.  A few years ago one of my students visited the famed Alinea, a temple of molecular gastronomy, and I have said I'd love to try it, but it remains out of my price range. One restaurant I don't hit anymore but which is a must for meat lovers is Hot Doug's, about which I'll say only: bring cash, be ready to stand on line, and don't eat before because you will certainly feel full. There are variations on Mexican cuisine that boggle the mind. Then there's my favorite restaurant, Sticky Rice, a joint serving Northern Thai cuisine that has "worms" on its menu. Chicago does roll like that!

7. More theaters and plays staged than you can possibly ever visit. I'm not a big theater person, but I think Chicagoland has got New York and LA beat by many miles in this regard, Broadway notwithstanding. This is a theater town. On any given night, there are plays underway somewhere in Chicagoland. Or on the verge of being staged. I have caught some great plays and performances, and some awful ones, but without fail I've at least left the theater musing about what I saw.  Within walking distance of my apartment there are, right now, a staging of works by Samuel Beckett and A Light in the Piazza, just to name two of the offerings.

8. The El. Once I was able to avoid having to rely on it all the time, I could appreciate it.  Some of the stations, like nearby Jarvis, look so decrepit it's miracle they're still standing, the cost of a one-way ride just keeps rising, and the hub-and-spoke format means that getting west requires you to travel towards the Loop to connect to lines radiating away from the Lake, but it runs 24 hours, and mostly goes where I need to if I don't want to drive. Getting to Cablevision, the office of the Secretary of State (for car stickers, etc.), requires another mode of transportation, however. I.e., a car.  (I'll put in a plug for the No. 22 bus, which runs up Clark Street. It's reliable and clean and carries all manner of humanity up and down this major east-lying Chicago artery.

9. Chicago is one of the more queer-friendly cities in the US. I have had many criticisms of former mayor Richard Daley, but being homophobic was never one of them. Between the city's government and its general ethos, it is pretty lgbtq-friendly, and although there are racial, ethnic, class, and gender divisions among lgbtq people, the main gay neighborhoods of Boystown and Andersonville (there are others, including Rogers Park) are increasingly gentrified and unaffordable to many non-wealthy queer people, and there is anti-gay violence like anywhere else, Chicago has maintained a vibrant queer ecology in a way that other cities, either through hypergentrification or decline, have not. Outside the northside it's less gay-friendly, but there are gay bars and events on the South Side and West Side, and the general atmosphere places it in the upper ranks of major US cities.

10. Bookstores like Unabridged Books, Myopic Books, Women and Children First, Powell's, and many others. I am packing up books, so many books, so many boxes of books, which is a tiny nightmare, but Chicago still has some fine independent and used bookstores, some offering treasures that astonished me. Like the time, early on in my process of working on this 19th century novel, of coming across a book, in a bookstore, and not a library, on African-American probate records in Boston. Seriously. There it was, right there in the used bookstore. Or going to another bookstore not far from Wrigley Field and seeing first editions for sale for less than $50.  Or finding the Encyclopedia Africana for $20 years ago, a price so low I decide to buy two, and, at the urging of an acquaintance, shipped one to a Brazilian writer who would have had to pay through the pores to get a copy. I have tried to the best of my ability to visit these dens of text-lust infrequently as my departure date has neared, but I know I will miss all of them.

11. Chicago's architecture. I don't just mean the famous architectural treasures, of which there are many, but the Prairie and Arts and Craft-style homes, the solidity of the brick architecture, the human scale of so much of the northside's neighborhoods. Then there are the numerous remarkable exemplars by some of America's greatest architects (H.H. Richardson, Holabird and Roche, Burnham and Root, William LeBaron Jenney, Sullivan and Adler, Walter Burley Griffin, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Helmut Jahn, Stanley Tigerman, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, etc.) dotting Chicagoland , and singular jewels like the Marina Tower (the Honeycomb Building), which never fails to fill me with awe and delight. I've never understood why I enjoy looking at and exploring buildings so much, but Chicago has presented more than enough.

Also, all the museums; the parks and conservancies, with their incredible floral displays; the fact that I was able to be here on the very day in November 2008 when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, four years after I'd met and spoken with him in Evanston; the affordable rents, even in Rogers Park; my local health food coop, which is excellent; the easy drive to O'Hare International Airport; the beach in spring and fall; and driving toward downtown on Lake Shore Drive in the evening during the fall and winter, when the Loop's skyline gleams in front of you, and off to the left you can see the glittering bracelet of Navy Pier's Ferris Wheel turning, the shimmering moonlit lake churning in the background. It evokes a feeling that isn't exactly romantic but approximates it. If nothing else, it underlines Chicago's distinctive beauty and  I always expect to see this in a film, but never have. Directors, please take note.

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