August 18, 2009


I’ve been in Chicago for four days. I have enjoyed my trip. The architecture has been fabulous and I have had the chance to visit with some friends I don’t see too often. However, I am vaguely ambivalent. I find my judging mind is working too hard. I judge the buildings, the city, the people. I find them wanting, though I have little reason to judge them harshly for they have been well enough to me this entire trip.

I have visited many larger cities and most I have concluded I could be quite happy in. Denver, Toronto, San Francisco, Boston, London, Milwaukee. Now Chicago is only the second, added to Phoenix, which I find I dislike. I would not wish to live here, if I could live elsewhere. It would not make me unhappy, because I don’t think a place has the ability to make me genuinely unhappy, but I should rather be someone that contributes to my desired lifestyle rather than takes from it.

I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is that I find disagreeable about Chicago. The weather is not so different from what I am used to. Everything is taller, narrower, louder, dirtier, and more crowded, but I expected as much. These things in and of themselves are not so bad. But there is a harshness here. The people have stone faced gazes, although when I have had opportunity to interact with strangers they have been nice enough. Servers are quick and helpful. People hold the door open behind them. They don’t cut in line on the ele. People still say please and thank you with a smile. But only when they must needs interact. Otherwise they are very much in their own worlds, talking on their phones, listening to their music, looking dutifully away from every other stranger on the crowded street.

Strangely the city shows both signs of neglect and care. Every transit stop is manned by one or more CTA workers, yet many stops are also dirty and run down. I have been to other cities where no one is minding the station, but it is well kept. Security is everywhere. Not merely police, but every building, every entry, every park, every transit area, is patrolled by private attendants and guards.

At the new Modern Art Museum expansion (just praised in Architectural Record, though it reminds me somewhat forcefully of a cage or prison) a pedestrian bridge connects an upper deck sculpture gallery to Millennium Park. It is guarded at both sides by uniformed attendants, but to what end? “Are we allowed to go on the bridge without admission to the museum?” Yes, we are. “Are we allowed to go into the sculpture garden?” Yes, we are. Then why do they guard it? Are they afraid someone will harm the bridge in some way? And if so, what does that say about the value the citizens place on the public institutions of their city?

The city is segregated into discrete neighborhoods, but many of the old ethnic enclaves (which have changed hands over the years, so that a church with German carvings no sports Spanish banners) are now being gentrified and yuppy-fied and hipster-fied. And the white kids who move in and think they’re being ‘good white people’ by not insisting the neighborhood change to suit their demographic, do nothing to contribute to it either. They live there because they are poor, often unemployed, and appear more interesting in ‘defying authority’ (aka partying and breaking things) than actually mixing. They decry the new bars setting up shop and changing the character of this ‘family neighborhood,’ yet if it is so ‘family oriented’ why do a bunch of single kids want to live their anyway?

I stayed with a friend at a place in Logan Square known as the ‘Cunt Collective,’ a large flat home to six permanent and many roving queer anarchist youth. On the one hand they are brilliant people because they are so skeptical and questioning, shaking up society’s normative values. They have a lot of energy and a desire to create change. But on the other hand they are intolerant and aggressive, verging on (if not tipping over into) violence, against both people and property (although whether one can perpetrate violence against property is debated). This worries me deeply, both for their safety and wellbeing and for that of the people they may unintentionally (or intentionally) harm. I see a great deal of selfishness masked as ‘service’ (fulfilling a role as a necessary force to redress gross societal wrongs) and responsibility exchanged for blame (screwing over the system because it has screwed over others). Yet they were kind and welcoming to me, good people at the core, and involved in many vital causes.

I have enjoyed my time in Chicago, but I am glad to be going home today.

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