Loving Chicago Is Complicated, But It’s Home

As a white, middle class woman who lives on Chicago’s far north side, it’s easy for me to talk about loving Chicago.  It’s easy for me to feel defensive when I hear politicians and muckrackers and outsiders like Trump and Giuliani and FOX News anchors talk smack about my city.  It’s easy for me to stay in my lane, feel the security (false as it may actually be) of living in my white, middle class bubble.  It’s easy for me to feel angry towards folks I knew long ago who wonder why I stay and feel the need to tell me to leave, now, before it is too late.

The truth is that I love Chicago, despite its many flaws.  It is my home, gifted to me by my four immigrant grandparents who crossed the Atlantic to settle here.  Chicago would be their new home, their chosen home.  They worked in steel mills and scrubbed the floors of tony addresses on Division and rented apartments in Englewood and owned a sided bungalow in Vrydolyak’s 10th Ward on the southeast side.

My beautiful skyline, dressed up for Spring.
My beautiful skyline, dressed up for Spring.

In the 1990s, when all of my family opted out of Chicago, I stayed.  When people came home, where would they go if none of us were here?  I stayed and made it my home.  I’ve had addresses in neighborhoods like Lakeview and Ukrainian Village and West Ridge and Roscoe Village.  I’ve lived in Chicago proper longer than any other place and my roots here are deep.

But my eyes are open.  Wide open.  The Chicago I know and love does not exist for everyone.  Chicago is brutal.  Is it cruel.  Its politicians are misguided at best, corrupt at worst.  Its police force is in bad need of reform.  Its public schools are segregated and inequitable, just like its neighborhoods.  Its violence is relentless.  Its infrastructure is aging.  Its pension obligations are staggering.  It needs help.

And yet, despite all these problems, I don’t think I will ever leave.  Hell, our older boy’s middle name is Daley.  That was intentional and less about an idealization of the Irish Catholic Mayors Daley and more about a mother’s hope that if he ever leaves this place, he will always know it was home.

My city, like America, is long due for a reckoning.

Milwaukee Avenue mural, Wicker Park.
Milwaukee Avenue mural, Wicker Park.

Chicago’s history is storied and deeply entwined with institutional racism.  Factors that were put into play decades ago are still wreaking havoc on black and Latino folks.  Neighborhoods that were once jewels are struggling with gun violence and gangs.  Other neighborhoods that were ethnic centers with affordable housing stock are gentrifying, losing their literal and figurative flavor, now catering to those who can afford million dollar homes.

As an adult raising children here, we’ve made choices to try and balance providing our kids a safe and comfortable environment while still having them be in what is very much a thriving, diverse neighborhood, full of apartments, condos, and single family homes.  Our neighbors are black, white, Latino, Middle Eastern.  When I look out my front window, it’s an even toss to see someone wearing shawls and yarmulke, a burqa, or the latest pair of Jordans.  Someone once told me I live in a fairy tale and my neighborhood isn’t real.  Nope. I can’t abide folks I knew long ago suggesting that our valid life choice to live in an integrated neighborhood is somehow pie-in-the-sky romanticism.

Our older boy is enrolled in one of CPS’ controversial selective enrollment schools that many consider elitist, but he was also reading at three and has some pretty unique educational needs that are very well met there .  Our younger guy will, most likely, attend our neighborhood school up the street when he starts kindergarten next year.

Again, though, is that issue of choices, and the privilege inherent in having them.  My family has choices.  We can move schools or addresses.  We can leave any time we want.  What we want is to stay.  For us, staying means acknowledging that there is a deep and profound inequity in Chicago, just like many other American cities.

We want to teach our sons about the whole of Chicago, not just its bright and shiny parts.  And, like my father did with me and my siblings, we want our boys to feel an ownership with every part of this city — its steel skyscrapers, its cultural offerings, its gorgeous lake shore, its public transportation, its segregated neighborhoods, its alleys, its projects, its racism and ugliness, its storied colleges and universities, its muck, its majesty.  If my boys grow up to be like my Dad, who appreciated most everything about this city, we would have succeeded.

Last weekend was horrific, with over seventy shootings, more than a few of them children.  This weekend was calmer, only thirty-three folks were shot.  Hard to believe that almost three dozen shootings feels calm, but there it is.  My older boy and I spent Saturday afternoon walking up and down local alleys, looking for garage sales.  That kid never met a garage sale he didn’t love.  We scored a new scooter and book for him and a bag of magnetized cars for his younger brother.

Somewhere else, not too far away, some other kid was resting in a hospital bed, recovering from a bullet wound.  It ain’t right and we have to stop ignoring it.


Do you want to read more about Chicago from folks who actually live here?  Read THIS, something I wrote a few years ago — it even won a fancy award.  WBEZ reporter, Natalie Moore, wrote a book I highly recommend, The South Side:  A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, that taught me a tremendous amount about real estate patterns in Chicago that enforce racism.  Oh!  And you can pre-order the magnificent Eve Ewing’s, “Ghosts in the School Yard:  Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side,” which breaks down the recent closure of 50 Chicago public schools.

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