The other side of town
Did you know that Chicago extends north of North Avenue? (And east of the North Branch, too?) And here I had thought that everything between the Near North Side and the suburbs was just cultureless, crime-infested urban decay.
Alright, enough sarcasm. I visited the north side today, the last day of September and the very end of summer even by my standards. I had a coupon (I forget how) for Village Cycle Center that was good through today, and wouldn't you know, I happen to have a new bike that I need to trick out with accessories and extra reflectors and shit, so what the hell, I may as well go up there and blow part of my paycheck. (Not as much as I'd anticipated, since they were out of taillights.) And then I somehow got it into my head that I'd like to ride the North Shore Channel Trail up to the sculpture park in Skokie. [Photos forthcoming in a different post.] And hey, as long as I'm on Wells, and Lincoln goes right up there...
Unintended result: Tour de North Side, and an awfully lot of thinking about urban geography--and inevitably about race, and class, and where I fit into this crazy jigsaw puzzle of a city that I call home. (Short answer: nowhere.)
What's always struck me about the north side is how seamlessly the different neighborhoods all blend into each other. (I suppose that's how people who play real estate like it's checkers can get away with calling large swaths of it either "Lincoln Park" or "Lake View.") This is sadly not the case on the south side, where the neighborhoods are segmented from each other more divisively in our minds than on any map. Take Hyde Park, for example, which is surrounded by a wall so obvious that it lacks only the arrogance of a physical manifestation. Or, say, you're in the middle of an industrial wasteland, and then all of a sudden you're in Hegewisch. Or you're in the middle of the most stereotypical chunk of south side that you can possibly imagine, but then you're suddenly among the large mansions, wide lawns, and centuries-old trees of Beverly. Or you cross a boulevard and discover that everything is in another language, then you cross another boulevard and it's mostly empty lots.
Yes, the sorry truth is that we're mostly divided down here; the north side, not so much. This must by why I always get so easily lost up there. Or else it's because they don't number their streets like normal people. Today, however, I got around with no trouble at all and hardly a glance down at my map. The very fact that I had my map in my map case on my handlebars for me to glance down at still made me feel like a loser, though, as it always does. Someday I'll figure out how to navigate by street signs alone. At this rate it will probably be the day I finally leave this town, and then I'll have to start all over again somewhere else.
I got as far north as Main St. in... whatever town I was in. Skokie, I suppose; I'll look it up later. If I remember correctly the North Branch Trail eventually dumps you unceremoniously onto a sidewalk in the middle of downtown Evanston. I hear it's a problem; I hear they're working on it. They're always working on it. Until that point, however, the trail winds through a series of pretty and well-utilized parks along the channel, up to the permanent "detour" courtesy of Alderman Bernard Stone, then jumps the city boundary into Skokie, where it meanders through their Northshore Sculpture Park. Weird. Art. Everywhere. I took a 3D art class in ninth grade and learned that I'm no good at it, but I did develop something of an eye for sculpture as a result--"Wow, what an interesting use of negative space!"--that's frustrated every poor sap who's bothered to date me, dragged around from one seemingly useless hunk of metal and/or concrete to another. I knew damn well what they had in mind when they suggested going for a walk, and I never cared for that ruse. Anyway, you can't see the channel at all from the trail/park because of all the scrub obstructing the view, but perhaps that's a good thing. There might not be much worth looking at.
I coasted through Lincoln Square on my way back south, which was very, um, hmm, how can I put this delicately? Vanilla? No, "vanilla" describes those town-square-like pedestrian malls in the suburbs that are all carbon copies of each other, where the only businesses that aren't national chains are those artsy-craftsy stores owned and operated by middle-aged women who always dreamed of owning and operating their own artsy-craftsy stores and were lucky enough to actually do it. (I have nothing against such places, but they rarely last for very long and don't quite anchor a business district they way that the local CVB might hope--"Look, we have artisans!" No, you don't have "artisans," you have middle-aged women selling cute crap decorated with buttons and lace and New Agers selling incense and hemp jewelry.)
No, Lincoln Square was different, like everything Harper Court tries to be but never quite succeeds in becoming: nice, and neat, vibrant and a bit upscale. And... white. Mostly white. I was surrounded by other persons of mostly European descent, mostly speaking English, mostly with the accent that I interpret as no accent. People who were, by all outward appearances, mostly just like me.
Somehow I felt out of place. Somehow I felt much more out of place than at a poetry slam or jazz performance at Harper Court, where I tend to stick out like a sore thumb pale with necrosis. I was deeply troubled: Why did I feel out of place at Lincoln Square, surrounded--and generally, refreshingly ignored--by a bunch of other white people?
When I'm out and about on my own in my own part of town I am sometimes hooted at, sometimes called "white girl" with varying degrees of obscenity; conjectures are made (rude and quite incorrect) about my parents, my ancestors, my place of origin, my profession, my salary, and even my gender and sexual orientation. (I swear I hear the word "fag" muttered or shouted in my direction more often than most gay men do, even though neither of the two conditions inherent in that hateful word apply to me at all. It's almost too hilarious to be hurtful. Almost.)
And in Lincoln Square I felt out of place.
I almost had an existential crisis--a bike lane after sundown is a bad place and time for an existential crisis, so I waited until I was at McCormick place, and then I really had an existential crisis. Who am I? What am I? What have I become? What am I doing here? Where do I belong? As big as this city is, as much of it as I've seen, as much as I love it, why have I still not found a place where I feel like I belong? Am I nobody? Where does no one belong?
I sat on a limestone block in the dark and thought about it. I don't know. I just don't know. Nowhere, I guess. Or maybe the middle of nowhere, where everything converges and anything goes, crowded by day yet deserted by night, the very heart of this beautiful, terrible monster we're created. That utterly impersonal and indifferent place where your soul is stripped bare and you're reduced to just another specimen in the mass of humanity, the place where you survive by the money in your wallet and the hardness in your heart. At midnight in the rain, in a hurry to get somewhere else; at noon in the blazing sun, waiting, waiting. The place where no one belongs but where everyone goes nonetheless.
Yes, I must belong in the middle of nowhere--in the Loop.
If only I could afford it.
"Hey, check out white girl over there with the helmet and the lights! Ha! Safety First! Ha! Ha!" Some kids, somewhere south of Oakwood. I thought, shut up you little punks or I'll run you over. I didn't say it; I couldn't. I'd be called a racist child-hater if I did.