Chicago has always been a city close to my heart. Even though I only lived in Chicago for 5 years, it is the place that I’ve felt most at home. Before that, it had already become a city I felt I knew better than any other. As a child, it was the center of my religious community.
For Baha’is in the United States, it is the heart of the community with the National Center and the Baha’i Temple housed just north of the city (Evanston and Wilmette). To a smallish college town girl it represented possibility, excitement, diversity and other good things.
For my 15th birthday my mom and I stayed with a friend in Rogers Park and attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in the Palmer Hotel downtown. It was my first experience with public transportation and big city life. It was also when I got to see the Dalai Lama speak in Grant Park (he’s hilarious – that’s all I remember) and when I was locked in an auditorium with Louis Farakan (leader of the Nation of Islam). I don’t remember a word that Farakan said, but I do remember that none of us were allowed to stand up, that the doors were locked, and that there were some very serious looking men in bow ties everywhere.
In either my 15th or 16th year of life I met a boy at a conference in Michigan. This boy became THE boy for quite a while and he happened to be from Chicago. My visits shifted in nature after but only served to solidify my fascination with the city. For example, one night we went downtown with a friend of his. It was the middle of the night and there was no one around. Who knew that such a big city would be so quiet and desolate in the middle of the night… for those hours all those skyscrapers and deserted streets were just ours.
Fast forward a few years. I’m a single parent with an ex-husband (not the aforementioned guy) and we’re living in Ohio, struggling and unhappy. The ex and I decide that we’ll start looking for work and grad school in the same places so that we can leave our home town but still be close for Kaia’s sake. We ended up in Chicago. *Special thanks to Nkem for dissuading me from picking an apartment full of charm but lacking floor (literally, there were gaping holes in the floor and I was seriously considering it because it had built in cabinets everywhere).* I started grad school at Loyola University Chicago in the fall of 2007. Kaia and I lived in Albany Park. I waitressed with some amazing people and Kaia went to a small, public school with an organic community garden.
I met some amazing people through that school, parents of my daughter’s friends. Though my friends from waitressing and Kaia’s school are now spread out from Oregon to Germany, they’re still very close to my heart. I mean three of us were single mothers in graduate school! We helped each other with child care and more importantly with moral support. I LOVED living in Chicago. So much.
I started going to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square about 7 years ago (almost to the day actually) and met my capoeira family.
On that first day of class I trained with this super hot guy (pictured above – please ignore my bad form, I was a newbie) who invited me to train with him and some other people in the park a block from my apartment. Without getting into the full history and timeline – that hot guy is now my husband 🙂 and those people we trained with became a huge part of our lives. So if you read my last post about pain, you might now have a better understanding of why not being able to do capoeira has been so hard for me.
Chicago was a great place for me to raise a young child on a limited income. The Chicago Parks have classes and child care for nothing to very little. I paid $90 for 6 weeks of ALL day child care. That’s $90 for the whole 6 weeks! Ballet and art classes were free. There were 5 parks within a 15 walk from our house. The beaches were free. Museums were free on certain days and you could check passes out to them from the library. Through capoeira (and her school to a lesser degree) she grew up around a literal rainbow of humanity.
My first job out of grad school was working with an Upward Bound program at Roosevelt University. I had wanted to work for UB since I found out what it was 10 years earlier – such a great program! I wasn’t disappointed.
We worked in Social Justice High School in Little Village 4 days a week and then spent Fridays in RUs Gage building on Michigan Ave. overlooking Crown Fountain (you know the one with the faces) and the Bean, and Pritzker Pavilion. During the summer we were downtown the whole time – I distinctly remember hearing Iron and Wine practicing at the pavilion the afternoon of their concert. That was awesome, I loved it. But I also loved working in Little Village, or La Villita. This community is almost 100% Mexican, not Latino, but Mexican. Taco joints everywhere and more Spanish than English. That was also awesome, but it was the students we worked with, and my coworkers who made that job so amazing. I still get choked up when I think about leaving all of them and am SO thankful for social media.
I’m painting a beautiful picture, and for a lot of people life in Chicago is beautiful. But it is not all roses and sunshine. There is so much segregation and inequality in the city. I lived in a well off part of the city with good schools and cute little shopping districts, and street cafes, and clean parks.
On my way to work everyday I drove through stretches of the city that look as if the city has abandoned them… parks are trashed, buildings are falling down, windows are boarded up, and people are just standing around because there are no jobs. I admit that I didn’t personally know anyone who lived in a neighborhood like this but I knew people who worked in these places as teachers or in community centers. The issues confronting these communities are unlike anything I’ve ever had to live through and reminded me much more of my time in Brazil and Honduras in the 90s than of my life at any point in the U.S.
Just to be clear, Little Village wasn’t one of the neighborhoods I was just describing. It’s a bustling neighborhood with a lot of character and evidence of economic activity but it’s still riddled with gang violence. Every student I worked with knew someone who had been the victim or perpetrator of gun violence, or could point out where the latest shooting had happened. I suppose one of the things I learned working there is that gang violence doesn’t define a community, though it does contribute to the shape of the community. Most of those students wanted to go off to college (or stay put for college) and then come back and make their home a better place; whether that be through community action or access to health care or education.
In Lincoln Square people came out to the parks and to walk around the shopping district on Lincoln Ave when the weather warmed up. But in a lot of neighborhoods in the city, that first warm night is the most dangerous of the year. People holed up all winter come out with guns blazing. If you pay attention to the news, you’ll know that this year gun violence in Chicago is even higher than it was last year… WBEZ had a great program several years ago on gun violence in Chicago vs. Toronto. They’re of similar size but in Toronto one year in the 90s, there were 75 people killed by gun violence. The mayor was almost run out of office the outrage was so great. That same year there were over 400 people killed by gun violence in Chicago and no fuss was made at all.
This isn’t why we left; we left for family reasons. But my love of Chicago was waining with every new statistic and every drive through the third world in the richest country on earth. I’m not even going to get into how screwed up the education system is or how much privatization of public services is driving up costs or how you can get a parking ticket for being more than 12 inches away from the curb (seriously, this happened to me).
Now that I’m living the suburban life there are more things that I miss than not (my coffee shop in Lincoln Square – the Grind) and I would have liked to be a part of positive changes in the city (assuming those are to come). Though Chicago is no longer my home, it will always be a part of who I am and might always be where Kaia says she’s “from”.