From New York to Chicago: What is a “city”?

It wasn’t with great apprehension that I first arrived in Chicago, I was a city kid, I’d spent my whole life in New York, I figured I wouldn’t be too overwhelmed, but after my initial tour of Chicago, it didn’t make any sense to me as a “city.” Everything was far too spread apart; the layout of the buildings just didn’t make sense to me. It was like I was “outside,” the distance in between the buildings revealed that in fact “space” still did exist in the city, that twenty miles away there was space without huge buildings dominating it. Perhaps the lake does this: it’s strange to have a city put up against the backdrop of an enormous aquatic void. First entering the Loop, I felt that sensation that people who always said “New York City is overwhelming” maybe felt: the huge buildings prompted this feeling in me, not the mass of people–the fact that the huge buildings were revealed and I could see the landscape made me feel tiny in comparison. A strange thing to say, perhaps, but in some sense Chicago feels artificial, I have no handle on its geography, no sense of its history, no conception of its “taste” and no notion of it as one continuous entity.

I remember once when I was in high school I walked the length of Manhattan in an attempt to gain a better conception of where I was. This became a regular ritual: every weekend I would walk for several hours to a new neighborhood. Earlier this year, I attempted to do such a thing: to walk from Hyde Park to Wicker Park. After about four hours of walking, I was freezing, I was beyond the loop and lost somewhere around Lincoln Park. My walk had only served to confuse me even further. The myriad of neighborhoods I had walked through seemed connected only by the physical street, it was as if I had taken a tour of different cities each with radically different poverty levels. Now perhaps because it’s a new place it’s disorienting at first, perhaps because I don’t know Chicago and maybe for someone who grew up here this wouldn’t be a problem. But my sense is maybe I am wrong, that I just can’t get a hold of this “city” as something beyond a literal collection of buildings and people.

Taking this in mind, the question of how one defines urban space is inevitably raised. The notion that a city is merely a collection of neighborhoods is one that most likely the average Chicagoan would reject; we definitely imbue our cities with a sense of character, in some cases more clearly defined then others. As a New Yorker arriving at the University of Chicago, I immediately noticed that just as a result of being from where I was, others assumed that I was more likely to drink than my peers were, or that I had been mugged at least once in my lifetime. Once I was even asked by someone I had only just met, “How many times have you done cocaine?” While this sort of judgment may seem atypical, it definitely is reflective of other’s impressions of the character of New York. It’s interesting to look at how the word “New Yorker” is used as an adjective. Someone can be from “Austin, Texas,” but someone who is from New York becomes a “New Yorker,” someone from Chicago a “Chicagoan.” Certain cities are enough in the public consciousness that we ascribe to them an identity. This identity carries with it a set of assumptions, ones based out of what we perceive the character of that city to be.

Perhaps my conflict with Chicago is one born from my conception of “city,” my identity as a “New Yorker.” With each exploration of Chicago that I take, further differences between home and here are visible. My own experience growing up is close enough to that of growing up in Chicago that it’s hard to paint them as completely different; it’s not as if I grew up in a rural environment and have never been in a city before. This juxtaposition of urban worlds demands comparison; my relationship with the city becomes a clash of ideologies. The fact that the train is the “Red Line” and not the “Number 6” or that there isn’t a Wall Street or that I can’t just walk from place to place leaves me with the feeling that someone has broken into my house and moved everything around. Often times I’ll look at a corner so familiar I think I could just turn around and walk home, but of course “home” is hundreds of miles away.