First Impressions

Last week, hundreds of students went through orientation at the University of Chicago, spending their first days as residents of a new community. During the week, we talked to dozens of students interested in nonfiction writing, photography, and design, and hundreds more about our Best of the South Side issue. We asked them to share their first impressions of the university, the neighborhoods that surround it, and anything else they had seen of their new South Side surroundings. The responses they sent were awed, excited, and sometimes naïve–how could they not be?–but they all also had the sharpness and verve of first sight that is long lost to we who have been here longer. They made us think, and we’re proud to publish them.

Walking down Lakefront Trail and the wind is more real than any I’ve known in Texas. In Dallas there is no wind–only tornados. Tornados and small lakes and the Texas heat that impresses itself upon everything and keeps everyone indoors. But here there is a wholeness and a connection between people and place. Here there is something that draws people out the door and into the city streets and parks, down past the tall trees and old stone homes and into the neighborhoods, where things flow into each other, boundaries fade and disappear and one thing bleeds into the next, so that walking down 57th I’m not passing by–I’m passing through. School, bookstore, bank, café; all these buildings and lawns and people right next to each other, right there, fluid and real and alive. Open. It’s not that I’m making too much of this place. I’m not overwhelmed or overexcited. I’m walking down the path along the lake, feeling the wind come across the lake, over one park and into the next, and I’m home. (Harrison Smith)

After a few hours soaring over the pitch-black land below, I eyed the welcoming lights of Chicago from my airplane window. I knew that I’d find a community in the University of Chicago, where I would move in just a few hours later. But now, a week later, I can feel the influence of another, perhaps separate, community beckoning me to join: the South Side. After strolling around Hyde Park late at night with newfound friends and basking in the sound waves of the jazz festival on the Midway, I feel like I’m starting to entrench myself in the neighborhood. Back home in California I used to look to the mountains when I felt uprooted or lost, and they never failed to make me feel grounded again. Now I guess I’ll look north to the skyscrapers etched against the sky, as I begin to take root here on the South Side of my new city. (Colin Griffin)

While you meet a lot of good people during orientation at the University of Chicago, I can’t deny that O-Week can also leave you exhausted and confused. On top of the apprehension anyone has when they begin a new part of their life, O-Week bombards you with advice on relationships, sex, alcohol, and every other cliché part of college. You have a lot of fun, but there’s also a lot of bullshit in between. For every real friend you make, you have to make a fake friend who you probably wouldn’t talk to if they weren’t a member of your house. For every fascinating kid who’s spent his life traveling around the world, you have to hear another talk about why he or she plans on going into dentistry. (Julien Hawthorne)

When people ask me what I think about Chicago, I give the standard answer. “It’s fantastic! People are friendly and everything’s beautiful.” And it’s true. People are friendly, even if that petitioner did follow me for a block. And the lights of downtown Chicago flicker the lingering romanticism of the Beat Generation. But being a first-year student, there’s a visceral uncertainty. As much as you search the internet, places don’t become real until you’re there and everything’s tangible. I can’t truly belong yet; I’ve gotten lost too many times to make that claim. There are so many people though who call Hyde Park home. I’ve visited a family, painted their house, and learned more about Chicago through their eyes than through mine. People and places need connections. I’ll make my own. (Tiffany Wong)

Having only been on a pizza tour of the South Side, my perception of what it means to be in Chicago — the home of architectural excellence on the one hand, and of the Levee on the other — is distorted. I didn’t enter the city famous for deep dish pizzas and molecular gastronomy with many fixed expectations but what few I did have, have so far been proven uneducated. I came to Chicago expecting to see an expiring city with Obama paraphernalia behind a multitude of vacant spaces that used to be shop windows but which were shot out years ago. Instead I have found a hotbed of things: films, theatre, art, juke music, ribs, bibs; and met a hotbed of different people: a stranger who stole my bike on my birthday, another who bought me an ice cream to make it better. (Aliya Ram)
It was hot. My envisioned Chicago was not hot. My Chicago wore unattractive marshmallow winter coats and Russian fur caps. Instead, upon arrival I was smothered by a 90 degree hug from a city that I found wore its pragmatism at times fashionably, sporting skyscrapers of bold artistic flair, or else shabbily, with its mesh of impoverished neighborhoods of distinct ethnicities. Given the city’s rich architectural and migratory past, the aesthetics of the city were still easier to accept than its climate, however. Wandering about Hyde Park, I bring it up with one Chicagoan who introduces himself to me as Eric Johnson. “Homeless veteran,” he clarifies. “Fall is just great!” A gesture towards the gold green trees. “But winter is something else.” He stopped to ask for a pair of jeans before continuing, “I mean, you have Thanksgiving, and everything, the holidays… Something just changes in Chicago.” (Bonnie Fan)