When I was a little girl on a family vacation, people would ask us where we were from. Proudly, we would reply, “Chicago.” We knew the difference between the city and our home, a small town packed with nostalgic midwestern country charm, so far south of the skyline you couldn’t call it the suburbs. We knew Chicago was a point of familiarity for everyone.. That’s not unique. Chicago is a common response from anyone living in the northern half of Illinois. People respond to that answer appropriately.
Fast-forward twenty years: I’ve lived in Chicago for nearly a decade. When people ask me where I’m from now, proudly, I reply, “Chicago.” Same answer, and I get the same response as I did when I was a child. But the weight behind the word is now heavier, more profound. The difference is I think of Chicago differently than I did then.
To outsiders, “Chicago” conjures up the city’s grandest images. The Sears/Willis Tower. The Magnificent Mile. The Ferris wheel at Navy Pier. Wrigley Field. Thoughts of Chicago rarely represent a genuine Chicago experience—and certainly not my experience. I think about the boathouse at Humboldt Park, where the people and music remind me I’m in a diverse metropolis, but the two hundred acres of nature make it feel like the quiet country. The dive bars at Division Street and Damen Avenue, back before living in Wicker Park was more expensive than I, and most, could afford. I think about the first time I rode my bike to the lakefront, spontaneously and alone, still in my work clothes. That is my Chicago. Surely, you have yours.
Downtown does not represent my life. It does not represent being a Chicagoan to me. At the same time, when I do go downtown, I get what I like to call Mary Tyler Moore syndrome. There’s a hop in my step that’s so pure it could independently fuel a twirl around a lamppost that ends with me throwing my hat toward the sky. I’ve actually completed the twirl. It feels great.
I do also identify with the image of our skyline, the most distinctive one in the world. When I’m driving back from the suburbs or my hometown, I take that final curve on the highway and it still takes my breath away—to see that cluster of skyscrapers looming strong, silent, and somewhat reverent. I get the same rush stepping off a plane at Midway or O’Hare knowing the depth of urbanity I just flew over is now beneath my feet and at my fingertips.
Downtown is the epicenter of our cultural and economic energy. It represents wealth, power, glitter, and glamour. Defined by our powerful and iconic skyline, downtown is all most visitors imagine. It’s what they have seen on television broadcasts, through online searches, and in beautiful picture books. It’s a destination, not much more. To us, it can be that. Or it can mean countless other things, depending on variables we proudly own. Does our skyline draw us closer through pride? Are we inspired to grab the lampposts and twirl our way down Michigan Avenue? Do we see it as the means to a paycheck, our place of work, our hub of hustle and bustle? We might.
There’s another side to that story, too, one we don’t often think about unless it’s our experience or one we’ve seen first-hand. Downtown represents what a lot of Chicagoans don’t have, even though they may have lived here all their lives. Some view the skyline from a neighborhood where it’s easier to join a gang than it is to get a job. The Chicago Tribune reported in January that nearly half of young black men in Chicago are neither in school nor working. Most of those young black men live on our South and West sides, where the view of the skyline is clearer and more picturesque than anywhere else, but their part in it is not. Here, there are parents deciding whether to put food on the table or pay the electric bill. Not both. Try looking at the skyline during that decision.
Yes, the skyline means different things to different people. Much of that depends, simply, on where we’re looking from or where we’re coming from. If we’re overwhelmed walking past City Hall, feel lost in the financial district, and can’t get through the jungle of Union Station, can we make it here? Can we call ourselves Chicagoans to those who ask us where we’re from? The thought of wealth and power can intimidate as equally as it can inspire.
There’s a book by former University of Chicago professor Robert J. Sampson called “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.” It’s a sociological masterpiece that breaks down what it means for us to be a group of people with shared expectations living in a wide swath of neighborhoods that are deeply segregated. (And Chicago is segregated, ranking at the top or near the top in the nation by numerous organizations and standards.) Sampson reminds us that Chicago knows how to build not just skyscrapers but also high-rises for the poor. Cost-of-living and architecture tell us a lot about our neighborhoods in relation to downtown. The Robert Taylor Homes—a collection of high-rise, public-housing projects that were plagued by overcrowding and crime and were infamously neglected by city officials—remind us that it isn’t so much height and volume that makes the difference; it’s the people and living conditions inside. As construction crews hustle to finish that final row of glass windows on the latest condominium super-complex in River North, abandoned lots are sold for one dollar in Auburn Gresham and Roseland.
Our division runs deep. So does the difference in housing costs. According to Numbeo, the average price per square foot to buy an apartment downtown is $297.50. Outside of downtown it’s $168.85, a forty-three percent difference. For a one-bedroom, six-hundred-fifty-square-foot apartment, you’re looking at a difference of almost eighty-four thousand dollars based on just a few miles ($193,375 downtown and $109,752.50 outside). When we talk in averages, however, we lose the stories of the highs and lows. We lose the voices of the people amid the numbers. And it’s within those voices we can hear the most desperation.
Terry Nichols Clark, professor of sociology at University of Chicago, studies the different personalities embodied by different neighborhoods. He defines the neighborhoods as “scenes” and then measures the scenes on a scale of characteristics.
It begins with a four-part process. The scene must be identified by its: 1.) geographic area; 2.) physical structures within it; 3.) people who live there and their race, class, gender, and education; and 4.) activities that result as a combination of those components. From there, it’s time to review the values of the people. How do they see right and wrong? How are they seen by others? How do they see themselves and find a meaningful sense of identity? After that comes the characteristics of the scene, which Clark scores on fifteen dimensions, such as formal, corporate, charismatic, and neighborly. If a scene has that characteristic, it’s then ranked by the predomination of that characteristic, up to the highest score of two hundred fifty. It’s not defined by conditions of life but is determined by styles of life. No one activity defines a scene. No single amenity makes or breaks it. All of them, in combination, contribute to the whole. It’s complicated.
Clark, in his years of study, has done the heavy lifting for us. This study as it relates to Chicago is important. It provides context for our conversation about how our downtown is perceived by those who live in and around it. Clark reminds us to step away from the differences in buildings and structure and to think more about how those things contribute to an emotional reaction. “I would say, it’s not just downtown as a physical entity,” he said. “It’s a whole sense of the degree of alienation and integration in Chicago among its neighborhoods in comparison with downtown.”
In order to understand the style of life we experience, we must understand the origin of that style. We must look at the tight-knit intricacies of community and the fast-paced conveniences of cosmopolitan life. Focusing on a scene in place of a neighborhood’s name shifts how we relate to neighborhoods within our city. It eliminates our bias toward that which we already perceive or feel that we know.
For example, Clark’s study breaks a stereotype about the scene of the South Side. The crime, poverty, and gang warfare may make the neighborhood less attractive, but its attributes in total actually qualify it as more neighborly. A leisurely pace among its streets make for a more friendly environment, where people stop and talk to those around them. There are more churches. There are more locally owned restaurants. People know each other, and families co-exist among their blocks. On the flip side, while downtown is more self-expressive, it is less neighborly. The speed of foot traffic is fast, which doesn’t allow for human interaction. Downtown, it’s all about driving forward with a mission, and you better not get in the way. Clark says to think of how people react in an elevator. On the South Side, they’d be talking. Downtown, silence and iPhone scrolling.
Despite Chicago’s racial definitions by geographical region, these traits, Clark says, are not racially inherited. It has less to do with black or white and rich or poor. It has everything to do with the traits of your scene—what is and has been culturally accepted. Another meaningful analogy, as expressed through literary style: William Faulkner, of Mississippi, wrote long, descriptive sentences. Ernest Hemingway, a Chicago-area native, was famous for his quick, succinct writing style. The South Side embodies Faulkner. Downtown, Hemingway. “If you drive down Martin Luther King Drive most days, most of the time, you will see people ambling across at one-quarter the normal speed, against the lights,” Clark explains. “The cars stop, they wait politely, and they don’t honk. In the last five years or so, those same eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old African-Americans have been going up to the North Side on a Saturday night, and then they amble across the streets there, too. The cops and the neighbors get angry.” This causes racial tension, while having very little to do with race. “It comes from the disparity from doing what you think you can do in your neighborhood, and not being able to do it in a different neighborhood,” Clark says.
Political climate is also paramount. For many, downtown represents the leadership of our city and the home of our government, the thought of which can elicit an emotional response, one that varies from person to person. Clark shares a story of three generations of firemen in an Irish Catholic family from Bridgeport. “They argued at meals continually,” he said. “The grandfather interpreted things in terms of ethnicity, the father in terms of political party and machine, the son in terms of cultural amenities and aesthetics. So not even people within one family, who all live in the same place and have the same profession, perceive things the same way. People think differently over time.”
Using these influencers as part of the systematic process put forth by University of Chicago directs the tailoring of a description. Some of us perceive downtown as the place we want to be: to work, to live, or to admire from afar. Others do their best to never step foot past the Chicago River bridges but accept that downtown exists in a world outside their own. “Each person is a unique individual, but at the same time you can get an average,” Clark says. “Clearly there are differences by neighborhoods and ethnic groups. Combined, you can generate a relationship of a neighborhood with downtown. But the ‘us’ varies. We recognize the subtleties. Even if there are neighborhood differences, it does not imply that everyone agrees.”
Yolanda Fields, chief program officer of the Adult Support Network at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, a non-profit on Chicago’s West Side, says it like this: “Even inside of our community there exists the tale of two cities. There are children who have little exposure to life off the block and probably haven’t even experienced downtown. For them, I believe, the skyline might represent a city unknown and experiences not attainable. For others in our community, the skyline and downtown are exciting and may feel like an adventure that they are eager to take. For many, the opportunity to be a part of a city that offers such beauty is out of reach.”
At the same time, she stresses, “The importance of having these opportunities is critical.” Meaning, if you see downtown and it represents what you don’t have , you have to go there to see that you can be a part of it. It’s just going to take support from those around you. And a lot of work.
Let’s hear from the people: an inspired young professional working at the top of one of our tallest skyscrapers; a North-Sider who tolerates downtown for work but prefers the outlying neighborhoods; a rising entrepreneur from the West Side who bounced back after years in jail; a returning Chicagoan who shares downtown photos with sixty-five thousand people daily; and a young lifer who passionately supports her city. The sociology department at the University of Chicago did the work to help us understand why they all matter.
John Khuu is a Pennsylvania transplant who’s lived in Chicago for seven years. For Khuu, Lincoln Park is home, and he commutes by bike to work downtown. It’s not his go-to spot in the city. In fact, he avoids it. He’s not a cynic. He’s the neighborhood enthusiast.
Khuu is outgoing and quick to engage in conversation with strangers. He’s friendly and optimistic, and makes you feel like an old friend if you bump into him. Downtown, he has to take on a different persona to take care of himself as a cyclist. “I have to mentally prepare myself to deal with downtown people on my way there and back,” he said. “On my bike, I often have to scream at them since they’re blindly looking at their phones or simply distracted by something. I feel like my senses are heightened because I do it every day and I have to be more aware of what’s going on around me.”
For Khuu, work is downtown. Real life is in the neighborhoods he visits. “I don’t go downtown for any reason unless I really have to. Seriously. Like I have no desire to go out in that jungle unless it’s some special occasion,” he said. “So whenever I go to work, I have to adjust myself to be in ‘work mode’ because I’m dealing with people who, the majority of them, live in the ’burbs.”
Khuu, a photographer, appreciates the beauty of downtown but isn’t inspired to take photos there. For him, downtown has a saturated culture and vibe. “The diversity of the things you can see and do is very limited. It almost feels like it’s static and never really changes,” he said. “In the neighborhoods, there’s an abundant amount of personality and character. Inspiration comes up more frequently, because it’s like this weird energy emerges from out of nowhere and I’m like ‘Wait! Do that again. Let me get my camera out,’ or like, ‘Whoa, the interiors of this place is amazing.’ ”
The social setting of downtown is also off-putting for Khuu. “I always try to leave before the main crowd strolls in. It’s just everybody is somebody who has money and lives in some fancy condo.”
Darius Jones is a former East Garfield Park resident who’s put in the work. As his life has changed, so has his perception of downtown. Jones is an entrepreneur and a hopeful victor.
Jones has lived on the South Side (Englewood), West Side (Humboldt Park), and Southwest Side (Pilsen). From thirteen to seventeen, he was in and out of jail. Today, he lives in Lakeview and hopes to make a move downtown. In 2016, he was named a top “20s in their 20s” by Crain’s Chicago Business. There’s a story in between. “Growing up, downtown was an event,” Jones said. “Any time I went downtown, which was maybe five to ten times, I just perceived it as a place to celebrate my birthday or something else spectacular. I definitely associated it with wealth. It was just a destination.”
Jones breaks his life story into three categories: kid, prisoner, gardener. When he was in elementary school, his mom was working for an airline, and while he lived in East Garfield Park, he was afforded luxuries most kids around him did not have. He would travel to other cities for free. He got into horseback riding. He was part of a golf club. “I was nerdy,” Jones said, laughing. “I used to get beat up a lot by my peers and the older kids. When I was about twelve, I decided regardless of what anyone said that I would be successful in whatever environment I was in. And the environment I was in then was East Garfield Park.”
The next chapter of his life reflected that. He stopped being “nerdy.” He earned the respect and friendship of those who once bullied him. “I got kicked out of school when I was really young and then I ended up dropping out of high school,” he said. At thirteen, he was incarcerated for robbery. Again, when he was seventeen, he went to jail for twenty months. For fifteen of those months, he was in maximum security. “When I was nineteen, a judge looked at my case and I went to Cook County boot camp for five months.” There, he was introduced to gardening. “It was a very long process. It took me about two-and-a-half years to transition,” he said. “I call it my second paradigm shift.”
But it wasn’t easy. In fact, Jones said he hated it. “I really disliked gardening but because I was in maximum security so long I just wanted to be outside,” he said. The gardening program led him to a jobs program with the Chicago Botanic Garden, and on the weekends, he worked their booth at a farmers market. He never ate the vegetables he was selling. He still viewed it as a means to an end, a paycheck.
“I refused anything anybody wanted from me or needed me to do,” he said. “But I remember my first couple weeks at the farmers market. It was amazing because I would get sometimes five hundred people coming to the booth and they would ask questions about the crops and they’d be very intrigued. It was one of the first times I realized I had a skill or I was valuable. Up to that point, my value was to the neighborhood, the homies on the block, or to the people I had grown up with. So that was the first real time I felt like an asset, because I had information people needed.”
Today, Jones is vice president and general manager at Garfield Produce, an urban hydroponic farm in the neighborhood he grew up in, East Garfield Park. His view of the skyline has changed, though. “It always puts a smile on my face,” he said. “I’ve traveled through downtown now almost every single day for the past couple years. I’m always inspired.” After a recent trip to St. Louis, Jones said he felt coming back to the sight of the skyline felt like coming home. “I spent fifteen minutes in downtown St. Louis and I got bored,” he said. “When I came back to Chicago, I was so happy to be back and driving into the city. From either expressway, in either direction , it’s just a spectacle. It’s beautiful. Even if it’s cloudy outside you still see some type of form, and these gigantic buildings that stretch across a landscape. You look at it, and for me, it’s home.”
Jones still sees his friends from his childhood, especially now that he’s back in East Garfield Park. But in some ways, it’s difficult to overcome the ways they’ve both changed. “Last night I saw an old friend and, for him, downtown is how it was for me as a teenager, just an event. It’s different for me now because that’s where I primarily am. Now, it’s where I want to live. I want an apartment in the Loop. As I get closer to that goal, it’s becoming less of a spectacle. It’s becoming a part of my daily life,” he said.
Matt Lohmus, who was born in the suburbs and came back to Chicago after growing up in Florida, has a similar perspective of downtown. He’s the born-again Chicagoan.
A photographer by trade, he is part of the team that runs the sixty-five-thousand-follower Instagram account @Chitecture. The account features other users’ photos of downtown, its architecture, and its people. “Their reasoning behind creating the account was to showcase the city from all points of view,” he said. “Chicago is beautiful and unique from every angle.”
Lohmus came back to Chicago based on how it inspired him as a kid. His family moved to Florida in the early nineteen nineties, and after eighteen years in the South, he decided he preferred dealing with the snow over the Florida heat. He lives in Oak Park but finds his inspiration downtown. “I’m a frequent visitor of the touristy spots: Navy Pier, the Sears [Willis] and Hancock observatories, and the museums,” he said. For Lohmus, downtown has the power to remind us of our strengths. “When people from out of town think of Chicago, they think of the bad things like gun violence and shady politics. I like to illustrate how Chicago is so much more than depressing headlines.”
Ben Wolfson lives in the Southport Corridor in Lakeview and works on the seventy-fourth floor of the AON building downtown. His company recently relocated there from an office in the suburbs and he bikes to work, weather-permitting, or takes the train. Wolfson is the inspired young professional.
“Being in the heart of the city along the lake in the hustle and bustle of the city was a welcomed change,” Wolfson said of the offices moving from Northbrook to Randolph Street. Also welcomed was the view from his office window. “I remember the first time I sat at my desk and saw the view,” he said. “Being one of the tallest buildings in the middle of it all was breathtaking.”
A year later, Wolfson said he’s getting more accustomed to the daytime view, but the sunsets never get old. “Working downtown has a special feeling about it,” he said. “People act differently and more professionally being part of the Loop atmosphere.”
After a late night in office, Wolfson says the atmosphere of downtown changes completely. “There’s very little activity besides crowds leaving the theatre and an occasional other office worker leaving after a long day. In the winter especially, it can be incredibly quiet. When I catch a moment without a siren or a train going by, I look around and take it in. It’s peaceful. It’s fascinating to walk through streets that were crowded all day long, now practically abandoned until the next day’s work.”
That rush, the crowds, the big company, and the larger-than-life building—all of it—makes Wolfson feel like he’s part of something. “When I walk to and from work surrounded by all the other professionals, it makes me feel a part of the greater Chicago professional crowd, fast-paced workers attempting to make something big out of their careers. It’s exciting, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Being in a building with hundreds of other people from multiple companies is energizing for Wolfson as well. “We’re mixing different work cultures together in one building. It’s fun knowing there’s a million stories, backgrounds, and experiences all taking the same elevators to thousands of different jobs every day.”
Jessica Ramirez is a cheerleader. She loves her home city and brags about it wherever she goes. Ramirez, a native of the Southwest Side, hails from West Lawn near Chicago Midway International Airport. It’s mostly families and primarily Hispanic, she said, with a mix of Polish and more diversity weaving in as the years go by. She is the loyalist.
Growing up, Ramirez would visit downtown for adventures with her father, and once she got older, she went downtown by herself to explore, go shopping, or hang out with friends. “One of my favorite things to do was to be on the train, higher up, and you can see the buildings and all the details of the architecture that you don’t often have the opportunity to see from the ground. Some of those buildings have amazing detail. There’s so much beauty in them.”
Ramirez says all that beauty in the city’s center makes her feel proud, hopeful. “It’s an inspiring place for me because it really is the center of Chicago. No matter what part of the city you live in, you can find your way to downtown easily. I think it’s, in a way, like its own little vacation from your neighborhood. You always find your way back home, but you still know that it’s there.”
The skyline has helped her position herself as a Chicago spokeswoman, especially as she sees the city she loves being labeled a violent, corrupt city in the news. “It’s hard having to defend the place that you live,” she said. “There are a lot of stereotypes and negative media attention that doesn’t encapsulate how I know Chicago. There’s endless exploration to be done here, and the neighborhoods are what really make Chicago brilliant. But downtown is this piece of heaven that everyone can see and understand and appreciate.”
That’s an appreciation she aims to pass on to the students she works with through College Possible, a non-profit that assists Chicago public high school juniors and seniors with paperwork, testing, admissions, and transitions into college. Her assigned high school is Bowen High School in the South Chicago neighborhood, around 88th Street and Marquette Avenue. She said the image of downtown and the opportunity it represents inspires her students the same way it inspires her. “Most importantly if you come from a low-income neighborhood,” she said, “getting out there and seeing the opportunities that expand away from your neighborhood really is helpful, because they should know they don’t have to be confined by the borders that be.”
The only negative reaction she gets from her students is that downtown is “too far” for them to access. From Bowen to downtown is about fourteen miles, a near impossible ride on a bike, an hour ride by public transportation, and usually a frustrating, traffic-filled ride in a car. “In their heads, downtown is a whole world away,” she said. “But they obviously understand the busyness and the energy, and I think a few have gone down for other programs or to be with their friends, just for their own sake of getting away to have a downtown day. It reminds that you’re not stuck in what you’re accustomed to. There are different people, jobs, even different modes of transportation, all which make the city function.”
There’s definite power in our sort of diversity and action. Still, most Chicago locals? “I never go downtown.” This icon of beauty and architectural astonishment, for many of us, lives only on our eastern border, representing what we look like to the rest of the world but not necessarily to us. As the city pours money into downtown amenities and infrastructure, we must ask, for whom are they doing it?
As we closed a year that saw a staggering amount of homicides, the most recorded since the mid-nineteen nineties, wiping away the progress we thought we made in the last decade, a report on our police department confirmed our fears that our fellow Chicagoans are being treated based on the color of their skin. Another report took count of how many residents have said “we’ve had enough” and packed it up. Chicago Tribune’s headline was, “Chicago area sees greatest population loss of any major U.S. city, region in 2015.” Chicago does not look good on paper right now. By just numbers, we are the punching bag of American metropolises
The emotional fallout is an even deeper cut. Still, there’s an argument to staying true to our hometown and harnessing the one thing that stands tall and true: our skyline and that downtown energy. It just doesn’t quit. Others can’t touch us there. Maybe we misplace it in the towers. Maybe we need to look inside those towers, to the people who come from our neighborhoods and commute from our blocks. It’s not about the sparkling marquees or the architectural photos that take our breath away. It’s in the faces of the people we meet. It’s in their stories and the way they greet us. If a study says a certain region is neighborly, maybe we put that in a report and share it on our social media feeds, talk to friends about it over dinner. We should be proud of the skyline. But we should be prouder of the people who surround it. That’s a perspective that shouldn’t change—no matter how you look at it.
Illustrations by Sofia Krsmanovic