Today I arrived in Denver for the 2012 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. I’m presenting a paper on drivers of neighborhood satisfaction in London regeneration zones this Saturday. It’s my first time in Denver, and so far, this is my impression of the city: take the Chicago Loop, shrink it both in spread and height of buildings, and abandon a chunk of it, and that’s Denver. Disclaimer: I’ve been here six hours, and my taxi took me through one hell of a rough patch. That being said, ranch dressing makes sense here. The amount I put on vegetables for dinner was truly sickening and I am proud.
I’m also finishing up Robert J. Sampson’s fantastic book Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, which is the product of years of meticulous, large-scale research into the persistence of poverty and inequality. This is the kind of book that proves social science is a field as worthy as any other. I won’t summarise it here (GO READ IT), but I want to mention that I hold a special place in my heart for Chicago because it was where I first really became fascinated with cities in and of themselves – the start of an obsession that has led me to become an urban sociologist. I lived there for a good chunk of my childhood. All the neighborhoods Sampson mentioned are familiar, if not from actual memories then at least by name.
Chicago, despite being the third largest city in the United States, has a parochial feel to it. People cling to their neighborhoods. The city has 50 official administrative wards, each represented by an alderman who may or may not be entirely corrupt, but there are 77 “community areas,” and, depending on who you ask, nearly 200 informally designated neighborhoods. Here’s a map of the community areas. Bored in school, I memorized this map and loads of more detailed ones to the point where I was able to write out the names of 308 Chicago streets entirely from memory (and not the numbered ones, those don’t count. I mean the names that sing in your head and which tourists don’t see: Ponchartrain Boulevard. Throop Street. Menomonee, Oleander, Armitage, Seely, Ainslie, Kedvale, Caldwell, Argyle, Lamon, Laramie, Larabee, Montrose, Rosemont, Kinzie, Kedzie, Stony Island, Cottage Grove, Washtenaw, Racine. Commerce Parkway. Solidarity Drive.) Yes, I was a very bored child in school. But the point is, these places in Chicago had an intrinsic meaning in their names. For me, they represented a hell of a lot more than just the boundaries drawn by the street grid. They were each their own self-contained world.
Unfortunately, the downside to this compartmentalization is that, in Chicago, it translates to extreme racial segregation. Sampson repeatedly illustrates this and shows it to be at the heart of why so many Black Chicagoans live in the kind of poverty that barely touches even low-income White people. I lived in a neighborhood that was very White, with a significant Asian minority. My mother, a native New Yorker who never lived outside the five boroughs until she was 30, couldn’t believe how segregated it was. A working-class woman from a Polish family, she had worked as a nurse alongside women from Jamaica and Haiti in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and now she was sending her kids to a primary school that had one Black student among over 300 White and Asian. She never liked Chicago and was glad to leave. As a kid, whenever I spoke with a little too much of the nasal honking the city is known for, she would quickly correct me and make me pronounce the word properly – that is, with anything other than those Midwestern vowels. Chicago would not become my voice. I’d have to get that somewhere else.
Our sister school on the West Side was entirely Black. When the students came to ours for a day, they spoke in awe about how clean our bathrooms were, how we actually had paper towels and working locks on the doors. You know, the basic things American schoolkids should take for granted. We thought it was strange then, but hey, we were kids – we understood that they were poor and we were middle-class, that they lived West and we lived North, they were Black and we weren’t and these things weren’t a coincidence, and even at a young age we could put two and two together. But look at the data – especially Sampson’s data about where people move – and it’s clear it will take a lot more than twinning schools and throwing kids together for a couple of days each year in order to address the fact that Black and White so rarely interact meaningfully in Chicago.
Having been educated in both the US and the UK, it’s amazing how uniquely American this kind of segregation is. In Britain, a lot of people have a hard time believing that so many explanations really do boil down to the implications of race in America. “Why is everything about race?” they ask me, and then Americans ask me, “Why are Brits so obsessed with class?” While racism is of course an issue in the UK, the extent and institutionalized degree of it there was never so vast as in the United States. I truly can’t overstate that.
I’m 27 now and I still love maps. Once upon a time, a big glossy one of Chicago neighborhoods hung on my wall. The colors were arbitrary – pinks, yellows, blues, greens, all the names in the same even hand, not the slightest hint of the implications behind each demarcated place name. There’s a picture of me standing in my bedroom on a council estate in West London, and taped to the wall behind me, blurry but recognizable, is the entire London tangle of Tube and rail. Now in my San Francisco apartment there’s an old style New York subway map tacked on the wall down the little hall from where pre-war North London bus routes hang in a sturdy frame. Crouch End, Wood Green, Finsbury Park, Hornsey, Harringay – all the places you’ll go along those red lines, all the places I’ve been more times than I can remember. The buses will take you there and then who knows what you’ll find, what you’ll get up to by yourself? Then down on the floor are the great big wooden panels where I’ve been painting and sculpting and suspending scraps of maps that I’ve transfered onto sheets of acrylic and cut up with a Stanley knife until they’re just how I want them, trying to make a bit of art out of my life so far. Trying to convince myself I still have a bit of those places in my heart even though I’m not walking those streets and may not be again for a long time.
Having a specific spot in space is important to me, as is knowing exactly where I stand – literally – so that I can never be put in the vulnerable position of not knowing where I’m going. When you name a place and claim it as where you’re from, you pick up more than an address. You get a bit of tangible history, and automatically you’re a player in that story. There are some places where I’ve spent years living but which don’t feel like part of me as well as spots I’ve merely passed through in the grand scheme of things but which somehow have gotten into my bones.
I could never go back to living in Chicago. By that I mean, I’m not willing to do so. When I think of Chicago I recall small-mindedness, corruption, segregation, and really REALLY cold winters with flat grey landscapes that could not have been bleaker if they’d been illustrations from a Victorian novel.I remember how cruelly people treated my mother when she was nothing but kind to everybody. I remember how my family was resented and scorned for no fault of our own. I remember finding out that all those years when I’d been cheering on my older brother from the sidelines when he played soccer, other children’s mothers were laughing at “the Jew.” I remember wanting to get out of there so, so badly, and never looking back. Maybe some people could choose Chicago over New York or London, but I’m not one of them. I don’t want to be the capital of the middle, I don’t want to be the cozy warm heart of things – I want to be in the great big mess teetering on the edge. That being said, Chicago’s lack of pretension was refreshing sometimes. It knew it couldn’t compete with New York or Los Angeles, so it didn’t try. Nelson Algren said there was never a city so real, and I’d have a hard time arguing with that. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovelier lovelies, but never one so real. But it’s not my reality now. Chicago was someplace I had once, and it was useful, but it outlived that role for me personally and so I’ve folded it up and put it away. I have no family there. Almost all my friends are elsewhere. It’s a place I can read about and shake my head and understand, but it’s not me.
Some people have perfect pitch. Others have uncanny photographic memories. I have perfect direction. Wherever I go, I always know which way is north. I always have at least that much of an idea where I am going and where I have been.