Sunday, April 4, 2010

On NYC and Falling Back in Love with Hyde Park

As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been very active on the blog or on twitter as of late. I've been out of town for part of this time (more about that below) and just under the radar for the rest. For a minute, as I'll explain below, I lost my way and started to question my die-hard devotion to my hometown of Chicago and then generalized that frustration to my beloved Hyde Park neighborhood. What I realize now is that, while there are many things about Chicago that I love, there are some things about it that deeply disappoint me. Hyde Park, though, is one place that manages (for the most part) to overcome these obstacles and thus, after a brief period of questioning, my love for it still burns true.

It all started with the aforementioned trip out of town. Overwhelmed by work and in need of a vacation, Mr. Hyde Park and I bought tickets to New York City. I'd never spent any time there and had never really understood why everyone made such a big deal about it. Well, 10 minutes off the plane and I was deep in love or infatuation or something else really intense for the Big Apple. I'd always imagined that NYC would be just a bigger, dirtier, more expensive version of Chicago. It was, in fact, all of those things, but also much more. It was also packed with energy, culture, diversity, and history in a way that our (comparatively little) Midwestern city just is not. Every neighborhood I saw in Manhattan and Brooklyn, whether in the center of the city or tucked in a far away corner, was full of beautiful old architecture, multicultural restaurants and businesses, and hidden history (e.g. a 17th century Sephardic Jewish cemetery tucked into a corner of Chinatown, an aging stop on the Underground Railroad in the middle of a posh Brooklyn neighborhood).

What my time in New York made me realize about Chicago is that, in spite of the amazing diversity and complexity within its city limits, Chicago can often feel alarmingly homogeneous. A white kid who grows up on the northwest side or a black kid who grows up on the south side may rarely if ever have the chance to develop a friendship with a person of another race, to try the food of a different culture, or to visit an important cultural institution outside of the comfort-zone within which his family is willing and able to travel. There are real and deeply entrenched (albeit invisible) lines and walls that exist throughout Chicago and keep us sorted into rigid groups. In my admittedly limited experience in Manhattan and Brooklyn, though, these lines seemed less apparent and less powerful. People seemed willing and able to freely move within all parts of the city, to ride the bus or train with people who looked different from them, or to walk through a neighborhood where they were not a member of the majority culture. I don't doubt that New York has its fair share of racial and economic tensions (I definitely sensed some in Harlem between new yuppy homeowners and longtime locals), but I think that, overall, New York feels far more mature than Chicago in terms of intercultural relations, and I got a little jealous. [As a side note, I fully acknowledge that I don't know NYC intimately and may not see things as locals do. If you know New York well, I would love to hear your thoughts on this!]

When I first left New York, I had a bad taste in my mouth about Chicago. I was reluctant to return to a city where many live in areas where 99% of their neighbors look just like them and the other 1% are treated with mistrust or, at best, discomfort...where many need a car to get to the grocery store...where historical buildings are often destroyed to make way for condos. But then I came home to my beloved Hyde Park and was reminded of why I chose to live here. As a resident of Hyde Park, I'm lucky enough to get to walk past buildings every bit as beautiful and historical as those I saw in NYC, to live beside people with different backgrounds from my own, to have a selection of academically solid and extremely diverse public schools to send my children to (someday), to be able to walk only a block to pick up fresh produce or tasty ethnic food, to hop a bus to get easily to anything my neighborhood doesn't have. Does Hyde Park feel a bit quiet compared to NYC? Absolutely. But, how many Manhattanites have a beautiful beach and 2 or 3 beautiful parks within a mile of their home? Also, our skyline (particularly viewed from Hyde Park) is way better than theirs. So there.