So an ex-girlfriend was telling me some time ago about a friend who came to visit her in Chicago for a concert. She lived in the Andersonville neighborhood, which is on the Far North Side, and her friend asked her, “Do you think it’s okay to park my car downtown all night?” And my ex-girlfriend was like, “No, what is wrong with you. Just leave it here, outside my apartment.” He was confused because he thought that outside her apartment, where you’d see nothing but trees and apartments, was downtown Chicago.
He was from the suburbs (aren’t we all), and he knew there is a big, shiny part of Chicago with skyscrapers and parks that have giant beans in them, but he and his friends referred to everything within the city limits as “downtown.”
I grew up in a rural town. If someone in Chicago asks where I’m from originally I have to say it’s in the badlands and corn fields past the Northwest Suburbs. And if someone farther away than that asks, I’m tempted to say Chicago, because it takes more than enough time to just explain that my name isn’t “Joshua,” that I don’t want to deal with it. However, if I do say it, I am a filthy liar.
Our beautiful city of lakefront and hot dogs (if you know what I’m saying)
is composed of a downtown area surrounded by The Neighborhoods. Every big city has lots of neighborhoods inside of it, decided by the people in them, local businesses, and the arbitrary fluttering of urban butterfly wings (cockroaches). There are over 200 neighborhoods in Chicago, each one unique.
In broad terms, the city is also divided into North Side, South Side, and West Side. Because Chicago is pretty segregated, the North Side is pretty different from the others, in terms of crime safety, median income, whiteness, and Cubs Fan Density.One of my students asked me why no one ever talks about the East Side of Chicago. Considering that Chicago is on the shore of Lake Michigan, which is the entire area to the east of the city and much of the state, if you are on the East Side of Chicago, you are on a boat.
Actual Downtown itself is kind of vague and even major downtown-y landmarks like Navy Pier are in a neighborhood (Streeterville), but it’s a place around the Loop. The Loop is a circle that trains make around the busiest business streets in Downtown, and the streets and places just around it. It’s in the middle of Chicago, as far as North and South, and at the Eastern lakefront. Downtown is mostly giant office buildings and commuter train stations, along with proximity to the museums and downtown parks, and everything there closes at 5 PM because it’s just people at work and tourists. Some very rich people live in high-rises there, but they’re probably lonely.
My neighborhood (when I lived in Chicago for real) was Edgewater, which is about 7 or 8 miles straight North of the Loop, and doesn’t have any high-rises or rich people, but is close to the water and some nice places to eat, and no one ever mugged me.
Now, people who are in the near suburbs, like Evanston and Naperville and Highland Park, do not live in the city of Chicago. Even though they’re only a few miles away, they have their own mayor and council and city laws and schools and such . Also, they have trust funds, drive cars everywhere, and don’t have to deal with aggressive bums on their corners.
Farther out to the Northwest, where I was born, we have the suburbs that surround O’Hare Airport. I was a little kid in Melrose Park, before moving to the aforementioned corn field town, and after that the actual city. Near to O’Hare are also places like Des Plaines, Elk Grove, and Park Ridge, that all kind of blend together, bound by the fact that jet turbines are always making Simpsons reruns hard to hear. We shared Chicago’s TV channels and radio channels and weather forecasts and cheesy commercial jingles, but we were not – I repeat – not Chicago.
Which brings me to my next point: O’Hare is not in Chicago. O’Hare is about 20 miles away from downtown and surrounded by suburbs like Rosemont, which is the name on the water tower you’ll see as you leave. On a magic day with no traffic, you can get there in like 15 minutes. On an average day it’s more like 20 to 40 minutes and if you’re going during weekday rush hour, you can expect to raise grandchildren and die before you arrive (and those grandchildren cannot say they’re from Chicago).
However, even though O’Hare is not in Chicago, it is technically a part of Chicago. This is because the bureaucratic powers wanted the airport to be a part of the city for zoning and taxing and whatever, so there is an imaginary line from downtown to the airport, and then surrounding it, which is Chicago. So if you are an aggressive bum who sleeps in a tent along that imaginary line, you can, in fact, say that you live in Chicago.
Now, if you live beyond that, and you are telling people you live in Chicago, you may as well tell them you live in the Eiffel Tower, sweetheart, or the Vatican in Rome – why not reach high, aim for the stars. Leave us to our deep and heavy pieces of pizza. Okay, we only really eat it when tourists come to visit, it’s true. When are you stopping by?