STREETERVILLE — It was summer in Chicago, we moved on up and we got left behind, we spilled cocktails on pool decks and we spilled blood on bus stops. We ate till our bellies were full and we went to bed hungry. We listened to blues under the bandshell and we danced to beats of rappers under house arrest. We abided in a city sadly separated into unequal halves, each nearly invisible to the other except for the sake of passing comparison.
For me, it really was the best of times and the worst of times — a modern Dickensian "Tale of Two Cities” about a summer spent living in both Chicagos — the one for the wealthy and powerful and the one for the poor and forgotten.
For nearly nine years, I’ve lived in Pullman, an enchanting historical neighborhood amid the “Wild Hundreds,” the infamous nickname for violent ‘hoods on the Far South Side that define the hardest part of living in Chicago.
If I’m honest, living there — a beautiful district amid the forgotten land beyond the Red Line where hopelessness and poverty replaced the steel mills and manufacturers that once made it bustle — has always been something of a struggle.
And it’s just nice to get away for a bit. Usually, I’ll take a long motorcycle ride through the mountains, visit my pals who live in beautiful beachfront towns, or road trip to hear great American music in Memphis, Nashville or New Orleans.
Last year, like a lot of people, I saved up a chunk of change to take a nice, long beach vacation but just didn’t have time to get away.
So, I decided this year what I needed was an exotic getaway to an exciting American city. And I could think of no better place than, well, Chicago.
The Chicago that I don’t live in, that is — an excursion to experience “all the riches this city has to offer” that remain out of reach for so many kids living in certain neighborhoods as first lady Michelle Obama once put it.
I answered a Craigslist ad and subleased a “summer home” of sorts, a deluxe $2,440-a-month studio apartment in the sky just steps from Lake Michigan and the epicenter of Chicago tourism, Navy Pier.
On July 17, I loaded up the Chevy and headed to 500 N. Lake Shore Drive, a glamorous glass rental tower outfitted with all the luxurious amenities you could wish for — a pool and hot tub surrounded by beautiful people, cabanas and gas grills perfect for their parties, a movie theater and Equinox fitness equipment, fireplaces, a pool table, a doggie spa for my beloved Labrador and all the free Starbucks coffee you can drink. And it's all guarded by friendly folks wearing suits behind a concierge desk in a shimmering lobby adorned daily in fresh flowers.
While living in Pullman, a beautiful place that’s really an economically and racially diverse patch surrounded by hopelessness, it’s the struggle for simple things that people in fancier parts of Chicago take for granted more than the threat of violence or the depression of poverty that can wear a guy down.
In the eight years I lived there before Wal-Mart moved into the neighborhood, just getting groceries for dinner — or a fresh lime for a Corona — could turn into a 30-minute round-trip car ride, at least.
At the Streeterville high-rise, there’s a Treasure Island two blocks away where you can ask a friendly guy in a white apron to wrap a fresh hunk of Ahi tuna in paper and pick from an assortment of crusty bread and imported olive oil to make a healthy midday snack.
And if you need to hail a cab to the airport, all you need to do is stand on a corner, any corner. Try doing that on 111th and Cottage and tell me how long you’ll stand there.
Who needs cabs when there’s the "L"? you ask.
Well, down in Pullman, the closest L-train is miles away, and don’t get me started on the Metra stations between 103rd and 115th that could double as horror movie locations.
At my summer place, the CTA is everywhere.
In a pinch, I can even rent a Divvy bike to speed up my trip to a station. By the looks of things, Divvy will make it to Pullman sometime in 2020, if at all.
Friends, at least the ones who never visit, can’t seem to understand why I moved there in the first place and continue to endure a life void of restaurants that specialize in pork belly tacos or serve brunch, a joint to hear live music or a nice tavern with tasty craft beer on tap that has a food truck parked outside.
They wonder if I worry about the senseless violence in nearby Roseland and whether it will find its way to Pullman, or worse, my front porch.
And if I’d prefer to live somewhere, well, “better.”
Some days, when I’m feeling down, I don’t know what to tell them about all that because I love a good brunch, riding "L" trains, live music, tasty brew and food served from trucks. And there’s exactly none of that within walking distance from my rowhouse.
So, my stay at the luxury Downtown rental for the price of two weeks at a California beach hotel was more than just a vacation; it doubled as a fact-finding mission — a chance to see what it’s like to really be spoiled by the city you love, the city that for so long, in my part of town, just doesn’t seem to return the affection.
Despite all my excitement to bask in Chicago’s glory, I immediately felt out of place in this high-rise across Lake Shore Drive from Lake Point Tower, known once as “Oprah’s building” even though she never moved into the condo she bought there.
Frankly, sipping free coffee while gazing out floor-to-ceiling windows made me feel like a tourist in my own town, what with the sunrise view of boats lining up to enter the lock where the Chicago River flows into Lake Michigan and the sailboats riding summer breezes in the distance.
It should shock exactly no one to learn the extreme differences between Streeterville, 60611, and the 60628 ZIP code that includes my Pullman home.
For me, all it took was a few overheard conversations to confirm what the U.S. Census says about my two Chicago locales: My new temporary neighbors — a collection of mostly white, highly educated professionals with six-figure salaries— are pretty much polar opposites of the mostly African American, high school-educated working poor families who live in my Far South Side patch and make, on average, $17,500 a year.
On my first Streeterville afternoon, walking my dog, Stella, I listened in as a young woman wearing spandex pants and running shoes outlined her future to a similarly clad friend. “This time next year I’ll be working on my dissertation. In two years, I’ll have my Ph.D and working on getting published. I’m stressed.”
Then, they took off running toward the lakefront path.
Now that’s the kind of conversation I’ve never overheard down in the Greater Roseland area, where about one third of people older than 25 don’t have high school diplomas, and fewer than 9 percent have bachelor degrees.
During that first weekend Downtown it quickly became clear that the well-educated folks in 60611 — more than 60 percent of them college graduates — probably can’t even fathom the stresses fellow Chicagoans living 17 miles apart struggle to overcome.
On that sunny Saturday afternoon while floating in my high-rise pool, I listened as a young man assured his mother, who was visiting from out of town, that the parts of Chicago that make headlines for shootings and murders were far, far away in remote neighborhoods that most people know to avoid.
“You don’t have to worry around here, but every weekend all you read about is how many people were shot,” he told her.
“That’s not good. Not good at all,” the woman said. “All those headlines aren’t good for the city’s reputation.”
Her son agreed.
I swam away with a sinking feeling that all the differences you find in people living in polar opposite neighborhoods — education, wealth, skin color — keep us from even seeing the senseless shooting that plagues our city in the same way.
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