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A Tourist in My Own Town: A Nice Place To Visit, but I Like My Neighborhood

By Mark Konkol | September 24, 2014 5:10am
 George Pullman’s railroad town is quite possibly the most enchanting neighborhood in Chicago.
George Pullman’s railroad town is quite possibly the most enchanting neighborhood in Chicago.
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Streeterville; Pullman; The Loop; My Chicago; Tale of Two Summers In Chicago

STREETERVILLE — When you move into a new neighborhood, it’s best to know a guy, maybe somebody with a little clout, who can give you the lay of the land.

So, a few weeks after settling into my deluxe Streeterville summer pad — I used money I would have spent on a vacation to rent a place Downtown for part of the summer — I called Ald. Brendan Reilly, who offered up a tour of his tony 42nd Ward.

Reilly might represent Chicago’s elite, world-renowned restaurateurs and Fortune 500 companies, but he has certain regular guy sensibilities, including a preference for socializing over beers at dive bars, that make him easy to talk to.

On a sunny afternoon, the alderman shed his suit in favor of a Hawks T-shirt and casual pants while his ward superintendent took us around to check up on Downtown annoyances — the pesky trolleys blocking upper Randolph Street traffic, the sinking street at Illinois and McClurg and an illegal patio at a certain Viagra Triangle restaurant.

I joked about how nice it was to have — and complain about — “rich people problems” while summering in the 42nd Ward.

Reilly pointed out a few facts about my summer neighbors, including an interesting perspective — they aren’t all that rich.

“Everyone likes to stereotype that if you live in my ward that you are a tremendously wealthy retired executive living in a penthouse,” he said. “And while there are certainly a lot of people who fit that description, the vast majority are more like me. They make a decent salary but aren’t rich. And they make it a priority financially to live here. They want the convenience. They want to be near where everything is happening.”

Quality-of-life priorities aside, it’s still hard to not think of my summer neighbors as anything but rich folks.

After all, almost half of every household in Streeterville’s 60611 ZIP Code collects a six-figure salary, including more than 4,000 families pulling in more than $200,000 a year, according to U.S. Census figures.

That’s certainly better off than folks in my postal district, where the poor significantly outnumber the rich. In fact, only 224 households topped the $200,000 salary mark in the 60628 ZIP Code.

On our drive, Reilly rattled off a long laundry list of 42nd Ward construction projects currently on developers’ to-do lists: two luxury rental towers and a new condominium building in Streeterville; boutique hotels and high-rise apartments planned for the West Loop; hopes for a new Jeanne Gang-designed residential tower in Lakeshore East; and, believe it or not, plans to finally link East Randolph Street and East Wacker Drive. It was abundantly clear that more and more people making a decent six-figure living want to live at the center of it all.

“There are 25 tower cranes either up or going up in the city, and 22 of them are in my ward,” Reilly said. “I know that some of my colleagues say we should do less Downtown and more in the neighborhoods. But the fact is Downtown pays most of the city's bills. It’s the economic engine, and you can’t let the engine go without oil.”

Riding in the back of that SUV, I didn’t know whether to feel inspired by what’s happening Downtown or ticked off that my neighborhood’s recent post-recession successes — a Walmart-anchored strip mall, a soap factory, plans for a giant community center and even historic Pullman’s possible National Park designation — pale in comparison.

By the numbers, these two neighborhoods are so different that it might not be fair to compare them to each other ... if they weren't in the same city.

For instance, just two years ago there were only 546 businesses and 6,768 jobs in my 60628 compared with 2,829 establishments and 76,580 jobs in Downtown's 60611, Census estimates show.

Of course, that’s what we’ve come to expect in Chicago — a city starkly divided when it comes to its pockets of success and struggle.

In some ways, Chicago has grown so provincial on a neighborhood level that some people bristle at the idea of comparing their neighborhood — or even their particular part of it — to any other place.

I’ve learned that to be true in my micro-neighborhood — the southern end of the Pullman Historic District. Some people exhibit outward expressions of a bunker mentality if you dare to point out local shortcomings or, God forbid, describe our four-square-block patch along with the rest of the residents living within other parts the 60628 ZIP Code.

“Don't Compare Streeterville to Pullman. ... Those people are afraid to take the [Red Line] past 55th, let alone out here,” my neighbor Brendan Crowley posted on a private Pullman Facebook page for residents only.

“If you think that it's depressing being here, then why don't you move Mark?”

Another neighbor, Katie Lira Luna, put it this way in a Facebook post: “Pullman is a 'hidden gem' of a community! You, of course, are free to speak your mind, but I ask that if you can't speak of it in this manner then please don't reference it at all. True Pullmanites are very proud to call this neighborhood 'home.' "

Now, I don’t blame Crowley, Luna or any of my other neighbors who might feel that way.

The “us” against “those people” perspective always has been the Chicago Way — and it’s a way of thinking that I often share, especially during baseball season.

Those few weeks I spent living in a randomly selected summer neighborhood surrounded by Chicago’s riches certainly stirred feelings of jealousy, probably in the same way Cubs fans felt when the Sox won the World Series.

But it didn’t erase any affection for my historic South Side community.

For people who have never been there, my corner of George Pullman’s railroad town is quite possibly the most enchanting neighborhood in Chicago.

And that’s because so many neighbors — an even mix of black, white and Hispanic folks — tend to the public gardens, volunteer to give tours, organize community art shows, adorn their alleys with art and care for the sturdy brick homes, some first inhabited 134 years ago, as a way to preserve the nationally significant role our community played in the history of the railroad industry, birth of the labor movement and the struggle for civil rights.

It’s a quiet place where you can park your car on the street, drop your wallet in the gutter and find it there the next morning right where it fell, as I have a couple times.

And despite a close proximity to Roseland — the poverty-stricken, gang-riddled neighborhood west of the Metra tracks — my part of Pullman remains remarkably less violent than even wealthy parts of town, thanks to folks who keep a close watch for anything that looks suspicious.

Like a lot of my neighbors, I bought a “Skilled Craftsman” row house in Pullman because I saw the potential of such a special place.

But during the nine years I’ve lived there — and at least a decade before that — little has been done to improve the quality of life beyond spending millions in taxpayer cash to preserve beautiful buildings and architectural ruins that remain grossly underutilized.

Pullman might never be as wealthy as Streeterville, Old Town or Lincoln Park, but spending a summer in a tony neighborhood — watching crews build a pedestrian flyover on Lake Shore Drive, the beautiful addition of Maggie Daley Park and so many other publicly funded projects that make Chicago a great city to live in and visit — it became impossible not to want more for my part of town, not just my part of Pullman.

During my ride-along with Ald. Reilly, I asked for his thoughts on the fact that his ward thrives while other parts of town like mine continue to struggle to get the support they need to attract businesses that create jobs and make neighborhoods more livable and attractive to working families.

“You know, I am concerned that when you come Downtown post-recession you see the beginning of a boom. The big employers are hiring again, and restaurateurs seek to expand. And those are all great economic indicators for a big city. But when you go three miles outside the central business district, that’s not the case,” he said.

“You can’t have a city full of people who should all be in it together resenting one another and not feeling the benefits of what some enjoy,” said Reilly.

I’m not sure I ever have considered Chicago a place where we’re all “in it together,” but spending my summer in Streeterville I could feel tinges of resentment bubbling in my soul.

After my visit with Reilly, I enjoyed a cold beer on my pool deck and looked out at the city, imagining the view once the high-rise builders finish their to-do list over the next few years.

I wondered how crowded the sidewalks, the fancy grocery stores, the posh brunch spots and even the dog park — with its complimentary scented poop bags and all — might be when the new high-rises are finished and new neighbors move in. And how much would the $2,440 monthly rent on my luxury studio sublet increase by the time the work gets done?

 Writer at Large Mark Konkol spent part of the summer vacationing in an exotic American city ... Chicago.
A Tale of Two Summers in Chicago
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And I thought of my neighborhood back on the South Side, too, and how even if all things go as planned — Pullman gets designated a National Park with a new community center, maybe a few restaurants or a spot to watch the Bears game and even a hotel for visitors — would that be enough to stem resentment of folks living among the amenities found in much fancier ZIP codes.

Something Reilly said stuck with me: “The trick — and it’s not all on the mayor, it’s on the City Council, too — is to find a way to stretch and pull the exciting things that are coming here to the central business district and slowly pull that into the fingers of the neighborhoods.”

Reilly said he hopes that the big businesses centered in Chicago would realize that they should lead the charge, because if they don’t — and neighborhoods get left further behind — our city could reach a tipping point that it might not be able to overcome.

“Guess who that falls on? It’s typically the people with the most money, and that’s corporate Chicago. So there needs be something to get some buy-in by them,” Reilly said. “It has to be a civic project like pursuing the Olympics. And it has to be all hands in.”

It’s a nice idea, really.

But it’s difficult to see how that could ever happen given our city’s history of dividing ourselves into separate-yet-unequal neighborhoods defined by race, ethnicity and class — and the effect that can have on a person’s perspective.

A few days after my aldermanic tour, a Crain’s Chicago Business report seemed to confirm that Chicago remains a place that prefers to compartmentalize its people by geography.

Crain’s reporter Alby Gallun wrote that my summer high-rise apartment — which he dubbed the second-most expensive rental building in the city — was one of a few luxury spots in town that serves as home to a few people who scored Chicago Housing Authority “super vouchers,” which subsidize rent prices up to 200 percent higher than federal market rate rents.

While the super-voucher program aims to help low-income families live in parts of town that offer the most opportunity for employment, some critics blasted it for being a waste of money helping poor people who might not “really need a 25th-floor apartment with a lake view,” Gallun reported.

After the story broke, a revolving cast of TV crews stood outside the main entrance of my place, interviewing renters about the luxury amenities and whether they think it’s fair low-income residents get to live “the good life” on a housing subsidy.

"It's not fair because we work hard to live in a place like this," a guy who lives in my building told ABC7 reporter Ben Bradley.

I thought about that sentiment a lot during quiet moments on the pool deck while my neighbors — young doctors, models and entrepreneurs— lingered in the hot tub and soaked in the last moments of afternoon sun that washes nearby steel-and-glass towers in golden shimmering light.

And one night shortly before the sun set on my Streeterville vacation, it hit me: I didn’t want to leave. 

Sure, I would miss the comforts of luxury apartment living at the center of it all — the free coffee before a morning soak in the hot tub, fancy brunches and sunset walks on Navy Pier, but it’s not just that.

More than anything, I would miss how good it feels to inhabit the fabulous part of Chicago — the economic and cultural engine, as Ald. Reilly put it — that clearly matters most to the powerful people who run this town. A place where neighbors not only expect more and better from their city, but they get it. I want that, too.

So many years of hoping the day would come when people living in my special South Side historical district — or that stretch of 63rd Street in Englewood where the late Bob Hope got his start and or the vacant USX Steel site at 79th and the lake, and so many other places — who want more and better from their city — will finally get it, has become exhausting.

But I won’t stay in Streeterville.

And I won’t just “move out” — as the small chorus of my Pullman neighbors has started to sing on Facebook — and relocate to the land of fancy brunch spots, gourmet farmers markets and dog parks with scented poop bags, either.

In 2005, I left behind a Roscoe Village apartment and bought a historic Pullman row house because I felt like I belonged there — just a few dozen blocks from the West Pullman house where my working-class great-grandparents lived that’s now gang turf — against my working-class father’s advice.

When I was outbid by $3,000 — an amount I couldn’t afford to match — I wrote a letter to Brunetta Gaginni, the lady of the house, who along with her husband reluctantly headed to assisted living in the suburbs, telling her that my financial inability to make a counteroffer did not reflect my heartfelt desire to call Pullman home.

After reading my letter, Mrs. Gaginni told my Realtor a nosey reporter would be good for the neighborhood, and persuaded her reluctant husband, Jack, to sell me the place for less than they could get from someone else because she thought it was the right thing to do.

It was a defining moment in my life, and the sometimes-struggle of living in my historic pit in a beautiful-but-forgotten neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places gave me a perspective you can’t get from a Downtown penthouse.

For all the amenities Pullman doesn’t have — little things like a Metra stop that doesn’t look so much like a crime scene, or a hip restaurant that makes paninis, or one of those craft coffee shops, or a dog park, or a bar with live music or anything that gives people more of a reason to hang out in one of those beautiful but underused historic buildings — there’s something special and very Chicago about living in a neighborhood that struggles, even if it’s sometimes a struggle against itself, but refuses to give up.

That’s Pullman, my kind of Chicago.

I’m one of those guys, from one of those blue-collar families, who picks a side and relentlessly fights to win, even though the game is rigged against me.

I saw a lot of things in Streeterville, but not a lot of that.

Down in Pullman, kindred spirits — even the ones who I don’t always agree with — who tirelessly work to make our neighborhood better despite the long odds, are my kind of people.

And when I go across the street to Arcade Park, sandwiched between the Greenstone Church’s copper steeple and the Hotel Florence’s sweeping veranda, the restored clock tower in the distance and all around me Pullman’s faded scars — the ruins of Market Hall, the field where the Arcade Building once stood and the dilapidated old stables — I’m standing in a place that one time or another was the center of it all for so many struggles that in some ways made our city — and our country — what it is today.

And it is far, far better that I live there, better than I could have ever imagined, a lovely struggle that I wouldn’t be the same without.


A Tourist in My Own Town: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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Movin' On Up ... To Streeterville
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DNAinfo/ Mark Konkol