I am a city person, always have been. For this reason I should love Chicago. Chicago is pop culture’s archetypal big city, with soaring skyscrapers and a highly sophisticated public transit system. The subways run all night long. Bars and restaurants litter the streets. There is world class art and world class music. When filming his Batman series, Christopher Nolan shot in Chicago because of its big city feel. Yet, even as a city person, I never felt at home in Chicago.
Chicago is known as America’s “second city”—the younger and edgier sibling to New York City. But the phrase seems truer in history than today. The buildings hint at an age of ambition when people flocked to Chicago in pursuit of opportunity and successively taller skyscrapers punched into the sky. But Chicago no longer hums with ambition the way that Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington DC does. There is a vibrant economy, but today’s Chicago is no city of dreamers. Rather it is a city of hardened practicality. And so there is something incongruent, even empty, about the grand architecture that Chicago loves to extoll to its visitors.
At heart Chicago really is a Midwestern city. Many locals in Chicago share the Midwest mentality of just going about their daily lives and not getting too worked up about the crazier things in life. Many work good corporate jobs. They are a hard-working bunch, but they don’t want drama nor yearn for glamour. Instead they look forward to going home and spending quality time with friends and family. The city is filled with artistic and historical displays, but for many residents cultural engagement does not run deep. To them art and history are not things that give meaning to human life, but curiosities and tourist attractions. The thing that makes Chicago different from the rest of the Midwest is that it combines Midwest groundedness with the amenities of a big city. I think that’s why Midwesterners love Chicago. Many Chicagoans move here from other locales of the Midwest and never leave.
There is something really wonderful about the Midwestern outlook on life. Few Chicagoans are ever bitter or angry. People are not too rushed to be nice. There is an egalitarianism in the way that people treat each other. People are friendly and open to chatting in line at a store, no matter who you are. Social status does not hold much currency. But the daily concerns of Chicagoans can seem mundane and parochial. Here the weather is a genuine topic of conversation rather than a filler for awkward small talk. There are only small pockets of edginess in a few industries—improv comedy and satire are the main things that comes to mind. The suburban life of a lawn and a dog is the ideal for many. This makes me—an international with outsized dreams—somewhat of an oddball here. I want to talk politics and big trends in the world but my desire seems to confuse many locals. Perhaps I just never found the right crowd.
Unsurprisingly, my experience in Chicago has largely been defined by people who are not from the Midwest originally—coworkers at the University of Chicago and friends I knew from school on the East Coast. For many of these friends Chicago is but a stop in their journey. Many are visiting scholars or students. They stay only a few months or a couple years. Every now and then I’d have to bid a friend goodbye.
I too leave Chicago soon.
Will I look back at my time in Chicago with the same sweet fondness as my college years in Cambridge or my stay in San Francisco?
There are many things that I will miss. I will miss the hearty meals with my cousins, my uncle’s dirty jokes, and my aunt’s motherly concern. I will miss the summer when I biked nine miles to work every other day, frequented outdoor concerts, and cooked each day with my roommates. I will miss the funky jazz played at the Green Mill and the bookshops of Hyde Park.
But these two years have not been the sunniest. There were times when I felt lonely or inadequate. There were times when I felt homesick and disenchanted. There were failed research projects. There was unrequited love. And there were the bleak months of Occupy Central when my hometown was torn asunder and barricaded and tear-gassed. Feeling like a foreigner in Chicago did not make things easier.
I know that I will nevertheless take something away from Chicago. It was in Chicago that I found a dream job. It was here that I formulated my first serious plans to become an academic economist and got to work. In Chicago I encountered two great books—Stoner by John Williams and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Both are set in the Midwest and each depict the incandescent inner life of an ordinary person who spent their life engaged in meaningful but otherwise obscure and unremarkable work. Whether it was because of the city, or the books, or my newfound professional calling, I leave Chicago with greater willingness to do unglamorous work. So even though I never quite felt at home in this windy city, Chicago did change me after all.