Bright lights, big shoulders: My own private Chicago

Skyline

A piece of Chicago’s skyline, as seen from a river architectural tour, August 2011. iPhone photo by Rose Raymond.

For most of my life I have had a feverish love affair with the city of Chicago. It started when I was 5 years old and saw the city from the (then) Sears Tower for the first time. I remember trying to find my house beyond the skyscrapers. We lived in Oak Park at the time.

Later, as a high school student, my friends and I leapt at any chance to escape our hometown (no longer Oak Park at this point; the less-cool Woodridge) and drive into the city. Sometimes we had a reason, such as a shopping trip at The Alley or an exhibit at the Art Institute. Other days, we’d linger over coffees in Greektown diners or people-watch in Grant Park.

When I was a college student, the city came to represent everything the suburb where I went to school lacked: diversity, grittiness, vibrancy, excitement (sorry, Naperville …). A few of my friends had moved there by then. I discovered neighborhoods I’d never seen before, each with their own personality: Pilsen, Andersonville, Bridgeport. I went to shows at Metro, the Vic and the Double Door, and back then I kind of relished the fact that a trip to the city tacked a couple hours onto the night—the driving in and the driving home. Of course, I often slept on my friends’ sofas, too. In the morning, we’d stuff ourselves with pancakes from Lou Mitchell’s, the Golden Nugget or Cozy Corner.

Mexican wrestlers

Mexican wrestlers at Humboldt Park’s Riot Fest, September 2012. iPhone photo by Rose Raymond.

When I left the country in 2005, I missed Chicago terribly. I walked the streets of Seoul, loving the narrow alleyways, well-dressed pedestrians and cheap noodle shops, but missing Chicago’s diners, laid-back passersby and comparatively wide open spaces (I looked it up once: At the time, Seoul and Chicago shared roughly the same land area, but Seoul’s population was three times Chicago’s.).

But my love for Chicago was conflicted by my desire to attend graduate school. So off to Missouri I went. I learned to love Missouri, but that’s another story. How was it easier to live halfway across the world from Chicago than a six-hour drive from it? I was visiting the city more frequently now and discovering new neighborhoods, bars and even friends.

I lined up unpaid internships in the city for the summer of 2008. I was as psyched to live in the city as I was stressed about the fiscal black hole I was about to fall into. Then a company in Florida offered me a paid internship. Financially, it was the only responsible decision to make. And a similar opportunity came up in Washington, D.C., in 2009. In 2010, I was offered a job in Florida. At this point, I’d been away from the city for five years, and the extended near-poverty of graduate school and internships was starting to wear on me. A job? With benefits? By the beach? Yes, please.

My two years in South Florida were an extremely fun blur of Cuban food, tiki bars and beach runs. They gave me an appreciation for warm weather that has, I fear, forever diminished my tolerance for Chicago winters. But in 2012, I decided that 1,300 miles between myself and my favorite city was 1,300 too many. An opportunity presented itself, and I moved to the city in August. A friend from college needed a roommate in the Ukrainian Village. Years earlier, I couldn’t have known that so many of the places I’d loved visiting – Club Foot, the Empty Bottle, the Rainbow Club – were in the first Chicago neighborhood I would live in.

Storefront

Storefront on Western Avenue in Ukrainian Village, circa October 2012. iPhone photo by Rose Raymond.

As ecstatic as I was/am to finally call Chicago home, my relationship with the city changed when I moved here. When you don’t live in a city, you’re not spending your time in it buying groceries, commuting and doing your laundry. So it’s easy for the city to retain 100 percent of its magic. Before moving here, I associated Chicago with adventure, wild nights out, 4 a.m. burritos at Flash Taco before a RedBull-fueled drive back to the ‘burbs.

Moving to the city you’ve always loved from afar is like finally going on a date with the high-school crush you’ve had eyes on since junior high. Or maybe it’s like skipping the courtship and moving in with that person. Now that this is my home, I’m privy to all of Chicago’s burps, farts and dramatic weirdness.

I know that it’s not the best city in the world for commuting, and it might have the most abysmal weather of any place I’ve ever lived, and yet … I love that I can see the John Hancock building from my neighborhood. I love riding the El and living in a city where you can get by without a car. I love that, a short walk from my apartment, there’s a prison-themed heavy metal bar that serves unbelievable turkey burgers, and I’m about to go eat one.

This blog will serve as my attempt to capture what I can of the magic of Chicago. It’s my reminder to keep exploring, to keep finding new things to love about this city. If you’re reading, feel free to send me suggestions of places to go or things to do!

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