(More than) My First Year “Carless”

Today marks the start of my second year blogging about life as a determined non-driver living in downtown Chicago. Beginning my blog and moving to Marina City both coincided in June 2005. Back then, I thought I could get Marina City out of the way in my first post and go on to writing about downtown life in general. Little did I know that the unique trials and tribulations of Marina City residency would motivate me to write so often about the historic corncob towers.

Recently, Marina City’s most enduring residents, the “Couch Ladies” — who, depending on whom you ask, have either lived here since 1963 or the defeat of the Indians at Fort Dearborn and either answer entirely acceptable to them — inquired as to how this blog came to be named. First of all, thanks for reading, gals, it’s an honor. While other titles might equally fit the frank tone in which I write (The Sly and the Snarky, anyone?), none fits as well as Chicago Carless.

I grew up in New York City a block from the subway in Queens, moved in college to live a block from the subway in Brooklyn, and spent most of my adult life working a block from the subway in Manhattan. Given that the great majority of New Yorkers take (and only need to take) transit to get around the city, most of us never set tuchus behind the wheel of a car. We don’t need to. Some of us never even bother to learn how to drive. Myself included.

Some of my earliest memories are of me as a toddler watching the Jamaica Avenue el rumble back and forth from my grandmother’s rear window and then settling down with crayon and construction paper to draw what I was seeing, complete with cutaway views of little stick-figure straphangers sitting in little stick-figure seats. Before I started college, I was already researching graduate schools in urban planning and picturing my dream job as a transit planner, which came to pass for a time at the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee. When 9/11 and myriad other issues I still haven’t worked out yet drove me from my Gotham home, I knew beyond certainty that only another public-transit based city could, or should, contain me.

Chicago seemed to fit the bill. I trip on Chicago dogs and pizza way more than my hometown versions, and Studs Terkel has never driven a car in his life, either, so I figured I’d be in good stead. But while Chicagoans “get” the importance of transit, “getting” the idea of downtown as a living, breathing, peopled, functioning, and desirable neighborhood with one hell of a convenient quality of life is something else entirely. One-hundred thousand people may live along the lake between North and Cermak, with more arriving everyday to fill new central-city condos and lofts. But all the evidence to the contrary, many Chicagoans are still fixated on the bad old days of the Loop and downtown Chicago in general as a battlezone of gangs, addicts, and the homeless where savvy residents fear to tread after dark, if at all.

Except, nowadays truly savvy Chicagoans know the downtown core to be safe and vibrant, clean and renovated, with thriving retail corridors, manicured parks, shiny new office and condo towers, and street life — the good kind — going on from dawn until the wee hours of the morning. Living in this milieu, besides being endlessly diverting, takes you out of our car, and even your bus or ‘L’ train, and plants you squarely on your feet where you can and do walk to conveniently nearby supermarkets, restaurants, stores, bars, and world-class cultural institutions (“What do you feel like tonight, honey, a concert at Millennium Park or late-evening hours at the Art Institute?” “How about that new art film at the Siskel Center?”). Without having to waste a half-hour driving or riding each way in order to take advantage of it all.

Not to mention potentially being able to walk to work. I do that, too, in 13 minutes from my apartment door to my office door, including elevator time. When people ask me — and everyone who lives in downtown Chicago gets asked all the time — why on earth I choose to live in the shadow of the Chicago Loop, if the above reasons don’t seem enticing enough, I point out the week of my life I get back each year. Most Chicagoans spend about 33 minutes commuting to work, each way. Shaving off 20 minutes by living downtown gives me back 173 hours to spend however else I please. That’s 7.2 days, a full week that most other people spend in traffic. Stick that in your gas tank and drive it.

So in answer to the Couch Ladies’ question, it’s Chicago Carless because it’s who I am and it’s what downtown Chicago is all about. Living happily in the center of one of the world’s greatest cities, and doing it without needing or wanting to burn rubber. And as long as there are Chicago locals with their heads gratuitously stuck in the past about downtown, I’ll be here on the web trying to drag them back, er, into the Loop about this neighborhood.

Besides, if nothing else I’ve always said I was born to take transit or be driven around by cute men. And between the CTA and Devyn, that contention is happily still working in my favor.

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