A Public in Civility

(Photo: In New York City, pretty doesn’t always lie in the details: squinting up the East River from the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade. Credit: Looper.)

Recently, my Korean foodie friend, (“I don’t freaking look like Margaret Cho!”) Rozella, and I were discussing what we liked about Chicago. Unlike me, Rozella’s a native, but she spent several years away from the friendly shores of Lake Michigan before returning here, not long before I arrived, in the early 2000s. We came and we stay for different reasons. Rozella’s seen the world, now she has family obligations to live up to. I’ve seen the world, too, but there’s still a lot of wanderlust left in me. I stay put in Hogtown for entirely different reasons. I’m here because people say “hi”.

That sentence may confuse some people, but anyone from New York City, like I am originally, knows what I’m talking about. Because people don’t tend to say “hi” to strangers in Gotham. Or anything else, for that matter.

I’m sitting in a downtown Chicago coffee shop as I write this. In the past few minutes I’ve been chatted up by a fellow patron asking whether there’s wireless connectivity here, been warmly greeted by the baristas, and been ordered to stop handing the cashier my ID with my credit card every day. They know who I am and they remember me with a smile. And while that fellow patron is waiting in line for his dose of caffeine, I’m watching over his laptop at the neighboring table, as are other nearby patrons. (Of course, there was also the idiot father who just now let his six-year-old son play in the revolving door until his head got caught in it, but that speaks to a whole different issue).

Back home in Gotham, that patron would have thought twice before engaging me, a stranger, in conversation, the baristas would have had trouble picking me out of the crowd, and as for that laptop, you didn’t really expect it to be there when you got back to your table, now did you?

A stark difference in civil engagement that eluded my on my first trip to Hogtown in 1998. An urban planner at the time, I came to Chicago on an architecture pilgrimage. I fell in love with the skyline. And I cut my trip short because, back then, the city’s recovery was still more rumor than received fact. Just setting foot on the CTA in 1998 reminded me of the poorly maintained, graffiti-covered, but long since gone bad old days of the NYC subway. Blinded by Chicago’s physical decline, I never stopped to take a good look at Chicagoans.

That was a shame. Because when I unexpectedly returned in 2003, the differences between Gothamites and Chicagoans stood my east-coast expectations about public civility on their collective head.

I never intended to revisit Chicago after 1998, but a (long-since moved on) friend settled here a few years later, and in January of 2003 I decided to come for a weekend visit. A few things had changed since my last time in town. The CTA had started to clean up its act, new towers were sprouting all over downtown, the East Loop was happily turning residential, and overall, Chicago was finally–for me, anyway–a nice place to visit.

I was bowled over by the change I felt in the city, and it was a good thing–because I arrived right before a blizzard and ended up in Hogtown for almost a week. I didn’t care. I ran around the city a giddy tourist, finally happy to be here. And having all that unanticipated time on my hands, for the first time I started to get to know the people who live in this city. And as bowled over as I was with built Chicago, I was even more astonished at the public civility of Chicagoans.

Whether I was buying a transit card (“Can I help you work that machine?”), answering an unexpected question (“Honey, you know where there’s a Jimmy John’s around here?”), or drying myself off in an elevator (“Did you get caught in that flurry? Damn it snowed cats and dogs, huh?”), locals took the time to talk to me. White or Black, Mexican or Polish, yuppie or working stiff, it didn’t matter. Everyone talked to everyone, and everyone talked to me. I wasn’t prepared for that. Back in New York, we studiously avoid talking to strangers for fear that they may be insane, or gun wielding, or terrorists, or worst of all, inclined to talk back. So, naturally, my first instinct was to think that the entire City of Chicago was putting me on.

An old acquaintance once christened the uniquely New York practice of publicly dissing your fellow citizens “aggressive ambivalence”. Actually engaging in friendly discourse with casual strangers is considered, or so the thought goes in Gotham, at best, a behavioral relic from the 1950s long-since died out in urban America, at worst, an unnecessary intrusion into the otherwise anxiety-laden average New York City day-to-day existence. Not only didn’t I expect to find “hello”, “please”, and “thank you” alive and well in a city as big as Chicago, but I pretty much hadn’t heard them often in public to begin with. Needless to say, I was intrigued.

When I got home to New York, I could already feel myself questioning the local social contract. Every time I walked past a stonily silent cashier to enter a store or shared a streetcorner glance with someone who quickly averted their eyes, I couldn’t help but wonder whether in Chicago I’d have ended up learning the names of these people and their kids, to boot. Although I’d never experienced that level of public civility, one trip to Chicago and I found I was actually missing it back home in Gotham.

It didn’t help, either, that in 2003 New York was still swimming in terrorism fears, my boss at a slimy engineering firm was morally bankrupt, my friends were too self-involved for my own good, and my rent was continuing its upward spiral. So I wasn’t surprised to find myself, two weeks later, booking a return trip to see that friend in Chicago. And again, from the airport in to my friend’s digs in Logan Square and back out bumming around town, Chicagoans I encountered talked to me…well, really, at all, for starters, and in a genuinely friendly manner. I couldn’t understand why New Yorkers couldn’t be this way. But with each trip to Chicago, I found that less and less did I care how New Yorkers chose to act.

When you get down at the heart of it, public civility is a choice. A city bereft of kindnesses towards strangers is nothing more than the sum of millions of personal decisions to shy away from connecting with one’s neighbors, writ large. Certainly, not all New Yorkers turn a blind eye to their fellow citizens. But as I wrote about earlier this year, New Yorkers who don’t follow the onerous and immalleable rules of life in that city tend to leave it. I came to realize I was thinking of doing just that.

Now, why Chicagoans see the world so differently from New Yorkers is an age-old debate. Tip your hat to prairie pioneers leaving that front door unlocked for their neighbors during 19th-century blizzards or to the less socially antagonistic effect of fewer millions of people, it doesn’t matter. The difference is there whyever it’s there, and it’s a big difference. Chicagoans (well, those not working for Osco, anyway) simply accept public niceties as an expected part of daily life. And not out of anxiety or a misplaced sense of civic duty, either. But simply because chatting with the people you share your city with makes city living a whole lot more uplifting.

And realizing that, I knew I’d be back again. And again, and again, and again. In fact, in all, starting in January of 2003 I flew to Chicago every two weeks for three months. And by April, on a Disneyland trip that I took to sort things out, standing in the middle of Disney’s California Adventure (I believe it was somewhere near Grizzly Peak) I started to think that it would be cheaper, not to mention more fulfilling, just to move to Chicago and save the airfare. An anathematic thought for any native New Yorker, yet I was relieved at the idea not just of leaving New York, but of leaving it for Chicago. I went home to New York and within ten days quit my job, went to Chicago to find an apartment, and found a friend to drive whatever possessions of mine would fit into an SUV across the five state lines between here and there.

And I never looked back.

Like a much-repeated mantra in these pages, I still don’t have a handle on all the reasons why I decided to become an expatriate New Yorker and resettle in Chicago in 2003. But I’m damned sure getting to live around Chicagoans was an enormous part of that decision. (And of course, as I previously blogged, New Yorkers were one of the biggest reasons why I left).

There have definitely been things about New York that I’ve missed in the three-and-a-half years that I’ve lived in Hogtown: the incredible density; a truly world-class transit system; any semblance of a Portuguese community; and the ability to buy a bagel from a corner Korean grocer at 3 a.m. among them. But distinctly not among the things I’ve missed is living in a city of incivility.

I talk often about what life might look like for Devyn and me after Chicago (my penchant for San Francisco and Northern California in general being no secret). But I know if I left I’d be hard pressed to find another city where it would be considered unexceptional to find a white businessman, a black grandmother, and a Mexican teenager freely chatting in an elevator about the weather.

There’s no agreement among the denizens of the world’s great cities about the worth of public civility. In cities like New York and Paris, a cool reception and a thick skin are de rigeur. London and Toronto will stiffly nod and acknowledge your presence. Montreal and San Francisco will smile back at you. Chicago and Lisbon will positively gush over you. My preference is for the cities on the latter half of that list.

Saying–and hearing back–’yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘how are you today?’ and ‘please, take my seat’ and ‘what is the matter with the Cubs this season?’ from complete strangers may not bring about peace in the middle east or otherwise fundamentally change the world. But knowing that you live in a region where millions of people won’t think twice about respecting everyone’s civil right to be noticed, engaged, and befriended, even for the briefest of moments, is an extraordinarily comforting thought to be able to carry with you every time you step out your front door.

Don’t get me wrong, all this public civility can wear a little thin. Sometimes I find myself wishing some uber-friendly Hogtown native in a moment of unexpected outrage would just rear back and tell me to go fuck myself. But even if they did, the invective would still come out through smiling–if clenched–teeth.

And in that clipped, nasal Midwestern accent that, frankly, I’ve grown quite fond of over the past four winters.

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