What Is a Chicagoan?

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(Photo: How long does it take to admit what you no longer are…and what you’ve become?)

Lately I’ve been wondering about my place in the world. Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me that keeps bringing that question up. New York has long history of considering itself the center of the universe. Take a New Yorker out of Gotham and he’s bound to feel disoriented.

On the other hand, maybe it’s what I’ve become that’s truly at the heart of the matter. Five years in Chicago is enough to change anyone. I’m long past the point of going local, and just beyond the bend of settling in. Most likely, I’ll be on these Lake Michigan shores for a long time to come.

Exhibit: nail. And I think I’ve just hit it on the head. When do you become a Chicagoan? At what point can you say–and will native citizens let you say–that you have become an adopted son of this first-rate Second City? What trials by fire are necessary? What oaths of fealty are required?

Why is it so important to me to have an answer?

The Buddhist in me hates me for saying so, but we all want something to cling to. Some bedrock piece of identity to point to and say, “This is who I am.” Something about ourselves, our pasts, and our futures that we can rely on if we can rely on nothing else. Terra firma.

In New York, say you’re a New Yorker and no one questions you. Hell, you become a New Yorker just by showing up. Natives know the city is most folk’s idea of a nice place to visit that you wouldn’t want to live in. They know the difficulty of dealing every day with the cost, and the stress, and the neuroticism of the city. Anyone who wants to join in that struggle gets to wear the badge of honor of being a bona fide New Yorker the day that moving van arrives in Astoria.

Chicago is another story. Living in the shadow of bigger urban brethren to the east and west, it’s more common for Second Citizens to circle the civic wagons and draw a distinction between native sons and daughters and those who aren’t. Maybe it’s a natural reaction to being upstaged in the national consciousness by cities that to my mind just don’t measure up to the one I call home.

On the other hand, drawing a distinction between Chicagoans by birth and Chicagoans by choice could just be the result of surprise. Let’s face it, how sane can anyone be who adopts as his home a place with a six-month winter? (I always say, Chicago taught me what cold is: in New York, 20 degrees keeps us indoors; in Chicago, 20 degrees opens our coats to the heat wave).

Yet so many are drawn to Chicago and stay. Generations of families, tens of thousands of families, began here with the arrival of immigrant parents from Italy and Ireland and Poland and Mexico. When innumerable Midwestern farm kids and children from teeny, tiny prairie towns go to sleep at night and dream of someday finding fame and fortune in the big city, it’s the Windy City that billows through many young minds.

And very occasionally a New Yorker finds his way here, too.

How long does it take for them all to become Chicagoans? Years? Lifetimes? Generations?

Perhaps time is not the best litmus test of a new Chicagoan. Maybe it’s something deeper. I confess, 32 years in New York City never instilled in me a sense of civic pride. I loved the bigness of it all, and being able to get my proverbial bagel at three in the morning. But I could stand in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and gaze for hours back at the Manhattan skyline and feel impressed. But not moved.

And the heart of the matter is, Chicago moves me. I’ve pondered why on this blog for years. But that’s not the point. What matters is I can stand on the roof of Marina City after sunset on a warm summer night, gaze out across the great, flat sweep of Chicagoland, trace the twinkle of streetlights extending in straight lines for miles from skyscrapers to the horizon, and feel very grateful that this is the place to which my life has led me.

Five years since my arrival and by now I can make one hell of a Chicago dog, debate citywide ward politics, navigate the CTA with my eyes closed (kids, don’t try this at home), tell you the life stories of Sullivan, Burnham, and Wright, and pepper Chicagoisms into conversation with the best of them (I’m telling you that).

And I can sit and think about the quality of life afforded by this place, an urban existence of moderate cost with maximum amenities, and a gentler way of being together with each other in the same city than behavior in any burg on either coast would ever allow to happen.

Five years on and I don’t hesitate to defend Chicago when I feel she’s been slighted, speak of her in glowing terms to those who’ve never seen her in person, and have the good sense to feel rotten about the thought of ever leaving.

Sometimes I’m simply brought to tears by the wonder of it all, here in the former Fort Dearborn. I’m not ashamed to admit it, I’m a big softie when it comes to this place. For whatever reason, I’ve come to love Chicago deeply.

For an ex-Gothamite, that’s no surprise. They say the only thing harder than getting a New Yorker to move to Chicago is getting him to leave. But now that I’m staying put, how much more mileage can I really get out of this whole ex-New Yorker thing? God knows, the thought of a New Yorker in Chicago just bugs me to fits.

I suppose it must be the Chicagoan in me.

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