A Gang in Every Alley

It’s a truism about Chicago–and most American cities for that matter. It doesn’t matter how upscale your neighborhood is, it’s always going to have something in common with the most downtrodden ‘hood in your town: gangs. They’re everywhere in urban America, and whether or not we choose to acknowledge that to be the case, there will still be a gangbanger walking down some nearby alley, or sitting in a car on some not far-off street corner, keeping an eye on their turf and/or looking for their next drug customer. In fact, in the nicest of neighborhoods it’s probably easier for gangs to  keep a low profile. Resident complacency can be powerfully enabling to those who don’t seek a spotlight for their illegal activities.

When I moved to Edgewater with Ryan in March, I thought a lot about this. Back in Brooklyn, I spent eight years in Park Slope–i.e. liberal, yuppie central. That neighborhood’s upscale reputation didn’t stop petty street crime from happening, not to mention assault and, on more than one occasion, murder.

In my nine years in Chicago, I’ve lived in similarly upscale areas–including Wrigleyville and River North–that just as similarly did not want for criminal activity during overnight hours, and frequently during broad daylight, too. And yet, I was concerned about the move to the far North Side. Many Chicagoans consider points north of Lakeview to be akin to the Arctic Circle or Siberia (“You live all the way up there?“) and frequently caution about how unsafe the neighborhoods from Uptown up to Rogers Park can be. (For the uninitiated, Edgewater sits in between these two ‘hoods, about eight miles north along the lakefront from downtown.)

We wanted to make the move to be closer to our Edgewater synagogue (we ended up living on the same block!) But we also strongly considered Lincoln Square (my destination the day I realized I was Jewish), a charming, boutique-laden mid-north neighborhood that practically screamed, albeit facetiously, “nothing illegal ever happens here.”

In the end, of course, we chose Edgewater. We now live in a Sheridan Road lakefront high-rise whose foundations are lapped by Lake Michigan. I’m thrilled for the first time since living in Park Slope to have a decidedly local neighborhood out my front door, full of restaurants and grocery stores that cater to people who live within walking distance and whose employees remember you when you come back. Edgewater is also a highly multicultural neighborhood on par with what I remember from my 32 years in New York, with European, South Asian, and African immigrants rubbing shoulders with longtime native Chicagoans of myriad backgrounds–including a very healthy dose of Joe and Jane Jews.

I love the easy access up and down the lakefront, south to downtown, north to Evanston, thanks to the nearby CTA Red Line ‘L’ and multiple local- and (very) express-bus options, and Lake Shore Drive (via the Ryan-mobile), whose northern terminus sits half a mile away. I love the unbelievable direct access to Lake Michigan beaches and pocket parks. Yet, for all its cultural vibrancy and easy access, Edgewater is an extraordinarily locally centered, non-scene ‘hood–even for the presence of thousands of Loyola students living just up and frequently jogging down Sheridan Road. I love that about Edgewater, too.

As soon as we finished moving, I started reading the local Edgwater and Rogers Park discussions on EveryBlock. There, I found a lot of people with similar sentiments about the area. I also found more than a few people–some living  here, some living elsewhere–decrying the dangers of the same neighborhoods. What can you say? We have gang activity, hot-spot blocks and alleys, and gang-on-gang gun violence (which increases as the weather gets warmer.) So does the rest of Chicago. Every single piece of it.

Yet, we also have all of the wonderful things I’ve mentioned above that, together, helped motivate me to leave downtown Chicago behind (which is something regular readers of this blog know I swore I would never do.) You can’t, and shouldn’t, live your life in a bubble. That’s the greatest lesson I learned living downtown for as long as I did. I moved downtown because  I was leery of crime in another of my former neighborhoods, Logan Square. I loved the feeling of being walled off from potentially scary, rank-and-file neighborhoods by high-rise security and two miles of healthy downtown urban goodness in every direction.

And yet, every day I was well aware of what I was missing. And that is: engaging. Locally engaging with my city and fellow inhabitants therein. But I didn’t know how much I had missed that kind of ordinary engagement until the big move.

In New York terms, moving to Edgewater is like moving to Washington Heights at the northern tip of Manhattan. My commute is now an hour, but I still live in the main urban spine that  anchors my city–albeit at the far end of it. But in fact, Manhattan comparisons aside, very quickly after the move I started to feel like I had moved back to Brooklyn. It’s not like I have Prospect Park at my doorstep on the far North Side. But neither could I possible have Lake Michigan to the horizon off my living room balcony in Gotham, either. And now Ryan and I can have a seat at our favorite coffee shop or Chinese restaurant without waiting an hour and battling the entire world for the privilege. Not to mention being able to walk to shul on Shabbat.

I’m willing to call 911 as needed to defend those kind of local privileges.

(Photo credit: Elisharene.)

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