Taking Urban Planning Out of Storage

John Hancock frame 1960s

It’s hard to describe how odd the past few weeks have been. In December, I called out Chicago on its lack of an economic engine and inability to hold onto talent. In January, I told the same thing to the Chicago Community Trust and admitted my long-unvoiced desire to move to Los Angeles.

Then five weeks ago, two hours after submitting my resume, I was contacted and immediately hired by Chicago’s leading pair of private-sector organizations working to improve the city’s–and region’s–economic engine. And as if someone had waved a magic wand, after 11 years I was suddenly working in urban planning again, too.

My job search was part of the save-for-Los-Angeles strategy Ryan and I decided to roll out this year after rabbinical school financially imploded and Chicago winter unbearably exploded. And by decided to roll out this year, I mean last year we already picked potential neighborhoods, examined commuting times, analyzed transit viability, researched potential sectors, fields, and employers, and devised our the-hell-with-a-moving-van-over-the-Rockies budget to furnish a new California apartment from scratch.

So I guess planning never really left me. Even though the last time I worked in the field that I decided to enter at the age of 18 and eventually studied in grad school was 2003, before leaving New York. So not only is this year the first time I’ve worked in planning in 11 years, it’s the first time I’ve worked in planning in Chicago. At all.

I can’t put into words what it’s like to feel the career everyone around you thought you were meant for slip out of your hands, only to have your former career which at one point you dearly loved handed to you as if my magic. Or as I see it, as an unexpected and incredibly overwhelming gift from God.

So here I am, 32-years-old again at the age of 43, having shocked those who hired me by seamlessly jumping into a strategy and program management role that my predecessor lasted two days in, hitting the ground running, and barely breaking a sweat. That urbanism-oriented job I thought I’d find the moment I got to Chicago in early 2003 only took a year plus a decade.

The irony of bitching about Chicago’s greatest problem only to be hired by organizations working on that exact problem is not lost on me. But my heart’s still set on L.A. So there’s the other shoe dropping. I’ve gotten what I’ve always wanted long after I stopped wanting it anymore. So now I get to be in love with two cities, but in a stuck-in-the-middle way, reining in my waxing feelings for the West Coast while trying to fan once again the flames of my waning feelings for the Third Coast.

None of which is to say I’m not thrilled with the gig. How could I not be? Two weeks ago while looking for information in old storage boxes, I came across original 1960s site-plan photos from the Chicago Loop’s First National Plaza (now Chase Tower), followed by a pristine, pre-construction prospectus folder for the Magnificent Mile’s John Hancock building. I’d be lying if I said as an urban planner my hands didn’t tremble holding those items.

In fact, I sat back at my desk and cried. Though urban planning has been moribund in this city for a number of decades, the field I left and accidentally apparently have returned to was born in Chicago. I was well aware that I was holding literal pieces of Chicago history in my hands.

A week later I was personally welcomed to my combined organizations. By Mies van der Rohe’s grandson, the president of the Field Museum, and the mayor of Racine, among others. I’m just trying to smile and handle it all. This is not a career job, more of an uber stepping-stone position to bridge myself back–if I want to be bridged back–into my urban planning career. I don’t know whether, when, or where I might return to rabbinical school. But when the magic’s over in Chicago, this wonderful gig will help me get an even more wonderful gig in Los Angeles.

Or maybe in Chicago, for that matter. At the moment, it’s all I can do to just be along for the awesomeness of the ride.

I don’t often talk about what I do for a living on this blog, and after this post I won’t be making a habit out of it, either. You can find full details about what I’m doing now on my Linkedin. But the short of it is, I am for now, and as long as whatever relevant federal grant or private-sector fundraising holds out, in a dual role as the Manager of Economic Development Initiatives at the Alliance for Regional Development…and the Chicago Central Area Committee. And if you’re an urban planner reading this with any sense of history, when you read those last four words, you sat back in your seat too.

And understood about magic and God.

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