Do Over

flyover zone

So my ninth anniversary blog post really sent me into a full-on, Chicago-battering funk. Or as I like to think of it, my Fleeing Chicago series–a longtime-coming reassessment of where I am and where I want to be. In today’s installment, I wonder whether, if I knew then what I know know, I would still have come to Chicago in 2003.

Many people living on the east and west coasts dismissively consider the entire middle of the country as one big flyover zone. I suppose that would make Chicago the capital of flyover country. That’s certainly how I thought of this place before I became an urban planner. The Progressive mindset of Chicago in the late 1800s that gave birth to cleaner parks, healthier urban dwellings, and high-rise downtowns made me reconsider the place.

I loved the city when I first visited while in planning school in 1998, but hated how bad transit was at the time. When I started visiting again at the crack of 2003 by way of exploring options to escape the stress of post-9/11 NYC, transit was vastly improved and I was swept away in the good manners of locals and the groundswell of positivity surrounding the dawning renaissance of downtown and many urban neighborhoods.

At the time I didn’t know how to drive (still don’t), and was too scared to consider leaving New York for any city that didn’t have a massive, useful transit system. So a place like Los Angeles would never have been on the table. Or at least that’s how I thought at the time.

After arriving here, for a decade I said the most attractive thing about Chicago was how people acted–that is, kindly towards each other, elevating good manners and an appreciation of the ordinary good life over the constant, rude rush to get no where in particular that is life in the public realm of New York. I often described it as a scale, with Chicagoans on the nice end of the pendulum, and Parisians on the rotten, awful, rude other end, reflecting my longstanding belief that how people treat each other is what makes a city livable.

Then last year, of course, I finally accepted the other side of local behavior in Chicago, and understood that the Windy City’s human pace and elevation of the ordinary had more to do with the lack of lifechances that happens when living within a corrupt political system than with any higher motivation.

Maybe it’s that way everywhere. Maybe New Yorkers have it right in their headlong rush through life, or Parisians in their eternal, elegant snarl. I certainly know it’s no better in Los Anegeles, a city in a region largely built by people with origins in one of two famous places beginning with an M: Mexico and the Midwest. I know our future city well enough to understand it as a quirky combination of east coast and Midwest sensibilities. Like in Chicago, in Los Angeles strangers will trust you enough to respond back when you talk to them. But like in New York, they’ll also mistrust you enough to make sure that your conversation is a short one.

So if the feel of the city won’t be any friendlier than here–and will probably be less friendly–maybe it’s time at long last to reassess how I define a livable city. Good manners are wonderful, but you also need to actually be able to make a living for a city to be livable, don’t you? I keep coming back to my Rachel Shteir post from last year (linked above), and thinking about how on the whole Chicago fears creativity, independent leadership, asking questions, and involving the public in decision-making in any real way.

New York City isn’t like that. Los Angeles isn’t like that either, though in different measure than New York (since it is, of course, a different city.) But if anywhere in America is going to value the power of creativity and an independent spirit to fuel your lifechances, L.A. would be that place. It would also be dirty, troubled, riven by gangs and poverty, and altogether not a place of perfection to be viewed through rose-colored lenses. But the same can be said for any big city, and as someone who has studied cities I sure don’t expect L.A. to be any different.

And since 2003 L.A. County has become home to the fastest-growing, most visionary network of light rail and bus rapid transit lines in the country. People outside of L.A. don’t realize it, but planners do–Los Angeles is now the capital of rail transit spending in America. There, as in Chicago, it can take 90 minutes to get across town on a bus. But there, as here, you can also zip across town on a rail line, depending on where you’re going. So the fear of living there as a non-driver no longer exists for me. In 2014, transit in L.A. works.

So back to the original question. If I knew in 2003 what I know now, would I still have moved to Chicago and not simply stayed in New York–or flown over to California in the first place? The rail network was far smaller in L.A. 11 years ago, so I can safely rule out L.A. and say I wouldn’t have bypassed Chicago.

But would I have come here in the first place? I wouldn’t give up Ryan, my friends, my experiences of love and happiness and joining the Jewish people, and many other great things that have happened in my life here on the shores of Lake Michigan for anything. And all of that couldn’t have happened in New York, or at least not in the same way.

But before it all happened, at my moment of decision, standing on the exit bridge of Grizzly River Run in Disney California Adventure Park at Disneyland Resort and talking to my old friend Sarah on the phone? If I had known the difference between lifechances in New York City and lifechances in Chicago, would I have hung up the phone and decided to come here in the first place? Would I actually have valued friendly people over fairness in the workplace?

I know what my answer is today. It feels kind of treasonous towards my years in Chicago, but I’d be lying if I said I think my answer would have been different 11 years ago.

Then again, back in 2003 a Chicago friend tried to warn me about the lay of the land here, calling this place an “un-intellectual” city. I didn’t get what he meant at the time, and just filed those words away for a decade until I could finally understand them.

So maybe you’d still be reading a blog called Chicago Carless either way.

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What do you think?