When you ask me about Chicago, there are stories I can tell.
I can tell you about the gunshots. I’ve heard them from my living room, after dinner. I can tell you about the texts I send my roommates, warning them to be careful walking home.
I can tell you about the closed schools. One sits the next block over, but I can see it from my house because the lot between here and there sits empty. Foreclosed, abandoned, repossessed, demolished, then empty.
I can tell you about the brick warehouse a few blocks north of my house. People say the police hold alleged offenders inside, interrogating them outside the view of the law before taking them to the station to book them.
I can tell you about the jail a few blocks south of my house. It holds thousands of people awaiting a court date, bail set out of reach. For many inside, a conviction will never come, but the damage — a job loss from missed days at work, an eviction from missed rent checks — will be done. When I first moved here, someone told me that we don’t even think of the jail as being in our neighborhood. There are so many people there and the walls are so high, I was told, “It’s like its own little town.” Quaint.
I can tell you about the note. It was left next to the lifeless, heroin-riddled body of one of our tenants, consoling my colleagues that they, as property managers, would not have to deal with the deceased man’s belongings — because the note-writer had stolen everything already. As if she was doing someone a favor by emptying the apartment in the cold of the night, instead of calling 911.
I can tell you about the train that runs by my house, and how the elevated tracks serve as an invisible wall between a neighborhood where more than 90 percent of residents are black and a neighborhood where more than 90 percent of the residents are Hispanic. I can tell you about how, unaware of these stark divisions, people lump the entire region together and write it all off as The Hood. I can tell you about the widened eyes, the raised brows, and the shaking heads of people who have spent their lives in Chicago when I tell them where I live, thinking surely they heard me wrong, or I don’t really know the name of my street quite yet.
But, when you ask me about Chicago, those probably aren’t the stories I’ll tell.
When you ask me about Chicago, there’s a calculus I’ll have to do. I’m not the only one telling stories about Chicago. I know that. There are stories I can tell, but if you live somewhere else, you’ve probably heard those ones before. You’ve heard them on the news. You’ve heard them from the White House. You’ve heard them, and — I’m doing my calculus — maybe you’ve believed them. Maybe those stories are the only Chicago you know. The toughest gun laws in the country can’t even save the people of Chicago, right? Someone will be sending in the Feds to stop the carnage any day now, right? It’s totally out of control over there, right?
So, when you ask me about Chicago, there are other stories I can tell.
I’ll tell you about Lake Michigan, about the beaches and the harbors and the parks. We took the train downtown late one night to celebrate when one of my housemates turned 23, and we strolled along the lakefront path instead of going to get drinks. We walked out to the edge of a dock to sit and admire the greatness and darkness and stillness of it all.
I’ll tell you about outdoor movie night at Millennium Park, about spreading a blanket on the lawn one of my first sticky summer evenings in the city. The rest of the audience knew the lines, and laughed at every joke before the punchlines were delivered.
I’ll tell you about the White Sox, and about the time I saw them hit a homer in the bottom of the 8th inning to come from behind and win the last home game of the season.
I’ll tell you about the trees downtown, and how the maples turned red all at once in the fall, and how the colors looked even brighter on the first snow of the year. Or how our grand urban canyon is filled with a river such a spectacular shade of blue that it takes orange dye to turn the water green — that’s right, they dye the river green. For Saint Patrick’s Day. I’ll tell you about that.
I’ll tell you about the art — the public masterpieces by Picasso and Miró and Chagall, displayed freely in public spaces. It belongs to the people, like good art should. I’ll tell you about “American Gothic” at the Art Institute, and I’ll call the place Chicago’s Louvre. Maybe I’ll call the Bean our very own Eiffel Tower. Or maybe I’ll claim that the streets themselves are the best museum in town, studded with world-class architecture.
I’ll tell you about the train, which practically delivers me from the stoop of my house to my desk downtown, and about the money I’ve saved since leaving my car on the West Coast. I’ll tell you about the sugary scent of the chocolate factory by the river, which floats into the air around my office and hangs around to greet me when I leave work.
So, when you ask me about Chicago, tell me what story you’ve already heard, and ask yourself if you’ll accept a different one.