I am remembering that my main desire to live in a city was to live downtown. I wanted to live amongst the biggest buildings in the world. Their strength and power and beauty were my idea of urbanity. But it is unrealistic to want that and to have that. What most defines this city is something that I can’t be a part of. Commuting to work downtown is not the same thing. I am in a rush to begin the day. In the late afternoon, a rush to escape the office. The time spent between train and skyscraper is one of panic and worry. I am inside the building before I even realize I am there.
I had an early appointment downtown and once that was done, I decided to spend the next few minutes walking near the lake, near the river, between the buildings that cast shadows. There is something to be said for feeling so small, for feeling so compact underneath greatness. I am never more aware of myself than when I am downtown. The minutes quickly turned into three hours and I began to remember why I love it here so much, even though that love has changed and dissipated and is challenged.
Downtown and River North and the Gold Coast and the South Loop are accessible through public transportation, but that doesn’t change the fact that accessibility is more than just “the getting there.” These parts of the city are the parts that we talk about when we talk about its energy. These parts are the parts that we show visitors and tourists and strangers when we talk about what Chicago can accomplish. But if I were a teen living on the West Side or the South Side, would I feel these parts are as much mine as they are for the people in charge? Would I feel they are as much mine as they are for the people who brush in and out of the city in a matter of days?
As a teenager, I used to take the Green Line train in from Oak Park to attend a special college-bound program for “gifted” minority students. I didn’t recognize it then as I do now. I didn’t think about the discrepancies in living in the city. It takes many years and many active thoughts in consideration of all parts of the city to get to that place. Back then, downtown felt as much mine as it did for the people living in the city. That greatness was accessible. That greatness was attainable. That greatness was my expected reality.
The Green Line is elevated above ground providing perfect views of the skyline and perfect views of the crumbling infrastructure of a part of the city ignored since the late 60s. As a young girl, I would take the train downtown with my family and my mother would say, “It looked just the same when we finally moved out of here.” She was talking not of our move out of the city but her move out of this part of the city as a young teen. It looked just the same.
I walked to the Merchandise Mart and stood outside of Gilt Bar and Bavette’s. Around the corner from both restaurants is Doughnut Vault. The last time I was here, a line ran down and around the block. Once we made it inside of the minuscule shop, I was astounded to hear the people in front of me order boxes and boxes of doughnuts.
“I’ll have one of everything.”
“I’ll have three of everything.”
“Give me everything you have right now … and a coffee to go.”
The excess made me uncomfortable. I planned on purchasing one doughnut for myself and one for my sister who lived half a mile away. But when I got to the counter, I said, “Two vanilla glazed … and two chocolate glazed … no make that three of both.” I didn’t need that much, but felt compelled to make the extravagant purchases at $3 per doughnut because this luxe and indulgent part of the city did not feel like my own. I wanted it, even if I could not yet admit it.
Yesterday there was no line and so I walked inside and ordered just one treat.
“Just one?” the girl behind the counter asked as Outkast played in the background.
This was an indulgent departure, a moment that most in the city could not take. But also, it was just something for me, not for anyone else. It did not ground me to the city, to what it means to be a part of the city. I am still figuring that out, but I do know the buildings downtown (so fierce, so massive) mean something critical to me. I have claimed them as my own even if others can not. I recognize the privilege in wanting to be a part of this greatness, of knowing that it can possibly be mine. Everyone can’t want for that. But also, most Chicagoans don’t want it at all. That is not their city. That is not what they want to come home to.
“Yep. Just one!” I said. That was all I needed.
"Oh Yeah" - Bat for Lashes (mp3)
"The Haunted Man" - Bat for Lashes (mp3)
"Horses of the Sun" - Bat for Lashes (mp3)
The new album from Bat for Lashes, The Haunted Man, is out today.