Uninspired in Chicago: Why Do Natives Fall Out of Love With the City?
Author Nelson Algren famously wrote of Chicago, “you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.” Algren famously took strolls around Lincoln Park and Old Town in the dead of night and in the coldest of months, continuing to fall in love with his cherished town.
I can certainly relate to Algren’s assessment. I’ve had my fair share of winter strolls and bike rides throughout this town, as well. On those trips I can’t help but think that the Chicago I call home is the same cold, alluring city Algren called home, except that instead of falling deeper for the city I’m feeling out of sorts, as if I’ve outgrown this place.
It’s probably no surprise to anybody reading this that Chicago has held up over the decades as world class: we are recognized as an alluring city, a welcoming city. Tourists crave our friendly Midwestern embrace, businesses love our eclectic demographics, and New Yorkers are just jealous for every reason imaginable.
I grew up in the Northwestern suburbs as an overweight, sheltered white kid -- a rare find, I know. “The City” was the cool spot to go on a Friday night when we had nothing to do. Grabbing cupcakes from Molly’s and empanadas from Lito’s was a staple of my high school suburban existence. Wicker Park in 2008 was a vastly different Wicker Park than it is now: still edgy, still weird, raw with a twist of put-togetherness.
I ended up going to DePaul, commuting my first year (a tremendous mistake) and grabbing an apartment when I was 19 for sophomore year. There I was, a teenager living at Halsted and Armitage in the heart of Lincoln Park. I read on the hill at Oz Park every morning, where I began to fall in love like Algren. I bounced around neighborhoods every year when my lease ended and did the roommate switches and swaps like every other college kid. Eventually this became too much for the introverted environmental studies/economics major that I was, so I grabbed a studio in North Center all for myself in 2013.
“At the time, Chicago was what made me happy. A trip home to visit my parents in the suburbs was like trying to cage a wild gazelle.”
Living alone in a big city can be both therapeutic and torturous at the same time. Once isolated, you can discover what truly makes you happy, what your needs are, what your wants are. At the time, Chicago was what made me happy. A trip home to visit my parents in the suburbs was like trying to cage a wild gazelle, those few hours of quiet and refuge made my eyes twitch and legs shake uncontrollably. I needed Chicago.
In my experience, that perspective is shared by a lot of Chicagoans, especially for my generation. This city serves as a landing pad from other smaller towns and suburbias. It’s a logical destination for transplants who have had those introspective nights of life-crisis wondering, “who am I, where can I grow, where can I go?” For some the choice is a more tranquil New York or the glitz of LA, for others it’s a bustling jungle of hundreds of thousands of different thoughts, perspectives, and possibilities, The City of Big Shoulders.
But what about those of us who have known only Chicago our whole lives? I’ve been recently reaching out to my family, friends, even Reddit expressing that I feel like my surroundings are becoming stale and predictable. I’ve lived in the actual city for just five years, all exclusively on the North Side, and I’ve cycled through the same events, concerts, and street festivals. I’ve snuggled up at Guthrie’s sipping stouts on cold winter days, and biked home at 3am on a few warm winter nights. I know I haven’t uncovered every hidden gem in Chicago, but it feels like I do know the whole treasure map. I regularly frequent the South and West Sides of the city as much as the North Side, not only to break out from the bubble, but because I’ve genuinely grown to love those areas.
However, I still can’t separate the beauty of Chicago from the boringness. Our streets are flat and monotonous. The Lake will always be the Lake -- it’s been that way for tens of thousands of years, after all. Our town is slowly evolving from graffiti-laden buildings to high-rise condos.
Most functional-minded adults would turn to me and simply tell me to move out of the city, experience new places and people. I’m just too in love with Chicago to make an escape route.
And so the dilemma of this Chicago lover is realized: I know I need to leave Chicago. Most functional-minded adults would turn to me and simply tell me to move out of the city, experience new places and people. I’m just too in love with Chicago to make an escape route. We’ve all heard it time and time again, “Chicago is home,” and “Chicago is amazing, are you nuts?!” This feeling of having to get out of Chicago, to receive new perspective, may be transient, but it is very real for me and I think to a lot of others.
I recently went on a business trip to San Diego for a week. Days one through four were amazing, and it was like I was taking in this new way of life. SoCal is a bizarre place for those who haven’t gone. However, around day five, I began to get antsy. I began to crave my Fuji Classic, biking down Halsted St, and playing pool at Emporium. I needed my friends, my places, my city. I finally got home to a 74-degree, sunny Chicago after a week in glorious San Diego. I took the Red Line up to Addison to go home and was instantly barraged by the concluding Cubs game and the fans it drew. It took almost seven minutes to fight my way through the Addison station before finally getting into the clear. And there I was, in town for no more than two hours, and all of my despairs and dislikes about this place returned.
Chicago is so magnificent that it makes it hard to leave; those of us who grew up with the beauty of this place may feel a tug to try somewhere new, but the pull to stay is stronger. So here we are. Stuck. We may branch out to new cities, new places, new experiences, but ultimately, Chicago is home and Chicago will always be home. We may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.
Sign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.
Christian DeKnock is a graphic designer who occasionally likes to write his feelings down on paper. He wants you to know he really does love Chicago; he just might need a breather for a while. Follow him: @cdeknock.