When President Trump announced his manifestly fascistic Operation Legend yesterday, I felt the need to revisit this love letter I wrote about Chicago. Trump’s promise to invade the city with his federal henchmen reminded me again of my burning affection for that place I briefly called home. To see that enchanting, brilliantly diverse hub of art, culture, intellectual and political life characterized as “out of control” was an absolutely ludicrous attempt to justify an illegal power grab over cities run by Democrats. Anyone who has ever lived in Chicago, even visited Chicago, knows this: the city and its people will not abide outside intervention. It doesn’t need anyone’s help. It’s far from perfect, but the city stands on its own and the people there help each other out. That’s the magic of Chicago that I tried to convey in this letter I wrote on the eve of my departure, that I share publicly now as a plea to see the city the way I do, and not the way the President wants you to see it — as some urban cesspool.
A sudden rain that feeds the newly lush trees of late May, causing me to take refuge in the first bar I find (a cheesy sports bar, lonely in mid-afternoon: one bartender and only two patrons, including myself). A whirlwind tour of mid-century walkup apartments with their decaying wood frames and charming courtyards that become barren wastelands in the winter and verdant gardens in the summer — buildings that hardly exist in the agonizingly twenty-first century city that I come from. An unfortunate encounter with an ex near the Howard station, someone I hadn’t seen in years, who I thought I’d never see again, someone I didn’t even know lived in Chicago. We pretend not to notice one another. A spontaneous visit to the bathroom of the nearest Jewel-Osco to have a nice cry over the emotions that seeing her stirred up inside me (I had to be escorted to the bathroom by a security guard; Howard is a rough location, apparently). Squeezing into a packed train on its way to dump fans into Cubs Stadium. A meeting in one of Lincoln Park’s many posh neighborhoods with a stranger who would soon become my most important — and my only — friend in that city. Getting hopelessly lost on my way back to my Airbnb, at which point I witness a mugging outside a Walgreens in West Chicago.
These are some snapshots from my less-than-glamorous first encounter with you, Chicago. Since these anecdotal ephemera are from two years ago, they’re probably destined to be a permanent part of my mental archive, being instantly retrievable from memory even if no physical record of these events exists. These initial experiences with you might have left a bad taste in my mouth, lingering long after the smell of your sewage has left my nostrils; instead, they caused me to immediately fall in love with you. How could that be?
I think it’s because you don’t hide who you are. If Los Angeles is a city that never turns off its Instagram filter, then you’re a city that’s too old to even know what Instagram is, or to care about the culture of pathological lying fueled by social media. With your unwashed brick buildings and crumbling infrastructure, you leave your grit on full display. But you give us things of beauty, too — the Art Institute, early twentieth-century movie theaters, restaurants offering up food that’s as diverse as the people of Chicago, not to mention an absurd number of spacious parks — and by doing so, you make a point of showing us that urban blight is not all that you are. And we, the people who live here, believe you, because you’ve shown us the ugly side too.
When I first arrived here in 2018, the Laquan McDonald case was rising to a crescendo, soon to turn into what Black Lives Matter activists would rightly characterize as a miscarriage of justice, yet another victory for institutional racism occurring even as Chicagoans elected their first openly gay black mayor. The following year, historical societies, activist groups, and intellectuals across the city commemorated the 1919 riots that were ignited when a black child was murdered by white adults for unwittingly transgressing racial boundaries. With the McDonald case and the 1919 centennial, we were forced to repeatedly reckon with a racial violence so brutal that it would take the lives of people too young to fully understand the complexities of the racist system into which they were born.
These acts of violence happen in a city like you, Chicago, because it’s part of your genetic makeup: you were designed in the days when white supremacy was the stated law of the land — rather than something that’s coyly hidden behind complex systems of legal and social inequality. But people who have come to call this place home, people who have come from all parts of the country, all parts of the world, have also built into you a kind of energy that creates space for frank conversations. This level of honesty is a quality in a city that’s far from easily obtained. Having spent a lot of time in southern cities, I can tell you that one often must do a lot of digging to find evidence of a city’s traumatic past — or even of the evil deeds that continue in the present, for that matter.
But above and beyond your brutal honesty, the thing that has really confirmed my love for you over time is the perspective that you’ve given me on life.
With the passing of each season, you help us gain a deeper understanding of what it means to live in this world. I know every tree in my neighborhood and how they behave in each season — which ones bloom the earliest and which take the longest — because you’ve encouraged me to attend to the cycles of life around me: death in winter and spring’s rebirth. In November, when the snows come, we’re all initially a little eager to play in the fresh powder, but by January we’re all in agreement about one thing: winter here is truly awful. The trees stand naked and skeletal, a dead silence fills the air as the birds hunker down for the season, and the days are stuck in a perpetual dusk. I’ll say no more on winter than that because I’d rather move on to spring — which starts off as a lighter version of winter, but eventually comes into its own with its soothing breezes, refreshing rains, and kaleidoscopic colors. While there may come a point in deep winter that I begin to hate you just a little, in spring I fall in love with you all over again. But for many (though I disagree), late spring is just a rehearsal for the real show, summer: the time of year when all the sins you committed against us in winter are absolved over long bike rides along the lake; a swim in the refreshingly cold, probably polluted, waters of Lake Michigan; days that never seem to end; nights that pulsate with the energy of millions of people who’ve waited six long months to really party. Yet summer wouldn’t beat so hard with the vitality of life if winter weren’t there to remind us of how quickly it can be snatched away. Eventually, the relentless heat and passion of summer does make us weary, and fall arrives just in time to cool our heads and invite us to slow down. We accept this new passing of the season just as we all learn to accept the coming of old age — and eventually death.
Every year you force us (sometimes too harshly) to confront the fact that life and death are entwined, but the presence of the latter only makes us appreciate the former all the more strongly. To varying degrees, of course, this is a fundamental lesson about life’s tricky balance that we all share, one of the few things that’s able to transcend the North-South divide simply by virtue of the fact that we’re all human, living here, choosing to face the deep freeze of winter so that we can feel especially delighted by the eventual arrival of a warm day.
Yet while you may say that life is a balance, in our present moment there are forces at work threatening to disrupt that balance. The virus’ spread has brought feelings of a present calamity to the forefront in a way that the slow process of environmental degradation could not.
Sometime in late March I took what might have been my last bike ride to downtown. On the way down, I rode past innumerable empty bars and restaurants with “closed” signs on their windows: chilling reminders of the economic freeze brought about by the pandemic. Once in the heart of the city, I still felt no pulse. I looked down a street normally packed with tourists and saw nothing but a gaggle of geese slowly crossing Grand Avenue, unhindered by cars or buses.
Even as spring has progressed, I continue to sense a stillness and quietness of death in you. I feel a winter-like phantom haunting the increasingly sunny and balmy days ahead of us.
But a city like you should never be allowed to die. You contain too much history, too many lessons. You’ve introduced me to amazing people, you’ve shown me beauty, restored in me a sense of enchantment about the world that I thought I’d lost forever; but you’ve also made plain to me the evil of which all people are capable, shown me the ugliness of urban decay, and given me painful memories I wish I could forget. Such are the paradoxes of life, though, and that’s the lesson you’ve taught me, which will stay with me no matter where I go and no matter what the future holds for you and me.
It’s painful to have to say goodbye to you; but if I were happy to do so, I would not, in all honesty, be able to say that I love you.
Due to unforeseen crises both personal and global, I moved from Chicago back to Austin in the summer of 2020. I wrote this after I had already decided to move and shortly before my mother died. Since then I have considered moving back, but have opted instead to remain in Austin while making (hopefully) frequent visits to my temporary home city. As you can tell, the city has a way of calling you back after you leave.