At Home in the Flyover Zone

As I mark my sixth anniversary* as an ex-pat New Yorker living in King Daley's court, I realize this is the first New Year in Chicago that I don't want to be anywhere else. When I first arrived, a post-9/11 psychological refugee, I expected my self-imposed asylum from Gotham not to last more than a couple of years. Although I immediately recognized the finer points of Chicago and Chicagoans, I couldn't help but pine for denser places (on either coast).

I suppose it's inbred in New Yorkers to seek bustle. After all, the happiest I've been in Chicago is the past three-and-a-half years I've spent living downtown in Marina City (despite the occasional scandals). The center of things is nothing if not interesting, and downtown Chicago is certainly the center of all things in the 2,400 miles between Atlantic and Pacific metropoli.

Then again, it's rare for a New Yorker to seek bustle somewhere other than New York. By dint of NYC law, only one New Yorker is allowed to move to the Midwest each year. I was 2003, and there are probably still disparaging posters of me affixed to walls in Gotham post offices decrying my choice of residence.

A relatively recent thread on a popular urbanism forum reminded me that for many Gothamites, that intransigence to leave the supposed center of the universe behind has more to do with the involuntary jerking of knees than critical and considered forethought. A young urban planning graduate (as was I about a decade ago) asked whether he should move to Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. The responses he received highlight the closed-minded hubris that drove me out of Dodge to begin with.

Sure, a few responses suggest Chicago as a livable, affordable, and engaging world-class city. Others--mostly from New Yorkers--are of a different opinion. In the five pages of the thread, our fair urb is variously (and laughably) labeled boring and tiny, when it's referred to at all. For the most part, although the hapless planning grad asked for comparisons of three cities, the thread isn't much more than an argument among New Yorkers about why New York City is the best city on the planet and why Los Angeles isn't.

Never was that quote from Gypsy more true:

Miss Cratchitt: "New York is the center of everything."

Rose: "New York is the center of New York!"

It's that assumption that everything's up to date in New York City, they've gone just about as far as they can go, that still makes me shake my head knowingly six years on. It's not merely that my former fellow New Yorkers consider our Windy City an arctic flyover zone, and though knowing almost nothing about it, feel free to opine on its lesser points at length. That's how New Yorkers think about the rest of the world beyond New York, too. Compared to the Big Apple, how could anything ever be as good, or as relevant, or as inspiring?

During my 33 years as a Brooklyn-Queensite, I took many things for granted. $1,500 studios? Postage-stamp-sized supermarkets? Standing-room only subway trips at midnight? That's how God intended things to be in a big city, right?

An abject lack of "please," "thank you," "excuse me," "let me get that for you," "I'm sorry I meant to shoot the guy next to you"? Life's too short to bother with such trivial niceties. Especially when you're living in a city that it seems the rest of the world wants to live in, too.

I'll grant that New York's an amazingly exciting place. But part of that buzz is the ongoing struggle of eight million people at odds with a punishingly crowded and expensive city that offers its residents an air of accomplishment from simply making it through each day.

Three years ago, I wrote about the psychological box that, like any good New Yorker, I lived in for 33 years. It's hard not to feel aggressively ambivalent towards your fellow man when you're in competition not only with the eight million of him sharing your city with you but with the millions more around the planet seeking to do likewise. And half of them are standing ahead of you in line at the corner bagel shop while the other half are getting to the apartment viewing ahead of you while you wait on your hour-long bread line.

Sometimes I wish I could personally escort each and every ex-compatriot of mine on a whirlwind tour of Chicago. Throw them into our bustle, let them get a gander at our skyline, watch them gape at our housing prices, drool in our restaurants, loll in our lakefront parks. Introduce them to a quality of life enjoyed by most of us here that most New Yorkers can only dream of affording. (Well, affording in New York, anyway).

I, too, can dream, but even my friends from New York rarely visit me here. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to get a Gothamite to change their view of the world as one where NYC has a great big arrow pointing to it from everywhere else (so why bother visiting anywhere else). I was no different. When I first moved to Chicago, I was tickled to be so close to Wisconsin and Indiana. Up to then, I had always been taught those states were myths.

Since you can't even lead a New Yorker to water, though, I just shrugged when I read the forum thread and consoled myself in thoughts of Chicago: my sub-$900 high-rise apartment; suburban-sized downtown supermarkets; and three-million aggressively amiable citizens with whom I continue to share an altogether more humane center of the universe.

Sure, we don't have the U.N., but until this week we did have Obama. And although we do have that pesky mid-continental winter, it keeps us from having to compete for apartments in Lakeview with the rest of the planet.

You know, there may be something to that. I often say Chicago taught me what cold is: in New York, you stay indoors if it's in the 20s; here, you open your coat to enjoy the heat wave. Old Man Winter is probably the biggest reason more New Yorkers don't drop in for a visit. That's probably a good thing. After all, you know how they like to talk. Just think about how opinionated I can be when you get me going.

Then again, maybe that's the Chicagoan in me.

*Admittedly, I didn't move permanently to these parts until spring of 2003. But visiting every two weeks from the crack of January onward it was pretty clear my head and heart had taken up residence a few months before the rest of me, so I mark my Chicago-versary in January.