Chicago, Soul, the Cubs and Urban Renaissance

By JCB on Monday, July 10, 2006

KJM e-mailed me the link to an article in the Tribune titled “Restless for heart of the city” because he knew it was right up my alley as far as thinking and writing about what my generation is doing. Here’s the hook:

“It turns out that nearly two-thirds of highly mobile 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees, the "young and restless," say they decide where to live first, then find a job, according to a new survey commissioned by CEOs for Cities, a national alliance of mayors and civic leaders.”

Well, yeah. This is news? It’s been going on or at least building for 15 years, and I’m not sure whether the movement has even crested yet. It’s happening because my generation, or at least my middle-class college-educated corner of it, is a little bit spoiled with means and opportunity, but we don’t want to give in to the correlative lethargy. In broad strokes, we’re restless, terrified of wasting our lives, and a little bit adventuresome. We want to be a part of something bigger. We’re also delaying the sort of things that tie us to an identity: families, static careers, and so on. That leaves a void, and cities are filling it with a sort of symbiotic urban renaissance: the energy draws us, and in turn we maintain the energy.

It’s not just cities, though -- it’s neighborhoods. For instance, Federal Hill in Baltimore, near the Inner Harbor and Camden yards, first showed up on my radar when my college roommate moved there. Since I’ve visited, I get it: it’s exactly the sort of neighborhood that exemplifies this trend. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when the post-doc sitting next to me on the plane home last Friday was telling me that his younger brother was moving from suburban Boston to Baltimore, and I mentioned my friend in Federal Hill, and he returned, “That’s actually the neighborhood he’s moving to!”

Neighborhoods are especially significant for identity in Chicago. Neighborhood pride is at least as strong as city pride. Bucktown types measure themselves against Lincoln Park types. I noticed a tendency last week for some Lakeview residents to disassociate themselves from Wrigleyville a little bit, to avoid the sophomoric connotations I presume. And Wicker Park is still very much trying to preserve some of its bohemian defiance; at least, that’s what I was thinking at the Rainbo Club last Thursday as the bartender pulled out another obscure vinyl record to put on for everyone to enjoy.

From the actual survey cited in the article, though, there is this:

  • Despite this desire to exercise greater control about where they live, college-educated young people do not have well-formed opinions about the cities and areas they would be most or least likely to consider
    • Impressions of cities are most likely to be limited to climate/weather, diversity (or lack thereof), proximity to beaches/ocean and perceptions of safety, crowds and congestion
Speaking as one who hightailed it south to escape Midwestern winters, I wonder why climate/weather is somehow not well-informing my opinion, because I have to say that the climate in Austin fueled me last winter to be more energetic if not productive than I’ve ever been. As for diversity, that’s not just a vague term. Not always. Diversity breeds tolerance, tolerance breeds creativity, and creativity breeds entrepreneurialism; when we cite diversity as a factor in choosing where we live, it means we’re also citing creativity and a sense of inspiration coupled with motivation. I’m thinking about what Garrison Keillor wrote about San Francisco in a column a few weeks ago:
People who want to take a swing at San Francisco should think twice. Yes, the Irish coffee at Fisherman's Wharf is overpriced, and the bus tour of Haight-Ashbury is disappointing (where are the hippies?), but the Bay Area is the cradle of the computer and software industry, which continues to create jobs for our children. The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco. There may be a reason for this. Creative people thrive in a climate of openness and tolerance, since some great ideas start out sounding ridiculous. Creativity is a key to economic progress. Authoritarianism is stifling. I don't believe that Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard were gay, but what's important is: In San Francisco, it doesn't matter so much. When the cultural Sturmbannfuhrers try to marshal everyone into straight lines, it has consequences for the economic future of this country.
(Reasons people are choosing Chicago: Close to family (21%), Diversity (17%), Arts (14%).)

All of this being on my mind, I was interested when a woman from a company called TurnHere e-mailed me suggesting that my readers and I might be interested in a short film about Wrigleyville. TurnHere is a small company: about 30 people work in their San Francisco office. They distribute short films about cities and neighborhoods -- video guides presenting an angle that you probably won’t get anywhere else. She told me that their model is similar to the freelance writing world, where filmmakers approach the company with their ideas and work, hoping to publish it.

TurnHere seems to have a good idea for a company, trying to lend these new mediums to a business model and give would-be filmmakers an outlet for some of their projects, thereby helping them get even better paying gigs. There’s a lot of that right now -- people trying to figure out how to take this technology and turn it into an outlet for work that is intelligent, artistic, and profitable. It’s similar to a site like the Beachwood Reporter (the Beachwood being a bar a block down from where I lived in Wicker Park), which is trying to figure out a way to take solid, interesting writing content and develop a profitable way to distribute it -- the similarity being that the new technology the site uses is fantastic, but it’s not yet clear how to use it to start a business. But hey -- why not try something and see if it sticks?

The Wrigleyville TurnHere film is good. It hits on all the necessary highlights, like Ronnie Woo Woo and the ballhawks. It also gets something of the festive spirit with a kegerator at one of the neighborhood apartments, ventures into the Wild Hare (as endorsed by JAR), and of course pops in at the Cubby Bear. However, it was the films on South Austin and Wicker Park that really stuck with me.

Especially the one about Wicker Park, the part of Chicago I would still choose to live were I to return today. Early on, the film presents the matter of gentrification, so central to the neighborhood: simply, is it good or bad? The guide summarizes the dilemma:
“The neighborhood has changed a fair amount in the last decade or so. [...] It's kind of a place that's in transition which has actually kind of caused some acriomny because a lot of people have objected to the fact that it's gentrifying and a lot of people who have lived here for decades are kind of being driven out because real estate prices are going up. But then others are saying, well, it's a good thing because it's getting safer, you know. People who can't afford a place like this shouldn't be driven out of the neighborhood because all of a sudden there's a Starbucks up the street, you know. But, also, it'd be nice to not have people being attacked on the corner.”
South Austin has dealt with a lot of the same. I live in a complex that is the direct result of gentrification, and so in some sense I suppose I’m something of an imposter because I didn’t live here when I might have had to earn it in some sense by traversing the grit. Same for Wicker Park, actually -- I got there after at least one wave of gentrification had mostly gone through. What a lot of it comes down to is the matter of soul: people invested their souls into these neighborhoods, building them, and now the neighborhood feels like it’s betraying them. Soul is one of those hard-to-pin-down words, but I think to say that one invests one’s soul into something is to say that one will sincerely grieve its loss. It’s more than nostalgia, more than wistfulness, more even than longing.

Which brings me back around to Wrigleyville, because the soul of Wrigleyville is still Wrigley Field, and the soul of Wrigley Field is still the Chicago Cubs. Tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of people have invested their soul into the Cubs; if the Cubs were to fold up, we would grieve. It’s why we're still watching at the All Star break, with the Cubs mired so deeply. It’s why thousands of words are written every day about a team that does not deserve much attention. When you invest your soul, you can’t easily let it go.

Some of us live in Wrigleyville. Some of us live in Chicago. Some of us live across the country, and the world. Every year we unite in hope; so far, every year we end up disappointed. But we’ll do it again.

Wrigleyville is not the blue collar neighborhood it once was, and in some sense I wonder if all the glitz and distraction of the gameday carnival might actually make it harder for a new fan to reach that soul-investing level. The Trib Co certainly hasn’t helped, and the team itself hasn’t either the last few seasons. There are layers and layers of distractions and divergences on the streets near Clark and Addison.

But at the core is still a baseball team. It's a team with a story -- a narrative. It's a story we are following because we have learned to care about the characters, and their struggles. There are heroes and villains, decisions and consequences. There are acts of courage and might, and also cowardice. There is strategy and execution, both fine and poor. There are characters with which we identify, and others that grate on us. Most of all, there are moments that will lodge in our memory, and frame our lives as we look back.

This baseball team, for some of us, offers much of what it is my generation is looking for by moving into cities -- something bigger of which we can be a small part, allowing us to look back and know that we were there, following along and participating in some way. It will let us say: This is what we were doing, and it was worthwhile.

No one is saying that 2006 is one of the high points, just as no one is saying that moving into a city is foolproof. No one is even saying that things will definitely turn around for the Cubs in the next few seasons, just as no one is saying that ultimately this urban renaissance will fulfill my generation's cravings. What I am saying is that in both cases it might, though, which is reason enough to see each of them through. And if not, I suppose it's the effort of investing that actually matters anyway.

“Well, yeah.”

Posted Monday, July 10, 2006 by JCB

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