A Guest Essay from Katy Jacob
A self-described “professional nerd,” Katy Jacob has lived in the Chicago area most of her life. She writes two blogs, KatyDid Cancer and Live Chicken On Six and is proud to have been part of the inaugural cast of Listen to Your Mother Chicago (2012), a national reading series that prides itself on “giving motherhood a microphone.” Last week, she read her personal essay “Chicago, You Are Trying to Break My Heart” at The Frunchroom, a South Side reading series hosted once every three months by the Beverly Area Arts Alliance.
Katy spent almost twenty years working on financial services and economic development research and policy for nonprofit think tanks and the Federal Reserve System. After a decade as a business economist and senior payments consultant for the Federal Reserve, Katy started her own consulting company, Katy Jacob Consultants LLC.
She recently returned to live in her hometown of Oak Park with her husband and two kids after living in Chicago’s far South Side Beverly neighborhood for 12 years.
Katy’s personal essay about her love/hate relationship with Chicago was originally published on her blog and read by her last week at the Frunchroom’s event.
The Chicago Ambassador is honored to share it with you.
Chicago, You Are Trying to Break My Heart
By Katy Jacob
I’ve never had a relationship as dysfunctional as the one I have with Chicago. I love Chicago in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever loved another person. I always have, even as a kid. I grew up in a racially diverse working class neighborhood in an inner-ring suburb about a block outside the west side city limits. I grew up in a place where half the people were renters, where folks lived in apartments and two flats, where we had a newspaper stand on the corner where you could buy gum, where we played kick the can in the alley and walked to the corner store to buy a bottle of pop for a quarter. I grew up in a place where no one was pretentious enough to give a damn if you called it pop, or soda, or coke, but would gladly give you half as long as he could keep the bottlecap. I grew up walking everywhere and taking the el on dates, then maybe walking around State street when it was closed to traffic. I grew up bored as a teenager because teenagers are all either bored or saddled with too much adult suffering or sometimes both. I had some limited opportunities to visit museums on field trips but that isn’t what I loved about Chicago.
I left, and went to Minnesota for college, which might as well have been Mars. Minnesota was many things I couldn’t understand, it was whiter and more passive aggressive than any world I knew, it was patchouli and never saying what you mean. I didn’t get on a plane until I was 22. But since then I have been in many different cities, and I have never been to a place where I feel at home with the people the way I do here. I came back after college and lived in my old neighborhood for a time. It wasn’t the same. I know someone famous warned me it wouldn’t be, but I’m stubborn and I didn’t listen. There was more money, more homeownership, less of a Sesame Street feel. The blocks were somehow different. It’s a funny word, isn’t it? Blocks. In Chicago, blocks matter. Blocks matter in a life or death sense. Neighborhoods matter, and we romanticize that, though we shouldn’t. Neighborhoods matter in large part because of the deeply entrenched segregation of this city, which is emblematic of the deeply entrenched racism of this country. Parochialism is a legacy of our city’s history, and we are proud of it, though maybe we shouldn’t be.
Neighborhoods matter because everyone wants to own a piece of something. We have fiefdoms, we have wars that play out in the streets. But the things that happen here happen here specifically, on this block, in that ward; we have some kind of false pride if it doesn’t happen to us, some of us suffer and others simply look away. And instead of realizing the damage we are doing, we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that being tight knit is better than being equal. For 12 years, I lived on the far South Side of Chicago in Beverly, in this City I tried so hard not to leave. I had two homes here and my kids were born and raised here and we have wonderful friends here. But we were never really “from” here. People are born here and they die here. It’s very…Chicago. And here in the neighborhood I called home, we suffer from the same tyranny of low expectations that all Chicagoans suffer from to some degree. So why do we stay? Because of the love.
For me, love and Chicago are forever intertwined. All of my memories of falling in love are directly tied to my memories of loving Chicago in a specific way in a specific place and time. Even when it wasn’t love, Chicago has come to bed with me all my life. I once dated a man who said he admired me because of my conviction about Chicago. He had just moved back to the city after leaving it, said he couldn’t suffer the place he had been, and he needed to get back. And where was this Godforsaken place? San Francisco. I dated another man from Indianapolis, who had been involved in the streets in Chicago, and not in a romantic way. He explained that he got into that life because “It was thrilling. Everyone knew your name. It was like being a celebrity.” When I met him, he was 28, handsome, fit, getting a PhD, working two jobs and coaching soccer. He died when he was 30. They found his body in Lake Michigan. It’s like that here.
And while I love my bad boy, I know he doesn’t treat me right. He is violent, and flashy, he throws our money down the toilet or spends it on his friends. He lies and he loves a grand gesture. He isolates me and tries to hold me down. He tells me that this is all I deserve, and I believe him. He’ll tear down an airport at midnight. He only cares about us when he is with us. But man do we love him, this bad boy Chicago. He is handsome, and strong. We’ve seen things with him we couldn’t see with anyone else. He’s hilarious, he’s great in bed, we know him for five minutes and we’ve known him all our lives. And we know what he is, and we damn him for it, but you know what we don’t want to hear?
We don’t want to hear about him from anyone else. You, in the suburbs? (That’s me, I admit). You can talk trash about him, but you are sneaking into his bed at night. Chicago is your gigolo, your dirty little secret. You love him because he’s a jock, even if he’s bound to perpetually lose, and jocks are mostly fun on the weekends, right? You love him for his money. This is the economic engine that drives the region, and we know it makes you mad, but it’s true. The region is strong because there’s a reason to have a region here and that reason is Chicago. We know that part of your issue arises from how much you depend on him too. We agree with everything you say, but we would rather be the ones to say it. Because we come home to him. And we know he is as much at fault as you when he lets you use him for his charms and give nothing in return. But we love him anyway.
I was going to write about our tyranny of low expectations, our acceptance of corruption and cronyism, the recent record tax hike, our messy and complicated school system, the crime, our seeming paralysis. But I’ve written this instead. Chicago, everything I know about you told me I should leave you. You are trying to break my heart. I don’t know how to quit you, and I don’t know how to explain that. But let me try, with just one scene. Chicago is that: a city of scenes. I grew up here and I cut my professional teeth here too, in the true Chicago style, as an activist working with a Coalition of like-minded activists to combat economic inequality in our city and country. Chicago made that activism; it was born here. I can’t for the life of me figure out why we cannot use that legacy to fix our own back yard. The best people I’ve known in my life were those people I met when I did that work, and that’s the truth. And the best way I can explain why it breaks my heart to leave or think about leaving is to tell you this story.
It must have been the year 2000, or 2001. The economy was booming here, and elsewhere. But there’s always a shadow, even on the loveliest day. Times weren’t good everywhere, the boom time wasn’t booming for everyone. At that time, we were fighting usurious payday lending practices, which were completely unchecked by regulation in most states at the time, and in our City were similar to the gangster loan shark shops of old. Our Coalition planned a meeting, and one State Senator agreed to join us.
We worked in one of the landmark skyscrapers of the city, the Old Colony building on Dearborn and Van Buren. There was a frosted glass window on our office door and real fire escapes behind windows that actually opened; often, the elevators didn’t work. It was like something out of a noir film from the 50s. Today, that building has been renovated and turned into dorms for college kids. But at the time, we worked there, and we held our meeting in a conference room on the top floor of the building. It was dusty and the furniture was ancient. It was almost embarrassing, that space, and us being in it. This Senator sat on a folding chair with his elbows on his knees, listening intently to us. He represented the South Side of Chicago. He had the most honest handshake I could remember from a politician, and I spent a lot of time with politicians then. He didn’t flinch when we had to pause every six or so minutes as the el sped past, practically inside the room itself, the roaring and shaking and rumbling making it impossible to speak. He sat there as if this was as real and important a meeting as any. We shook hands once more and left, and how could we know? How could we know that years later, that man would be elected, fairly and irrefutably, no matter what his detractors would say, to the highest office in the land…twice?
That is the Chicago I know, that I love: the dust and decay, the noise and the broken infrastructure, the history, the gorgeous expanse available just outside the window, the architecture unparalleled in the world, the knowledge that someone made a living off of others’ suffering, the people who made it their life’s work to fight that injustice, the way that the future President Obama looked each of us in the eye and nodded his head. Oh Chicago, my Chicago, look what you leave us with: the beauty, the horror. The struggle. The promise.
The next edition of The Frunchroom is scheduled for January. For more information, click here.