I am [enter neighborhood here]: A city of mistaken identities

When we stereotype and classify different neighborhoods, we limit our understanding and appreciation for the city as a whole.

March 29, 2013

We embrace stereotypes of neighborhoods because they sometimes prove to be true. I live near Wicker Park, a neighborhood known for its nightlife and youth culture. Although this identity is not as strong as it once was (gentrification has a way of changing the identity of a neighborhood multiple times), it is still prevalent in the clothing stores, boutiques, high-end coffee shops, and club-like bars that line Milwaukee Avenue. Once we’ve seen our stereotypes to be true, we hold on to them. It is easier to rely on what we know than what we don’t. Seeing once is believing.

But we often stereotype these neighborhoods because our identities are tied into these environments. I had a friend and coworker who moved to Logan Square not because he wanted to, but because he felt it was the thing he was supposed to do.

“I mean, all of my friends are moving there. Everyone my age, like me, has moved or is moving there,” he said while we chatted at a party.

Chicago as a city of neighborhoods can mean a number of different things. This cultural identity can be comforting. People of similar races, ethnicities and classes move to neighborhoods where they can be among their own. We find comfort in the familiar, in what we know and what we’ve always known. But our city of neighborhoods often isolates, creating a series of “Chicagos,” but not one that can represent the city as a whole.

In a recent blog post, my friend and interfaith scholar and activist Hafsa Arain wrote about this same situation. Although she wrote about a town outside of the city, her concerns and observations ring true for inside Chicago as well. She wrote:

If you don’t know how violence works in places you are unfamiliar with, then you have no basis for saying that those places should be kept away from entirely. I worked in Chicago Heights last summer - gang violence and gun violence are on the rise there - but there are also families with children who go to school. There are people getting their groceries, people walking their dogs on the street. When you tell me their lives are nothing but violence, you limit the neighborhood and the people who live there.

I recognize this, both the limitations and the realities. People describe the South Side as if it is one monolithic place with one singular identity: dangerous, foreign, a Chicago “not our own.” Nevermind how far it stretches, the variety of classes, the numerous (and often ignored) racial populations, the beautiful beaches and massive parks. No, people don’t know or don’t want to know these things. To them, it is just violence, thus limiting the neighborhoods (because there are many and not just one) and the people living in them.

My experiences living and playing on the West Side of Chicago in the Austin neighborhood as a child feel different than living in Lincoln Park as a college student or in Ukrainian Village as an adult. This is not just about age. These neighborhoods have completely different identities. I have friends who have told me they could never go to the Austin neighborhood because it is filled with crime, but my experiences growing up and my experiences visiting now tell me different things. It is a neighborhood that is not wealthy, but filled with lots of families. There are large homes that take up wide plots of land. There is a lot of crime, but there are also block organizations. There are block parties. If anything, Austin feels like the part of Chicago I don’t tend to think about as a 25-year-old woman: the working, settled down, normal, “everywhere else” Chicago.

Stereotypes, whether negative or benign, are a way of showing how a neighborhood is not “me.” There is a way of showing who I am and how I live and what I want to be, and living in one neighborhood versus another can signal those things. Likewise, dismissing one neighborhood over another is a way of confirming our “nots.” I am not drunken. I am not fratty. I am not mainstream. Our very essence is not part of this neighborhood or the people within it. It is not therefore I am.

Stereotyping neighborhoods limits what we know about the city. It allows us to miss out on musical venues, restaurants, architecture, and many of the other things that make Chicago such a culturally-rich city.

I was (and still am in many ways) an insecure woman worried about what others think of me. Talking to new friends now about where I lived in college, I was often hesitant to say Lincoln Park or Lakeview and rationalized my time there as just a student going to DePaul.  Well, those places are not who I am right now, I used to rationalize. I was not identifying myself as someone from those neighborhoods. My time there was only transient. My identity was and is not Lincoln Park. My own personal weaknesses and immaturity acted as a barrier for others to better know other parts of the city and for myself to understand and appreciate where I was and what I had. I loved the abundance and access to a variety of different food options. Uptown was only minutes away. I still crave the convenience, the numerous methods of public transportation, the facade of safety.

As a college student, I spent long nights dancing and drinking in the back room of aliveOne where my friend Nick spun hip-hop and r&b. The space felt different than everywhere else in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. And when I had friends ask why I didn’t want to go to other parts of the city, I simply explained how perfect a night spent listening to Mary J. Blige and sipping cheap drinks can feel. The experience reminds me of similar venues I find throughout my current Ukrainian Village neighborhood. The music might not be as wonderfully selected by a pro, but it is the simplicity of the experience, the familiar faces, and the settling in one spot that feels just as pleasant. Why malign Lincoln Park when I know, like anywhere else in the city, there is good and bad?

When we stereotype, we limit our scope and participation in what a city actually is. By confining ourselves to the identities of our neighborhoods, we are confining ourselves to these actual physical spaces. The stereotypes and identities then become true. This is what it means to live here. But we are multi-faceted people and likewise, this is a multi-faceted city. To suggest otherwise gives Chicago little credit for its history, its diversity, and what it can become in the future.

Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt's essays for WBEZ's Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.