Two freshman college students meet and begin some small talk. They come around to asking each other where they’re from. For those of us from big cities this conversation often follows this format:
Student 1: Where are you from?
Student 2: I’m from Chicago.
Student 1: Oh cool! Me too! What suburb?
Student 2: I’m from the Northwest Side of Chicago.
Student 1: Where’s that?
Student 2: It’s the northwest side of Chicago.
Student: 1: So… what suburb?
Student 2: Chicago.
Student 1: Oh. So the city?
Student 2: Well, yeah. I already said Chicago twice. Where are you from?
Student 1: I’m from Schaumburg. That’s like 25 minutes outside the city.
Student 2: *sigh
This is one of the most frustrating conversations city kids have. It came up again when a friend shared a blog post called “Stop Yelling At Me For Saying I Am From Chicago” on Facebook. Naturally, my city friends vented our collective frustration while some suburban friends tried to justify that they are indeed from the city. There are issues to address on both sides. City kids (in my case Chicagoans) must be more diplomatic when playing identity police, but suburbans kids need to own their identity and where they came from, because it really does matter when you say you’re from the city if you’re not and it’s time you accept that.
For the rest of this article I’m going to use ‘Chicago’, because that’s where I’m from and that’s what the blog post in question is about… so relevance!
The post in question is frankly insufferable. In five paragraphs the author has little more than a foot-stamping, driveling hissy fit about being from the suburbs of Chicago and getting called out when she says she’s from the city.
I can’t spend too much time on the article itself (or the author for that matter), because it’s not worth the space, but she does give us these little nuggets:
“And I, frankly, am quite sick of people who happen to live downtown complaining about that.”
“More importantly, it is still MY city … I still know the traditions, the restaurants, the teams. I still grew up with Chicago. Call me a ‘tourist,’ but it’s still a part of me, just like it is you.”
Oh, Jane. You’re not from Chicago. Stop whining and accept that. There are a very legit reasons Chicagoans get frustrated when we hear suburban claims of our identity–and it’s much more complicated than the fact that we know that most Chicagoans don’t live downtown (only about 130,000 of 2.7 million Chicagoans do).
This doesn’t mean your experience with the city is either inauthentic or bogus, it is, but it is a different experience, which you have to own. And it begins with how you answer that question “where are you from?” Guess what, it is not that hard to say one of the following:
- I’m from Town, a suburb of Chicago; or, which is near Chicago.
- I’m from the suburbs of Chicago; or, suburban Chicago.
- I’m from outside Chicago.
Saying Chicago is easier when you’re out-of-state, but people understand what suburbs are and will understand where you’re from if you phrase you’re answer like this. Plus, it’s more genuine. It speaks to your actual life experience and relationship to the city.
It’s all so much more though. Part of the identity of being a “Chicagoan” is taking the good and the bad. Being from the suburbs doesn’t exclude you from being part of the region, culture, the good etc., but you’re not from Chicago, and that means something. You can avoid the bad; you can enter and leave the city at your leisure; you can appreciate the positives, but ignore and hide away from the negatives.
Being from Chicago means proudly facing all the bad and enjoying good. Fighting for solutions to violence, but still enjoying the beaches, and parks, and block parties (and if you’re lucky above ground pools). It means going to CPS at some point and having great teachers, but also dealing with going through a school system that is attacked more than it’s supported. It’s taking the bus or L to school. It’s knowing the neighborhoods…and not just on game day or Pride or Lollapalooza.
For Chicagoans, this identity is an important part of our experience and we greatly value that. Claims on it from the suburbs is like a claim on our identity that doesn’t seem warranted. That’s why we get frustrated. It is further fueled by an animosity rooted in what feels like an ambivalent relationship to the city: take the good, leave/ignore the bad. When it feels like that, of course people don’t want claims on an identity that includes the bad.
Now, people who live in the suburbs have ways to engage with the city better: register to vote and get to know the city politically if you move there. Vote for politicians who support Chicago as well as the suburbs. Discourage pointless competition. Go into the city and explore and support neighborhoods that aren’t in the tourist books or support institutions that aren’t sports teams.
Chicagoans can be better about being too strict in our identity policing too. If somebody moves to Chicago and gets involved, makes their life here they’re Chicagoans. Don’t hound people on saying they’re from Chicago if they’re suburban, but explain why it’s frustrating and offer solutions (and don’t shove it in their face at that).
Chicago and the suburbs desperately need to begin getting along, because we need each other. When things go wrong in the city that’ll hurt the ‘burbs and vice versa. We don’t live in vacuums, but and highly integrated region. That doesn’t mean being from the region is a universal life experience and for those of you who didn’t grow up in the suburbs, be proud!
(Just be a tad more clear about where you’re from next time you leave Chicagoland.)