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Living For the City 

Why am I here? Where else is there?

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I knew the city had turned some kind of corner when I realized we would actually make money on our house. For years I thought this was about as likely as my wife, Mary, cashing in on one of the lottery tickets she was always buying. It tells you something about our economic situation that Mary, a bank vice president, thought lottery tickets needed to be a major part of our financial plan. We had poured a truly frightening amount of money into our place, a sagging wreck when we bought it, and at an early stage we'd pretty much abandoned any hope of getting it back. I remember one morning--we must have had one of our lugubrious financial discussions the night before--Mary said to me, "Did you ever think you would live in a $600,000 house?" "Babe," I said, "we don't live in a $600,000 house. We live in a $500,000 house that cost $600,000." But now, although we've sunk even more money into it, this Vietnam of home improvement projects has become a profitable investment, thanks to the rising market.

You're now thinking: man, what kind of fabulous plutocrat is this that lives in a $600,000 house? Well, let me tell you, pal. Pre-house, which was also pre-serious money, I lived a relatively carefree existence in a town house near UIC. Reasonable mortgage payments, by present standards anyway, and I didn't even have to cut my own grass. But then I had a good year, and the thought entered my head: you know, what I need is a house. What was I thinking? We got us a house all right, and it's sucked up every nickel and then some that we've earned since. OK, it's not like we're scrounging for dinner in a Dumpster. We're just examples of that quintessential American phenomenon: no matter how much money you have, you always contrive to be broke.

But then this spring some people down the block sold a house somewhat smaller than ours for $685,000. About the time they moved out the old house next door to theirs was torn down, the lot was divided, and construction began on two new houses. They're going to be pretty good-sized from the look of them, but they sit on 25-foot lots. How much is somebody going to pay for a house on a 25-foot lot? Apparently plenty. We haven't seen a price tag but a real estate agent who claims to know about these things guesses the new places would list for close to $800,000 apiece.

Eight hundred thousand dollars! No one I know--and I have asked about this a lot--can figure out where the people are coming from who are paying that kind of money for a house. There can't be that many traders and software moguls, or for that matter losers like me and Mary, willing to squander all for the sake of Victorian woodwork. Surely, we think, this incredible bubble will soon burst.

But maybe not. Real estate people once upon a time used to talk about neighborhoods reaching a crisis point at a certain age--the threshold I recall seeing mentioned was 40 years. The buildings and their initial occupants grew old together, and either everybody bailed or died off and the neighborhood went to seed, or new people invested and the neighborhood was renewed. Cities, it now seems obvious, go through the same sort of stages on a larger scale. In Chicago renewal has been complicated by race and the automobile, but in the end--well, I was going to say it happened, but that's a little premature. Let's say it's happening.

The population of Chicago, which fell by 837,000 between 1950 and 1990, may be headed back up: between 1990 and 1998, it inched from 2.78 million to 2.8 million. In the same period, the city issued building permits for 54,000 dwellings and authorized 24,000 demolitions, for a net gain of 30,000 units. Compare this to the 70s and 80s, when Chicago suffered a net loss of 76,000 dwellings. And home values in Chicago are increasing at a faster rate than in the suburbs. According to the Chicago Association of Realtors, the median condo sale price in Chicago has increased 45 percent since 1995, compared to 13 percent in suburban Cook County--condos now account for 55 percent of single-family home sales in the city. Prices for houses and two- to four-flats are also rising more rapidly in the city.

Those with homes already will rejoice at these figures; those who don't have a prayer of ever affording a $600,000 house will undoubtedly heave a deep sigh. To be sure, some parts of the city have prospered more than others--but the boom is surprisingly widespread. In addition to the primo downtown and north lakefront neighborhoods, communities enjoying healthy property-value increases include Albany Park, Avondale, Belmont-Cragin, Beverly, Bridgeport, Brighton Park, Edison Park, Forest Glen, Hermosa, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Lincoln Square, Logan Square, the Near West Side, the Near South Side, North Center, Norwood Park, Portage Park, Washington Heights, West Ridge, West Town, and others. (I don't claim to have made a scientific study of this; I'm just running down the realtors' list.) Lower-income minority neighborhoods such as Austin, Humboldt Park, South Lawndale, and South Shore have emerged as active real estate markets, with percentage increases in the values of some types of housing running well above the citywide average.

Of course, there remain vast impoverished tracts where if anything things have probably gotten worse. But not too long ago white middle-class types who lived in the city tended to think of themselves as urban pioneers. I'd be surprised if the Lincoln Park bar crowd felt that way now. For these folks the city is a choice you don't have to be a fanatic to make.

Still, it's a choice that entails a certain gift for overlooking the negatives. There are a million reasons for the middle class to avoid the city, of which the increasing expense is only one. The schools are a long shot. The commute, timewise, is often no better than it would be in the burbs. The crime rate is higher. Lack of parking. We could make a long list.

Not to knock my little neighborhood in West Lakeview, but nobody's going to mistake it for Lake Forest. Behind us is a big courtyard apartment building that the local cops refer to as "the hacienda," which I realize is not a shining example of cultural sensitivity. On warm nights when everyone's got their windows open, the residents play ranchera music. Sometimes it's merely at dentist-office level, and sometimes it's loud enough to loosen your fillings. I go out and holler "turn it down" once in a while. Usually this has the desired result, but my guess is that most people living in $600,000 houses have the butler do it.

Living in the city gives me grist for a lot of snappy one-liners. I was at a fancy dinner one time and somebody at the table was holding forth on the charms of his house on the suburban fringe. "I've got woods on three sides of me," he said. I leaned over to the woman next to me and said, "On three sides of me I've got the Latin Kings." Someone set a fire in a garage belonging to my neighbor, a Hispanic plant foreman; the antigraffiti squad has been out to paint over markings on my gate; and the city recently put in speed bumps to keep guys from hot-rodding down the alley. One night a couple summers ago there was a crash out there, followed a short time later by a prolonged clanging of metal on metal in what I took to be an effort at repair.

You have different expectations of life in the city than you do in the suburbs. In his best-selling book House, which describes the construction of a house on the outskirts of a Massachusetts town, Tracy Kidder writes that the site "commanded pretty views." Our house commands a view of the Jehovah's Witnesses meeting hall across the street. The Witnesses aren't bad as neighbors go. They take up all the parking during services and come over to proselytize more often than I'd like, but on the scale of urban irritants you can't really put them in the same class as drive-by shootings. One Sunday morning when I was shoveling debris into a Dumpster, a couple Witnesses walked by, and one asked the other whether she should give me some literature. I'm pretty sure I heard the other hiss, "Don't bother--working on Sunday, he's an animal, he hasn't got a soul."

Once in a while genuinely alarming things happen. Guys running down your sidewalk with drawn guns, for example. The last time this happened to me--OK, the only time--was about a year ago. One shot fired, no injuries. By the time the cops showed up, the fellow with the gun, who was wearing a bright yellow shirt over black sweatpants and could hardly have been more conspicuous if he'd had the words BAD GUY stenciled on his chest, was long gone. The cops later claimed they'd had a little talk with the gunman, a local gang member, and I was given to understand they would do bad Chicago-cop things to him if he tried it again.

Those living in Chicago neighborhoods where gunfire is a nightly occurrence may think I've got it pretty good. That's true. I have the impression things were worse years ago. In 1982 my neighbor's housekeeper was murdered and his house was set afire by a home invader. When I called him just now, he told me there had been a murder at the diner down the street about the time I moved in; more recently I missed a case of "open warfare" involving gangbangers at a nearby intersection. Our old baby-sitter was burglarized four times in two different apartments in the space of a year. We've only been burglarized once. The thieves got $6,000 worth of antique mantelpieces, tools, and building supplies, but we hadn't moved in yet, and the insurance covered most of it. We took it in stride, eventually. It was part of the urban deal.

And what do we get out of this deal? The city isn't boring. Right? In my heart of hearts I know this is not the world's most rational argument. When a friend who was trying to justify living in New York ran it past me a few years ago, I replied, "Neither was World War II." I'm well past the point where I need someplace to take a date every Saturday night, it's been ten years since I heard a rock concert, and our selection of feasible restaurants is pretty much limited to places where our kids can draw with crayons on the place mats.

I'm not claiming city living doesn't have its practical side. In a 1985 article entitled "Downtown Housing: Where the Action Is," Chicago real estate analysts Leanne Lachman and Robert Miller pointed out two key demographic facts: the shift to a service economy meant there were an increasing number of downtown office workers, and a growing majority of U.S. households were childless. As a result there were a lot of people with less interest in good schools, plenty of room, and other suburban advantages and greater interest in city life, which was "now perceived as chic, carefree, and exciting."

Lachman and Miller went on to describe the ingredients for a revitalized downtown housing market: (1) that large pool of downtown office workers; (2) ongoing downtown redevelopment, including new retail; (3) a concentration of cultural institutions and entertainment activities in the city center; (4) a compact downtown area and/or an efficient public transit system; and (5) a large metropolitan area, to make downtown living an attractive alternative to the long commute to the suburban fringe. With the possible exception of an efficient public transit system, all these conditions prevailed in Chicago, and no doubt help explain why the city has done as well as it has: for some people anyway, the city was convenient and fun.

Still, can life in Albany Park, Kenwood, or my neighborhood be called "chic and carefree"? (The "excitement" I'll grant you.) Surely there is something more going on here, but I still can't quite put my finger on it. The... intricacy, maybe, the "vitality." I don't know. All I can say is that the thought of living in the suburbs gives me the creeps.

In recent years it has become apparent that there are people even more incorrigible than me. You drive around and see residential buildings being erected in totally incongruous spots, such as next to railroad tracks or a factory or a junkyard, and you wonder who could possibly be crazy enough to want to live there. But people seemingly always do--although occasionally they wake up the next morning and think, My God, I've bought a condo next to a meatpacking plant. Whereupon they bitch to the alderman, who bitches to the plant owner, who reasonably inquires how, since the plant had stunk pretty much continuously since 1896, this could possibly have eluded the notice of the unhappy condo owners before they signed the contract.

Yet I think I know how it could, based on my experience with my house. There is a kind of perverted puritan ethic at work in the soul of every city dweller--a little devil that whispers seductively in his ear: So what if things suck right now? It will be really cool when it's done. Of course by the time it's done the sun may have grown cold, but this is the sort of practical detail the city dweller conveniently overlooks. I suppose anybody who buys a home has to be an optimist. But a suburbanite merely needs to believe his somewhat ratty-looking house will get fixed up someday. The city dweller has to think that about the whole neighborhood. Cities are built on hope.

I was reminded of this during a recent trip to Israel, when I visited the ancient city--ex-city, actually--of Megiddo. I realize we are traveling a little far afield here, but hey, we're approaching the millennium. We need to take the big-picture view.

Megiddo is also known as Armageddon, which Revelation tells us will be the gathering place for one of the armies in the great battle to take place in the last days. (Contrary to popular belief, however, it won't be the site of the battle, which is to take place at Jerusalem. I feel this is something you need to know.) It's on a tell, or artificial hill, of which one finds numerous examples throughout the Middle East. Tells were created because the people of antiquity built their cities of mud, and when a town was destroyed by conquest, fire, or one stiff rainstorm too many, the survivors would rebuild on the spot without clearing the ruins of the previous city away. Mud being mud, the ruins would flatten out and the street grade got progressively higher.

Megiddo is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first, which is only marginally relevant to this story, is that by some estimates it's about 7,000 years old. Permanent habitation finally ceased around 450 BC. By the time the Romans arrived it was a dusty ruin--a city, in other words, already ancient in ancient times. This makes you stop thinking that just because your house was built in 1891, it's old.

The other interesting thing about Megiddo, archaeologists tell us (well, actually the tour guide told us, but I'm trying to observe the rhetorical niceties here), is that the ruins of 25 cities were found piled on top of one another when the town was excavated. This is a thought to give you pause. Not to be disrespectful, but if I knew the previous 24 settlements on the site had tanked, I might have figured it was time to build someplace else.

Not those Megiddoites, boy. They rebuilt the whole thing, probably thinking, this time for sure. Then blammo, the Assyrians (or the Egyptians, or God knows who else) would descend like the wolf on the fold and there they'd be, flattened again.

Sure, the site had its advantages. No doubt the Megiddoites kept telling themselves this. It lay on two important trade routes. It had a reliable water supply. (Megiddo's water source was a spring accessible via an elaborate tunnel. When the Assyrians laid siege, at least you didn't go thirsty.) The tell afforded a strategically useful view of the surrounding terrain, although the Megiddoites probably found this a mixed blessing, since every time they rebuilt they had to haul the building materials up a taller hill. Maybe that's why, after the 25th collapse, they gave up and moved somewhere else. Or maybe they all just died of diphtheria. The archaeological record is unclear.

Still, if we figure on 4,500 years of more or less continuous habitation, that works out to a respectable 180 years between flattenings. The U.S. progressed from land of yeoman farmers to subsidiary of Microsoft in only a little while longer.

The Megiddoites were persistent, I guess. Or stupid. I can't decide. Whichever it was, the impulse strikes me as characteristically urban. Don't get me wrong. I live in the city and wouldn't be happy anywhere else, but there is a part of me that says--hell, a part of me that can scientifically and conclusively demonstrate--that this makes no fricking sense. I'm sure lots of other city dwellers have had the same private thought. And yet here we stay, participants in a story whose end we will never see, sticking around partly for the fun of it, partly from inertia, and partly, God help us, just to see what happens next.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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