Written by William Campbell
Recently I moved to the suburbs.
Just writing that phrase dredges up a kind of shame. For the last ten years I’ve lived in the Chicago. Never staying in one apartment for longer than two years, I moved a total of seven times to seven different neighborhoods on the south, north, and west sides. I prided myself on my directional know-how, my articulacy on gentrification and white flight, and my historical knowledge of the neighborhoods. So when my husband could no longer stand the hour commute from his job in the suburbs to our apartment on the south side, I took a deep breath and agreed to look for new apartments outside the city limits.
“But only in the acceptable suburbs,” I was quick to add. Places like Oak Park or Forest Park, not Oak Brook or River Forest (and yes, those are all different neighborhoods with ridiculously similar names). The acceptable suburbs were those so close to the city that they felt like extensions of Chicago, places that didn’t embrace the “suburban” mentality (whatever that was).
When colleagues and friends caught wind of my potential move, they asked the typical Chicagoan questions – “What neighborhood?” “How close to the ‘L’?”
And with a mustard seed of courage I would cautiously say that we’re actually looking in the suburbs. The looks on their faces always confirmed the very shame I was experiencing, so I quickly explained that it was only out of necessity. One time someone actually told me that they thought I was better than that (seriously, I’m not making that up). Usually the unspoken truth was that those who cared about diversity, justice, and the good liberal way would live in the city (never mind the fact that the migration of affluent people back to city centers and subsequent gentrification was forcing underprivileged folks out to the suburbs).
Ironically, we didn’t even move to any of those tree or creak-based towns. We moved much farther out to a place that wouldn’t even connect to the ‘L.’
To its credit, the main strip has quite a few nice restaurants, a commuter rail runs through town a few blocks away from our house, and Trader Joe’s is right around the corner. But I wasn’t expecting this move to be to the actual suburbs.
The weekend we moved in, I decided to go for a run to get some exercise and map out the neighborhood.
Within minutes I noticed something in my shoulders and back loosen and a subtle feeling that I can only call release drifted up through the top of my head. Stopping, I looked around to see if anything triggered this, and it struck me – I wasn’t running in a concrete jungle. The entire path behind and before me was lined with towering trees and large grassy lawns. I realized quickly that I actually felt at home.
That realization caused the social justice advocate within me to picket and protest. “No, you’re not supposed to feel good about being out here! No! Shame, where are you? Come back shame!” But I couldn’t deny it. It didn’t take anything more than lawns and trees to bring me back to the place I’d been running from since I was 18.
Though I’d spent the last decade developing an urban identity, at best it had been written on top of the rural one I already wore. Like some psychological palimpsest, my country roots were showing. Having grown up on a farm in rural Iowa, open spaces and nature were commonplace to me. Our farm sat just south of a long stretch of highway and only one other house was within walking distance (at least a reasonable walking distance). Instead of suburbs surrounding us, we had corn and soybean fields. Our tallest buildings were silos and barns not monuments or high-rises. Instead of neighborhoods like Uptown, South Loop, and Lawndale, ours were the Grain Bins, the Swamp, and the Orchard.
This moment of running in my new town was unsettling not just because of my suburban angst, but also because it reminded me that I never did feel quite at home in the city. Though I’d adapted to my surroundings, I was still only playing a game of make-believe – make-believing that I could spend the rest of my life in a city.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the diversity, culture, and opportunity in the city. Being able to jump on public transit to get where I needed, go to a show not just a few blocks from home, or even try different types of food were huge benefits. And I’m not ignorant about the other side of the living in the city – the gun violence, the institutional racism, the unequal access to fair housing – the list goes on. Living in numerous neighborhoods, though, and developing friendships in many communities, I started to see myself as a part of Chicago’s story.
But without fail, I found myself looking for more and more opportunities to flee to nature. Every year my vacation would get longer and take place in more remote places. What started as quick getaways turned into week long trips to northern California away from internet and amenities.
The funny thing is, I’d always been this way at different times of life. During college I was a camp counselor. In my first job out of college, I was required to spend up to 3 weeks at a camp in the Upper Peninsula to run student trainings. But somehow it settled into me that I was going to be in this city forever, and when I let that thought drift through my mind it was like a weight tied itself around my heart.
Yet the country wasn’t my place either. As a gay person I often felt unsafe in rural settings. For those in my community, cities are often a refuge purely out of necessity. Growing up I always lived with this anxiety knowing subconsciously that “getting out” was important purely from a safety standpoint. But honestly, the biggest reasons why I couldn’t find myself in the country were the simplest – lack of close community, few cultural opportunities, and no high speed internet (I’m a cord cutter y’all. I can’t do without my Netflix).
So I find myself unsettled. Not at home in any one place yet finding life in every place. To me, this is at the heart of this creative project.
My sister and I had discussed this blog prior to my move to the suburbs, but it’s an interesting parallel. Though the suburbs are fraught with their own political past, they are also caught in the tension between city and country life. I don’t know how long I’m going to be in the suburbs, but maybe it will have the time to grow on me the way the city did. Regardless, place has power and the places we live have power on us – good, bad, and all the in between. I’m not sure if the suburban angst will ever go away, nor am I all too concerned about it. But I’m looking forward to the ways that this setting can enter into the conversation of this project.
Living in La Grange may not have been on my bucket list, but it has its own history. Just like Chicago and just like Iowa, I am now part of its story. Though I was in Chicago for 10 years, I was mostly a traveler – a lurker. I never really settled into the politics and community action of Chicago in ways I’d hoped. Ironically, this project has given me the extra oomph to get more involved.
It just happens to be in the suburbs.