Thursday, November 06, 2008

The New City Slicker

I grew up in suburban Maryland, about fifteen minutes outside of D.C.. As a result, I always considered myself quite the cosmopolitan. Washington was a quick metro ride away, nearly everyone's parents worked, if not in D.C., then in a job that existed because of D.C., and the self-image of my town was very urbane and sophisticated. When I applied to college, I said that I was looking for a university that had a similar feel: medium-sized, north-eastern, near a city. Showing my lack of self-awareness, it turned out that my dream school (where I applied early decision) was actually a small liberal arts college in a small mid-western township. And so the last four years were an experience in small town, Minnesota living. Even this summer, living on my own for the first time, my apartment was out in suburban Maryland -- not in one of the up and coming D.C. neighborhoods like most of my friends.

So though I always considered myself comfortable in the city, my time in Hyde Park has really been my first time living in an urban setting. Urban is relative, of course, but we're in the city of Chicago, our streets are numbered and in grids (and reach up to big numbers like "60" -- even Northfield has a 1st Street), and there is genuine crime and poverty. This is all new to me.

Last Friday, I witnessed my first serious street crime -- a mugging or possible abduction. It occurred about a half block ahead of me on 55th street, as I was walking home from a party with my girlfriend and a friend of mine. It was spooky. After a nice long conversation with the Chicago police (who were very helpful and responsive), I remember thinking, "I don't like city living."

Today, walking back from the law school, a woman fell in beside me. It was raining, and, she announced, "I hate the rain." I thought she was a university employee, and I joked back that soon she wouldn't have to worry -- it'd be snowing. She laughed, and then told me how she had just come back from a pantry that turned out to be Saturday only. I first I didn't understand, but then I realized -- she wasn't some university administrator -- she was hungry. She said her four kids were coming back from school, and she had no food to give them. She had tried ten different restaurants and all had shoo-ed her away -- most with very little sympathy.

By this time, I had reached my destination, and she had tears in her eyes. I didn't know what to say or do, so I just told her "better days will come." She nodded, and kept walking. Reflexively, I called "have a nice day" (I always say that -- too much time in Minnesota), and immediately felt ridiculous. And once again, I thought to myself, "I don't like city living."

But why? Okay, the reaction after the crime is reasonable -- everybody prefers living someplace where they can walk around safely at night to where they have to watch every footstep. But when it came to this poor, hungry woman, there was no threat to my safety. What it did threaten was the division I've trained myself to prefer -- between my writing, and what I write about.

I've never been the activist sort. I write in support of my moral commitments, because writing is what I'm comfortable with and what I'm good at. Even this summer, working for a civil rights coalition, was a rather big step for me in the direction of tangible, direct action (at one point while working for the LCCR I was passed off as an expert on student activism -- I could barely refrain from laughing). I have a deep skepticism that significant progressive change will occur through political or even legal processes. I prefer to work alone, and activism is inherently communal (let's face it -- like any self-respecting Carleton kid, I can be a bit socially awkward). Activism is all about persuasion, mostly of lay people, and my time as a debater left me with negative opinions of both the concept of "persuasion", and the efficacy of talking with lay people about complicated philosophical, political, or ethical problems.*

To a large extent, I don't like city living because it forces one to fit into the activist mold. Each day, you see events and make choices which directly implicate the moral commitments you're fighting for. And frankly, I don't think that fast. I prefer to ponder, and wrestle, and talk things out, and deliberate. But I'm not convinced I'm not a hypocrite -- that what I really don't want is to be forced to put my money where my pen is.

The good news, I guess, is that I'm stuck in Chicago for the next three years -- for better or for worse. There is a significant "for worse" component here -- I can feel the stress rise inside me well beyond the degree to which the first year of law school is bothering me, and most of it can be chalked up to the change in scenery. But maybe there will be a change for better as well. I've always been a strong proponent of interacting with a broad array of people. Muggers probably aren't interested in conversations, but the woman I met on the street today was.

I'm pretty confident that I do not want to live in a city when I move out into the workforce. But that doesn't mean I can't learn some important things these next three years.

Peace and equality
Let's be together, let's live in harmony
Lookin' to the sky, keep your head on the rise
Think things on rockin' so well

--"think ya better D," sAmi

* This is not a knock against lay people -- not everyone needs to have deep and sophisticated opinions about Rawls, or even care about him, and just because you don't have a knack for synthesizing arguments about the veil of ignorance doesn't mean you're not good at other things, from computer science to economics to bricklaying. But just as it can get grating to my engineering friends to try and explain to me basic principles of math and physics, it's frustrating for me to try and boil down really complicated philosophical arguments for people who are not interested in the subjects. There are differences between the cases: On the one hand, engineering will go on just fine no matter how ignorant I stay whereas lay people have real influence on the development of moral norms, making it imperative
that I do attempt to explain and persuade non-philosophy folks beyond what I might be interested in doing for reasons of charity or goodwill (more frustration). The flip-side, of course, is that because moral norms represent things we want all people to abide by, I do have an obligation to make whatever principles I lay out accessible and understandable to the common person. Engineering can stay obscure to me because nobody is asking me to build a bridge. All people, however, are asked every day to live their lives in a fair and ethical manner.

None of this is meant to be an argument for why a more secluded "academic" life is objectively superior to a hands-dirty, activist path -- merely an explanation of my personal preference and how it came about.


PG said...

Not to say "I told you so," but you're not reacting to "an urban setting," you're reacting to U of C's neighborhood, which sucks. When I visited for a law school interview and couldn't get a cab until I had walked almost out of that neighborhood, I started to doubt whether I'd want to go there even if I got off the waiting list.

There is crime and poverty in, say, Morningside Heights, but there's not the oppressive sense that the school is a little isle of dynamism in a sea of given-up that I get around UChicago. I'm not even blaming Chicago as a whole, because Northwestern Law is in a perfectly lovely (and expensive) neighborhood. I think this is a significant factor in UChicago kids' geekdom -- there's so little to interact with in their neighborhood, and you can't get out easily to the rest of the city. In contrast, Columbia U has its own stop on the 1 train, so you can be at Times Square in 15 minutes without a cab or bus.

In short, don't give up on urban living, just recognize that you're in a particularly bad neighborhood.

David Schraub said...

Well, technically Northwestern is in Evanston, not Chicago, so that's more akin to Bethesda. But I see your point.

What would your opinion be of, say, Columbia Heights in DC be though? Because I have friends who live there and I didn't feel much better there, either.

PG said...

Northwestern undergrad and med is Evanston; law school is off Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Very beautiful views.

I don't know much about Columbia Heights in DC, but when I lived at the GW dorms in DC (in 2000), I thought the neighborhood was good. My little sister lived in Adams Morgan for a year and loved it. Dupont Circle also is nice. In NYC, there are lots of good places to live both in Manhattan and in Queens and Brooklyn. (I don't think anyone's gentrified the Bronx yet.)

Every city has bad neighborhoods and those are the cheap ones in which to live, which is why I am grateful that in law school I could afford to live in Morningside rather than, say, Washington Heights where the med center is. Sorry, but gentrification makes a neighborhood less stressful when you're the relatively-wealthy person moving in, despite how much it sucks for the less-wealthy person squeezed out by rent increases. You should try one summer working for a firm or public interest org in DC or NYC, take over a G'town/GW or Columbia student's apartment and discover the pleasures of city life. Frankly, it's spoiled me; I hated summer 2006, which I spent in an Arlington neighborhood that was a 20 minute bus ride to the nearest Metro station. (Admittedly, I spent that summer without a car, which probably was dumb.) It was an experience to resign me to living in a shoebox for astronomical rent, so long as I could walk to a grocery store.

PG said...

Reading over my comment, it sounds so cynical. I feel like a New Yorker -- I am hard-bitten about real estate!

David Schraub said...

Well, this summer I lived right on top of Shady Grove metro station (as in "Red Line to...."), so totally suburban but metro accessible (albeit a 45 minute commute into where I worked). But at Carleton I had the experience of being able to walk to the grocery store because I lived in a town of 20,000 people. So I could also walk to the pizza place, and the coffee shop, and where I "worked", and pretty much everything else. And then I could drive to the city if I needed to see a museum. The trade off, of course, is vastly inferior delivery.

Anonymous said...

Not that you suggested otherwise, but Chicago goes all the way south to 135th.

As pg said, you are in a neighborhood that doesn't do a lot for the reputation of urban living. Lots of North and Northwest neighborhoods are a lot more comfortable and feel like lots of small towns squeezed together.

Since you've got so much time here, you might consider spending one of your years in Chicago living up here. The commute would be annoying, but you don't have to look over your shoulder quite so much.