On the first day Chicago overwhelmed me by its size. I took the blue line into town from O’hare and the ride took over an hour. At Clark and Lake I changed to the pink line that would bring me to my neighbourhood of Pilsen. Pilsen or ‘Plsen’ is a neighbourhood that was first inhabited by people from the Czech republic who came to Chicago as labourers in the stockyards. Nowadays the neighbourhood is famous for its Hispanic identity. The area of 18th street has recently been subject to gentrification as vintage shops and coffee hangouts moved to the area that is colourfully decorated by murals. The advertisement for my apartment mentioned these attractive features so I decided to be amongst the first urban professionals who find their hale off the beaten track.
But the advertisement was a bit optimistic to say the least. My apartment was not even in walking distance of this vibrant street. In fact, it is four metro stops further at South California where the area is far removed from anyone’s concern. The streets are littered. What were family homes are now abandoned buildings sealed with wood. Some buildings are torn down to leave vacant lots covered with empty bottles, packages and many, many plastic bags. On the day that I arrived it was raining so there was no soul on the street. The next day, when the sun came out, families would hang out on the street or in their front yards. It stroked me that all the stereotypes seemed to be true at first sight. The families were very large, most of the members terribly overweight, and as this was the ‘hispanic community’ everyone looked to be from South American descent, or less political correct, I seemed to have ended up renting in the Mexican ghetto. Thankfully I speak some “Mexican” so it was easy to have some conversations with my new neighbours on the doorstep. They told me that they all would love to leave the neighbourhood and ‘live it up’ downtown, but many of them spoke English poorly and I did not dare to ask them about their civil status.
I decided to take this opportunity to experience life in the ‘real’ Chicago. I figured it was quite an interesting move from the posh Palisades of Washington DC to doing my daily run in the Douglas park of South Chicago. The next morning I put on my Nikes and ran down to the park. Some kids were playing basketball, but most people sat in their front yards and waved at me. Some of the guys hanging out at the corner of California and 21th street cheered at me. They were clearly not used to a runner and from looking at their belly hanging over their oversized jeans, fake Chicago Bulls shirts, and smokes between their teeth, a healthy life is not their first priority. They have been growing up in these littered streets, probably lost their virginity on dirty matrasses or allies, and have been expected to fail by society from the moment they were born. What do we expect from these guys? My life has been so different, if I want to understand life from their perspective I should hang out with them.
So one night when I came home they were hanging around at the metro station. As I passed by they made some comments on my posh look – high heals, silky coat, etc. I told them I came from a conference. They said, “What are you doing here then?” “It ain’t safe here for you, we should escort you home”. And they did. Although I knew that walking amongst them could also mean getting in the middle of some gang activity, or worse, revenge from another gang.Walking amongst them didn’t feel threatening; it felt safe. They did not have the intention to hurt me, in fact, they deestablished all the stereotypes! For three nights in a row they would be at that station – they would hang out there anyway – and as I got off the train, they would walk the three streets to my home. They would just walk with me – they would ask me some questions about Amsterdam, legal weed, and prostitution – and leave me at the doorstep.
Three nights later when I came out of the metro, they were not there. I don’t know what happened, probably they lost interest, there must be more important things than escorting white girls home. They just stopped showing up. So since four nights I am walking the streets of the Hispanic ghetto alone now, and really it feels scary, it feels desolate, it feels ugly.
This morning my roommate, a young man from France added something nasty to that feeling. He was attacked and robbed on his way home from the metro. His phone and wallet were stolen and he was knocked to the ground. Something insight of me was so disappointed. Did the same guys that were so nice to me rob him? Was I lucky, or did I again provoke the little angel on my shoulder?