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“City” is a noun.

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.

Which is a city?

Is it all of the above?

Consider the following, moving from the intimate to the abstract and back again.

The city is a person. Those who love cities most, or a particular city, will speak fondly (or bitterly) of their relationship with it.  A familiar friend, an exciting object of desire, a partner in crime.  Or a constant pest, a worst enemy, a bully or a flirt.  Being in a new city therefore means becoming acquainted, learning who, not what, that city really is.  A desire to see the city in its brighest colors, from its best side, to mutually impress.

Of Chicago, Carl Sandburg wrote:  “Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders: / Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”  Chicago seems now to be that aging worker with an inferiority complex, “Second City,” second-best to its neighbor(s) to the East.

Of New York, the New York Times’ Christopher Solomon, on leaving the city, confessed “You are that red-haired girl who welcomed me here and then did not want me. And like her, I still love you, and even now I miss you.”  LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sang “New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”  New York is famous for its ego and vitality, and is loved fiercely.

Does a city have a gender?  What gender does your city have?  If you can answer that question, maybe your city is a person.

The city is a place. Leaving the realm of relationships, a city becomes a place.  A dot on a map, a place to call home, an environment in which to interact, a backdrop for life.  Landmarks, wayfinding, and distances become the important descriptors by which the city is understood:  origin, journey, destination.

Transit maps are especially good at placing a city:  where am I?  Where am I going?  What path do I take?  Bill Bryson wrote of the whimsical quality of the London Underground, including places like “Finster Bush” and “Swiss Cottage” which brought you to who knows what fairy-tale land.  The city becomes not one place but many, a network of discrete destinations that may be measured as much in time as in geography.

When you leave your own city, it becomes even more “place-ified” to you.  Answer the question:  “Where are you from?”  “I’m from here.”  Or “I’m from another place.”

The city is a thing. Zoom out once more from emotional groundedness – the city becomes a thing, an entity, a unit of analysis.  Social science research is especially good at this, poking and prodding at the city organism to study its systems, properties and functions from all angles.  Census data and infrastructure diagrams render it inert for a moment in time, under glass for further study.

Those frustrated by politics may also reify the city, forgetting its council is a collection of people and instead referring to The City as its own autonomous entity.  The City tows your car, raises your taxes, leaves you bus-less in the middle of the night.  It becomes an it, a faceless opponent, an Other.

Ask yourself:  it’s Christmas morning, the municipal offices are closed, and every single city official and employee is not coming in.  Is there still something in City Hall?

The city is an idea.  With this, we arrive at both the edge and the center:  what is more abstract than an idea?  Or more private?

Perhaps the city exists most of all in our own minds, our desperate attempt to make sense of its chaos and complexity.  Thought of a city we know can trigger nostalgia, love, fear, sadness, a particular good or bad memory.  T.S. Eliot wrote, of course, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”  We create the city in our own minds, or perhaps even a new one every time.

Even more abstract is the very idea of “city” itself.  How else would we know exactly what Petula Clark’s song “Downtown” means, and that Downtown could make us feel better?  The word City, with no geographical referent, conjures a concept web of diversity, density, crowding, anonymity, loneliness, activity, happiness, culture, violence, enterprise, wealth, poverty, history and future.

For those of us who love cities, they always elude definition because they are all of these things.

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I’m leaving the city.

Coming back from downtown tonight, I had a lot to think about (most of which I’m not going to post here).  At first I resented all the Lollapalooza goers who had taken over “my” city streets for the weekend – milling around on Michigan Avenue, clustering with cigarettes outside hotels, shuffling along El stations, littering and loitering.  I was going to a friend’s place for the day anyway, so I didn’t have time for sight-seeing, but just on principle:  couldn’t I spend some last moments in Chicago with the peaceful, generally empty streets at night?

This, however, is not the point.  Cities, and particularly Chicago, and particularly its public streets and parks, are for everyone.  Just because I am for the moment a city resident, and one who probably walks more than the average resident, my claim to the city as someone who “understands” it isn’t the right attitude to have.  Perhaps I’ve appreciated more of the city’s moods than some of those just in for the Lolla weekend, but for this weekend it really is their city as well as mine.  It’s easy for locals to grumble about the traffic and bother of special events (I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself), but it is these events, along with the everyday activity, that make the city what it is.  It’s okay to avoid the crowds on a summer weekend – but you nevertheless have to appreciate their right to crowd around, and the significance of those crowds for where you live.

And for someone like me, already saying the last parting words to their city, the crowds are a reminder that life goes on.  The city continues to move.  It is the product of its people, but does not rely on any one person to keep it going (okay, exception in Chicago, Mayor Daley).  Maybe I don’t want to remember Michigan Ave with the concert-going throngs; but maybe that’s the best way to remember it.  Vibrant, busy, an exciting place to be.  How many people have been excited about this event all summer, getting to come to a big city like Chicago?  It’s easy to get used to living here, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that it really is a special place.

I also couldn’t help but think about my own mental map of the city – an emotional geography overlaying the grid – and how much I’ll carry with me.  The city and I have grown pretty close.  A lot has happened here in three years.  If and when I come back to visit some of the places on my map, those visits will necessarily be ones of physical place but also temporal place – remembering when I was there and how I felt about it.  Some places I’ll be happy to visit.  Standing under the Bean at Millennium Park or walking over the river at North Avenue.  Other places I’m not so sure.  Will it still hurt to walk along Armitage?  Can I go back to the Museum of Contemporary Art or look at one of the bridges anytime soon?  Probably not.  But they’ll be there waiting, either way.

I’ve always been a strongly place-oriented person, even if I didn’t realize it until pretty recently.  Planning is therefore a good field for me.  History is more about time, which I have much more mixed feelings about, and anyway I think cultural history is more about a particular place (and its people, of course) than it is about the unfolding of time in a chain of causation.  Being place-oriented, however, means it hurts like hell to uproot.  I know very well that it’s a good time for me to go, not least to clear my head in less memory-saturated air.  But it’s not an easy thing.

I’m leaving the city.

But I’m taking a lot of places with me.

Leaving Chicago