Thursday, August 28, 2008

Chicago's Inferiority Complex with New York City

When I moved to Chicago from New York's East Village in 1993, I was looking for a change. Like many Americans at that time, my decision to move to the midwest was mostly financial, but my family and I were also just looking to experience a different region of the country. Late in the year, my employer approved a transfer, and the family and I were off to our new life in Chicagoland.

Here it is 15 years later. I have never really regretted living here, but in hindsight I don't think it was quite what we were looking for when we moved away from New York. My wife and I agree that probably what we needed was a more congenial city in which to live. New York had really been wearing on our souls after a while. So, we thought Chicago would offer some of the same amenities as New York with less of the racetrack mentality. The amenities and culture were OK, if not up to New york standards, unfortunately we were wrong about the people.

We will be moving west in about a month. Gonna hang our shingle in some nondescript little town where the sun shines more. But before we go, I thought I might leave you all with my impression of the "city of broad shoulders" (with the help of my wife Cynthia)

Obviously we still had somewhat of a New Yorker's accent when we came here. In our minds, you Chicagoans are still the ones who "talk funny." So the question usually came up now and again about where we were from. "New York City" we'd reply.
99% of the time, we'd get the same question..."What was it like? Did you hate it?" When we'd say "no, we just needed a change in scenery" the persons who had posed the question would dig a little further. "So, do you like living here better than New York?" A loaded question. But one I had to answer honestly. "Not really, I like both cities. It was mainly the cost of living" was my standard reply.

This is where the conversation went in a strange direction...and this conversation always went the same way, no matter who the person was. It started to turn into a "my city is better than yours" type argument that neither my wife or I were looking for...or sometimes the people would not talk to us at all once they found out where we were from. Even though we were no longer living in New York, we'd often feel rejected, like strangers in our own city even several years after we'd lived here.

This brings me to the topic at hand. Do Chicagoans have an inferiority complex about New York? I have heard about this from various sources, but not until now did I associate the passive aggressiveness toward my hometown with the possibility that they genuinely felt intimidated or on guard whenever they realized where we grew up. If I ever mentioned anything about New York to someone, they'd immediately disregard anything I was just talking about and launch into some tourist campaign for the city of Chicago. Then I would have to tell them, yes I've been to all your museums and Wrigley Field and the Sears Tower...did it all the first week we were here. Yes I've been to this restaurant and that restaurant. I understood that they were excited to tell me about their hometown, but why was I seemingly not allowed to bring up New York in any way? It was very strange.

Something my wife has noticed too...that Chicagoans many times make it a part of their own culture to put down other cities and other people. They poke fun at places like Gary Indiana (OK who doesn't) ,St. Louis, Milwaukee, or Green Bay...but then also badmouth larger cities like LA or Phoenix. This is just one small example of hundreds--we took a boat tour on the Chicago River last month, and the man who gave the tour had to work it into his routine that Chicago "flushed all it's sewage down to St Louis where it belongs" Now I know when we lived out east, that Jersey and Philly were the red headed step children of New York. But in my opinion, having lived in both New York and Chicago...Chicago doesn't have much room to talk poorly of its neighbors or other cities around the US.

There are many problems here that rank right up there with the problems of the smaller cities, and that is sad because Chicago supposedly has such a good economy. But the taxes have gone berserk here. And the road traffic is getting messier and the crime is shooting higher in all neighborhoods. The schools are not getting better, and the people here are getting more aggressive. I'm one of them I guess...and it's time to move on. We've hung in there with Chicago for a long time, hoping we'd see things get better. I guess if you are into oddly planned wannabe versions of Central Park with giant shiny beans, then I guess you probably think this city spends its money wisely and is moving in the right direction.

And one more thing (I know I sound like I'm ranting now, but oh well) I've grown a little bit weary of all the phonies in this town. In New york, people were at least honest. They lived within their means and were generally not phony. Here, there are so many "fake rich people" it's kind of surreal. These people who are driving their entire year's salary, but can't afford their cell phone bill. These people who are rackin' up the credit cards to buy the mall out of carmel corn and sunglasses, but then have to borrow money from their parents or neighbors or file bankruptcy.
These are not just people I know. This is a way of life here.

So getting back to the inferiority question. I think the answer is "yes" Chicagoans do indeed have an issue with being viewed as 'third rate' behind New York and LA. And they go out of their way (and spend alot of money) to look more New York, act more New York, and if better than New York. However, in my opinion, they should just forget about whether New York is better or not and just live their lives. From what I've seen, it's on way to many people's minds. Be proud of Chicago for what it is. It will probably never be #1 in culture, theatre, or shopping or has as diverse of a skyline. It will never be able to overtake the legendary venues that New york offers. So just live with that, and for the final month I am here, please don't ask anyone with a New York accent "does it suck?" It might be me or my wife, and you won't like our answer.