Thursday, February 14, 2013

Subject - The City and the Surburbs - Compare and Contrast

After working in cities virtually my entire adult life I now find myself making a living in the northern suburbs of Chicago. For the last two decades I have worked, off and on, along Chicago's Michigan Avenue, tagged by civic promoters as "The Magnificent Mile". It is an area of stores, hotels and restaurants. Some people do live in the residential highrises located there, although I have never been able to quite ascertain why. I like, in fact thrive on a metropolitan pulse. In  the part of the city in which I live dozens of highrises cling to the lakefront. Yet, beyond these there is a neighborhood filled with tree lined streets, small businesses and people I know. By comparison the scores of downtown highrises give one an option to live in a state of almost complete anonymity. While it is obvious, from the large numbers of people that have chosen this lifestyle, it suits some. I think I would find it lonely, barren and quite frankly, boring.

Living downtown one must also cope with the tourists. Throngs of them. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands descend on the city from the surrounding states each year. They are characterized by their cloistered, small town mentality, sharing a lack of curiosity regarding the world. Many are obese, some morbidly so. They plod from store to store, oddly, not actually buying anything. When asked, some, the ones that acknowledged my existence when I would greet them , would often say, "We just come to Chicago once a year and go through the stores." I wanted to point out that my city has a treasure trove of architecture, as well as great theatre, museums and music, but somehow knew this would fall on disinterested ears. While I will admit to devoting a certain amount of time when traveling to shopping, it is never the main activity and, I usually make a purchase!

But now my work enviorment has changed. I have been forced to make some adjustments in my attitudes and thinking. My new work venue is an outdoor mall, unusual in the weather challenged Midwest. It is a handsomely appointed space of small plazas, fountains and a koi pond, although the water features are drained and filled with evergreens boughs during the winter months. Unlike my previous environs, people actually come to this mall to shop. The morbidly obese have been exchanged for surprisingly large numbers of Russians and Greeks. My boss is Greek. She will often lapse into her parents native tongue when speaking with customers and, occasionally, other employees. Listening to these conversations is, well, Greek to me. Then there are the Russians, large and occasionally quite hot. Both the Greeks and Russian customers have a fondness for fine jewelry. As this is what I sell, this is fine with me.

These are augmented by various configurations of older, jewelry laden women, and on occasion, entire, upwardly mobile families. The annual income in Chicago's northern suburbs ranges from comfortable to obscene. On Michigan Avenue large groups of women prowl the stores together. They often resemble gangs of "Oprah's Book Club" members. In the suburbs I see a sizable number of young and teenage boys shopping with their fathers. As I never engaged in this activity this is a relationship foreign to me, therefore interesting to observe.

There are two major differences in mindset I repeatedly encounter in the suburbs, other than that the people visiting the stores actually go there to make purchases. One is the assumption that everyone lives in a house, with a yard. I, like many city dwellers, reside in an apartment. It is one of 100 or so spread over the 12 floors of our building. I have difficulty relating to the conversations regarding family rooms, basements, garages and chest freezers. Not to mention the various mechanical systems necessary to keep a home in the Midwest habitable. At home I go about my business with the assurance that if something goes mechanically awry it will be attended to by the building engineer or the condo management company. I do not have to wait at home for workmen or compare quotes. While some may complain about a lack of privacy or noise from the neighbors, this arrangement suits me.

Then there is the reliance on the individual automobile. We, like many people in the city, do not own a car. Excellent and reliable public transit makes one an unnecessary expense. Working on Michigan Avenue the events of the day are discussed with friends and coworkers while waiting at bus and train stops. Taking a bus to work to the suburban dweller is as foreign as owning a house is to me. I made certain, prior to accepting suburban employment, that I would be able to get to and from work on public transit. That I do this each work day amazes my coworkers. Unfortunately my experience has been that even if widespread public transportation were available in the suburbs it would still be difficult to wean people from their cars.

I do not judge the mindset I encounter in the suburbs. I respect the decision the people who live there have made as I would hope they would respect the decision I have made in my citified lifestyle. However, that being said, as long as my tenure in the suburbs lasts, I sense I will always feel, at least in part, like an odd fish swimming in unfamiliar waters.

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