David Hoppe

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:: Human scale

So long to the big city

By David Hoppe

I was visiting my neighborhood bank the other day, doing a little of what I, in my more tripped-out moments, like to call "business." While in the midst of this transaction, a fellow sauntered in and went to the window beside mine, where he and the teller exchanged a pleasant greeting.

The teller asked the new arrival how his weekend went. "Exciting," he replied. "I was up in Chicago. Had a great time. Glad I don't live there, though."

As someone who grew up in what our neighbors to the north so fancifully call "Chicagoland," I couldn't help but be intrigued by what this guy said. It actually made a lot of sense to me.

My son recently moved away from Chicago. He'd lived there for the past eight years, first as a college student and then, after graduation, in the kind of indentured servitude that is the lot of so many people in their twenties who graduate with a bachelor's degree in the liberal arts.

My son loved Chicago in many ways. His grandparents and great grandparents were Chicagoans; he was introduced to the city at an early age and grew up aspiring to make its brawny scale and accelerated rhythms his own.

His mother and I encouraged him in this. Like the members of so many generations before us, we thought Chicago's size and scope represented a wealth of opportunity, especially for a bright kid who was starting out in life.

That's not the way things played out.

The great Chicago novelist Nelson Algren famously called Chicago a "city on the make." He was referring to the appetite the mid-twentieth century metropolis he knew so well had for making money, making deals, making things happen. Whether these deals were made on the table, or under it didn't matter so long as you got yours and there was plenty to go around. Mayor Richard Daley the First - father of the recently retired Ritchie the Second -- was known as The Boss in those days; he had signs put up that proclaimed Chicago to be "the city that works."

After applying to over 200 places, my son wasn't so sure about that. Oh, he wound up getting a job - with low pay, long hours and zero benefits - the standard issue for college grads without a technical degree or a taste for high finance. He was glad to have it! And he stuck with it for two years, working some days from eight in the morning until 11 at night, because he knew if he quit, there'd be a line of people eager to take his place.

This wasn't exactly the Chicago life my son pictured for himself. Not that he minded scuffling for a living; he knew that was likely to be part of the deal. But he thought there might be some sliver of light at the end of his particular tunnel, a chance to get a leg up.

Unfortunately for him, Chicago didn't seem so much on the make as made. Its public transit system, which he used every day, was unreliable. The cost of living was always going up and taxes were neverending. The Chicago for people with money seemed to be getting father and farther away from all those people who had just enough to get by.

My son moved to Greensboro, North Carolina in July. Greensboro has a population of 270,000, compared to Chicago's three million. In Chicago there are approximately 12,750 people packed into every square mile; I doubt they even bother to count such things in Greensboro.

In Greensboro, my son and his partner live in twice the space for about half the rent they paid in Chicago. Sure, downtown Greensboro is rather pokey compared to the Mag Mile, but there are decent places to eat locally grown food, the beer is great and there's a lively arts and music scene.

More to the point: my son found a job within a month of setting foot in the place. Still no benefits, but there seems to be opportunity for growth.

Greensboro may lack Chicago's outsized panache, but it has something Chicago seems to be losing: human scale. Chicago and other American mega cities reflect the structural decay of our economy. They are increasingly designed for the benefit of that small fraction of the population who possess a disproportionate share of the wealth and whose buying power drives the cost of almost everything to the edge of most peoples' means. Wherever you have a city with a large financial sector, you have a city that teeters on being unaffordable.

This means that cities like Greensboro and, for that matter, Indianapolis, are the new centers for opportunity, especially for young, creative adults who aren't ready to be programmed on to a one-track career path. These are places where face-to-face interaction is till possible; where people can matter.

After a lifetime of being told that bigger is better, that growth is the measure of all things, maybe we're about to discover something new: that cities where we can actually live may be the most exciting places of all.