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what branches grow out of this stony rubbish
Feb 15 '14

Writing Just Enough for the City—Another Stop on the BLOG TOUR


Thanks to Chicago (via Brooklyn) essayist David Lazar for the invitation to join this chain of writers who blog. David’s most recent book is his exquisite collection of personal essays, Occasional Desire from the University of Nebraska Press American Lives Series. He’s also published The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (both Iowa), Powder Town (Pecan Grove), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (both Mississippi). Forthcoming are Essaying the Essay from Welcome Table Press and After Montaigne from the University of Georgia Press. Visit him at

Each participant in the tour blogs in response to the same questions on writing process. What? How? Why? Let’s go.


Writing Just Enough for the City

1)     What am I working on?

Yesterday I worked on cutting words away, and adding some offbeat pauses, to distinguish between before and after time in a curious short about a girl I used to think I saw in my backyard who may or may not have been me. Before that I worked on describing a hunch I have that our group grief over the untimely death of famous actors has to do with believing we know more than we do about the lives we read on Facebook. Before that I was working on a fellowship application that asked me to describe what I am working on, and what I came up with sounded pretty good. Story lines converged, ideas coalesced—slag city, green city, queer city, sublime city. I hope I do write that book—but it may be a mistake to believe our grand project plans are ever, really, what we are working on. I have a visual of that next book in my head but I won’t be able to describe what I see until it’s no longer in my head but on the page, by which time it will have become what I have recently been working on. What I am working on now are images and sentences. Picture vertical urban space, a tall building with art deco flourishes. Picture a tall grass prairie sprouting from that tall building’s roof. That’s what I am working on, but something is missing here. Some citified body. A fan dancer? A drag queen? An embrace? What I am working on now is some fragment. A shimmy of some feathered and artificial light.


2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

So many writers in the CNF world talk of bending or defying or shedding genre, which interests me. Yet these days I don’t often talk in quite these terms because ever since stumbling into CNF from poetry (25 years or so ago now) I haven’t experienced genre as a space I want to escape. I think about my genre as a liberatory room within which I am working, with walls that change color and shape as I write. While others hope to either bash the categories or claim one of the old beautiful lines within the lines, I enjoy naming and describing the space of creative nonfiction from my own inside out because I want others to see a genre that’s broad and fluid enough to contain even me.


3)     Why do I write what I do?

I always come back to Philip Levine in response to this question. I write what I’ve been given to write.


4)     How does my writing process work

Slowly, distractedly, painfully, ploddingly, even angrily. Then ecstatically. I write through the shit to get to ecstatically. If I’m writing everyday then the ecstatic is fairly easy to achieve and while I am inside those passages the rest of the world falls away and I am at once on fire and at peace.

There are times, however, when I am not writing everyday, because I am teaching or editing or conferencing or taking care of my home and family life or completing the millions of little tasks I need to stay on top of to keep my academic job.

But when I am writing I have no special time of day to write. My writing is like a pirate radio station, always shifting time and location—from a sunny chair in my apartment, to a noisy tea shop in my city, to my desk at DePaul, to my phone while riding the El.

In fact, I’m always writing, even when I’m not “writing,” but in those times I don’t actually write something down everyday the sentences are difficult to come by, labored, unpleasing to my ear. I might have good ideas, I might even fall upon THE IDEA that will carry a project from start to completion. But I’m not yet back inside my own language. In those more scattershot writing weeks I can’t always get to that ecstatic immersion into the zone of voice and discovery that carries me to the deep subjects of my work—the aha in an essay where the musing takes a turn and I achieve progression.

As is the case with most writers I know, my writing process does its best work only when I allow myself the privilege of time, patience, error, accident, and exploratory revision. 


[Images courtesy,,]

And now I play it forward. Up next is Kate Carroll De Gutes and Kelli Russell Agodon.

• A stickler for the serial comma, Kate Carroll de Gutes also believes that there should always be two spaces between a period and the beginning of the next sentence. Her work has recently appeared in Fourth Genre, Seattle Review, and the Los Angeles Review. Kate lives, works, and checks the provenance of her chicken dinners in Portland, Oregon. Visit her at about to be relaunched web site:

Kelli Russell Agodon is a prize-winning poet, writer, and editor from the Northwest. She is the author of Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room (White Pine Press, 2010), Winner of the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Prize in Poetry and a Finalist for the Washington State Book Award. She is also the author of Small Knots (2004) and the chapbook, Geography (2003). She co-edited the first eBook anthology of contemporary women’s poetry, Fire On Her Tongue and recently published The Daily Poet, a book of poetry writing exercises she coauthored with Martha Silano. Her third collection collection of poems, Hourglass Museum, was recently published by White Pine Press. Kelli is the co-founder of Two Sylvias Press and was the editor of Seattle’s literary journal, Crab Creek Review for the last six years. She never underestimates the power of museums and good dessert to heal what ails. She writes about living and writing creatively on her blog, Book of Kells at: Visit her at or on Facebook at:

Feb 5 '14

Steel Prairie, Grass Emerald


I’ve long been interested in the ways industry and prairie combine in Chicago, and on more than one occasion I’ve written about how the very word PRAIRIE was embedded in me as a child growing up on the Utopianesquely-named far south side EMERALD Avenue. We lived, until my first year of high school, a block east of the industry-steeped corner of 142nd and Halsted—on the border of the southeast side of Chicago neighborhood of Riverdale and the first ring industrial suburb of the same name.

We lived on Emerald Avenue across the street from The Prairie.  

For my entire childhood these words were my known world. Now I know that a prairie, particularly the old lost Illinois prairie, is tall grass and wildflowers bending and willowing, that famous inland sea of green—


but to all of us in the neighborhood then, prairie was a plot of industrial land across the street from our home, a prairie of power line towers, train tracks, weeds and that abandoned grain mill—the Rat Factory— I wrote about in Body Geographic. Today when I Google the words “industrial prairie” images from my old south side neighborhoods are the first to pop up.


As a kid the word prairie was less description than a gritty and electric proper name. I can say the same about the word emerald. We did not live on an avenue of faceted green jewels, and this was hardly the green glass city of Oz. But there was green. We had lawns. We had shrubbery. Today some parts of where I grew up are so broken down and blighted the only greenery is the untended overgrowth, the prairie returneth.


In fact the departure of big steel and the subsequent city decay has led some to refer to parts of the Chicagoland region where I grew up as “the Detroit of Chicago.” But Emerald Avenue itself looks much the same now as it did then—heavy-bricked and cement-strangled, but still homey.


When I feel my way back to how it felt to be young on Emerald Avenue, before my family moved to more suburbanish streets 20 blocks south, I recall a smoky, steely terrain, embraced by the sound of trains and trucks and baseball on the radio and whatever 1970s rock albums we blasted in our bedrooms in order to blow everything else away. Emerald Avenue was a roll of grassy, brittle patches and little brown brick houses with wrought iron railings, wood-framed and sometimes rusted above-ground pools, and perhaps a stand-alone garage. The part of me that refuses softness is from that hard-gridded street where I stared out my bedroom window at those high power lines, sometimes a lacy embrace, sometimes a cage. Like almost everyone I knew of my generation, I wanted to grow up and get out.

This past summer, my first since moving back to Chicago after decades away, I came across Emerald Avenue a few times, all over the city. I was surprised to see that Emerald keeps going up almost to the Loop. On the street where I’d lived as a kid Emerald went only as far as 142nd south. How was I to know then that the avenue picked up again, on the other side of the tracks, that I could have, technically at least, found at least a few more worlds while hardly leaving the street where I lived. And in Bridgeport on the near south side, where Linnea and I attended a Croatian Festival parade this summer, I found myself on Emerald again.


We’d come down to have a look at the parade, a family affair, literally, flatbed float after flatbed float inching through the neighborhood, extended families waving, kids nudging one another or smiling shyly, beneath an insignia or a photo of a grandmother recently passed, wreathed in carnations, looking out over all of us from above, along with processions of the Virgin and circles of women sharing the weight of giant rosaries.This was a different Croatian enclave than the one my family comes from on the far southeast side, yet still the Bridgeport streets Linnea and I crossed over to get to St. Jerome’s annual festival—Union, Wallace, Parnell, Normal– brought me back to the streets where I grew up, 100 blocks south.

Before we headed north again I made Linnea pull over so we could take a photo of the Emerald Avenue sign, for old time’s sake. Why this name?


I wondered then, as I never had as a child. Later when I looked up the origins of street names in Chicago I found the Irish named the street after the Emerald Isle, another immigrant’s utopian dream of the old world made anew. The Irish have been in Chicago since the early 19th century, nearly 100 years longer than the Croats and Poles of my family, and when they got here it may have looked like some kind of Utopia, not a green or a gray glass city but perhaps still a sanctuary of lush and undulating green grass.

The prairie marked the boundaries of the developing city. Photos in historical archives of south Chicago depict train lines engulfed in prairie grasses, and neighborhoods back-ending into the tall grass.


The prairie then was a kind of intermediary space between the growing metropolis and the hinterland farms which made possible the buying and selling of farm products, which made possible the pre-industrial city —the city that later became the steel and slag city, then the postindustrial greening city we know today. The later waves of Eastern and Southern European immigrants worked in the mills and settled on intrepid southeast side avenues that already by the early and mid-20th century remembered the grass and the Emerald dream in name only, as their postindustrial prairie children grew up waiting for the day they’d finally depart to invent their own hoped-for Emerald Isle.



IMAGES FROM: The Tallgrass Prairie: An Endangered Landscape; Forgotten Images South Suburbs/; The Jewellery Editor.; Art by Jacquie.; The ‘L’ in the CTA era/ Little L on the Prairie.;; Google Maps; and the author. 

Oct 14 '13

Slag-Bottom City

When I first stepped onto the old South Works site this past summer—the huge plot of land on the far southeast side that developers hope to turn into a green city of tomorrow—I couldn’t help but think for a moment that I’d been transported to the old Illinois prairie. All that un-gridded city space. All those tall weeds bending in the Great Lakes winds.


South Works, renamed Lakeside, is the jut of slag field built out into Lake Michigan—once one of the largest steel mills in the world, at one time employing over 22,000 workers, a few of them members of my family. Standing on the site this past August I had to remind myself that this tract, larger than the Loop, had not been a vast vacant space when I was a girl. In the 1960s and 70s the mills were still working and still part of the intricate weave of southside industry that employed the breadwinners of most of the families in that part of the metropolis.


This workforce, for a short period, included my father. When he was a young man, before he went on to become a high school teacher, he worked for awhile at the South Works plant. He told me a bit about the place, as it was once, over breakfast recently, while he and my Mom visited my current neighborhood on the North Side of the city. He described the open hearth blast furnace, the hierarchies of workers and pay, the toil of feeding the ever-burning fire.


I’m not certain if he talked about the hot orange light of the molten steel or if I’m just inserting the images that came to mind while he spoke, but that’s where I imagined him, before I was born, a young man engulfed by that smoky and windowless village of work.


What was it like, I asked him, to cross into that place?  I assumed—from my foggy vantage point amongst the first generation of my family to NOT work in the steel industry—that the mill was some kind of barricaded under realm, but he shook his head, not understanding my question. Everyone around there, they all worked at the mill, he said. There were taverns everywhere too. He spoke of how it used to amaze him, the way the old-timers would come off the overnight shift and go straight to the bar, first thing in the morning, and how some of his uncles became alcoholics living that way.


South Works closed in 1992, and the clearing of the site that remains has happened slowly over the past 20 years. It’s tempting to believe, looking at this unbuilt and now green-brown expanse, that the land here has migrated back to its  prairie roots, but in fact there was never really a prairie here. This spot used to be water. The South Works site, like much of the green Chicago lakefront, is built on landfill. Up North where I live now this expansive greenery is part of the old Chicago Burnham plan for open spaces that made the lakefront parks possible, but here on the far south side the landfill served a different purpose. The entire tract is made of waste from the steel-making process, poured into the lake to manufacture a new industrial landmass.


Prairie-style greenery, along with an invasive weed or two, grows here now because the site has been remediated; in some sections topsoil from the base of lake Peoria shipped by barge to the site and then seeded to create a new prairie park, the rest a motley prairie-ish brush. But can an environmental aftermath the size of South Works ever be completely scrubbed away and made into regular plant-able land?

I see now I’d been thinking about this place all wrong. I’m still assuming there’s a barrier between the past and the present, between the mill and the people who lived with the mill. The chain link barricade blocking access from South Chicago to the lake has been in place for decades now, with the more recent additions of the development company guard station; that fence has become so expected it seems another natural element of the environment but is itself an historical object lesson off all the ways cities change. I’ve come to believe it’s wrong to think of South Works as a ghost island separate from the city, rather than what’s left of a vital part of a much broader chain of neighborhoods that lost their definition in the early 1980s when the mills closed and the southeast side lost its economy.


What we make in a place becomes that place and what we stop making there, and then do instead there, or abandon there, becomes that place as well. The same is true in the neighborhood I live now, at once still the Boystown gay refuge of the 1980s where the so many came to remake their identities and “The City” where young straight couples with white collar jobs cross over to start their lives together, before leaving again to raise kids in suburbs similar to where they started. 

South Works (I have trouble calling the place by the new bland and prettified name of Lakeside) was made of both steel production and of people and their migration stories, people who came to the city to remake themselves away from their Old Country captivities. Those mills are gone now, the heavy industrial toxins supposedly scrubbed away, but toxins have a way of sticking, as does history.


The coming new city the developers are promising here might be a green and revitalized wonder, worthy of the international urban sustainability and design award the developer earned for their 20-30 year plan for the site, or it might be (though the developers say otherwise) a gated fortress against whomever can’t afford the the swanky new views. What’s there now is wild yet mitigated beauty that looks like what we’ve come to call nature, but rests atop a foundation, for better or worse, that’s still made of slag.  


[Images from:;;; and the photos by the author.]

Sep 29 '13

A Rose Grows in Chicago


Now that summer is officially over I’m beginning to assess the work I’ve done over the past few months, which has been mostly the sort of sensory and observational research I describe to my students as “archive of the feet”.

Where my feet, and my bicycle and various forms of the CTA took me this pat summer has been all over the city, in search of landscape detail. I sought out (and am still seeking) views of the industrial landscapes of my youth as well as evidence of how some of those geographies have been remediated, which in environmental terms means to be cleansed of the toxins of heavy industry. Is such even possible? Haven’t we already ruined some aspects of the world forever? This is one of my questions.

And at the same time I’ve been in search of what I’ll call, for the present, manifestations of urban artistic joy. In other words the products and performances artists make. Spectacles or miniatures, mainstream or alternative. (Or from opera to drag? Or is that the same?) Things that make me go “OH.” I guess you can say I’ve been location scouting, for the essaying to come.

What have I found? I’ve collected many reference images. My sensory map of Chicago is so much wider and more complex than I’ve ever imagined it could be, even when I lived here as a girl. But on the page, what I have so far are mostly questions. Such as:

• What’s the evolving story of a prairie that became a skyscraper city, and how is that story changing now, with the advent of vertical farming, green roofs and other city sustainability initiatives? Is the city becoming a new kind of prairie landscape?

• Where are the lines between green city transformations and “greenwashing”?

• Is it possible to restore blighted areas of the city without engaging in the worst abuses of gentrification?

• How will dense cities like Chicago, with entrenched, and sometimes hostile, automobile cultures, negotiate the mounting tensions between automobiles and bicycles?

• What are the ways LGBTQ people have made and sustained identity through artistic and other public expressions, and how do social changes such as marriage equality impact the borders and parameters of my communities?

• What’s the relationship between fear and safety, particularly for women who walk and bike in cities, and is it possible to make cities safe? Even cities with as many guns as Chicago?

• Harkening back to my dear Jane Jacobs, what really makes a city livable? Or said another way, where does a rose grow in Chicago?

As always, as a personal essayist and memoirist. I strive to make this all much more concrete, personal and immersive, and I promise much more to come.  Please comment if you have random thoughts, push backs, and/or more questions for me.


Aug 21 '13



Night after summer night I sit out here on the street. Sometimes I eat. Sometimes I just order tea, black, in the special-request glass mug I’m probably not supposed to take outside, but I do, though I always return it when I’m done. I’m usually at the same one or two places, about two blocks from my apartment, at the corner of Briar and Broadway, a circle of two Japanese joints, a tea joint, a Vietnamese joint, an eclectic Asian noodle joint, a gay bar food joint named after Oscar Wilde (does Oscar live on this way in every American city?) a soon-to-open Cuban joint, a hipster coffee joint, and a record joint that sells vinyl. I love the thorny showbiz juxtaposition of those two street names––Broadway and Briar––like a prickly urban musical.

My pleasure is not just that the night is balmy and I’m outdoors. I can sit outdoors with tea just as well at home, on my roof deck, which I share with a few other tenants I rarely see, and where it’s quiet and I’m more likely, one would presume, to get work done, but some days energy comes from what is alive and moving beyond my secure home spaces.


Those days I accomplish more in public, where right now, at the table behind me, a man is reading from The New Yorker to his mother and behind him a family speaking English in heavy Slavic accents reprimands their five little white dogs, only three of them on leash. The young woman at the table next to me, in some kind of reverse-generation pass back, is giving Mahjong lessons to an older woman, my age. (The tea shop is lousy with Mahjong lessons tonight. Have I failed to notice National Mahjong Day or am I just here earlier than usual?) I think I will have to take Mahjong lessons sometime, but not at the tea shop, where I prefer to find a table with a good view, log into the free-with-purchase WiFi, and type. 

Writers might be divided between the kind who can type against the voices of strangers and the kind that cannot. I’m the former, though not as a rule. There are days the clatter from the street, and the ebb and flow of the other customers’ voices, drowns out the more distracting noise within my own head; the hubbub and movement is precisely why I can focus here. I once worked with a student who completed a book by moving around, coffee-shop to coffee shop, an all-day, everyday over-caffeinated marathon, not allowing herself to go home until she finished a chapter. I admired the ingenuity and energy of her process, though I cringe at the thought of how much I’d spend on coffee if I made a habit of writing like that. Yet I have on occasion spent productive days that way, in cities where I don’t live, surrounded by people I’ll never see again. At home in Chicago I frequent just one place at a time.

On a weekday nights it’s mostly neighborhood people intersecting at Briar and Broadway. On weekends more young visitors from the suburbs travel in to populate the bars and drunkenly crowd the sidewalks; I’m judgmental for a moment until I remember such is exactly what I did on weekends when I was young, back when the drinking age in Illinois was 19 and I was 18 with a fake ID. On weekdays bicycles and a few extreme


Rollerbladers weave between cars and cabs. Unlike the majority of streets in Chicago most of the cars on Broadway seem to respect the two-wheeled and pedestrian disruption, though I did once see a car hit a bike on this street. The cyclist, the hardcore traffic-weaving sort, was OK, but spent a good part of the next hour lecturing the quaking newbie-to-the-city boy on the street in front of the CVS.  Another guy with long curly blond hair skates up and down Broadway some summer nights, singing loudly and off key. I can never identify the song, but he’s been at it at least two summers in a row now.

Lots of gay men with dogs walk by here, usually two men, one dog, but there are variations. The gay men are the more racially diverse of the local subgroups and lots of gay-man-straight-woman couples walk by as well, easier for me to identify these days than the young lesbians, the gay-girl styles have changed so dramatically since I was in my 20s. For instance, three young women, a mix of races but with similar sleek bobs and high platform shoes, just walked by; I wouldn’t have pegged them as queer if they hadn’t been talking so loudly about the kind of girls they’re attracted to, which is not, they agree “those 16-year-old types who all look the same.” 

This used to be the southern edge of the gay-men’s epicenter and it still is in a way, though not as much so as a few blocks north, between here and Wrigley Field, where the gay bar patrons still swell out into the streets


on summer nights. The lesbians have long preferred Andersonville, 20-blocks north, and more recently Uptown and Rogers Park, or neighborhoods to the west where they can afford single-family houses, but friends who live up there still tell me  these days just as many gay men live north of Boystown, so many that some have re-dubbed Andersonville as MANdersonville, suggesting the boys come out in Boystown but move up to Mandersonville when they want space to grow up and settle in? That’s a generality, I know, but there might be some truth to my speculation, if only because the condo real estate is roomier in the areas further north, as all our our self-determined ghettos become more historical and less necessary.

In terms of economic class my neighborhood is less accessible now than it was in the years these blocks earned their rainbow neighborhood stripes; I couldn’t live here myself if I didn’t have an university teaching job. The blocks and blocks of studio and one-bedroom apartments in this area, many of which have been renovated,  have become too pricey for anyone who is not amply employed, which encourages the young professional single or married-no-kids-yet demographic. Familiarity and likeness always attracts the influx, into any neighborhood, of people similar to the ones already there. The names of the WiFi networks that come up when I open my laptop might reveal some of who rents around here as well as what I can see for myself. Couch City. UmpaLumpa. Two Gentlemen of Verona. Not Wisconsin. Young people of the Johnny Depp Willie Wonka generation, mostly straight, some gay, just beginning their adult lives by living “in the city” as they say, a place made manifest in


their lives by its Not Suburbaness. But depending on what’s going on I’ll also see male-to-female trans people heading north toward the clubs, or half-drunk Cubs fans, always identifiable in their team caps and jerseys, slurring south from Wrigley Field. Usually the sports fans and the gay bar boys don’t mingle much, aside from a few who travel between, but early this summer the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup the same week Boystown was gearing up for Pride Week. Hockey revelers mobbed the Wrigleyville sports bars as apartment porches overflowed with drunkity gay parties and at times I wasn’t sure who was screaming when and why, or how often, if ever, the parties overlapped.   

More usually these warm evenings I see young  marrieds of all ilks walking dogs, or carrying bags of toilet paper and aspirin and shampoo; in northside Chicago neighborhoods if there’s not a Walgreens on every corner it’s because there’s a CVS taking up the space. Some nights my niece and her husband, who live in my building,  show up in the neighborhood at every turn, but I can also go a week without running into them once.

Young straight women might now be the dominant identity group in the apartment buildings that line my block. They tend to be either dressed up for the clubs or jobs in the Loop, or in yoga clothes. During the Pride march they were the ones who screamed the loudest when the bikini bottomed gay boys writhed by, part of a trend I’ve noticed all over the country of dressed-up young single ladies commandeering the table seats at gay bars and drag shows for their pre-wedding parties, having a great time but in the process changing the terrain of what used to be LGBTQ community space. I’ve come to think of these young women as the Bachelorettes. I do love how they love the gays, especially if the alternative is the open revulsion I remember from young straight women when I was coming out, yet I also miss the boys-boys-boys scene that dominated these streets when I visited from Minneapolis in the 1980s.


On summer nights the Bachelorettes loudly share their latest he-said/she said dramas with each other, or shout into invisible  microphones, which always startles me until I remember that everyone on these streets, me included, has a smart phone, and so in some ways none of us is ever alone. Last night I talked to Linnea on FaceTime for a half hour from an outdoor table at the Japanese joint across the street, but may well have appeared to be talking to an invisible dinner companion. I guess it’s time to get over the  idea that people who talk to themselves in public are nutso.

I also see lots of young pregnant women, but not many babies; the luxury stroller people are mostly north and west of here, and south in Lincoln Park, where a famous 70s-era restaurant I used to come up from the south side to frequent when I was a teenager now has stroller parking. But there aren’t too many strollers in Boystown––most of the gay daddies don’t live around here. (Are they in Mandersonville?) This neighborhood, for many of the gay and the straight, and possibly, though it’s too soon to say, also for me, is less a homestead than a stage of life.image

When I walk east or west on my block I tend to think this neighborhood is nothing but the Bachelorettes and the Young Marrieds,  but that impression changes once I spend time really watching Broadway. The city is mostly a grid and Clark merges with Broadway a few blocks south of here, so every kind of person walks down this street, especially in the early evenings. But at some times of day, especially bar times, the populace skews young, white, middle class, temporary.

Of course there are plenty of people my age and older who live around here too, and are committed to staying, and I wish I knew more of them, but I tend to wait until later in the evening to go out so most are already home in their condos; chances are good they have to get up earlier than I do. I only know they’re around because I see more middle-aged and old people earlier in the day, shopping on Broadway when the young professionals are away at work, or in Lincoln Park, walking their dogs, sometimes the same people and dogs repeatedly for days, then not again for months, as such are the unpredictable turnovers of the city.

The nights I’m out here there’s always a few middle-aged straight couples ambling home after dinner out––a couple that meets that description is passing by my street table right now––but I’ve yet to see the same two twice. It’s funny that so much density breeds so little knowledge of each other. I had easily ten times the personal space in my old neighborhood in Minneapolis, but I knew all my neighbors’ names. Yet shifts across the day are some of what keeps this neighborhood alive. In the 1960s Jane Jacobs argued that multiple uses by varying populations was part of what makes city blocks vibrant. The shifts in this neighborhood across times of day, and days of the week, seems to prove her point, even all these years later. Tonight is exceptional, the warm,


slightly muggy weather inviting everyone out of their apartments. Others my age who more typically come out late, even in the winter, are a circle of men who meet in the tea shop and speak to each other in what I think is Serbian, connected to the Serbian Cultural Center down the street I’m guessing, and maybe they’re also live-in maintenance men for one or another of the apartment buildings. If so, the late evenings would be when they are free, and perhaps attracted to the closest thing in Chicago to European cafe culture. Every building seems to have a live-in guy, mostly immigrants, some who stand out on the sidewalk and glare at the dogs who use their building’s lawn to do their business. A Spanish-speaking man with a beautiful smile has that job in my building.

One Saturday night I saw one of my DePaul colleagues here on the street, an art historian whose Lincoln Park campus office is a couple floors above mine. She didn’t see me and I didn’t remember her name, so I just watched her pass, with her date, in her party dress and heels. She was lit up, cinematic really, appearing worry-free, not professorial at all, so I’m glad I didn’t break into her summer’s night reverie to remind her of our commonalities, and thus of the work of the coming quarter.

Otherwise I’m usually an oddity here at this hour, getting close to 10 p.m., a middle-aged woman with bleached hair and tattoos, often alone, sometimes with my dog, not so professorial myself, though I am always reading or writing, enjoying my professor’s schedule. Invisible out here is my complicated bi-urban marriage, my attentive, fedora-wearing, gender-blurry spouse who’s only here with me on occasion, my roomy house and rose-strewn patio in Minneapolis and friends there who stop by to drop off vegetables from their gardens, my always revolving classrooms of creative writing students, my seemingly self-reproducing To-Do list which might be what I come out here to the street to escape.

I walk up and back on Broadway appearing as if I’m present in body only. The man selling Streetwise on the corner in front of the CVS calls me Young Lady although clearly I am neither, tells me he likes my haircut, tells me he likes my arm ink, the same compliments he shouts out every time I pass, even though I never give him money. Dogs always look at me as they go by; they know I see them. I always look back into their faces and sometimes I’m pretty sure they smile.

I hope to be one of the condo people someday, strolling home from dinner with my spouse, if not uni-urban again and least in a living space with enough room, when Linnea’s here, for us both, perhaps in this neighborhood if we can afford something. We both want to stay near the lake and where the streets are full of people walking late.


Other neighborhoods are more age-diverse, and more lesbian-populated; such might well be what we choose instead, but this neighborhood has more buses and trains, as well as the waterfront, smooth or choppy, vast blue, or vast green––it’s constantly changing, as is the movement of the street. Chicago is dense, but not as saturated as Manhattan, and is a walking city only some places, and even these places just some of the time. Still, walk culture is much of what I want from living here. Jane Jacobs’ old notions of the safety of populated sidewalks still holds true, and is for me part of what makes living in cities pleasurable.

If I do move to a bigger apartment with better amenities perhaps I’ll stay home more, cook and do laundry without having to first put on my shoes, and leave the night streets to the next new fleet, but then again I like drinking tea out the throng. I might still be in place, on this thorny corner,


years from now. If I had to decide tonight I’d tell you for sure I’m staying. If I keep hanging around I’m in danger of becoming another partially seen neighborhood character, that tattooed typing lady, like the roller skating singer or the guy who plays the drums in front of the bagel joint. If the current city demographic and marriage equality shifts continue, the Two Gentlemen will surely have adopted a baby and moved to some further north Verona by then, but here I’ll be, caffeinating in the moonlight, watching to see if UmpaLumpa and Not Wisconsin have decided to stick around as well.


[Images from and the author’s omnipresent phone.]

Aug 6 '13

The G-Word

At the end of this week I’ll have been in Chicago for a year, and looking back I see I’ve spent much of these first months just looking around, comparing the city I remember from childhood to all that Chicago is and is not today, and starting to ask questions.


The word flânerie keeps coming to mind to describe what I am attempting—not entirely by accident as I’ve long been drawn to the term— even if the late 19th century idle-aristocrat aspect of the words flâneur and even the feminine flâneuse do not quite fit. In fact, in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit suggests the well-off and sauntering flâneur may not have ever truly existed except in literature.

Flâneuse or not, I can’t say I saunter much. I’m too hyper aware, too cautious as a woman (especially after being mugged in my neighborhood last January) and walk too fast to take on a stance as relaxed and undefended as that of the saunterer. And too, the flâneur’s quest as the urban pleasure seeker differs from my own propensity to observe both intimately and critically. I’m intensely interested in what makes urban living pleasurable, in ways that don’t match up with those streetwalking (in all senses of the word) women gazed upon, and desired, by the semi-fictional flâneurs of old Paris, but at the same time I find it necessary to interrogate what I see.  So when I say I’m looking around as a walker/bicyclist-in-the-city I am both observing and re-placing myself, in terms of people, geography and understanding.

I’ve noticed many sorts of things as I’ve walked, biked, and ridden the CTA these past twelve months, but what I want to talk about first are the unmistakable tensions of urban gentrification. Last week I took a boat tour organized by the Forgotten Chicago people—an organization whose mission is “to discover and document little known elements of Chicago’s infrastructure, architecture, neighborhoods and general cityscape, whether existing or historical.” The boat, a mid-sized touring yacht, traveled south on Lake Michigan from Burnham Harbor at the Museum Campus to the still active mills of Northwest Indiana. The ride was rocky, the tour of the industrial canal was elucidating, and the experience broadened my personal map of the regions of Chicago where I grew up, all of which I’ll say more about in a later post, but what I’m thinking of first were the conversations I took part in on the rough ride back to the Loop.


I rode most of the way back from the mills on a padded bench, under a canopy behind the bar, struggling with seasickness and amazed that anyone was able to keep down a beer through all this churning. I sat next to an architect who shares some of my interest in the spatial politics of Chicago, the brother of one of my former colleagues in Minneapolis, who’d been trying to introduce me to her brother since I moved here, but needn’t have bothered when it turned out, as big as this city is, he and I seem to show up at the same curious Chicago lookouts. The boat rocked north toward the Loop a half-mile or so out from the shore and we passed the massive South Works site, the blank space with bits of prairie returning, once one of the biggest steel mill complexes in the world and now supposedly soon (though some say it won’t happen) to become a developer-created new city neighborhood larger in scale than the Loop.

I was still struggling with my stomach—the sun made my dizzy nausea worse, which was why I’d retreated under the canopy—as my bench mate pointed out the South Shore Cultural Center, the former country club appearing, from out on the water, no larger than a Monopoly hotel, and the South Shore beach near where he owned a home. This is one of the neighborhoods where my mother lived as a girl, before her family moved to the projects in South Deering, during a time when demographics of the immigrant populations coming to Chicago to work in the steel mills were turning over—from southern and eastern Europeans to Mexicans and African Americans from the American south— one of so many chapters of Chicago’s particular legacy of white flight, racial tension and strife, and the story of the city in the days just before what we now call gentrification. (The word as we use it today came into usage in the 1960s, meaning the influx of a social class consisting of well-off  “gentry” or “gentlemen,” referring, of course, not to good manners so much as good bank accounts.)


My friend’s brother and his domestic companion (who I’d met on another Forgotten Chicago tour) were both thirty-something white men, neither of them seeming much like fashion-conscious Boystown night-clubbers who frequent the north side neighborhood between Wrigley Field and the Lincoln Park Zoo, where I live now. He told me he’d chosen to live in South Shore because it was on the lake, affordable, and historic but not hip; South Shore has long been a primarily black neighborhood (where Michelle Obama grew up) that unlike Humboldt Park, Avondale, and Bridgeport is rarely mentioned in magazine article lists of next-to-gentrify regions in Chicago. When he pointed to the visible landmarks of the South Shore the line from the tip of his finger to the beach contained so much of my own family history, but also I listened with interest as he told me some of the things white people he worked with, or encountered socially, said to him about his neighborhood. He talked about the openly secret redlining practices in some of the still all-white blocks on the south side, and the fears white people expressed to him about race and neighborhood boundaries, how often he heard people comment that wherever they were standing was clearly “good” but of course it “gets bad” just south of here.  In all cities “bad neighborhoods” loom in common speech and consciousness, coded race-and-profiling-speak, even if their exact addresses are nebulous.

Turns of phrase such as “it gets bad,” referring to some “other” part of the city or south suburbs, were common when I was growing up in Riverdale and South Holland in the 1970s. Today daily news reports of gun violence on the city’s south side bolster such expressions, and time and again since I’ve returned here I’ve noticed white people worried about those people from “over there” encroaching on “here,” as if we don’t all live in the same city, seeming to assume that if we could just keep those other people out of our neighborhood the problems of urbanity are not anything we need to worry about.

I rented an apartment on a drug-troubled street in South Minneapolis during the 1990s, what’s known there (after a New York Times article on gun violence in Minneapolis) as the Murderapolis Years.


By the time things settled down I’d become viscerally rattled by any sharp cracking sound that might be gunfire, and remained so for months after Linnea and I bought a house on the quieter side of the park, so I understand why most folks, not just white people, don’t want to live around guns and drugs. Plenty of African Americans have moved out of those same Southside Chicago neighborhoods that make the news, and into the first ring Southside suburbs were I grew up, but which had just started to integrate when I was in high school, and I’ve heard more than one African American colleague in Chicago say she moved to the burbs to keep her kids away from city gang life. Still, I can’t help but notice all the ways the “it gets bad” language smacks of the “here be monsters” mentality of the old cartographer renderings of regions beyond the speakers’ known world.

What do we imagine inhabits the streets beyond our daily experience? I’m not above these fears, irrationally ingrained in me as they are, and there’s plenty of places in Chicago I’m nervous about approaching on my own if I don’t know what’s there before I arrive, even though I know from those rough years in South Minneapolis that urban danger tends to be the punctuation of what is otherwise ordinary everyday life. Yet Chicago crime, guns, the murder rate—there’s no avoiding the terrible Chicago stats, and the Southside neighborhoods who bore the brunt of poverty, gang activity, and all manner of urban blight when I was a girl are suffering still.

Yet I also can’t escape the knowledge that I was mugged in January on a tidy northside block where the condos sell for upwards of a half a million dollars. I know now that mugging stats are higher in richer neighborhoods, yet despite all the neighborhood watch signs in the condo windows on the block where I was attacked, when I screamed the only people who came to help me —and they ran a block to do so—were a couple of young hipsters smoking outside a bar around the corner on Broadway. No one who lived on that block came out of his or her home to see what was going on, and later when I tried to locate a block club I couldn’t find anything at all such as I was accustomed to in the “bad neighborhoods” where I’d lived in Minneapolis. I live in East Lakeview, on the edge of what’s left of Boystown, because I’m close to both the lake and work, because my niece lives in my building and because I like to live around other openly queer people, but is this a good neighborhood? An invisibly gated neighborhood? A paranoid neighborhood? What exactly are the neighborhood watchers watching out for?  Our ideas about good and bad neighborhoods with boundaries in-between seem to me a dangerous understanding of the city as made up of distinct and impermeable regions rather than vital distracts that combine to form an interactive whole.

At some point in the conversation on the boat with my friend’s brother (which, I admit, I remember spottily, due to the rocking water and my own fears of losing my lunch) we talked about how neighborhoods change in ways that invite in new people, revive crumbling infrastructures, bring life, livability and coffeeshops to the city streets, but nearly always displace other people in the process. I don’t recall which neighborhood we were talking about when my bench mate started a sentence with the words, “Well I don’t want to say the G-Word but…” I agreed with everything he was saying about racism, fear, and city neighborhoods, while also realizing that every one of us who thinks about home ownership in the city and are part of what’s now called the creative professional classes—another sort of  “ethnicity” which as a professor and writer in Chicago I have to accept is mine—can’t help but engage in gentrification, even if that engagement is the kind that comes of avoidance.


We all want to live in vital, safe, livable neighborhoods, but the line between what dubs a neighborhood “good” or “bad” seems to have more to do with development money and the price of real estate than what comes from longtime residents of neighborhoods themselves, and so what results is this boundary paranoia that’s so easy to engage in but much harder to truly read, especially when trying to determine what really is and is not a “safe” street. A journalist friend I conversed with on this same boat ride—the old pal of my family who accompanied me on this jaunt—said he thought neighborhood revitalization/gentrification could be a good, city-saving thing if done right, by protecting and working with the people who already live in neighborhoods that are changing. I agree, but how often does community-centered transformation happen when developers and patronage-bound city decision-makers are the ones in control of how and when neighborhoods change?

I’m in Washington for a book tour event as I draft this post, thinking about my most recent forays into critical flânerie in Chicago while frequenting a DC neighborhood just east of the long-established queer Dupont Circle area.  The first thing I notice walking around and eating out in the area called Logan Circle (ironically sharing a name with the recently gentrified Logan Square area of Chicago) is an intense sidewalk diversity, in terms of both race and affectional identity. All the restaurants I enter are much more racially mixed than the overwhelmingly white-frequented joints in the old gay neighborhood where I live in Chicago. Countless same-sex couples, though more men than women, hold hands while walking from café to bar. Strangers comment companionably on my tattoos, or ask where I’d gotten my weathered leather backpack. When one of my dinner companions, a white lesbian novelist visiting from rural Massachusetts, slips on a metal grate, two obviously gay men, one white, one Asian, rush to her side to help her to her feet. This connection and sense of community is the general feel of the area I’ve noticed since arriving. Is this neighborhood as “good” as it seems?


I ask one of my dinner companions who lives in DC what she thinks about the real livability of this neighborhood, which she describes as Hipster-Queer. She says yes, on the surface this neighborhood is exciting and energetic and culturally mixed but just underneath is tremendous gentrification tension, and the rampant crime that used to claim this area has simply moved a few neighborhoods over. I don’t feel this tension because I don’t live here, don’t know the under story.


The next day I attend a show—a revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that’s even more queer positive and much more racially mixed than the original— with an old theater friend in a building that anchors the corner of this newly changed Logan Circle neighborhood and when I comment on the significant real estate the theater inhabits my friend (another white lesbian and a Minneapolis native who’s lived in DC for over two decades now) says yes, when the stage and school moved in 14th Street was derelict and considered unsafe but the theaters, along with the Whole Foods around the corner on P Street, were the start of all that changing. Looking up the area online it takes me just few seconds to ascertain that in the 1980s the street was known as Washington’s red light district, that when the performance spaces first moved into the area theater staff ushered nervous patrons from their cars to their seats. Now everyone is out walking, but the economic vitality I notice today, according to what I read online, is the aftermath of longtime black residents moving out and young white professionals moving in.


Gentrifiers aren’t always white anymore, but the exclusionary class shifts of gentrification seem to keep repeating, and isn’t that always the story when city neighborhoods are “revitalized” but the base urban problems are never addressed?  My walks and bike-share ride down 14th Street are pleasurable, but it doesn’t take much digging to see that my flâneusing pleasure comes at so many others’ expense.   

So what then, the critical flâneuse must ask, is the full story of a lively, livable, walkable city? Jane Jacob’s ideas of multi-use and sidewalk presence still hold, but she wrote before the Civil Rights Movement, The Stonewall Rebellion, the rise and fall, the Drug Wars and the post-industrial era of loft condominiums and developers as urban kingpins. What is here now? What was here before? Where are the lines between urban pleasure and urban disenfranchisement? Don’t get me wrong; I shop at Whole Foods and I’d love to live in a roomy loft that used to be an industrial warehouse, but also must ask, are there urban pleasures that don’t come at some disappeared person’s expense? I’m still far from knowing what all I think about any of this, but these are the questions bothering me as I return to Chicago and prepare to walk, bike and ride my own streets again.  


[Photos from, the Library of Congress and the author.]

Apr 9 '13


Thanks to Joe Bonomo for tagging me in The Next Big Thing, a web series of author self-interviews on the subject of recent or forthcoming books. Once tagged we are charged to respond to a set of questions and post on our blogs, then we are to tag forward. To that end I am tagging two former students I have the profound joy to see release their first books this season—Melanie Hoffert (Prairie Silence) and Racheal Hanel (We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down). You can look for their interviews in about a week. 


What is your book title?
The title is Body Geographic, but I had many working titles in the years it took me to write the book, including:  Autogeographia: This New World; Prairieopolis; Auntie-American. (OK that last one was mostly a joke, but one of the earliest versions of the book was a letter to my niece, so I did, for a few hours, seriously consider Auntie-American.)

Where did the idea come from for the book?
It’s impossible to name one idea source for this book. I don’t fully know where the project “comes from” except out of the deep immersive expression of my own experience and curiosity. In many ways I feel I’ve always been writing this book, even back 25 years or so, when I called myself a poet. Or further back still, from the minute I first left Chicago to attend college in Central Illinois, at age 18, and immediately felt a sense of displacement I couldn’t shake. This perpetual feeling of being “out-of-place” has always lived in my writing.

What genre does your book fall under? 
Roughly speaking I claim this work for creative nonfiction. More precisely I consider this book a long-form essay, both lyric and narrative (but I don’t mind that my publisher calls the book a memoir; the book is probably a memoir as well.) The lines between the subgenres of CNF are not so important to me, though I do abide by what I consider the more-or-less factual parameters of nonfiction. I place my work overall in the spaces between memoir, essay and poetry. 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
My usual answer to this question is Susan Sarandon, but I guess that’s just because I love her. (And what do we mean really when we respond to this question? Who would we love to imagine portraying a too-beautiful version of our better-than-best selves? How do we pretend others see us?) So sure, let’s say Susan Sarandon, because she’s smart enough to write essays, and she can still rock a wrap dress. And let’s cast Martin Scorsese as Linnea (as she does rather resemble him in her latest pair of heavy black glasses and her mother’s New York accent always on the tip of her tongue.) Or Maybe Cyndi Lauper as me? If Cyndi Lauper and Susan Sarandon had a love child—well she would be perfect. And I’d like Robert Altman to direct please. Yes I know he’s no longer with us, but seeing as this book is a segmented essay-memoir made in the form of maps I figure there’s no need to allow literal possibilities to get in my way. Or perhaps Altman is just the only one I can imagine essaying such segmentation into a narrative movie.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Body Geographic is a first-person geography—one woman’s postindustrial poetic mapping of her familial, cultural, sexual, and historical body as understood through stories of dislocation and reinvention— set in and between two Midwestern American cities. 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My agent is Malaga Baldi, and my publisher is the University of Nebraska Press. The book was released in Nebraska’s Tobias Wolf American Lives Series. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
All told, the work on this book took me around ten years and many, many drafts, so many that I can’t pinpoint the “first draft.” There were an uncountable number of drafts, and many books this book might have become. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Body Geographic is an odd book in many ways. I do like to say I am the literary love child of Anais Nin and Studs Terkel, but can’t directly compare this project to any other book I can think of (though perhaps readers will do this for me. I hope they will.) Books I think (or fantasize) readers would say are a little bit like this book, in terms of subject or form: Peter Trachtenberg’s 7 Tattoos, A Memoir in the Flesh; Brenda Miller’s Seasons of the Body, Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water; Bernard Cooper’s Truth Serum, Mark Doty’s Firebird, Audre Lorde’s Zami, Mary Cappello’s Night Bloom or Awkward, Suzanne Antonetta’s Body Toxic, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Brown’s American Romances, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives. 

Who or what inspired you to write this book? 
I can’t say I was “inspired” so much as compelled. I write what is given to me to write. I don’t mean for that too sound overly grand or touchy-feely. Overall I am a practical person with a workaday sense of mission and spirit. I just feel I’m bound to my inheritances. What I’ve wished for in this book, and in all my books, has been the skill and vision with which to render an immersive and interactive map of my own memory, voice and critical observation. I experience life as a kind of palimpsest map in which time is layered rather than linear and where the past, and the places we’ve inhabited in the past, never leave us. If I have any agenda it’s environmental— broadly defined. Places matter because people make and remake what happens in places, in my case urban places, and all of our identities rest on complex foundations of history and context. For this reason the integrity and history of places deserve to be preserved, just as densely populated places, such as cities, deserve to be made and remade in ways that support the human lives who inhabit them. 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Body Geographic has pictures!  Woven through the book is a visual essay of sorts, made up of a series of images and maps I collected over my time of writing the book, and captioned in way I hope obliquely refers to the meanings these images–archival maps, bird’s-eye view photographs, portraits of Columbia Gem of the Ocean (one of my operative images)—hold for me. Some of these maps are representations of actual places and some are metaphors, but they all contain some bit of the visual wayfinding that has helped me, in this book, attempt to create meaning from embodied and place-bound experience. 

And also the book has a few good tattoos.


Apr 7 '13

11 Seconds

I opened my Geography of Memory creative nonfiction writing courses this week with this little iPhone movie of the Chicago skyline—though calling this fragment a movie is, I admit, a stretch. Nothing happens, aside from 11 seconds of time passing.

Yet I stop to record this little video, while walking my dog along the lakefront on one of the first mild spring afternoons, because I do see something happening here, even if invisible to anyone but me. I told my students later that I was sharing this video with them because the image represents to me both the way particular places hold great meaning for us as individuals and the ways the meanings we attach to places change. What was large becomes small, or the other way around.

When I was a girl the Chicago skyline was both a center and a destination.


We didn’t live anywhere near this view—or this view such as it was in the 1970s. Certainly I didn’t see the skyline daily, but the drive up from the first ring of suburbs south of the city was frequent enough that we considered this landscape part of our world. Our fancy grandmother with a career worked in the Loop, as did as did one of our aunts, and many of our friend’s fathers and mothers. Our other not-fancy grandmother took a CTA bus up to the Loop from the far southeast side once or twice a week, to shop, or to take back what she’d bought the day before. Going downtown to shop and unshop was what Little Grandma did. When our father drove us north to see relatives, or a game, or a concert, he often took the scenic route, and somehow we got the message from him that this view had something to do with who we were, just as we got the message from my mother that the stinking southeast side steel mills and slag heaps were part of us too.

When I was a senior in high school I ended up spending prom night with a group who’d booked a short boat cruise of the downtown lakefront for an hour before the dance—and how romantic this sounds, dressed up and holding hands with some young crush, on the cusp of our adulthoods, gazing out at that upward thrust of light and geometry and future—but this is not a night I remember romantically. I’d accepted the invitation to prom from one of my classmate’s boyfriends, a girl who’d been a sort of colleague on a number of high school projects, a nice girl I had no reason to hurt, especially seeing as, had it been up to me, I’d have done away with all the awkward compulsory rituals of high school. Also the boy was one I’d never considered romantically until he surprised me with his scandalous invitation.

My curiosity about what it means to be wanted has rarely been a inquiry that’s served me well, and this time was no exception, as I ended up stuck on a boat with a boy who’d asked me along on some barely articulate impulse which led to all his best friends actively shunning us both. I do still cringe at the memory of hurting that other girl, but as I saw it then I’d just said yes to a new way of looking at myself, this time through the eyes of someone I hadn’t known was watching me. As the kids on the boat saw it I’d stolen their friend’s boyfriend, a labyrinth of proprietary desire and interpretation I’ve didn’t know yet I’d spend my life rejecting. I’ve blocked most of that night, aside from the event’s one comfort— the silent, imprinting skyline.


Later I worked in the Loop, in the bank where my aunt worked, when I was on college breaks, taking the train up from, and back to, the far south side everyday, eating lunch in Daley plaza in sight of the brassy and exposed vertebrate face of the Picasso, having quickly become a regular lunch carrying, newspaper reading commuter who stopped looking up when the skyline approached, who didn’t even know the sculpture was a such big deal when Picasso first sent his masterpiece here, or that Studs Terkel went around with a microphone asking Chicagoans what they thought it was? An insect? A bony dog? To me the Picasso was just Chicago.


Soon after I’d started staying in my Central Illinois college town in the summers, and when in my early 20s I left Illinois for Minnesota it was the skyline spectacular that I remembered when most longing to return, a skyline that kept changing too, every trip back a new building. I never took the famous river view Architecture Foundation tour until I’d left Chicago, never learned the famous names — Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Daniel Burnham— never knew the skyscraper was invented in Chicago until I’d spent a good long time away. Some years the only time I saw the skyline was on clear days from an airplane window, on my way back from somewhere else to Minneapolis; at a vantage of 30,000 feet the Chicago skyline was as tiny and crystalline as a snow globe city.

So when I moved to East Lakeview on the north side of the Loop this past August and first walked the dog from north to south, into this same skyline, a view from the exact opposite side of the approach I’d grown up with, I was so stunned I could now walk to what had been a memory-scape I photographed the north side profile from my phone and texted the image to my dad in Florida, then waited for him to send me affirmation. A nod or a Facebook-style “like” was all I required, some echo of what it meant to choose to return to a tangible, yet still ineffable, origin.

Eight months later, I record this little movie in part just because I’m simply noticing that the skyline is still a beauty, but at the same time aware this landscape has changed for me yet again. I don’t stop to capture the view this time to announce my arrival. My return is already another memory. Instead what interests me is the color and movement of the water. I walk to this lakefront with the dog now four or five times a week, and the water is always different.


Some days the surface is dense and flat, some days green and choppy, the waves crashing against the cement embankment, spouting like the Buckingham fountain and spraying the walkways with white spume. Today the water is a sploshing abstract of green and blue, the surface rumpled.


Now I notice the architectural backdrop in shorter increments than I did when I first returned. The lake itself is what has my attention, all the ways the water looks and sounds different than the water did yesterday.

Vintage Chicago postcards from

Mar 29 '13

Walkers in the City


I talked about city walking with my hairdresser today. 

Colee at Black Hearts Hair House is a former competitive figure skater and a current Chicago lover. I like her because she carries a knife in her back pocket, to ward off muggers, because the hard, sharp light of sunny days in Chicago make her happy, because she reads what she calls “teen supernatural romance novels” at her station between clients, and because when she talks about ice skating  her voice leaps a bit, so I have no problem imagining her completing triple jumps. She doesn’t skate anymore and works in a salon now, where all the stylists have tattoos and purple streaked hair and wear boots too heavy for medal-winning jumping.   

My first hairdresser in this city, before Colee, was a Albanian immigrant who came to the Boystown neighborhood where I live in Chicago by way of New Jersey, and I liked her too, for her stories about her gruff pawn-shop-owning husband and the day she took a complex public transportation route from the far western suburbs into the city, to apply for this salon job, before she knew what the “boys” in Boystown meant, and I adored her salon run by a sweet bleached blond Latino gay man with the little pug who wore a green sweater. I like my first salon still, even though now I look the other way when I walk past because that now-fired stylist ruined my hair with a terrible color job the day after I was mugged (when I was still too dizzy from being hit on the head to see what she was doing—GIRLS don’t go the hairdresser the day after getting hit on the head) and when she tried to fix the blotchy discoloring she made it worse, so I can’t ever go back. 

The salon where Colee works, just three stops north on the Brown Line, came to me by recommendation of my niece (and neighbor) Gabrielle Katina, who’d just had her signature yard-long locks cropped into an adorable burgundy-dyed pixie. If Gabi could trust this joint with her total hair reinvention I figured I could trust them with my post head-wound blonding emergency. Colee cringed when she saw the mess of a dye job I came in with, but refused to diss another stylist; she just she dug in and fixed my blond. 

Or started to fix it. Today is session three, the last before we can finally just proceed as normal hairdo-making-and-getting citizens. The sun is shining hard and I’m just back from book launch travel and Colee is just back from snowboarding in Vail, and she’s telling me about her city-walking date nights with her boyfriend Vito. They’ve lived for half a dozen years west of downtown in Ukrainian Village and on date nights they turn off their phone and walk into the center. Sometimes they stop for a quick slice of pizza. Sometimes they stop to fill up their flask. If it’s cold they bundle up and keep walking until they come to one of the spots where they love to stop and people watch. 

Colee says what they like is seeing all kinds of people, have-nots and haves. They love in particular to sit on Michigan Avenue near the Tribune building, under the big statue of Marilyn with her skirt billowing up around her knees, even though now Marilyn is gone and who knows what kind of statue art they’ll put up next. Other nights Vito and Colee sit by the Chicago River, until the predominance of have-people get on their nerves, or until Vito gets tired of Colee petting all the dogs. The only people they don’t watch are the downtown skaters circling the winter outdoor rinks, as Colee doesn’t like to watch what used to be the hard, sharp center of her life.

What Colee does do is tell passersby when she likes how they look—their style or just whatever is nice about them—until Vito worries people might think she’s making fun of them. I tell her if I didn’t know her and she talked to me in the dark I’d think she was trying to rob me and she laughs and says she’s the same way, suspicious of everyone, but that’s not what the people she talks to think because she’s nice and enthusiastic. I’m certain this is true; her on-the-spot storytelling is the reason I like her too.

I ask her if she’s ever come across the word flaneur—or the feminine flaneuse—and when she says no I explain that the term means some who walks and watches the city. Back in the 19th Century flaneuring was a thing only rich noblemen got to do but  these days it’s pretty much open to anyone. I guess, then, that’s what I am, she said. I ask her how late they stay out and she said late—until they get tired. Then she told me about the night she and Vito saw another couple just walking and she called out to ask what time it was and they shrugged and said they didn’t know, they didn’t have their phones. No-Phone Date Night? Colee asked them and when they said yes she fist-pumped and said Yah! No-Phone Date Night. Because sometimes technology ruins important things like one-on-one outside time, with your beloved, feet on city ground, watching together.

What I love most about what city-lovers love about their cities are these particularities of attachment. Colee is a genuine enthusiast. When I asked her if she’d mind if I blogged about her city walking she said sure, but emphasized should try also walk-dating for myself. And I will, though if I’m taking myself on a date (as I am prone to do) I won’t walk as late as Colee and Vito, not anymore—the mugging ruined that for me. But for sure the next time Linnea comes I will ask her to flaneuse with me. I’ll keep espresso in my flask and Linnea can be my Vito and carry whatever she wants.


[Photos from]

Mar 19 '13

More blogging soon, I promise, but at present I’ve been overcome with launching my new book BODY GEOGRAPHIC. Here are some pics of the launch events in Minneapolis-St. Paul Minnesota.

More blogging soon, I promise, but at present I’ve been overcome with launching my new book BODY GEOGRAPHIC. Here are some pics of the launch events in Minneapolis-St. Paul Minnesota.

Jan 27 '13


Someone asked me recently what I thought made a livable city and I’ve been thinking about that question ever since, because I’m so interested —both intellectually and emotionally—in the concept of the green and livable metropolis. So with this question I’ll begin: what makes a city livable? I’ve started a list of one-word responses:  Variety. Mobility. Choice. Beauty. Safety. Sexuality. Art. Discourse. Intersection.  Access.  Generosity. Compassion. Cuisine.  Sublimity. Recognition. Design. Flora. Infrastructure. Light. I guess those are the dreams of any city; what we might hope for in the urban life, or any life. But as the history of cities tells us, the actual metropolis is much more than just design or style and every dream of the perfect city has the same ending, ruled by the imperfections and uncontrollability of human life.

It’s late January in Chicago and everyone here talks about how cold it is outside. After the decades I spent in Minnesota this makes me laugh a bit. I’ve been cold a few times this winter, most notably on the Fullerton “L” platform, coming home late from DePaul, and a few times walking home from the train, on days when the weather changed suddenly, as weather tends to do along the great lake front, but I’m never as cold as I was, often, during the long Minnesota winter. The “bitter” temperatures here have been mostly in the 20s, which is a mild winter day in Minneapolis. So far the weather is not what I find difficult about living in Chicago, or a difficulty particular to Chicago, though I do look forward to spring blooming, and the return to the space and light of my rooftop container garden.  

But six months in I can begin to say I have encountered difficulties here, of course.  I doubt anyone would believe me if I began this story any differently, and such is probably the reason I haven’t fully started these notes until now.  My arrival was both ecstatic and frightening, but did not yet fully contain the gritty, corporeal elements of narrative conflict. The stranger came to town, but was she truly a stranger?  I didn’t yet have a clear problem and my questions were still academic.  I saw the shattering beauty of this city as well as its potential loneliness.  I saw the map, but not yet the territory, the current territory. The territory of my childhood does flash back to me here (particularly on classic Chicago windy afternoons). But the territory of what’s here now just begins to appear to me, and while some of this place does truly shine, some most notably does not.  I’m not at all surprised by this news. I wrote about such in Body Geographic, in all the images of the dream city and the gray city, particularly in the essay at the center of the book, “Cities of Possibility,” where I write about Minneapolis, as it was when I first arrived in the 1980s.  I am familiar with the gray city, and don’t like it much—but also know I don’t feel fully human when I get too comfortable and forget the gray city exists.

And so I add another list, an obvious list of what’s wrong with—and in—cities.  This city. Any city. But perhaps more so, the bigger and more complex the city.  My unsurprising list includes: Confinement. Crime. Violence. Pollution. Fear. Loneliness. Poverty. Desperation. Exposure. Crowds. Costs. Exhaustion. Change. And I could go on, but if I do my un-livability list will probably win out, which is not my intention. I do intend to live on here, and happily, and overall I am more often happier here than not. But then isn’t the point of discussing livability to push back against what is not livable?  

I sit in a café on Broadway Avenue, in the Southeast Lakeview neighborhood, as I write this, around the corner from my apartment—a family owned diner where I’m already not quite a stranger because I’ve written here before and they remember me. The words of a song pop into my head. “I’m a stranger here myself.”  As I Google to try to remember why I know these lyrics (and oh of course, it’s Kurt Weill) I find something just as interesting—an essay by the same name in the New York Times, by the travel writer Bill Bryson, who writes “Coming back to your native land after an absence of many years is a surprisingly unsettling business, a little like waking from a long coma. Time, you discover, has wrought changes that leave you feeling mildly foolish and out of touch.”  

Bryson was writing about returning from England to New Hampshire, but also describes exactly my experience of returning to Chicago, my intimate, familiar and illuminating city of relatives and strangers. And so the lyrics keep coming, this time from Sondheim  “Another hundred people just got off the train, some come to work, some to play….some come to stare, some to stay.”  I’ve moved from staring to staying, but still don’t know all of what that staying will look like, as I become less and less a stranger here.

“Cities are by definition full of strangers,” wrote Jane Jacobs, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book I’ve been slowly re-reading since my return to Chicago. So I guess urban livability has something to do with successfully navigating the city of strangers, where I am both not a stranger, and still a stranger. In some ways this is pretty much what my work has always been about.

—bjb 26 Jan 2013

Nov 17 '12


Recently, a few things changed in my life.

Until three months ago I’d lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota for 30 years, over 25 of them with my spouse Linnea, over 15 years in the house we still own on Longfellow Avenue.

To understand my current life I have to harken back a few years, to the summer I took a bike tour of New Orleans and then, when I returned to Minneapolis, purchased a new bicycle. New Orleans by bike, with a local guide, was a way to see one of my favorite cities as if for the first time, but also reminded me of how I loved biking as a teenager in the first ring industrial suburbs of Chicago. So then in Minneapolis I continued biking in earnest for several years, at first awkwardly and fearfully and later with confidence, and finally came to be quite committed to using my bicycle to commute to work, transport groceries, and traverse back-and forth on the Midtown Greenway, between our house on the east side of the city to my little writing studio on the west side.  What came of this new habit was an improved fitness level, and a more powerful self-image as a woman at mid-life, but also a remade understanding of what we mean when we talk about the greening and livability of cities.

Soon I found, without explicitly meaning to, that I’d used my bicycle to snap me out of a low time in my life, a time when my internal landscape had altered, leaving me aimless, ill at ease and anxious for change. Biking was at first just a challenge, a way to get exercise without going to the gym, while at the same time feeding my street-level interest in cities.  What I didn’t expect is both that I’d come to crave the physical challenge of biking in urban environments and that biking, especially on the city greenway—the bike highway built on what had been railroad tracks— would become a way into the belly of Minneapolis, and so would transform my experience of both the city and my body, and sensorily re-connect me to the place I lived.

How and why my bicycle and I moved from the Midtown Greenway to the lakeshore trails and bike lanes (and el platforms, and sidewalks, and car-shares) of my hometown of Chicago is a story I’ll be telling for some time in the future, but for now suffice it to say something lodged loose in me the day I decided to embrace a bike’s-eye view of the city. That something brought me first to intimate contact with urban infrastructure, then returned me to a hunger that I thought I’d finally outgrown—a desire I knew was ridiculous but that which I couldn’t shake, by which I mean the pull do that impossible thing. Go home again. And somehow I attribute all that, in part at least, to the infrastructure of Minneapolis as seen by bicycle. It’s a color, really, that provides the link. Rust. The underside of Minnesota bridges passing over the Greenway. The drawbridges, railroad tracks and slag dumps in Chicago, around the Calumet River on the far southeast side, the region where I came of age.  

So I thought my next project was to be a book about urban biking, but after moving to Chicago I see that my bicycle is merely a character in a larger story I hope to tell.  To that end I begin this blog as a place to pre-write and work out moments, images, ideas about livable cities, by which I mean Chicago of course, and also Minneapolis, and also all the cities I visit, for work or play. With my previous books I kept bound notebooks within which I taped images, played around with sentences, asked questions and worked out ideas. This is obviously a much more public writer’s notebook, so I don’t expect I’ll keep all my scribblings  here, but this project will serve me as a space in between a private journal and a published essay or book,  so as to nudge my thinking  and sentence-making into deeper stages of development.

The greening of cities has become a catchword of course, but one that has real meaning. What makes a city livable? Some of this is literal green space. Some are the choices we make about transportation, and food and housing. Some is the regeneration of old industrial sites. Some is the art made, displayed and performed first in large cities. Some is what we make of our sexualities, our families, our aesthetic expressions.  Some is the act of truly seeing the places we inhabit, and if that place is the city seeing how we urban dwellers are no less aligned with nature than is that friend we all have who would rather live alone on a mountaintop.  My work on this subject is larger than a blog, but the blogosphere is where I hope to work out some of the details.   Thanks for coming along with me as I essay into this new work.

Nov 11 '12
A postcard from old Chicago, some of what I’ve been looking through as I hunt for images for my new Web site.

A postcard from old Chicago, some of what I’ve been looking through as I hunt for images for my new Web site.

Nov 11 '12
"For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see."