We talked about neighborhoods.
In the MCA café, by large windows facing out to the rapidly purpling east night sky, we talked about what neighborhoods are. We talked about segregation and wealth, community and pride.
We talked about these towns in towns, urban urbs that people define themselves by, sometimes more often than by the town as a whole. I’m from Englewood, some say, proud of the toughness that connotes. I’m from Logan Square, others reply, proud of the implied cool.
It was for the live reading event my Facebook friends and Twitter followers are probably glad I’ll be shutting up about. The latest jam by Rachel Hyman of Anthology of Chicago and me, “Welcome to the Neighborhood” paired local writers and poets with local artists.
The writers and poets read their works in front of projected illustrations. That’s it. That’s what we do.
My favorite moment came when Elaine Hegwood Bowen, author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood — South Side of Chicago,” first saw the artwork her piece inspired.
It was an illustration by Belgian-born artist Marine Tempels of two little girls — Elaine and her sister — skipping down the streets with bags from Coney Island, the neighborhood spot where the kids would gather for burgers and treats.
Elaine, standing on stage in front of a packed room with large windows facing out onto a now-black east night sky, got emotional, a little teary.
This was the Englewood she remembered, she said. Not gang wars and poverty, not blocks where all but a single, boarded-up house has been demolished, but the streets where she played as a kid. Memories of laughing with her sisters and being told to run off and grab a burger while her father haggled with an auto dealership.
Standing in front of a crowd, seeing the art her words inspired, she got a little teary before launching into her piece. She did well. The crowd applauded.
Neighborhoods in this city support and constrain. They nurture from within and exclude from without, as I said in my intro.
A neighborhood has that old lady who knows all the kids’ bedtimes and threatens to call their mothers about any transgressions from it.
A neighborhood has the wary, suspicious leers at anyone who doesn’t belong.
There’s no conclusion at the end of this story, no lightning bolt of inspiration that says “This is it. This is what neighborhoods are and what they aren’t.”
I can’t define them because they have no definition. They’re towns described by rough consensus rather than borders and taxing districts. They’re communities described by a rough sense of “Yeah, this place feels different than that one.”
We live in a town of strong, invisible borders.
But we can share these places with each other, peek over the walls, open the gates and, through stories and art and just human kindness, say, “Hey. Welcome to the neighborhood.”