by Rosamund Lannin
Our design director is telling me he was an urban youth. He is maybe 50, and white, and queer, and he is correct—he did grow up within Chicago city limits. I also grew up within city limits. At the time of our conversation, I am 30, and white, and female, and uncomfortable with his phrasing. I am trying to find a way to tell him that he shouldn’t call himself an urban youth. I can’t find the words to tell him, despite the fact that the agency where we both work literally pays me to find the words. Finally, I just say it:
“Urban youth has connotations. When you say urban youth, people think, like, disadvantaged kids.”
He pauses. “Oh. I will not call myself an urban youth.”
“What about city kid?” I suggest.
What I am not saying, and he is not saying, is that urban youth usually means poor black kids, and we are neither. Maybe that’s why people look so confused when they find out I grew up in a city. They look at me like I’m a unicorn, or more accurately, a narwhal: something they’ve heard about, something they know is real, but it just seems so improbable. A whale with a tusk? A child like you raised in an urban area?
For many people I interact with as an adult, the idea of childhood is inextricably intertwined with the suburbs. I know this because Where did you grow up? is a small talk staple. Maybe it’s the crowds I run with—fairly white, generally white-collar—or maybe it’s because that since their creation, the suburbs have continued to attract families, but finding a fellow city kid starts to feel like a mythical encounter.
At some point in the conversation, someone will ask: “Did you grow up around here?”
I tell them I was born in San Francisco, lived there until I was 10, then moved to St. Paul. I came to Chicago for college, and I’ve lived here ever since.
At that point, they ask: “San Francisco? Like, the city?”
I say yes. Then there’s a long pause, and then they say: “Huh!”
I watch them scramble to conceive of a youth without lawns, giant houses, and streets with no sidewalks. The asker, so sure we were on common cultural ground but now lost at sea, wrestles with the idea of how a child can blossom without geographical isolation; how it is possible to grow and even thrive in close quarters with a diverse array of humans, lots of buildings, and cultural institutions a short bus or train ride away. There is the sound of wood burning as they try to determine if I am very rich or very poor.
I am neither. I grew up middle-class in San Francisco, and San Francisco in the 90s was a wonderful place for a middle-class child. I was born at home, in a tiny rental house in Noe Valley. We moved farther and farther out from that house every year. I knew that these migrations were unwanted, and economic in nature, which is to say that my mom would often yell at my dad that, If we keep moving, we are going to end up in Daly City. My mom wanted to stay in San Francisco, and understandably so; there was so much to love.
I quit that job and got another. I make my way through my 30s until I am solidly in the middle of them. At one of the last parties I remember, before the pandemic shut down parties, a guy asked me what kids who grew up in cities do. I told him that I probably did a lot of the same things he did: I read Goosebumps and went to school and watched cartoons and played with my friends. I had my friendship triangle: tall Laurel and loud Maria, who hated each other but liked me. I walked to my small Catholic school every morning. I like to confront people with these commonalities, because I hate the idea that you cannot be a child without acres of land. I want to make my experience real to them.
This idea of common experience is a half-truth, a Yes, and. I did some of the same things he or you did, but I also took field trips to the Academy of Sciences and the DeYoung. On weekends, my mom and I took the bus to the giant Sanrio store downtown: three glorious levels of Hello Kitty and Spottie Dottie and my favorite, the choleric penguin Badtz-Maru. From there we would walk to Chinatown or Clement Street, where we ate BBQ pork buns and chicken chow fun and giant, steaming bowls of won ton soup. Back in our apartment, I creeped on our neighbors in the style of my heroes: girl detectives and city kids Anastasia Krupnik and Harriet the Spy. Sometimes we would drive to Berkeley or Oakland or Half Moon Bay, or to the redwood forests or beach, and drink Calistoga by the side of the road to help with carsickness, belching and watching the waves until it was time to go.
My days were rich with people and color, broken up by hills that made your thighs sing, and when you got to the top you could see everything laid out like a picture, a stunning stretch of buildings capped by a cool, foggy crown.
My family never did move out to Daly City. We stayed within San Francisco city limits until the mid-90s, then moved across the country and basically across the world, to St. Paul, Minnesota. I booked it for Chicago as soon as I got a college acceptance letter, and I’ve been here ever since.
I have always felt sure about living in a city. It’s been a pillar of my beliefs for as long as I can remember, a choice I know deep in my bones. I imagine this is what it’s like to have religion.
My daughter is due in a few weeks. I keep the faith. My husband and I look at property we might buy, an exercise in feeling very rich and very poor. But we are determined, as well as very lucky; my mind echoes with memories of Bay Area gentrification. Through all of this, I remain deaf to the siren song of the suburbs. If anything, I feel even more determined to put down roots. The nebulous notion that it’s better 20 or 30 or 40 miles out fails to inspire, maybe because I know what I have here, and it feels so right.
Disasters show us who we are and where our heart calls home. As the pandemic became real and then very real, I realized that I’d been taking my city for granted. It’s normal to do this when you love someone, especially when you’ve loved them for a very long time. It’s also not strange to love cities for what they are to you without fully considering everyone else who lives in them, even though those loved ones, and casual friends, and strangers are who makes your heart soar and settle every time you leave the house. Fine restaurants and beautiful buildings and economic opportunities may be the face and bones and blood of a place, but the people are its beating heart.
As the pandemic raged on, I watched who left and who stayed. A pandemic is a great way to find out which of your friends are secretly rich. I am not saying that absconding to an upstate country home or a parents’ West Coast estate means you don’t care about where you claim residency, but I am saying that clichés are true: big, life-changing events show you what it means to live in a place—to truly love a place.
When people cannot believe that I grew up in a city, what I hear is that they do not believe that cities are real places. If they could see Chicago, where I have lived now for 18 years, as a real place, they might feel odd that a shameful portion of its 570,000 children don’t get what they need every day. It might start to feel wrong that a not-insignificant portion of these children don’t get good schools or meals or a decent place to sleep. But if a place is not quite real, if it stays a vague and violent “over there,” we too easily dismiss the children who call it home.
During dangerous times like these, as a disease still rages and the government only begins to acknowledge some help might be warranted, truly loving a city means seeing its heart. It means recognizing that you are in a marriage—a union where you pledge to love for better or worse, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live.
If you want to say I do to your city, get involved in local politics and activism and mutual aid. Yes, you will have to learn to muddle through the strange new world of an alderman’s meeting. Yes, you will need to read the bill from the Water Reclamation District no less than five times before sort of getting what it’s about. Yes, you will spend 45 minutes listening to a dreadlocked white man debate the meaning of the word abolition, but you will also probably find a way you can help. See the people around you, whether or not they are protected by skin color and money, as part of what you love about this place. And maybe start with this: see cities as a real place where children grow up.
Disabuse yourself of the idea that the city is a place you go in your 20s, treat like an amusement park, then abandon when you start to take life seriously. If, when this is all over, you want to move to the suburbs, or a small town, or another city, that is fine. But wherever you live, take with you the idea that cities are not just a playground—children play here, too.
The product of nine years in San Francisco and eight years in St. Paul, Rosamund Lannin is pleasantly surprised to have lived in Chicago for well over a decade. During that time, she co-founded the live lit show, Miss Spoken, published essays and speculative fiction in places like Vice, Lifehacker, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and consumed many carne asada burritos. You can find her on the Internet at @rosamund.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 7 · April 2021
Header image by Roman Boed.