When I walk through Chicago, I notice the tourists first. I can spot their index fingers a mile away, pointing at The Hancock Building like it’s the Sears Tower. I can spot their digital cameras, poised and alert, ready, in a single moment, to translate streets into megapixels, place names, into memories. But I always wonder: are we looking at the same city? When I walk through Chicago, I don’t notice the buildings as much as I notice the people. It’s not that I’m jaded: I’m as intrigued as they are with our mint-colored river, the incongruously Gothic Tribune building, the irascible mime covered in gold body paint, the second Champs-Elysée known as Michigan Avenue. But what captures my attention isn’t the way Chicago looks to me, because I know this city, but the way it looks to everyone else, who doesn’t. I always wonder: does their defective knowledge of my city make tourists love Chicago more, or less? And would I love Chicago less than I do now if you removed the heartbreak from my narrative? If you took away my growing pains and my dusty shelf of trophies, leaving only snapshots and ATM receipts, would I still feel the same way about my city?
I remember when I moved to Chicago from Southern California. A friend of mine working in The Loop explained that only tourists look up at buildings. How depressing, I thought, the only way to fit in around here is to ignore everything. But later on, I decided that tourists might actually be on to something. Even if their perception of Chicago was constrained by limited personal experience, and completely chaperoned by guidebooks and bourgeois instincts, the fact is, tourists don’t take anything for granted in this working-class city. And we do, because we can. We have all of our life to see these overcrowded places. Tourists have only a week in which to cram in 234 square miles of eclectic architecture and spread-out multiculturalism. But instead of mocking them on the street, clustered, as they always are, in huddled groups of khaki shorts and shopping bags, or protected by electronic dictionaries, pop-up maps and expensive digital recorders, we should thank tourists for their beginner’s mind, for giving us back the New World. It’s not that this strange and bustling city has grown tiresome, we have simply become accustomed to its beauty. But when we no longer take a city for granted, it starts to surprise us. We can walk down Michigan Avenue for the first time everyday. We can get lost in Ukrainian Village, take a field trip to Bronzeville, pace the Kandinsky room in the Art Institute, and pretend the John Hancock Buildings is actually the Sears Tower. If we can’t look up, the least we can do is look down.
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