Credit: Illustration by Jason Wyatt Frederick

When people describe 2020, it’s very unlikely that they’ll say it was the best year of their lives. Just that word on its own, “best,” feels strange rolling off the tongue in association with anything that occurred amidst the police brutality, an increasingly incendiary administration, mounting natural disasters, and, oh yeah, the whole pandemic thing that we are still very much living through. So when it came time to start planning our annual Best of Chicago issue, we felt particularly uninspired at first. How did we know if the places and people and things we wanted to include would even still be around when the issue dropped? Will we feel guilty for not acknowledging how hard this year has been? How do we contend with so much loss?

Loss. There was a word that resonated more strongly. But the Best Things We Lost issue? That wasn’t quite right, either. Piling onto the universal trauma without a sliver of hope wasn’t doing anyone any good. And as we really started thinking about it, maybe 2020 wasn’t all bad.

The positives of the year look different for everyone. For me, it was full of new experiences. I learned how to cook. I went on a 40-mile bike ride. I tried edibles, read new books, and donated all that money I was no longer spending at the bars to much more worthy causes fighting for social justice. And I, of course, mourned the closure of some of my favorite spots, felt the absence of in-person rituals, and am counting down the days until I can hug whoever I want (with their consent).

The losses and gains of this year have been very personal, so in turn the issue turned out that way too. It reads like group therapy—writers were given space to acknowledge what’s being left behind and then move forward with optimism, maybe even excitement about what the city still has to offer us. Yes, we must reflect on the ways in which both Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Bears fucked up in 2020. Of course we must grieve the permanent closing of many theaters and the loss of incredible artists. But we can also sing the praises of the new animals we met. We absolutely must highlight the performers who made it work via livestream and telephone and pickup truck. We deserve to wear our locally branded merch with pride.

Some business to get out of the way: the reader poll results were determined by you, the readers! If you’re angry about the results, you only have yourselves to blame! Let this be a reminder to keep a close eye on when voting begins next year so you can campaign for your favorites to get the top spot. Or better yet, share your own losses and gains on social media and tag us @Chicago_Reader with the hashtags #bestofchi and #BoC2020. Tell us what made your year worthwhile, shine a light on the people, places, and things that helped you survive, and we’ll share with our followers. I should also acknowledge that a lot of writers’ picks skew to the north side, in part because we weren’t leaving our homes and that’s where many of us live. It’s something we recognize and are always working on changing—I hope this encourages all folks reading this to look beyond those borders.

There’s no denying what we lost, but there’s plenty we gained. For every beloved bar that shuttered, there is a restaurant pivoting to better serve the community. For every banger we missed out on listening to in the club, we gained an activist anthem to blast in the streets. And for every empty CTA car, there is someone sitting at home smiling because they don’t have to waste precious hours on a commute.

If nothing else, we have to remember that we survived this year. If you are reading this and you are still breathing, there’s plenty to celebrate. Maybe one day we’ll be able to host a big party for you all as we originally planned. As we move further away from the one-year anniversary of the official start of the pandemic, things feel more and more hopeful. Holding onto that hope and remembering all that this great city has to offer is a celebration in itself. And if that’s the best we can do,
that’s plenty.   v

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