Live in any city long enough and you’ll experience a never-ending series of departures—people, whom you know to varying degrees, deciding to move on: roommates, coworkers, the family across the hall, the woman who cut your hair, the guy you went on four dates with, friends near and dear or peripheral. They go to smaller cities, other towns, far-flung countries, and, of course, the coasts. News of loved ones leaving stings the most, even if you understand their decision, but so many goodbyes take a toll. I’ve been a Chicagoan for 12 years now and have finally figured out how to, if not love the leaving, find ways to learn from it. It might be self-centered to think of other people’s departures primarily as opportunities for introspection, but whereas I used to go into existential-crisis mode with every farewell announcement (Wait—should I go too? Would I be happier elsewhere?), now I see all the going as a chance to reevaluate why I stay.
I recommend such soul-searching for anyone staying put. There’s no shortage of reasons why it’s hard to live in Chicago—high taxes, a lack of job opportunities, harsh winters—and, for many residents of this segregated city, it’s harder still. Local demographers have studied the exodus of African-Americans from Chicago, and oft-cited reasons for relocation include crime and violence as well as inadequate community investment in south- and west-side neighborhoods. In recent years, we’ve led the nation in population loss. “Of the country’s ten largest cities, the Chicago metropolitan statistical area was the only one to drop in population between 2015 and 2016,” a Tribune article from March reports. “By most estimates, the Chicago area’s population will continue to decline in the coming years.”
Amid so many legitimate reasons for moving—and the realization that not everyone who wants to leave even can—it’s a privilege, and honestly therapeutic, to consider the pros of sticking around.
To make the most of being left behind means asking questions: not only interrogating friends’ and acquaintances’ specific reasons for decamping, but also understanding what they now miss. I recently conducted my own little exit poll on Facebook, and of 80 ex- Chicagoans who responded, key motivations for moving included job opportunities, weather, partner/loved one wanted to live elsewhere, cost of living, and other (where “other” encompasses Chicago traffic, pursuing a degree elsewhere, the desire to be closer to nature, lack of family in the area, and the rapacious Department of Revenue).
Particularly illuminating, though, were answers to my follow-up question: “What, if anything, about Chicago do you miss?” Here, respondents were emphatic, effusive: “Everything.” “The peeps.” “EVERYTHING!” “The personalities.” “Diversity.” “Progressive politics.” “Big city culture.” “The El.” “Even complaining about how slow the Brown Line is.” “Walking on a busy street and ducking into a calm quiet spot, then popping back out into the busy.” “Seeing squirrels go up trees with full bagels in their mouths.” “The brownstones and bungalows and wide sidewalks with big mature trees.” “The People / The things those people believe in / Creativity to the Chicago Degree—for the sake of creativity—(rarely in pursuit of riches).”
I often ask myself what I would miss about Chicago if I were to move, but reading former residents’ nostalgia-tinged tributes makes me grateful for my city now: radiant summers, wide green boulevards, the way the skyline looks while driving up South Lake Shore Drive, the diversity of neighborhoods, knowing I could never uncover all its wonders, and, yes, the people.
If there’s an art to leaving, there’s also an art to staying. Self-actualized stayers don’t try to convince others with their reasoning; they know that where someone chooses to reside is personal—and also that no one place can satisfy all our needs and desires. Chicago isn’t everyone’s kind of town. But with every goodbye, I remember why it’s mine. v