“It’s always quiet around here until it’s not,” said my neighbor from down the street, petting her big dog’s head. Her dog was sitting contentedly in the grass near the lagoon in Sherman Park, near my house in Back of the Yards. It’s often silent there, unless there’s a flock of geese fighting—or unless a loud, anxious dog (like my own little bundle of joy) decides to assert his space by letting the whole park know that there’s a bigger dog nearby. I was quietly walking my dog through Sherman, accompanied only by the occasional notification jingle of some app on my cellular device, until my dog saw my neighbor’s dog and the dog opera began. 

My neighbor and I run into each other fairly often in this part of the park, if I get there early enough in the morning to catch her on her own daily nature walk with her sweet giant, and though it’s been years now, my dog always needs to shatter the silence when he spots her dog. My interactions with this neighbor normally consist of just a wave and a smile. But if my dog sees her dog (or any other dog, really), howling and barking ensues. 

This usually manages to wake up dogs in yards near the park, and for what feels like hours, all anyone can hear is the bitter staccato of canine shouting. “Hey hey hey,” my dog scream-yelps, “Where are you? You can’t get me! You can’t get me!” “Shut up,” a dog voice hollers back from the streets west of the park. “What’s going on?” “Who’s yelling?” “Rat-a-tat!” “Rarf rarf hoooooowl!”

My relationship with the lady with the big dog is perfectly fine. That day we chatted a little about a car accident that had awakened a bunch of the neighbors a few days prior. One of the semitrailer drivers who parks their rig in an empty lot down the way backed out onto Racine Avenue a little too quickly and managed to reverse T-bone two passing cars speeding in opposite directions. None of the three drivers seemed to be paying attention. 

The sound of the truck tires striking the minivan was one loud boom, quickly followed by the sound of another car crunching into the front of the semi—and then, just as quickly, by the sounds of people leaving their houses and heading to the scene of the accident. You could hear them yelling “Is everyone OK?” amid the crunching of various shards of headlight plastic and other car parts under the tires of cars still pushing through on Racine, swerving around everyone and ignoring any semblance of safety. In my head, I remember it like this: at 5:55 AM I heard a few birds talking smack on a wire outside my window (I’m convinced they’re making fun of me), and at 6 AM I heard the crash, then the people. Then I ran outside too. It’s always quiet around here until it’s not. 

The author’s neighbors, recorded from a block away, sing “Summer Nights” from Grease on an outdoor karaoke rig.

I sometimes get the question “What’s that area like?” when I tell new people in my life where I live. Many are genuinely curious to find out if the coffee’s good at the grill (it’s all right) or if the bus comes on time (best CTA drivers in the city on this route, in my opinion), but some people always ask “What’s your neighborhood like” in a thinly veiled attempt to suss out whether they’d be afraid to walk around here. 

I can’t tell you if any area is safe, and honestly, when there are humans involved, no neighborhood is “safe”—break-ins, bar fights, and homicides can and have happened nearly everywhere. I’m certainly not going to tell you that my neighborhood is either perfect or the worst, especially when you’re a fellow Chicagoan who should know better. We have a terrible history of segregation in this city, and when you indulge your impulse to categorize areas as inherently good or bad, you’re just reinforcing the cycles of crime and poverty that you’re desperate not to see in your own proverbial backyard. 

To avoid feeling like I need to teach grown people how to use their brains, then, I usually answer by describing my neighborhood’s variety of noises. It’s quiet around here until it’s not, which also could describe downtown at night, or DeKalb, or Mars. Hate and fear are interconnected, and the disturbing legacy of white supremacy leached into the water when we first built lead pipes underground—and when we segregated neighborhoods by skin color or country of origin. Despite our attempts to filter it out of the supply, white supremacy has managed to re-form itself in harmless-sounding questions: “Is it safe around here?” “Is it always this loud around here?” 

A collage of four photos: a metal hatch showing a view through a rough concrete wall, the badly battered base of a green light pole near a red fire hydrant, a post painted like a red-bearded cartoon man and viewed through a chain-link fence, and a manhole cover partly sealed in place with concrete around its rim
Photos from the same area, taken between summer 2020 and spring 2022 Credit: Melinda Fries for Chicago Reader

When it’s not quiet, there are car crashes. My rough count from last summer alone was ten on the corner near my house, where there probably should be some sort of sign saying YIELD or SLOW DOWN or JESUS CHRIST, PEOPLE. Instead, there’s only a remnant of an old, entirely avoidable crash: a pushed-in fence, slammed by a car speeding through on a rainy day. Car crashes attract the people, and half the neighbors will stand outside offering phones, translation into English for the benefit of a CPD or CFD responder, and the like. The other half will just stand there and cluck. 

Crashes happen so often here that they’re like mobile and temporary town squares. Conversations about what just happened and whether or not the passengers are OK are punctuated by the exclamations of people who’ve been waiting all winter to tell someone, anyone, “They should put a sign here!” or “I called 311 and nothing happened!” 

There are other things that make loud noises around here, including gunshots. But you hear them less often now than ten years ago—we knew the neighborhood was “changing” when fireworks sounds started overtaking gun sounds. Firearm owners where I live announce their presence at midnight on New Year’s Eve with what sounds like a collective 100-gun salute, shooting into the air in their backyards. It’s like an industrial noise-fusion composition accompanied by “Don’t Tread on Me”-style shouting. 

One year something set off an explosion in a garage a few blocks away—someone had stashed Indiana fireworks near a stockpile of ammo near an old car, so that the power of suggestion would’ve been enough to blow everything up. The fire department seemed to get there almost immediately, thankfully. No one ran out of their homes to investigate that incident.

On the fun and loud side, my neighborhood has always been the sort of place where people feel comfortable playing their music and having backyard parties. It’s totally all right with us if you’re talking loudly in your yard, or on the sidewalk, or on your stoop. No one is going to call in a noise complaint about your party, even if it stays loud into the wee hours and beyond. We’ve got other fish to fry. 

This has resulted in some completely surreal lineups, if like me you think of summer Saturday nights as a series of backyard concerts. The neighbors on our side of the alley pretty regularly hire full bands and set up elaborate outdoor speaker systems for birthdays, graduations, and the like. Nearby there’s a vacant lot (no one knows who owns it, and they haven’t been around in years to check up), and last fall it provided the venue for a wedding reception, complete with horseback rides for the kids, a ten-piece band, and fireworks. At these affairs, the music can go until the next day. 

The author recorded this drum solo at 1 AM during a nearby household’s birthday party for a four-year-old.

I’ve since learned that there’s a drummer for a band specializing in rancheras who lives down the way; he often can only practice in the wee hours of the morning, and the acoustics of the side of my house seem to bounce his sound directly into my bedroom window. I’d rather listen to drums than guns at night, but given enough time you get used to both. 

When I was a child, I traveled to Iowa for a few weeks one summer to help out on a cousin’s farm. I loved dealing with the chickens and running through the grass, and I was totally happy spending the evenings watching the two VHS tapes that my cousin’s grandfather would let us watch (a Victor Borge tribute compilation from PBS and Dorf on Golf). What was unsettling, though, bordering on frightening, was the complete lack of human noise at night. The sky was a sea of stars, but there were no trucks on the highway, no random couples arguing on the sidewalk, no planes making their way into Midway—none of that. Just stillness and crickets. 

People tend to think “crickets” when a sudden, awkward silence befalls a room, but actual crickets can get incredibly loud. I think we use them to mean “quiet” because nothing is louder to us than our own thoughts. When I hear my city, I’m really just hearing my relationship to its evolution.

The Sound Issue


Why We Have Parks

The people who built Sherman Park and others of its vintage were reformers, progressives, relentless improvers. They believed that a natural environment and planned recreation could mold young immigrants into good Americans.