When I moved from rural Wisconsin to Chicago in 2012, I thought I knew what to expect. My parents were originally from Chicago and I still had family there. For two years, I had been visiting the city every few months to see this or that live musician. I had friends there, and even if I had not, I was fresh off a solo trip to Guatemala that left me feeling worldly and undefeatable.
I rented an apartment in what Google Maps told me was Ukranian Village, but I later found out was actually east Humboldt Park – a neighborhood that until recently was mostly synonymous with gangs and violence. The day I went to look at the place, I hopped off a Green Line train in an area that I knew was sketchy, and walked the mile and a half north to the apartment, on the corner of Rockwell and Thomas. I cannot pretend that the walk did not make me nervous – most of it took me directly through east Garfield Park – a neighborhood still renowned for being the most dangerous on Chicago’s west side. It was run down. There was trash everywhere, and buildings were boarded up. I felt out of place, suddenly aware of my pale Wisconsin skin and my lack of street savvy.
But as I drew closer, the neighborhood changed. Homes were, for the most part, tidily kept. Beautiful old trees shaded the streets and sidewalks where children played, while parents sat on the front steps of any of the neighborhood’s beautiful, century-old greystone buildings “coffee clutching”. They nodded and smiled as I walked past, and I relaxed.
The neighborhood felt like a home to me.
Rockwell, as I now call that first apartment, was on a shaded, tree-lined street. It was a well-kept, red brick six-flat with white window sills, across the street from a towering cathedral (that I later learned had been recycled into a hippy commune).
I called my mom as I walked up to the apartment.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“I’m in trouble. I already love this apartment and I’ve not even been inside yet.”
The metal gate opened to a beautiful courtyard, complete with picnic table and grill.
Inside, it felt like memories of my first home back in Wisconsin, with natural wood windowsills and trim. It was small, but it was bright and cozy and I was in love.
I couldn’t afford it, but I signed the lease that day. When you know, you know, right?