Tale of Two Cities

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My recent trip to Manhattan has me reflecting on the differences between Chicago and New York. We Chicagoans always seem to be on the defensive when it comes to comparisons between these two great cities. We see New Yorkers as our smug older siblings, lording it over us that they have more style and swagger.

It’s true that New York is bigger and brasher. Chicago is now only the third most populous city in the United States, having been overtaken by Los Angeles in the 1990s. New York has more of just about everything: museums, art galleries, restaurants, theaters, music venues, shopping.

Here in Chicago we have a lively downtown financial district, but New York has the famed Wall Street. We have Broadway in Chicago, but New York has, well, Broadway! Our skyscrapers such as the Willis Tower and the John Hancock Building are well known but not as iconic as the Empire State Building. And there is nothing else in the US quite like Times Square.

Nevertheless, I much prefer my hometown for the following reasons:

1. Chicago has alleys. While not the most exciting feature of our city, at least we have a place to hide all our garbage until the city sanitation workers can pick it up.

2. We have the lakefront. The beautiful expanse of Lake Michigan to the east makes a dramatic setting for our museums, high rise condos, parks, and beaches. If you want to go to the beach in New York, you have to travel out to one of the boroughs.

3. Chicago is not as crowded. Even on the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s beautiful shopping district and tourist haven, there is not the sense of claustrophobia I feel while exploring the streets of New York City.

4. Our architecture is magnificent. Some of the premier architects in history – Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, and Mies Van der Rohe, to name a few, have helped shape the skyline and character of the Second City. Chicago is also known as the birthplace of the skyscraper.

5. Chicago is much more affordable. The first time I ever saw a Manhattan co-op that had cost its owners half a million dollars, I was shocked. It was more like a dorm room than an apartment.

6. Most importantly, Chicagoans are friendly. Whether walking the streets of the city or frequenting the local bars, you feel a sense of camaraderie that I have never noticed in New York.

No matter its status as second class citizen to the Big Apple, I am happy to be a denizen of “sweet home Chicago.”

 

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A Bite of the Big Apple

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Last weekend I went to New York City to visit my oldest daughter. I have always found the city intimidating. On one of my first trips there, I tried to order coffee in a crowded deli. The exchange between the order taker and me went like this:

Me:  Decaf coffee, please.
Him: Regular?
Me (louder): No, DECAF!
Him (exasperated): Regular?
Me (questioning his hearing): DECAF!

I finally realized that in New York, “regular” means “with cream and sugar.” What I wanted was decaf coffee, black.

On this visit, I had an experienced New Yorker (my daughter) to squire me around. Now, my 23-year-old has only lived in New York for a year, but she can skirt around a huge pile of garbage like a seasoned native. She is barely five feet tall, but just try fighting her for a cab. I thought Chicagoans were good at walking against the traffic light, but she could stroll across a busy street, cool as a cucumber, with only seconds until the light changed.

On previous trips to New York, I had spent most of my time in Midtown, home of such tourist meccas as Fifth Avenue, Times Square and Central Park. Although crowded, noisy, and often smelly, Midtown is still pretty “white bread.” On this trip, my daughter introduced me to a hipper part of town – East Village and the Lower East Side. I stayed in a trendy hotel that looked more like an underground nightclub. On our walks around town, I noticed a lot more graffiti, unsightly construction, and oddly dressed people. As my daughter explained when I was fretting about what to wear, “Mom, everyone here is a freak, so it doesn’t matter how you look.” I decided to go with all black (Cue the finger snapping, Daddio).

The weather was perfect for being outside. We shopped in SoHo, went to see my daughter’s sardine can apartment, rode on the subway, and did a lot of eating and drinking. As my daughter put it, “Besides working, the only thing to do in New York is consume.” She also said she loves the East Village because she could live there for 10 years and never try all of the myriad restaurants in the area. I had to admire the number of little shops, cafes, corner markets and food vendors everywhere. It would be hard to get bored in New York City. (My husband would be on his iPhone trying to find the nearest Panera Bread.)

We also managed to fit in a Broadway show and found ourselves in hysterics at a performance of “The Book of Mormon.” As a send-up of organized religion, the play made me cringe and laugh in about equal measure. The most challenging part of our weekend was skirting around the mob-like theater crowd after the show got out that evening. Leave it to my petite but ruthless bodyguard to find a way through the crowd and to that rarest of New York evening phenomena, an available taxi.

I had mixed feelings as I bid my daughter farewell and headed home to the quieter, gentler Second City. I would miss her terribly, but at least I knew she could handle herself in the Big Apple. And as my plane touched down in Chicago, I looked forward to driving to the quaint, leafy suburb I call home.