Colson Whitehead and the perpetually reinvented city

Few novels I’ve read in recent years have impressed me as deeply as Colson Whitehead’s highly inventive debut The Intuitionist, and I’m very much looking forward to the April release of his new novel Sag Harbor. In the meantime, I’m catching up on some of his other work, including The Colossus of New York, a slim volume of essays and observations about the city published in 2003. In the book’s opening piece, “City Limits,” Whitehead does a beautiful job of evoking one part of the experience of living in a big city:

No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge. That before the internet cafe plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.

I moved to Chicago in 2001, but it did not become my home until I’d been there long enough to see the city’s sidewalks, shops, bars, and buildings begin to change. For a couple of years, I lived in Humboldt Park, just west of Western Avenue, on the border of the Ukrainian Village. It was Humboldt Park in 2001-2003 that set the template for my personal Chicago—for the city as I experienced it, and the city that resides in my mind and heart. I love to bore people with stories about the great jukebox and horrible bathrooms at Tuman’s before its makeover, or about how almost all of the restaurants and boutiques along the stretch of Division between Western and Ashland are newcomers as far as I’m concerned (never mind that by now some of them have been there for several years, and have enjoyed lengthier tenancies than the businesses they replaced). These vanished places mean so much to me not so much because of any specific qualities they might have had, but instead because they were central to my experience of Chicago at a particular point in my life. A big city changes extremely rapidly, and people change rapidly, too. Thinking about the city as you remember it is a means of remembering the person you were at that time, and it’s a way to stop and marvel at all the changes you’ve undergone in the time since.

The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead

The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead writes:

There are unheralded tipping points, a certain number of times that we will unlock the front door of an apartment. At some point you were closer to the last time than you were to the first time, and you didn’t even know it. You didn’t know that each time you passed the threshold you were saying goodbye.

Now that I’ve moved away from Chicago, the above passage strikes me as all the more poignant. When Lura and I moved out of our apartment in Logan Square, where we lived for three years, we were so busy with (and exhausted from) the process of repainting the walls and emptying the place out that we almost lost track of the emotional significance of the moment. Lura had to stop me at the door so we could spend one last moment in the space where we’d lived for so long, and commemorate the life we’d led together there. It’s very important, I think, for a city dweller to pause to experience this kind of moment whenever possible. After moving to Ravenswood, we would sometimes return to Logan Square to visit friends or return to our old haunts, but the experience was never the same: the neighborhood was now part of our past, and the changes that had happened there since we left weren’t our changes—they weren’t part of our experience of Chicago. And when we visited Ravenswood and other North Side neighborhoods this past Christmas, after having moved out of Chicago altogether, the experience was very similar: there was great pleasure in returning to the places we’d loved, but they were no longer our places.

Saint Paul is not yet my city; I simply haven’t lived in it long enough for its changes to have become part of my personal consciousness and memory of myself. It is possible to fall in love with a city overnight, but it takes years to really live in it—for that city to become part of not only who you are now, but also part of who you used to be.

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