We’re All Part of The Team

I was part of a team today.

This afternoon I went for my regular swim at the local park district pool. Loaded down with Thanksgiving food, it was harder than usual. Making my usual number of laps was hard in a pool crowded with more than the usual number of swimmers.

I made a turn after completing a lap, heading back behind a woman I’d never seen before in the pool. She was fast, and wearing a streamlined suit, the mark of an expert swimmer.

But as I came up on the halfway point of the lane, I saw her floating underwater, on her back with her arms extended ahead of her, reaching towards the deep end. It was strange, and I thought maybe it was some expert trance I’d never seen before.

I swam over her, saw that she was motionless. I reached for her arm and pulled it. She didn’t move so I pulled her up, and pushed her body into the air, holding her from behind. She gasped for air, and suddenly, almost every swimmer in the pool headed for us. Two lifeguards yelled, diving into the pool. One was next to me in seconds, maneuvering her into an expert carry. Another lifeguard at the shallow end set up a board, and two lifeguards in the pool carried her out.

“Everyone out of the pool, please!” yelled one lifeguard. “Please go to the locker rooms!”

Another was on the phone, calling 911. “Is she conscious?”

“Yes!” shouted back another.

We lap swimmers streamed to the edge, as a group gathered around the half-drowned woman.

“What happened?” a man who just finished a lap asked me.

Now I had to think. What had happened? “I think she had a seizure. She wasn’t moving under the water, so I pulled her up,” I said.

“Ah,” said the man.

“Move to the locker rooms, please,” reminded a lifeguard. Three other lifeguards surrounded the woman, who seemed to be coughing, breathing. I couldn’t see her.

Picked up my towel, walked to the locker room in shock. Showered. Changed. Other men talked about the incident briefly, then circled around a scale weighing themselves, discussing weight loss.

I was shaken. Walked around to the pool door to the street. An ambulance had arrived, the woman was now on a gurney. Paramedics wheeled her out. Eyes open, awake, looking pale. Staring into space as she wheeled past me.

I stood there. Wondering what to do.

“Can I help you?” one of the lifeguards asked.

“I pulled her up.”

“Oh yeah? Hold on,” he grabbed a clipboard with a sheet titled, Incident Report.

“Put your name and contact information here. They probably won’t call you, but you know.”

I filled it out. He took the clipboard. Closed the door.

So, I walked home and thought: Today, I was part of a team. I saw someone in need and helped her. Then passed her to another person who helped, who passed her to someone else who helped.

That’s what we do. We help when we can, and we make a team.

I hope she comes back to the pool soon. I’d like to learn her name.

After A Visit To New York, Some Reflections On American Cities

Second Ave. and 60th St in New York City, taken by me from the Roosevelt Island Tram, which floats above the street.

I visited New York City this weekend to visit my sister and a few friends. I’m trying to visit more of my friends and family that live in other cities, to broaden my experience beyond Chicago. Besides New York, this year I’ve visited friends and family in Milwaukee, Boston, Cincinnati and Lexington, Kentucky. After five years of not much travel beyond the usual family vacations, it’s been a good opportunity to see how other parts of the United States work.

When I visit a city, for the first time or fiftieth, I try to walk as much as I can, take public transit and if possible, do things that regular residents might do: grocery shop, see a doctor, eat lunch at a joint frequented by office drones (of which I am one). I find the regular things are much more revealing of a city’s character than anything else. Where does a city put its energy? What is the struggle or joy of being a resident?

So, here are, in no particular order, some observations about American life in some big and small cities I’ve visited this year.

  1. New York’s density makes it vast, and difficult to traverse. Moving from borough to borough takes concentrated effort. I love the subway system, but to go five miles from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to downtown Brooklyn took me forty-five minutes. I don’t know how that can be improved, but negotiating closed subway lines, transfers, etc. was hard, even for an experienced traveler like me.
  2. Although it has so much to offer many cities don’t, just doing the basics in NYC can be grinding. At one point it took me 20 minutes to refill my MetroTransit card (the story isn’t worth it). Going grocery shopping in Manhattan requires a dedicated trip and once you’re in the store, you’re faced with much smaller pickings than other cities and much higher prices. Every friend I visited with had a harrowing commuting story. That kind of stuff could wear you down.
  3. Beyond America’s biggest Northern cities like New York, Boston and Chicago, it’s hard to live without a car. I know there are people who do it, but most American cities are just not designed for life without a car. I know many Americans like their cars, but that’s a huge sunk cost, and will keep us from enjoying the benefits of density.
  4. I’ve visited Boston maybe fifty times in my life since I have family in Massachusetts and I went to college nearby. This spring, I tried using BlueBike, one of the bikeshare services in the city. It was a revelation. Going from West End to Fenway, with a few stops in between was easy, and cheap as heck, since I had bought a $10 day pass. Easier than taking the T and a ton of fun, since I got to see much more of the city than I would have if I were underground. I didn’t get a chance to use Citibike in NYC this time around, but I saw I ton of people using it in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. Total game changer for getting around in a big, dense city.
  5. New York’s subway system is really incredible. While you expect it to move you around the city easily, you don’t really appreciate how special it is until you’re three stories down, walking to transfer from one line to another, and you come across a vast underground mall lit by a skylight four stories up. It has been upgraded and improved so that it’s more than just transit, it’s an experience. I haven’t ridden the subway in Los Angeles, but Boston, Philadelphia, D.C. and Chicago’s subways are certainly not this nice. I wonder if every city had subways as clean and convenient as New York’s, would more people use them?
  6. The culture of “Internet Delivery Everything” has taken New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco by storm. But the rest of the U.S., especially medium-sized cities like Milwaukee and Lexington, is experiencing this economic-phenomenon in fits and starts. Amazon delivery is everywhere, but not necessarily Uber Eats, Grubhub, grocery delivery services, and especially good Uber/Lyft coverage. These services have transformed my life in Chicago, freeing up hours of time a week and changing the way I think about shopping and getting around. When I travel to cities without these services, I realize how much I depend on them, and how I really don’t want to be in a place without them. I’m not confident delivery services will eventually get to every small and medium-sized American city, largely because of a lack of density. I imagine this will become a major drawback for those used to big-city life and make it hard for smaller cities to compete.
  7. With the exception of the biggest, many Northern cities are experiencing a hollowing-out, with big population drops and significant downtown vacancies. The big test for any city is – how busy is the downtown after 5:00 p.m.? But visiting Cincinnati was an especially big shocker for me: Almost the whole western half of downtown, the part without Proctor & Gamble or Fifth/Third Bank headquarters, was virtually empty. While three blocks away the city was buzzing, whole city blocks on the west side were mainly occupied by pigeons. Like Cincinnati, big chunks of Milwaukee are vacant – as are parts of Chicago, which has lost 250,000 African-Americans in the last ten years. This is a crisis of epidemic proportions, and it worries me that it isn’t part of our national dialogue.
  8. Travelling around, it becomes hard to ignore that American cities are in serious competition with one another. The winners are ones able to demonstrate a specialized niche, like Pittsburg’s tech sector, Boston’s higher education offerings, New York’s everything. I seriously worry about the future of small and medium-sized Midwestern cities. Sure, Peoria is a nice place to live, but if Caterpillar were to leave, why would anyone move there? The biggest cities are sucking up talented young people (Chicago’s 60661 ZIP code has the most Millennials of any in the country, do you think they’re planning to move elsewhere?) and smaller cities don’t have a convincing story. This also seems like a burgeoning crisis we’re just not talking about enough.
  9. This last year I’ve been wowed by New York’s subways, Boston’s Big Dig, Cincinnati’s riverfront athletic complex, Louisville’s new Ohio River bridge. In each one, every detail has been attended to, every standard met. These infrastructure projects change the way we interact with cities and the way we think about what’s possible. America at its greatest, is when it changes what’s possible. We need more of these kinds of projects, because it will change what we think about ourselves.

I really need to visit more American cities more often. If you’ve got an air mattress, let me know, because I’d love to stop by and go for a long walk. Drop me a line!

Gov.-Elect Pritzker, Let’s Heal Illinois’ Cultural Rift

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Dear Governor-Elect J.B. Pritzker,

I write to you with serious concern about our divided state. While Democrats have won a tremendous victory in Illinois, winning not only the Governor’s office but every constitutional office as well as veto-proof majorities in both the State House and Senate, this election revealed a widening gap between city and rural, metropolitan and country.

While suburban Chicago voted more Democratic than ever before, Southern and Central Illinois voters – a demographically dwindling constituency – redoubled their Republicanism. The urban-rural Illinois divide is not only about support for President Donald Trump, but also on gun laws, abortion and immigration.

Not since the late 1800’s has there been such a yawning social gap between these communities. But unlike 120 years ago, the farm economy has collapsed, providing our rural counties and small towns with many fewer economic opportunities than our biggest cities. While some rural residents are able to take advantage of what cities have to offer, many more are alienated from our biggest cities. Simultaneously, most metropolitan Chicagoans have no connection to our rural areas and couldn’t even begin to understand the culture country life has to offer.

It is a mistake to consider the problem as solely economic: The most troubling divide is cultural. Southern and Central Illinois communities lack thriving immigrant and minority communities, as in Chicago, and as a result have come to view them as a threat to the American way of life. Meanwhile, metropolitan Chicago residents rarely hunt and as a result tend to consider gun culture as violent and disruptive.

As an inner city resident, I know from my conversations with rural Illinois residents, that my way of life not only seems unfathomable to many Illinoisans outside metropolitan Chicago, but potentially threatening. Chicagoans feel much the same way about rural Illinoisans. Many rural Illinoisans have no desire to set foot in Chicago, while most Chicagoans can’t imagine what rural and small town Illinois could have to offer them.

These differences have become rooted into the most elemental aspects of our daily lives. There are certain things rural Illinois does and places it goes to, while metropolitan Chicago does not. These differences, like Walmart vs. Target or NASCAR vs. basketball, have become more than just lifestyle choices, but totems of identity that keep us apart. This is not a problem unique to our state, but this is our state, and thus our problem.

If Illinois is going to achieve economic greatness, we must find a way to heal our cultural rift, so that rural Illinoisans are comfortable with coming to Chicago, while metropolitan Chicagoans see value in visiting and investing in rural Illinois.

As the governor-elect of Illinois with a sweeping political mandate, you, Mr. Pritzker, have a unique opportunity to bring our two communities back together. Now that you’re elected, we need a new kind of campaign: one that demonstrates the welcoming and vital cultures of metropolitan Chicago and rural, small town Illinois.

Of course this kind of campaign should include an advertising component, to educate Illinoisans on how their state’s cultural diversity enhances their lives, but it should also include extensive outreach programs that personally introduces inner city Chicagoans to rural life, and small town Illinoisans to urban diversity. Building on Jahmal Cole’s My Block, My Hood, My City program would be an excellent start, although his program has been limited to connecting Chicagoans to one another.

College students from rural Illinois could spend a semester in urban Chicago colleges, much as my father, a white Bowdoin College student from New England, spent a semester of 1961 as a Morehouse College exchange student in Atlanta. Rural extension programs could host Chicagoans, while Chicago City Colleges could host Christian County residents. We could conduct cooking class exchanges, class trips, connect car clubs, knitting circles, and a dozen other hobbyist groups.

The goal would be to foster dialogue, friendships and communication. Ride the L, eat a taco, debate who makes the best rib tips. Cruise in a pick up, make venison, hike in a state park. We need to experience each other’s realities and communities so that Illinois can lift itself up, rather than debate who should be called a “True American”.

As we venture beyond our home communities in Illinois, we need to believe that our neighbors understand us and want to assist us. Only then, will Illinois truly achieve the greatness it deserves.

Let’s defy the rest of America, and do what Midwesterns do best: pull together as one.