In two weeks, I’m moving back to the Chicago neighborhood I’ve always considered my own. Even though I’ve been away for longer than I actually lived there, something has always felt unsettled since the day I left.
I fell in love with the murals and taco stands, the close proximity to the Loop and the skyline views from the El platform. I loved my overprotective landlord who was constantly showing up to fix things, even when I didn’t ask him to. Now, after three years away, I’m just beginning to put the pieces back together. First the job, then the roommate, then the lease on a tiny two-bedroom garden apartment that puts me right back in the neighborhood I couldn’t quite give up on.
We tried to look for apartments in other neighborhoods, but we just kept coming back to this one, probably for all the same reasons I moved there to begin with. We gave up our dreams of spacious closets and built-in cabinets and quirky historic charm, and settled for in-unit laundry and a friendly landlord who lives upstairs.
As we were driving around the neighborhood looking at apartments, my roommate thought it was funny how I was constantly observing the way things have changed.
“Oh, it looks like the grocery store that used to be on that corner closed.”
“Hey look, a new coffee shop!”
“What? There was never permit parking on that street before!”
For better or worse, I can’t deny that things have changed since I moved away. For example, the old theater on our corner has re-opened and become one of the most popular music venues in town, and new businesses have opened all around it. It’s all beginning to look a little more gentrified, which has been the subject of much controversy over the past several years.
I know there’s a lot of debate around the issue of gentrification vs. urban renewal, and I won’t pretend to have easy answers. But from my perspective, change isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, this is perhaps the thing I love most about the city—the fact that it never stays quite the same.
I might be moving back to the same neighborhood, but everything else is not the same. My career is not the same, my perspective on the world is not the same, my relationships are not the same. The neighborhood itself is not the same.
Ever since I left, my primary goal has been to get back to the life I had before. I wanted to live forever in the place where I was before I lost my job, before I moved to Central America, before I re-evaluated everything and made a major career change. I wanted to go back to the loud street festivals and the dinner parties with cheap Trader Joe’s wine and the creaky floorboards and the windows that didn’t close all the way.
And maybe I will never get it all back. As I was going through all the things I own that I will never fit into the tiny bedroom I’m about to move into, it occurred to me that maybe I will have to live with less than I had before—and that’s okay. Maybe that was part of the crazy, mysterious plan all along.
If I try to fit myself back into the life I had before, I will be ignoring all the ways that I myself have changed.
After so much turmoil, there’s a part of me that wants to sing for joy at the thought of returning to the place that feels like home. After missing this place for so long, I’m basking in the feeling that something is being made right. I’m already planning the summer adventures, the street festivals, the gatherings with friends, all the things I’ve missed so much over the past three years. I’ll try to resist the temptation to spend the entirety of my small paycheck on restaurants, coffee shops, and concert tickets.
It all seems like a fitting end to the story, until I remember that good stories are not just about returning to the beginning again.
In every good story, even the ones that are about returning to a place you left, there is some fundamental change that takes place between the beginning and the end. There are things that are held onto, and things that are left behind. There are characters who learn to move forward, and characters who stay stuck in the past. In my case, this isn’t by any means the end of the story—just another chapter along the way.