Of Bridges and Tunnels and "Berlin Walls:" a tale of two hometowns

Actually, that's not quite true--I claim three hometowns: Brooklyn, where I was born and raised; Seattle, where I basically became a "real" grownup; and Chicago, where a couple became a family and where I put down roots over 30 years ago (and where I've lived in my current house longer than I'd lived in either Brooklyn or Seattle).  This post will not really address Seattle--I haven't back recently enough to observe any distressing phenomena beyond the suburban sprawl, gridlocked traffic and skyrocketing cost-of-living (relative to both 1970s Seattle and today's Chicago) I encountered ten years ago. I haven't been reading as much about it nor certainly have visited it as often as I have New York City.

For there's a socioeconomic phenomenon I've noticed over the past decade in both Chicago and Brooklyn (and, okay, to some extent, Seattle).  Everyone talks of the divide between red states and blue states, coastal and "flyover" America, urban and rural,  and even Manhattanites' dismissive descriptor "bridge and tunnel" for those supposed Philistines unfortunate enough to live in the outer boroughs, Yonkers, Long Island and New Jersey (but not Connecticut or the tonier Hudson Valley towns, because many Manhattanites secretly aspire to escape to there as soon as their incomes rise commensurately with the size of their households).  Here in Chicago, there's always been a similar snobbism among those of us within the north half of the city limits, Oak Park, the North Shore and upscale parts of DuPage County vis-a-vis the far southern Cook County 'burbs and the "exurbs" of southern DuPage and Will County (other than McMansion and horse-country territory).  And 30+ years ago, even Seattleites and wealthier Bellevue denizens used to snicker at certain less affluent suburbs to the south and northeast (much of that territory now completely built-up and "gentrified" clear out to the foothills of the Cascades, courtesy of the software boom).

But now there's a definite pecking-order within Brooklyn (parts of which have been anointed the new Manhattan) and Chicago (not counting the cores of the South and West Sides, which have never really been for the faint of heart, complacent of attitude, or nearly-empty-of-gas-tank). Brooklyn, now that even affluent young professionals find Manhattan housing prices out of reach, has suddenly become hip, even post-millennial chic and cutting-edge.

But not MY Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of my youth. Every time I hear of a "Brooklyn renaissance,"  read of a trendy young professional or artistic couple or family, great new restaurant or charming shop, it's never south of Grand Army Plaza nor east of Flatbush Avenue (unless it has a Manhattan Skyline view or abuts a saltwater beach, or boasts a nationally renowned pizzeria and huge single-family homes like the wealthier parts of Midwood).  Canarsie, Mill Basin, Gerritsen Beach, Flatlands, Rugby, Bensonhurst, all considered "Saturday Night Fever" territory by the cognoscenti, for all intents and purposes New Jersey East. Crown Heights? Rugby?  East Flatbush? Strictly for traveling through, either underground via subway or driving through with doors locked and windows up to gawk at the Hasidim or absorb the Caribbean atmosphere by visual osmosis.

No, every hot new spot in Brooklyn over which the Times or NewYork Magazine crows is invariably in Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Clinton and Cobble Hills, Red Hook, Williamsburg (Hasidim-plus-artsy young Midwestern and California expats is a mix considered safe and either quaint or bleeding-edge contemporary), Greenpoint,  Prospect Heights, or "DUMBO," a neighborhood that didn't exist in my youth--back then it was a no-man's land of abandoned factories and unsavory characters living under the bridges by the BQE on-and-off-ramps.  Even parts of Bed-Stuy, which we 1950s-early '60s Brownsvillians of all races approached warily if at all, is now considered hip and trendy. Brownsville?  Cleaner now than when I finally left it in '64 but still to be approached with no illusions and a possible emergency escape route.  East New York? It was scary even back in the day, even for those in other tough neighborhoods. Bushwick? As hairy as East New York, but because it's way north, it'll probably become au courant long before Brownsville, East Flatbush or Canarsie.  The arbiters of taste, fashion and all things that make urban living worthwhile might as well bisect Brooklyn and just admit that they don't consider its southern and eastern portions as part of the borough.

But don't get too smug, you food-and-tourism-magazine writers and television "lifestyle show" reporters (come out from under that desk, "LX TV FirstLook") who cover Chicago. You're as guilty as your East Coast counterparts, if not more so.  For as far as you're concerned, the only "Chicago" worth writing about is South Loop, Bucktown, Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, River North, the Gold Coast and Streeterville. Scratch that--just South Loop, Wicker Park and Bucktown (maybe southern Lakeview or Andersonville).  There are people over age 40 living in the rest of those upscale neighborhoods--I can just hear the disdain dripping off the keyboards of the BlackBerries and netbooks of those reporters unlucky enough to be assigned to write about the haunts of the supposedly stodgier of the affluent precincts nearest the Loop, much less middle-and-working-class parts of the mid-and-far-North Side.  After a real estate closing I did a couple of years ago (when people were still buying and selling) in Logan Square (in a gang-ridden area of same), a realtor admitted (after we'd downed several Cosmopolitans) that even it was a hotter neighborhood and an easier sell than, say, more affluent northern Edgewater Glen (my tree-lined 'hood populated by families and older couples living in large 1910-era foursquare single-family houses), West Ridge, or (she shuddered) Rogers Park. I asked her why and she replied, "Do you know what realtors call Irving Park Road? The Berlin Wall."  Location, location, location--but it's not what you think. Good public schools? Families (especially those disinclined to fork over tuition) are so un-hip. Safety? No, a little danger is sort of dashing and devil-may care. More housing bang-for-the-buck? No, bare lofts or teeny studios are where it's at, the disproportionately pricier the better. Parking? Cars are for old farts who shop only once a week or so and don't want to pop for cabs. The closer you are to the Loop (even if you never venture into it), or to the CTA trains that go there, the more desirable the neighborhood no matter how run-down and crowded.  The easier it is to find on-street parking in a neighborhood, obviously the fewer people from outside the "golden zone" must possess sufficient awe and reverence for the area's fashionability to find it desirable to drive down there.

And even ten years ago, every guidebook, magazine and authority I consulted for restaurant suggestions in Seattle specified places in Belltown, Fremont, Capitol Hill or Queen Anne Hill. Downtown? Okay for lodging and shopping, but too conventional for serious foodies.  The U. District? At one's own peril (and best to wear a hidden money belt and stash the purse in the hotel safe).  Points north in the city? Strictly old-fogey and family-residential. Places to be "from," not to "go."

Country mouse vs. city mouse?  We'll have to rewrite that old tale (tail?). For quiet, safer city neighborhoods frequented by families and the middle-aged are, to the urban cognoscenti, apparently the new "flyover America;" the country mouse can sit back, shake its head in amusement and watch its snootier cousins duke it out for the title of "coolest of them all." 

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