In suburbia

We live in Evanston, the first suburb outside Chicago on the North Shore. Before we moved here, I couldn’t quite get to grips with the American concept of a suburb.  I thought of a suburb as, say, Hampstead in London, or Chapel Allerton in Leeds, or Clifton in Bristol. By which I mean that, although when I lived in Brixton I might not have naturally described it as ‘a London suburb’, I wouldn’t have found it completely bizarre to do so: I thought of suburbs as areas that were part of cities or towns.

In Chicago, though, suburbia is something quite different.  By definition a suburb is not part of the City of Chicago.  Here in Evanston, therefore, the City of Evanston (population 75,000) runs its own school authority, water board (the water is uniquely horrible) and – for some reason M and I find this highly amusing – the dedicated Evanston police force.

Until a few weeks ago I had ventured further into suburbia only a handful of times: to go to the mall in Skokie, the Chicago Botanic Garden in Highland Park, and a brunch in Wilmette, where I muttered to J about how I could never live anywhere so quiet and boring. (Evanston, with its six bars, was looking like Las Vegas from this vantage point.) But now my illustrious temping career takes me every day beyond Wilmette, through the Village of Winnetka to the Village of Glenview.

Winnetka is the location of the house where Home Alone was shot, and the video at the top of the post is the endearingly amateurish production of a real estate agent (why the family who live there need three dining tables is beyond me, but beside the point), and gives you a nice impression of the view from my morning bus ride right at the beginning of the clip: grand houses, lawns and leafiness.  There is a LOT of money around here.  Half the bus passengers appear to be cleaning staff on their way to polish the banisters of these mansions; most of the other half are off to work at Kraft, whose private grounds the bus drives into between Winnetka and Glenview.  (There is also a man with a waxed moustache, who combs his hair with a miniature, thumb sized comb, but I only see him on my ride home.)

But my destination is the management office of a shopping mall on a converted naval base. In some ways it is quite a standard mall: there’s a Starbucks, a multi-screen cinema, a couple of mobile phone stores, a toy shop and a few boutiques.

In other ways, it is an expression of a laughably spoilt way of life. Take the centrepiece department store, which I will refer to as V- M- as if I were writing a Victorian novel about American suburbia. V- M- is the only department store I have ever visited with its own resident pianist. It is the only one where I have seen old men dozing around the feet of the escalators, in a seating area that has been expressly designed for that purpose, and the only one with an upstairs ladies’ lounge that is actually that and not a euphemism for a toilet.  Initially, I assumed V- M-‘s clientele was drawn exclusively from the senior citizenship. Now, following an inspection of its range of string bikinis and heels that would be inadvisable for the arthritic, I realise that its soporific air is simply pure suburbia (though the range of both support hosiery and wraps for covering one’s crepey arms when wearing evening dress is, in my experience at least, unmatched in the western hemisphere). Having said all that, the $42 bamboo babygros are pretty nice.

It’s probably unfair to judge a place by the people whose phone calls I take all day. But here goes.

1) Rather than read a map, look at a signpost, or use any common sense at all, they prefer to call from their car for directions when they are already on the road. ‘I’m on Michigan, driving east.  Now: are you before Waukegan or after Waukegan? And would that be a left turn or a right? Is that north?’

2) They have ludicrously high expectations of free entertainment, laid on weekly in our Summer Sounds series. ‘Will there be chairs?’ ‘Do you spray for mosquitos?’ ‘Is there food?’ I should specify that this last is being asked about a cover band concert, on a bandstand, that begins at 6.30, in a mall that has 19 different places to eat, all open until at least 9.  The answer is, in fact, yes: there are dedicated stalls for pizza, ice cream and drinks.  When I sounded a little vague about the exact brands of beer and wine that might be available, I got this response: ‘You don’t know? Well you should know. People want to know.’

3) This has only happened once. But. On Thursday a woman came into the office and asked me to take a photo of her new shoes with her iphone, to email to a friend. I was happy to oblige. I was less happy when she asked me to re-take it five times because ‘you haven’t gotten the whole of my body'; ‘you can’t see the shoes so well'; ‘there’s a fire extinguisher in the background'; and ‘I have kind of a funny expression there’.

However, I think the high maintenance streak is catching. I have been there for three weeks.  Some Yelp reviewers are unhappy at having to park in a garage when the street slots are busy. I can’t help but wish they’d put a shelter at the bus stop.

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About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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2 Responses to In suburbia

  1. Expat Mum says:

    I’m a City Bitch. (Don’t laugh – that’s what the Chicago suburbanites call us, except I’m really nice and very low maintenance.) I was at that place in the photo last week with my mother and I was severaly under-dressed. Here I was thinking I was just going shopping (and somewhere other than Michigan Ave) and everyone looked like they were on their way to a luncheon. Perhaps they were.
    It confirmed my decision not to do the North Shore all those years ago though. (And Evanston isn’t really one of them.)

  2. Chi-to-Lon-to-Chi says:

    A clarification to the Brits: Evanston most definitely is part of the North Shore; the suburb where the mall in question is located most definitely is not (“shore” being the operative word). Regrettably, you can encounter the mannerless nouveau riche in both locales.

    I’m enjoying this blog, though.

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