3 Ways I Found The Heart of Chicago

This post is part of The Heart of Chicago Series that will be running on South of I-80 for the month of March. Today's guest is fellow ChicagoNow blogger and friend Julie Vassilatos of Cook's County: Urban Stories of Food and Life as well as Chicago Public Fools.

3 Ways I Found The Heart of Chicago by Julie Vassilatos

I’m tempted to say that the heart of Chicago is somewhere in the South Side. That’s where I’ve lived for nearly 30 years. My adoptive neighborhood with its parks, serene ponds, and annual traditions both goofy and gorgeous. Its two art centers--Hyde Park Art Center and Little Black Pearl. Its grocery store courtyard where just everything happens, from book sales to plant sales to jazz concerts and lambs roasting on spits. Its shore line, Japanese Garden, Museum of Science and Industry, Oriental Institute with mummies and ancient stone bulls taller than your kid standing on your shoulders. Its local spots—newer places like H-Dogs and Fleck’s for coffee, iconic places like The Medici and Jimmy’s, Pizza Capri who catered our wedding so long ago. Our schools so full of great families, great teachers.

I love the South Side in general and Hyde Park in particular, if you can’t tell.

But the heart of Chicago doesn’t beat down here.

Three things showed me where it really does beat.

First. Seven years ago our daughter was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss. Like most folks faced with this kind of diagnosis we were ignorant and afraid, wondering if we’d be able to provide our then-three-year-old with the right care. After a long time floundering by ourselves in ignorance (and not the blissful kind), we managed to stumble into other parents of deaf and hard of hearing kids. Around this time I also wrote a story about our daughter getting hearing aids, and then I heard from dozens more parents all over the city in our same boat.

Henceforth we had a new tribe, parents of deaf and hard of hearing kids. I suppose they’re ordinary folks but I think of them more like wise sages or part-time superheroes who have stood by us through IEP meetings, two cochlear implant surgeries, difficult decisions. I worked with some of them on the doomed effort to get hearing aids covered by insurance in Illinois (I bet you didn’t know they weren’t)—twice. I met folks who are visionary, optimistic, patient, and hopeful. These people—regular Chicagoans, some who speak and some who sign—have given me a rudder in difficult waters and shown me you can communicate across great divides I never even knew existed.

Second. Three years ago a friend and I took a fancy to the idea of staging a pie contest.  I don’t know why precisely—just because. From this mere goofy idea we have held two pie-baking contests that are also a fundraiser for local hunger projects.

I really still can’t believe the people who emerged who seem to think pie baking is a good thing to celebrate. So many people donate their talents—music, decorating, judging, service (like, literally serving pie). Through this thing I’ve seen that there are plenty of folks who believe that the way you make strong communities is by giving the community your best self. You make strong communities by bringing the best of what you have to give to those around you, whether it is your family, your neighborhood, or your city. These people have taught me so much. Of course they would respond, what are you talking about? I just baked a pie. Or, I just helped set up! And to that I say, you’ve shown that you can contribute to your neighborhood and make it better. You’ve brought your best to a bunch of strangers. You’ve shared yourself, your talents, and your pies, and that’s what makes our city work. Bringing our best, whether to loved ones, neighbors, or strangers.

Third. Almost one year ago exactly I fell by accident into an uncomfortable and ugly scenario. My neighborhood school was placed on the infamous school-closing list and I happened into a few forums where that list was discussed and refined. After a few months of repeatedly failing to listen to the concerns of parents, teachers, principals, or students, the city’s leaders went ahead and closed 50 schools, and the price they paid for this was rather higher than they bargained.

Here’s what they didn’t know would happen. Here in our city, divided as it is into neighborhoods with thick borders, commonly thought of as one of the most racially segregated cities in America, parents found each other. All those parents who hadn’t been listened to by the powers that be? We found each other, and listened to each other, and figured out something shocking.

All our concerns are the same. Those neighborhood borders don’t matter. Those race differences don’t matter. Those cultural divides have no meaning to us. I have met moms who are passionate about education justice, their schools, and other people’s children as well as their own. I have met new leaders—plain old moms who emerged as vibrant, dynamic leaders, who only found their voices because of the school closings. We’ve been through the wringer together and stand together in our work on behalf of schools and children in Chicago. Nothing can take this experience away, diminish or deny it.

Suffice to say, by now I’ve found where the heart of Chicago is beating. It’s beating in the people of Chicago, loud, passionate, hopeful, and ringing in my ears. The people of this city are its greatest asset. I was blessed enough to give birth to a hard of hearing daughter and find a whole new world and so much support. I was lucky enough to find a lot of fun people who want to share their best efforts and create new traditions and a more wonderful community. I was privileged and honored enough to fall into an accidental sisterhood that cuts across all barriers in this city and is only now beginning to realize the extent of its power.

When we reach across so many kinds of dividing lines in our city we find out that our Chicago is a city of immense strength, and heart. I hope your ears ring with the pounding beat too.

Julie Vassilatos is is a south side resident. When she isn't writing about cooking or CPS, she is taking care of her family and enjoying the city she loves so much.


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