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Monday, August 15

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Editor's note: This article originally ran on June 3, 2007.

Tonight I sat on my porch swing, the scent of peonies and roses in the air. Folks passing nodded a friendly hello, and my kids sprayed each other with the hose out on the sidewalk. My son and I rode bikes six blocks to karate As we headed down our street, the church bells chimed We stopped at the little store for milk on our way home then sped down the hill, avoiding groups of rope jumping girls, ladies out for a stroll, all manner of soccer players, dog walkers, senior strollers and toddling babies. We stowed our bikes and my son ran off to play with the boys on the street.

Does this sound insanely suburban? I suppose it does, except we live in the city.

The night we signed the papers on our house, eight years ago, we drove out to take a look at the neighborhood that we were diving headfirst into, knowing virtually nothing about it, other than that it was really freaking far west. Our sense of dread and panic grew with each passing block, and by the time we hit Central, I think we were both ready to turn back and call off the deal. We drove past the house slowly, both of us thinking, well, how did I get here? This is not my beautiful house.

Our search for a house (actually our search for a building that rapidly evolved into a search for a house) was a quick lesson in a couple of things. The first: people live in really weird houses, and the second: we couldn't afford anything east of Cicero. My daughter, then 3, and I headed up the search while my husband slaved away in the technology mines. We looked at so many houses that I began to sense good vs. evil before even getting out of the car. Some of the worst: the one with the pit bulls in the basement, the lonely man living in what looked to be a closet in an attic, and the one that was so scary that my daughter flat out refused to enter.

So the more we looked, the farther and farther west we went. I might add that I got more and more pregnant as well, so looking at crazy ass houses with kitchens in the basement and walls blocking off half of the upstairs was getting a little old. When our realtor pulled up in front of a fairly nondescript frame house with a faux stone exterior, the only thing I noticed was that it had a green door, and, it being St. Patrick's Day, I thought, well now, maybe we'll get lucky. And then my realtor tripped and fell, right on the sidewalk. It's always weird to fall down, so that must have meant something. At least it served to stick the day in my brain.

The house wasn't gross. It was bright and sunny, it was open. The layout made sense. It was pink, though. The living room was deeply pink, and the rest of the house looked like a carton of rainbow sherbet had thrown up. But the rooms were big with high ceilings, the kitchen had a huge picture window right over the sink, with the view being an ancient pear tree. There appeared to be about one mile of counter space (it seems nowhere near that now, but at the time I was living with about 10 inches of countertop). The basement was finished, clean and carpeted. There was nobody living in the attic, in fact the attic had been remodeled to make two large bedrooms. There was a deck, a garage, a tiny front porch. I liked it. My daughter liked it. The people who lived here seemed to have liked it. We went downtown to pick up the other decision-making family member. We took Grand Avenue all of the way from downtown to the house. It took about one century to get from there to here, and all the while my husband was hyperventilating. A committed bike commuter, would this place be too far to ride? (That's laughable to him now; he bikes 11 miles there and back almost daily.) But, ever-expanding pregnant lady trumps irritable bicyclist every time, and this pregnant lady needed a place to roost. We bought the house.

And now, eight years later, it's so very much our beautiful house, and however it was we got here, we're glad we did.

There are a lot of compelling reasons to live farther east (assuming one can afford to): proximity to the lake, to movie theaters, good restaurants, book stores, culture, and a little something called the CTA are just a few. We missed all of those things, and still do occasionally. Especially mass rapid transit, the far Northwest Side is sorely lacking in this area. The thing that we discovered upon relocating out here is that there are amazing restaurants, culture (though perhaps not the one we were accustomed to) even movie theaters out here. The other thing that there is out here, in abundance, is breathing space, lots and lots of kids, parks, family unity and a burgeoning little community of people who love it out here, who moved out here because they could actually buy a decent house.

I have plenty of friends who've moved to the suburbs, and they seem happy there, immersed in their progressive, groovy suburban lifestyles, with the fabulous libraries and park districts and recycling programs. I can see the draw. But what I love about living in our little suburban urban neighborhood is that it is still urban. What first drew me to the city was the energy, and the feeling that amongst so many, one could be free to be, without interference. I still feel that way, that we can do what we like here, and because this is an urban neighborhood and definitely not an upscale one, people tend to keep their guards up a bit and don't get in each other's business too much.

For example, I'm sure there are many people on the street who would like to tell me that it's unacceptable to breastfeed a baby on the front porch or celebrate Halloween, but then I might be free to tell them to can the Norteno, or perhaps reconsider the effectiveness of their car alarm. But eh, we're all friendly, in a "you've got your life I've got mine" sort of way, so why get into it? Live and let live, that's the motto. Unless you are planning to leave a used car battery and six empty penzoil bottles underneath the sycamore tree, then the motto goes out the door.

Sometimes I think that the kids might be better off growing up in a place where they can run wild in nature and not grow up with the jaded, defensive air of the city child, but the price of them not being able to walk down the street for fresh horchata, or thai iced coffee, or a delicious watermelon smoothy is just too steep. What kind of childhood would they have without being steps away from a dollar store so packed with crap that it's seizure inducing? What must it be like to live in places where there aren't dozens of people selling things out of homemade carts passing by their house every day? Would life be better without the tamale lady? Or the sock man? I know that we'd have a lackluster existence indeed were we to live without our daily dose of paletas from the coco man.

Really, I don't think the kids out here seem particularly tough and urban. There are gangs, to be sure. People are very protective of their kids, to the point of suffocation in some cases, but in the eight years we've lived out here, our street has gone from having about 10 kids to having probably close to 40. Some of them are only spotted on their way from house to car, and are not allowed to play outside, but there are definitely a few packs, one on the east side of the street, and one on the west (with occasional, age appropriate cross-over) that are as free as any kids anywhere probably are to run around and play in each other's backyards.

Here, in no particular order, are my 10 favorite things about this part of town — not including cheap houses, because sadly, there are no more cheap houses, anywhere, not even out here, on the edge of town.

1. The Parks. Riis, Sayre, Shabonna and, not much farther, the Forest Preserve. The best indoor pool that I've found is at Shabonna Park. I've waxed rhapsodic enough about Riis Park, but I will add one thing: there is a new breed of duck up in the pond. There's a shop at Austin and Fullerton that sells live animals that you can have, um, slaughtered. Chickens, rabbits, ducks, turkeys. A girl who lived around here saved up to buy some ducks from the market and set them free in the Riis Park pond. There are now some funky looking ducks swimming around up there, a weird cross between the regular wild duck, and the kind of duck that one might see at old McDonald's farm. You know, Jemima PuddleDuck.

2. Hong Huah, the best Chinese food ever.

3. A&G Fresh Market. This grocery store is a pleasure to shop in. It's a giant produce market, with an amazing deli, complete with delicious prepared food, meats, cheeses, a butcher shop and fish counter. Then there is a terrific bulk section (unfortunately not self serve) with all manner of beans, nuts, grains, dried fruit and candy. The rest of the store is stocked with a big selection of Polish/Greek/Hispanic/Italian/Asian/American staples, including organic yogurt, decent eggs and good, cheap bread. If you dance with your kids in the aisles, you might be reprimanded by a cranky old Polish lady.

4. Wrightwood Avenue. Wrightwood is the conduit to Logan Square. By car or bike it's a pleasant ride.

5. Grand Avenue. There is no expressway nearby. To 290 or 90/94 it's a 15 minute drive. Grand is the way to go towards downtown, as long as you travel at non-peak hours. When I worked nights at Grand and Racine, I discovered the beauty and grandeur of Grand Avenue.

6. Galewood. Still farther west lies Galewood, the true suburb in the city. Gorgeous houses, peacefully integrated, and very big on holiday decoration, Galewood is my favorite place to go for a walk.

7. Johnny's Beef. The real reason we will never move away. The last two babies were grown on juicy beefs and lemon ice. If you are purchasing ice (and you should purchase the ice), the small is the perfect size for a kid, and the large is the perfect size for me.

8. Wildlife. So far this summer: turtles, fox, geese, heron, woodpeckers, cardinals, a coyote, frogs, morning doves (I think the same pair as last year) robins, goldfinches, all types of warblers, and hawks. And a poodle with purple hair.

9. The Unique at Diversey, at 4441 W. Diversey. This is borderline far Northwest Side, but it's the closest resale shop, and generally a treasure trove. The last time we went was Vintage Sari Day!

10. The Brickyard Mall. I used to hate the Brickyard. I was mugged there when I was vastly pregnant, and danced with glee when they tore it down. Now, it's Target baby. Target, Starbucks, a new Jewel, Chipotle and Lowes. Perhaps I'm showing my consumerist colors here, but it sure is nice to have that area turned around, and lord knows I wear my share of Target finery. They could have put a few sidewalks in between the stores and maybe a little green space somewhere, but at least it's not like walking onto the set of Dawn of the Dead like it used to be.

OK, just one more, 11: We can see the Sears Tower from our bedroom window.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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