As of today, I’ve lived in Albany Park for four years. (They celebrated with a shooting on a street corner I cross every single day.) I’ve lived here longer than anywhere since the house I grew up in (torn down, McMansion built in its place), and perhaps because of that or perhaps just because of where I’m at in my life now, it’s the first place that has really, truly, felt like my home. It’s got its problems (see above), and it’s far from trendy, but I love it. Part of why that is, I think, can be illustrated with a little story about my first twenty-four hours in the neighborhood.
I moved in on a Friday night and Saturday day, with the help of friends and family. It was busy but smooth, back and forth from my old place and making the rounds to Target and Home Depot to get all the necessary odds and ends. And then, all of a sudden, after hours of bustle and activity, it was Saturday evening and everyone was gone. I was alone in this strange new neighborhood, unmoored, unsettled, surrounded by boxes. I was also starving and had an empty fridge.
So I set out, alone, into a surprisingly warm fall evening, in search of dinner. I had moved in a bit of a rush, so I hadn’t taken a lot of time to explore the neighborhood I was moving into, a neighborhood I had barely known existed until I saw the condo and decided immediately to put in an offer. From me needing a new place to landing in said new place was about two months, which if you take into account the official paperwork nightmares of real-estate-purchasing and marriage-ending that went into that process is pretty damn fast.
I walked down Lawrence Avenue that night with my eyes wide, noticing all of the storefronts full of elaborate dresses and phone card plans to countries I’d barely heard of, and reading (or at least looking at) all of the signs in all of the languages, some of which I’ve gotten better at understanding in the years since. It was very much the experience of being in a foreign country, trying to decipher what everything means, how you’re supposed to act.
I was impressed by all of the people out on the street–not gangbangers loitering around, which were the only people who ever hung out on the street in my old neighborhood, but families and couples and groups of friends, out for a walk or to get dinner or ice cream from any of 8 million pushcarts. It was crowded with people and noises and smells in a way that reminded me that I lived in a real city. At a moment that I was terrified of being alone, I fell out onto that street and the neighborhood caught me. It gave me delicious falafel and baba ganoush for dinner that night, at an Iraqi joint that sadly no longer exists, and the next morning, it gave me flaky Guatemalan pastries and terrible panaderia coffee. It gave me a place to be in and nothing in particular that I had to be in that place. It felt at once totally alien and perfectly homey in a way that I’m having a hard time explaining. It felt the way that travel feels when you land in a destination that you’re excited to finally be able to explore.
I’ve thought numerous times about moving, to other countries, other states, and other parts of the city. Every time I do, it tears at me a little bit. I’m sure I’ll live somewhere else eventually. But there’s something about this neighborhood that’s more home than anywhere else I’ve ever been. For all the trash and the graffiti, for the dearth of bars and cafes, for the catcalls from day laborers and the occasional corner boys, it was there when I needed it to be, and if that doesn’t make something home, I don’t know what does.