I loved living in our small New Hampshire town where the guy in the post office knew who you were as soon as you entered, and your plumber had a kid in your daughter’s class. Those small moments of connection cut through the feeling of anonymity from which we had fled in Brooklyn.
But during our years in Chicago, we’ve learned that, given the right circumstances and the right location, you can replicate some of the most appealing aspects of small-town life. We live in Hyde Park, a neighborhood dominated by the University of Chicago, which, in addition to the campus, owns a large portfolio of property, commercial and residential. The University tries to use its holdings to make sure there are sufficient services and entertainment opportunities to keep residents happy. However, that’s not enough to create the small-town ambience that we crave.
There are a number of small pieces that, when assembled, come closer to doing the job. It helps to have so many of your basic needs met, either within walking distance or with a very short car ride entirely on neighborhood streets. The latter is true for the hospital we rely on to contain the solutions to almost all our growing health challenges, the sleepy bank that oversees a good part of our financial needs, the small shopping mall that we can see from our 16th story apartment window which contains the drug store and the Trader Joe’s so central to our medical and culinary well-being. We were, briefly, a food desert before TJ saved us. Until recently, the shopping mall also contained an Office Depot from which we could feed ink and paper into our voracious printer but, long story, they are now shuttered.
It’s just a short walk to Valois, a neighborhood cafeteria which displays above its windows the sign “See your food.” Before the pandemic, it was the unofficial meeting place for a wide variety of business and social purposes, and it’s returned to that role now that we’re eating out again. It’s a great feeling when you step up to the counter and the head line cook leans across to shake your hand and never asks for your order because HE KNOWS.
I’ve saved the best for last. Everybody needs an auto mechanic whom you trust to keep you safe on the road without bankrupting you in the process. Right down at the end of the next block is a BP station where for more than 25 years Sam held court in the two bays that were almost always full of neighborhood cars owned by other Hyde Parkers like me who trusted Sam without reserve. Sure, it seemed a tad more expensive than other places, but Sam was not the owner, so everyone had to be assured his cut. Although Sam’s English had a few bumps, you always could count on a lucid explanation of what needed doing and what your options were.
Then disaster struck. The neighborhood list serves were full of rumors that Sam’s repair operation was being shut down to allow the station to expand its food and drink section. There’s a high school close by which generates a regular flow of hungry kids in search of aggressively bad snacks with which to abuse their bodies. The powers that be decided there was more money in that than in cars. It’s like the pharmacies that are less and less about pharmaceuticals. I was in the local CVS yesterday and noted that there was more shelf space allotted to breakfast cereals than to pain relief.
Sam, enterprising fellow that he is, was quick to reassure us that our relationship could continue, even though he was no longer down the block. He was taking all the equipment from the gas station home, including the lifts – I wish I could have been there to see that – and will be doing repairs in his yard. He was offering to drive back to Hyde Park, pick up your car, do the repairs and return it to you with as little inconvenience as you experienced when he was still in the neighborhood.
The last time Sam worked on my car at the old garage was a few months ago. He told me then that my exhaust system would need attention before winter. So, I decided to test the system. I contacted him – he is now in my phone’s address book and we’re also Facebook friends – and we made a date. Sam arrived and whisked my car away. In his familiar hands my little Impreza must have felt like the cat being petted by a trusted neighbor. He told me he would call within two hours to report on the work that he was proposing and what it would cost.
The call came as promised, I gave him the green light to proceed and by late afternoon, Sam and I were standing in the early dark in the parking lot behind our house, engaged in what a casual passerby might have mistaken for a drug deal. Because his accounts had not been set up yet, he asked that I pay in cash, so there I was counting out the 20s and 50s to complete the transaction.
In the short time since Sam left his long-time space down the block, he has rented some bays in a gas station about twenty minutes from here. I’m sure his neighbors are relieved that he won’t be working in his yard like the old-time shade tree mechanics, but Sam really wants his very own shop. I’m sure that’s not too far in his future. In fact, if he put out an appeal to his old customers to help him finance a deal to make that possible, I would bet that there are twenty or thirty of us who would step up, the result of a quarter century of building trust.
So, the boundaries of that small town within a big city that I’ve imagined into being have expanded geographically and psychologically. Despite the recent rise in crime in the neighborhood, which in truth I think is no worse than in other parts of the city, I’m happy to have landed and stuck in this particular spot. Although it is largely coincidental that almost everything I need is so close at hand, the result is one that planned communities aspire to – the lion’s share of your needs met within a stone’s throw of your home. In the end, though, it’s not the convenience that’s key here. It’s the relationships that make you feel less invisible in a world that breeds anonymity.