“It’s always quiet here until it’s not,” said my neighbor down the street, stroking her big dog’s head. Her dog sat contentedly in the grass by the lagoon in Sherman Park, near my home in Back of the Yards. It’s often quiet there, unless there’s a flock of geese fighting or a noisy, anxious dog (like my own little bundle of joy) decides to assert its space by letting the whole park know there’s a bigger dog nearby. I was leisurely walking my dog through Sherman, accompanied only by the occasional notification jingle from an app on my cell device, until my dog saw my neighbor’s dog and the dog opera began.
My neighbor and I meet in this part of the park quite often, if I arrive early enough in the morning to catch him on his daily nature walk with his gentle giant, and even though it’s been years now, my dog always has to break the silence when he sees his dog. My interactions with this neighbor normally consist of a simple wave and a smile. But if my dog sees his dog (or any other dog, really), howling and barking ensues.
This usually succeeds in waking the dogs in yards near the park, and for what feels like hours, everyone can hear the bitter staccato of canine cries. “Hey hey hey,” yells my dog, “Where are you? You can’t have me! You can’t have me!” of the park. “What’s going on?” “Who’s screaming? “Rat-a-tat!” “Rarf rarf hoooooowl!”
My relationship with the lady with the big dog is perfect. That day, we chatted a bit about a car accident that had woken up a few neighbors a few days before. One of the tractor-trailer drivers who parks his truck in a vacant lot below backed up a little too quickly on Racine Avenue and managed to back two cars that were speeding past in opposite directions. None of the three drivers seemed to be paying attention.
The sound of truck tires hitting the van was a loud boom, quickly followed by the sound of another car creaking in front of the semi and then, just as quickly, the sounds of people leaving their homes and heading to the scene of the accident. You could hear them shouting “Is everyone okay?” amid the crunch of various plastic shards from headlights and other car parts under the tires of the cars still pushing on Racine, swerving around everyone and ignoring any semblance of safety. In my head, I remember it like this: at 5:55 a.m., I heard a few birds talking while clicking on a wire outside my window (I’m sure they’re laughing at me), and at 6 a.m., I heard the crash, then the people. Then I ran outside too. It’s always quiet here until it’s not.
I sometimes get the question “How is this area?” when I tell new people in my life where I live. Many are really curious if the coffee is good at the grill (all good) or if the bus arrives on time (the best CTA drivers in town on this route, in my opinion), but some still ask “What is your neighborhood like” in a thinly veiled attempt to find out if they would be afraid to walk around here.
I can’t tell you if an area is safe, and honestly, when there are humans involved, no neighborhood is ‘safe’ – burglaries, bar fights and homicides can and have happened almost everywhere. I’m definitely not going to tell you my neighborhood is perfect or the worst, especially when you’re a fellow Chicagoan who should know himself better. We have a terrible history of segregation in this city, and when you give free rein to your impulse to categorize areas as inherently good or bad, you only reinforce the cycles of crime and poverty that you are desperate not to see. in your own proverbial backyard.
To avoid feeling like I have to teach adults how to use their brains, I usually respond by describing the variety of noises in my neighborhood. It’s quiet here until it’s not, which could also describe downtown at night, or DeKalb, or Mars. Hatred and fear are interconnected, and the troubling legacy of white supremacy seeped into the water when we first built lead pipes underground and when we separated neighborhoods based on color skin or country of origin. Despite our attempts to exclude it from the supply, white supremacists managed to reform in innocuous questions: “Is it safe here?” “Is it always so noisy in here?”
When it’s not calm, there are car accidents. My ballpark count last summer was ten on the corner near my house, where there should probably be some sort of sign saying YIELD or SLOW DOWN or JESUS CHRIST PEOPLE. Instead, all that remains is a remnant of an ancient, entirely preventable accident: a rammed-in fence slammed by a speeding car on a rainy day. Car accidents attract people, and half of the neighbors will stand outside offering telephones, English translation for the benefit of a CPD or CFD responder, etc. The other half will just stand there and giggle.
Accidents happen so often here that it looks like moving, temporary town squares. Conversations about what just happened and whether the passengers are okay or not are punctuated by the exclamations of people who have waited all winter to say to someone, anyone, “They should put a sign up here ! or “I called 311 and nothing happened!”
There are other things making noise here, including gunshots. But you hear them less often now than a decade ago – we knew the neighborhood was “changing” when the sounds of fireworks started to overtake the sounds of guns. Gun owners where I live announce their presence at midnight on New Year’s Eve with what sounds like a collective 100-gun salute, firing into the air in their backyards. It’s like an industrial noise fusion composition accompanied by “Don’t Tread on Me” style screams.
One year, something set off an explosion in a garage a few blocks away – someone had hidden Indiana fireworks near an ammo stash near an old car, so the power of suggestion would have been enough to blow it all up. The firefighters seemed to get there almost immediately, thankfully. No one came out of their house to investigate that incident.
On the fun and loud side, my neighborhood has always been the kind of place where people feel comfortable playing music and having backyard parties. It’s totally okay with us if you’re talking loudly in your yard, or on the sidewalk, or on your front porch. No one is going to call to complain about the noise about your party, even if it stays loud until the wee hours and beyond. We have other fish to fry.
This resulted in completely surreal queues, if like me you think of summer Saturday nights as a series of backyard concerts. Neighbors on our side of the alley fairly regularly hire full bands and install elaborate outdoor speaker systems for birthdays, graduations, and the like. Nearby there’s a vacant lot (no one knows who owns it, and they haven’t come in years to check), and last fall it hosted a wedding reception, complete with horseback rides for children, a ten- marching band and fireworks. During these cases, the music can last until the next day.
I have since learned that there is a drummer for a band specializing in rancheras who lives downstairs; he can often only practice in the wee hours of the morning, and the acoustics on the side of my house seem to be bouncing his sound right into my bedroom window. I’d rather listen to drums than guns at night, but given enough time, you get used to both.
When I was a kid, I traveled to Iowa for a few weeks one summer to help out on a cousin’s farm. I loved tending the chickens and running around in the grass, and I was totally happy to spend the evenings watching the two VHS tapes that my cousin’s grandfather let us watch (a Victor Borge tribute compilation of PBS and Dorf on the golf course). What was disturbing, bordering on scary, was the complete absence of human noise at night. The sky was a sea of stars, but there were no trucks on the freeway, no random couples arguing on the sidewalk, no planes heading for Midway, none of that. Just the calm and the crickets.
People tend to think of “crickets” when a sudden, awkward silence descends on a room, but real crickets can get incredibly loud. I think we use them to mean “calm” because nothing is stronger for us than our own thoughts. When I hear my city, I really just hear my relationship to its evolution.