Leaving the Bubble

While at the University, students should develop a lasting, personal relationship with Chicago and the South Side.

By Matthew Pinna

If you applied to the University of Chicago solely because of its promotional material, your only knowledge of what the city actually looks like would come from different angles of the exact same half-mile radius. Chicago is reduced to nothing more than repeating shots of the Bean, the Riverwalk, and flyovers of the Loop occasionally interspersed with cheerful footage of our campus, 10 miles and a 40-minute train ride away. But what about everything in between and beyond? What about the South Side, where the University itself is? What can we as students do to push back against a flyover understanding of what, for the time we’re here, becomes our city? As it would turn out, the options are minimal and utterly failing, devoid of the personal initiative necessary to facilitate a thorough and proper understanding of the South Side and its people. It is easy to approach exploring the city as part of a University-sanctioned program or as a public policy practicum; it is more difficult, yet significantly more rewarding, to develop our own unique relationship with the neighborhood we live in.

The University’s selective pre-orientation exploration programs do little to remedy that Loop-centered perception of Chicago for the small subset of students chosen to participate in them. Chicago Urban Explorers doesn’t publicize its schedule, but its 2019 video is yet another collage of all the Loop’s hotspots. Discover Chicago Bound, on the other hand, expresses a desire to break students “out of the UChicago bubble” and give them “a solid foundation to become a well-informed, active member of the city.” It seems, however, to be less of an immersion in the city’s vibrant culture than an olive branch to the campus’ activist groups—in this case, those under the umbrella group of UCUnited, which was featured last year on a single “UChicago Student Organizing Panel.” For an hour and a half, activists from UChicago United railed against the evils of the university’s policing and its gentrification, in a spot that they were specifically allotted by that very same administration. Clearly, the university is so terrified of campus activists that they let them be among the first impressions that a group of pre-frosh students get of their new school; institutionalization of criticism at its finest.

More importantly, Discover Chicago Bound’s curriculum begs the question of whether these issues should be the first things students learn of the South Side. Doubtlessly, the South Side’s politics are important to learn, but its neighborhoods and people are greater than their struggles and injustices. We must ask ourselves whether or not it is right to introduce a young person to the South Side solely with its violence, defining it for a new generation of residents (albeit temporary ones) through bloodshed and racism. Even if it is well-intended, particularly for infamously theoretical University of Chicago students, this type of teaching reduces the populace to mere “victims of,” overshadowing their personhood. In other words, it's an “otherization,” turning human beings into a public policy problem to be solved, if only for a brief four years, after which all is forgotten and careering begins. At its worst, Discover Chicago Bound is a weeklong crash course in teaching its applicants how best to develop a savior complex.

Equally guilty in this matter are our fellow students, who are quick to forget that their classmates come from vastly different walks of life. Perhaps you’ve seen the following exchange, one that’s all too common on UChicago social media forums. Unnerved by unfamiliar surroundings and a media intent on framing the city as a warzone, a new student might innocently express their fear of venturing into the South Side. Instead of helping in any meaningful way, the top comment typically accuses that student of “being afraid of Black people,” basking in internet clout because they’ve used the Green Line a few times. Instead of taking the perfect opportunity to dispel misconceptions about the South Side, they only end up commodifying those misconceptions for social capital in a juvenile measuring contest. Really, it’s the equivalent of leaning over the railing at Garfield to send a snap with the Englewood filter to your friends back home before scurrying to your Uber. You can claim it’s not your responsibility to educate people, but then you’d also be devoid of true conviction; simply put, you can’t say you stand for the South Side but stay seated when you get the chance to make a change in your own, small way.

Do all University of Chicago students have a responsibility to learn about the South Side and its people? I don’t think so. If you want to spend your four years at this institution meticulously examining every inch of the Reg stacks, that’s your prerogative. This answer changes, however, when a student claims to want to practice politics or activism, both of which begin, not from citing what you learned in Sosc, but from the people themselves and what they experience in their daily lives. It is for these people that the South Side must be understood as more than just empty space between campus and the Loop to the north and more than just a no-man’s-land to the south.

But where should we start? Not with the University, that’s for certain. When has waiting for the administration to act ever been a valid means of recourse? Just ask Graduate Students United and #CareNotCops how that strategy tends to go. Even if the University did agree to some sort of program, it would have to be vastly different from the explorations they currently offer for pre-orientation. For starters, unlike pre-orientation, it would have to be year-round, as the city outside of Hyde Park doesn’t cease to exist after a weeklong program. One week is a vacation; students need to learn to live in Chicago full-time. Furthermore, taking the necessary step of speaking to the people who live around our campus cannot be done with a large group with all of its members wearing their University-sanctioned, phoenix-emblazoned Class of Whatever gear. You wouldn’t be experiencing the South Side as an individual but rather as an extension of the University, bearing all of the negative connotations that come with that.

It is clear, then, that the responsibility of broadening our personal understanding of the South Side, by virtue of it being “personal,” must lie within each of us. My suggestion is not free, but no good knowledge is free of some type of work. In a word, it’s food. For the South Side, like any other neighborhood, it means dishes, restaurants, and, most importantly, customers that you can’t find anywhere else. Anyone who’s eaten at a local favorite in a new locale can vouch for me when I say that people open up to one another when they’re around good food and equally good company. You don’t even need to make it to the restaurant to have a conversation—some of my best and most revealing discussions with locals have happened on a CTA bus en route to my culinary destination.

One moment from just before I left for break sticks out in my mind. I was on my way to my favorite rib tips joint, Lem’s on 75th, and the dessert shop right across from it, Brown Sugar Bakery, for a little something I like to call “having my cake and eating (ribs) too.” I headed for my usual spot in the back of the bus, when, as I walked by the only other passenger, he noticed my bright red “USMC” keychain dangling from my neck. He stopped me to ask if I was a Marine and I replied that, in fact, I had just graduated from officer candidate school a few months prior. A smile spread across his face and, with something in common, we talked for 15 minutes about his childhood; he and his brother, both Chicago natives, had always wanted to be Marines. His brother, now older and hundreds of miles away, had gone ahead and done just that. He explained that seeing me with that keychain reminded him of his now-distant brother, thanking me for the conversation. And so he got off the bus and I continued on, both of us a little more understanding of someone else’s experiences.

Now, this isn’t to say that you should bankrupt yourself by eating out every day. Akin to how the University provides us with a CTA U-Pass, there may be a future in which, through certain deals with local businesses, meal exchanges or Maroon Dollars can be used elsewhere. But the larger point of this column is to instill a sense of urgency and ownership over your four years here in the University community. You can’t wait for the University to chart your course for you—if you truly want to experience what this city has to offer, you need to begin by taking the initiative. For me, that initiative comes in the form of rib tips, Jim Shoe sandwiches, and superb Mexican cuisine; only you can decide what that means for you.

Matthew Pinna is a fourth-year in the College.