What struck me most during Orientation Week was that the University of Chicago’s very name was, in a sense, misleading. Although the school is technically situated in an urban campus, the substantial distance between the University and the city caught my attention. What defines the “real city” can be disputed, but the fact is that in order to go to museums, shops, or even to find oneself before truly urban, impressive buildings, one must first follow an extensive network of CTA shortcuts and transfers. In other words, it is a pain to go downtown and explore the city we have all have heard so many call interesting.
If nothing else, there is simply a great physical break between the campus and the rest of Chicago. But any student who has organized an excursion knows very well that in order for anything to go well, one must leave at an appropriate time, research the safest and fastest routes to the destination, and of course, make sure that everyone gets back early enough to avoid the uncomfortable regiment of the aggressive panhandlers who swarm students caught waiting for the 55. And then there is the cold.
Because of this, many nights potentially spent downtown end up at Doc or the Med. Perhaps with time one learns to navigate the city comfortably and efficiently, but for new underclassmen, leaving, if only for few hours, is an appealing yet somewhat unrealistic option. This is not to say that I have not left campus but rather to indicate how difficult doing so is, and how simple it is for students in truly urban campuses of New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. This also does not mean that there are not groups who leave campus every weekend. However, having asked upperclassmen how frequently they get away from Hyde Park, the most common response was along the lines of Pretty often—once or twice a month. If leaving campus once a month is frequent, then one can only assume that the University and Chicago are two entirely separate places.
This means that even though students might attend this university for four years, they may never entirely become citizens of Chicago.
Chicago is not only known for its museums, architecture, cinema, and music, but also for its immense cultural reach. One can learn something new from every neighborhood and corner of Chicago, and seldom do we, as students on the South Side, have the chance to fully entertain the possibility of complete immersion.
Any given student touched by even a small reluctance to go downtown can quickly become a prisoner of the campus. Although this is not entirely negative, it does mean that the campus-bound student will be limited not only by the small variety of local activities, but will also be at a loss because he lacks the cultural knowledge that comes with constant exposure to the city of Chicago and the experience of belonging to an active city. Students suffer as they lose touch with the world of Chicago, a place that could very well enrich them.
Because of this, the University itself suffers. It exists without any external cultural influence, and in a world where access to a bustling city and all its craft, history, and art, is limited. While the University can stand on its own and does not need this external touch, the dearth of it renders the school a somewhat one-sided environment. Isolated on the South Side, our school has not been penetrated by the famous culture of Chicago, and has only swallowed its surroundings to create buildings and neighborhoods that reflect its own image.
The students, perhaps even unknowingly, are affected by this in that they happily remain in the immediate neighborhood—in their dorms, and with the certainty of warmth and safety. They may even fall victim to their own impressions of the daunting city and to the convenience with which immobility presents itself as an option. Because of this, our education remains un-supplemented by the living cultural world the city offers, and this unexercised and unpracticed education can make for a passive learning experience. Meanwhile, a life and a real world where Flex doesn’t work and buses aren’t free awaits us. It is healthy for students to leave the simulation-world campus terrarium.
This situation would be significantly improved if transportation to and from Chicago—and perhaps even to its various neighborhoods—were offered to students, especially later in the evening, when trips by train, bus, and foot seem intimidating and unworthy of the effort.
As I began studying at the University of Chicago, I quickly realized that the city I had hoped to become familiar and intimate with over the course of my time here would be, to a certain extent, relegated to a side note of my life. Chicago has become a special event rather than a way of life. I chose Chicago in part because I assumed its location would allow me to superimpose my life in New York onto this slightly different city, and never would I feel too far away from home or too displaced. And yet I find myself now in what resembles a very suburban college town with few shops and only the campus to entertain me, and ultimately, I am separated from the city. Going home represents a brief return to the urban lifestyle that I had hoped would follow me to Chicago. In this light, I try as often as I can to force myself into the city.
Alex Aciman is a first-year in the College.