The Enormity of a City


October 1, 2011, Chicago, IL: The enormity of this town is striking if you've been gone for awhile, from every perspective and from every angle. From above, you're a monster looking down upon miniature cars, on people the size of ants. From below, sleek buildings loom large on narrow lots, rising seemingly higher than in any city you've known. If you're returning here after time away, even Starbucks is bigger, the space designed for giants. People are taller here too; you feel shorter than ever in a crowded bar.

Traversing the long, flat suburbs, the highways by day extend farther than you imagined. By early evening downtown, shadows stretch skinnier than Gumby. This lake is endless.

It's the same feeling you get trying to recall Montana's Big Sky country. Scale is larger than your mind allows.

Eventually, after the first day or so, the scene comes into focus. Your perception calms down. You look more slowly at your surroundings. You zoom in on street level. You notice the gelato vendor across the street, the one impossible to see from a bird's eye view. The rhythms of the street become more acute. You're ready to see the city, to explore this place of enormous possibility.

"In Chicago you feel the pressure of infinite surrounding plains; it's a city that fills the land; even the lake, enclosing one side, allows no escape. From time to time, at the end of a long ride by tramway, train or elevated railroad, the buildings thin out, and it seems that the city is finally going to expire. Then it springs up again, even more vigorously; you've merely reached an old border, with new neighborhoods built beyond. And beyond that there's yet another belt, and another farther on. But it's not only those exhorbitant dimensions that give Chicago its density. Los Angeles is vast but porous. This town is made of a thick dough, without leavening. More than any city in the world, it reeks of humanity, and this is what makes its atmosphere so stifling and tragic. Neither nature nor the past can penetrate it, but in the absence of the picturesque, it possesses a dark poetry."

-Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day