Moving to a new place is always a little intimidating. I grew up in Flagstaff, a small town in Arizona, and when I moved to Tucson I remember being terrified of the "big city" for a little while until I got used to a pace and atmosphere of my new environment. The same thing happened when I moved from Tucson to Chicago; I was so overwhelmed by the sheer size and diversity of my new home, and it took some adjusting before I felt comfortable again. Luckily it's hard for me to feel uncomfortable for very long, because familiarity breeds not only contempt but a sort of forced acceptance of new situations.
I've lived in my apartment in Chicago's Uptown for a year now. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, where the difference between one street and the next can be palpable and sometimes alarming; one space can seem safe and comfortable, but a short block later it might feel highly uncomfortable and rather threatening. I moved into my current space after spending more than a year living in extremely gentrified neighborhoods, the kind where when I went outside I sometimes felt engulfed by hordes of soccer moms with strollers and golden retrievers in tow, and it was admittedly a bit of a shock. My neighborhood is actually somewhere I told myself I would never live; my first experience here (albeit a bit south, and in an area where I still don't feel entirely comfortable walking alone--I went to a concert there recently and passed a police barricade because somebody had just been shot and killed blocks from the venue) involved sitting in a Baskin Robbins waiting out the hour before an appointment and watching a homeless man compulsively scrape gum off the seats and ask the staff for free ice cream cones. On one of my first nights here, as I walked a friend to the closest train stop, a young guy smacked me on the arm as we passed him on the street and I didn't go to that station again for months, instead opting for one five minutes farther away but on a less intimidating street.
I go to that station all the time now, partially because nobody wants to spend five extra minutes outside during a Chicago winter, and partially because I've made peace with my surroundings. Not only that, but frankly, I love where I live. I remember the exact moment when it happened, or at least when I realized it was happening; I was walking to a friend's nearby house, and suddenly I noticed that there were so many different people all around me and that the way they were interacting formed a greater whole than those soccer moms ever could.
Uptown, at least where I live, is a heavily asian and black area, boasting some of the best Vietnamese food in the city and more tiny little markets filled with produce I've never heard of than you could shake a stick at. As I walked down Argyl that night, I saw small Vietnamese children with their parents waving at young black men hanging out at street corners, Indian families walking together, people coming through the door of the seafood restaurant that seems to host late night dance parties accompanied by wafts of loud music, homeless people (mostly white, interestingly) smoking together. It was dirty and smelled like grilling meat (many restaurants have windows filled with roasted ducks, their necks twisted around the metal poles that suspend them above their drip pans), gritty in that big-city way that had always put me slightly on edge, but everybody seemed to be co-existing peaceably enough. Nothing had changed, but the way I saw it was entirely different: community instead of threat.
Shortly after this small revelation I was walking to work when I passed by a house where a middle-aged black man was ringing the bell, a wooden bench resting on the porch beside him. An elderly white woman opened the door with a cry of familiarity and happiness, and I heard the man say that he had seen the bench sitting in an alley and knew that she would put it to use. She thanked him profusely, and together they moved the bench into place next to the door. I pass that bench nearly every day as I walk to work, and the memory nearly always makes me smile.
Today, I paid back a little of that community. A man living down the street from me who always smiles and wishes me a good day when I pass by was standing outside smoking when I came by on my way home from work, backpack bristling with lilies that I had taken with me from our trash flower bucket. He told me they were beautiful, and I walked over so that he could smell them. He seemed so happy that I spontaneously asked if he wanted them. He looked at me and I could see how happy the thought made him, and I pulled them from my pack and handed them to him. He stubbed out his cigarette, exclaiming "I'm going to go give these to somebody right now!" and I continued on my way home, happy and lighter in more ways than one.