The backlands: this is the Chicago you only see from the el. Its alleys, fire escapes, backyards, and balconies are unselfconscious because all-but-invisible, save for the instant you peer down on them from the frigid el platform or a moving train.
There’s a gnarly, ugly, decrepit, character to much of the terrain: the untrimmed vine, the dying tree, jumbles of wires or garbage cans. But with them come offerings of the unexpected, the whimsical or ingenious: the gardens people devise on tiny fire escapes; the signs meant for you to read as you rush by.
You glimpse the unwanted but, with it, many other things that keep the city running: the electrical grid, garbage trucks, construction crews. Secret parking lots. Boarded-up doors and graffiti bespeaking adventures and openings now inaccessible and archaic, layers of life quilted on to the city’s bricks and boards, congealed into something more enduring than little ol’ me.