Not small and charming enough to be quaint or large enough to be remarkable, my hometown is, by all appearances, highly ordinary. West Chicago, Illinois doesn’t have a celebrity childhood home to visit or the world’s largest statue of a flamingo or an undefeated high school basketball team. It has always been a place to drive by or pass through and has rarely enjoyed the distinction of being a destination. In fact, my hometown owes its existence to a railroad junction.
Like spokes on a cockamamie wagon wheel, the railroads radiated further and further west, north, and south from Chicago in the nineteenth century, slicing through the prairies and forests. In 1849 the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad (G&CU), Chicago’s first railway, laid tracks thirty miles due west of the city. Surrounding towns realized the potential of such a direct connection to the big city, and three different railroads soon converged to create a junction, necessitating the existence of town. And thus Junction, Illinois was born.
A certain Mr. John B. Turner, president of the G&CU and a man with a shrewd eye for business, purchased land close to the junction. He donated and sold some of his plots and soon established the town of Turner next to Junction, Illinois.
Eventually, the two tiny populations combined to make Turner Junction. And in 1896, the town changed its name “West Chicago” in order to give the town a more industrial flavor by association with the actual Chicago. Never mind that Turner Junction is WAY west of Chicago (and not on the west side of the city) and that from then on people would forever be explaining this distinction to out-of-towners.
The city grew as manufacturers settled along the railroad ecosystem. The trains ferried goods and brought in waves of immigrants to work on the railroads and at the factories.
Today, it’s still a city defined by what comes through it. My siblings and I would wait at the railroad crossings counting train cars carrying commuters, coal, tractors, and other freight in graffitied train cars. A couple of times I saw enormous wind turbine propellers being carried cross country. Strapped on the bed of the cars and gleaming in the sunlight, they looked like strange dismembered parts of an enormous extraterrestrial spaceship.
These specific memories make West Chicago remarkable to me.
While I was home visiting last week, I met up with a friend from high school who has since moved to the REAL Chicago. It was one of many meetings—some planned and some spontaneous—with old friends. We agreed that neither of us ever wanted to move back for good. We went to school out of state, we’d travelled, we’d seen and lived in far nicer places.
But, of course we keep coming back for visits. Because West Chicago is our hometown and in it we meet and see the friends and neighbors who loved us and watched us grow up as we skinned our knees on the sidewalk and chased fireflies in front of their houses. Every time I go back, I am warmed by these remarkable people in my ordinary hometown.
While at home, I went on a walk, remembering how, after a long rain, the air would smell like cupcakes or Cheerios as the fumes from General Mills wafted over the trees and rooftops in the tiny droplets that smelled particularly strong at the slight hill at the end of our street, which overlooked the tracks.
I turned right and then left and I walked through the old pedestrian tunnel beneath the tracks. I remembered the rebellious thrill of zipping my bike into the dark hole instead of responsibly walking it through, like the sign instructed. The cold dank air was a shock—condensed water dripped from the ceiling and that rank stench that permeates any public underground thoroughfare whipped past my nose as I zoomed by. The trains rumbled overhead, reverberating in deafening, rhythmic ba-boom, ba-booms. And then flash! you were on the other side of tracks and in the sunshine again.
I walked past the public library, where the librarians watched me grow up and then hired me to shelve books in high school. The director was outside and I stopped for a chat.
Hometowns are for these kinds of junctions. We cross paths with old and new faces. Our present selves confront our past selves. We see who we are and were and where we’ve been and what has changed and what might come next.
After a trial-by-fire year as public school substitute teacher and fly-by-night freelancer, Julia will shed the tribulations of the work-world to embark on a MA in art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. If you are in town, she’ll gladly take you to a local museum. She enjoys walks, leopard print, and good conversation.