By Debi Buzil
I am sitting at a cafe on Division Street in Wicker Park, watching the world go by. It’s morning and the servers are blasting Black Sabbath while serving fancy coffee drinks. Things look different from when I lived here in the 90s. I see a lot of hipsters identified by their tattoos, vintage clothing and modern hairstyles. I don’t recognize anyone or see many of the working-class neighborhood people who used to live here. I am feeling out of place, shut down and anxious. I remember my 20s, when I had an impossible curiosity about life, an impassioned vitality fed by the city.
During its 1940s heyday, Division Street in Wicker Park was called the “Polish Broadway.” Home of writer Nelson Algren, the street saw a decline in the 1960s and became dilapidated, leaving empty storefronts and little commerce. The neighborhood supported a diverse community of Polish and working-class families with the Puerto Rican community stronghold of Humboldt Park just blocks west. In just the last few years, many artists and young people flocked to the neighborhood for affordable rents, mixing with families who had lived on the street for generations.
For the past decade, Division Street has been identified by affluent businesses, yoga centers, boutiques, clubs and restaurants. The neighborhood isn’t as economically or racially diverse, with many of the long-time residents leaving due to rising costs. Only a couple of the old Polish bars and a restaurant or two remain.
Once neighborhoods begin gentrifying, often the original residents feel the pinch. “Cultural diversity” is an attraction for bohemian and upper middle-class residents. This doesn’t translate into equality for all the residents of the neighborhood. Yet change is always happening, in our cities and in ourselves.
How out of place I now feel on Division! The strange anxiety of being somewhere I used to know, yet out of my element, throws me for a loop. These were once my streets, but now I don’t know the people, the shopkeepers, the young’uns. How do I preserve the openness of my heart, the calmness of my being? Can I regain a sense of belonging?
This hardness surrounds me too often, and not just on Division. I harden when I am around those less fortunate than I, as well as those who appear to have it “all together.” I harden when I’m feeling not quite enough. And yes, I find myself judging people and situations that I am not familiar with.
Once again, yoga wisdom helps me out.
Maitrī-karuṇa-muditopekṣāṇāṃ sukha-duḥkha-puṇyāpuṇya-viṣayāṇāṃ bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanam
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait of the Himalayan Institute translates this sutra as, “Transparency of mind comes by embracing an attitude of friendliness, compassion, happiness and non-judgment toward those who are happy, miserable, virtuous and non-virtuous.” In other words, we benefit ourselves through the cultivation of kindness, honor and compassion for all people.
By following the example of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, I can respond to my sense of isolation. The cultivation of kindness creates community, wherever you may find yourself. We may seem to be very different at the outset through the division of class, race, sex and age, but by the actions of kindness, compassion and non-judgment, we begin to see a commonality. This creates community.
Division Street? I am finding that the “division” of myself from the world is a construct of the mind. I want to be friendly to those around me and have compassion and empathy for those who are struggling. Yoga Sutra 1:33 gives me the knowledge I need to put the highest level of spiritual values in an easy-to-manage form. I can settle my mind by radiating good things to the world around me to create a win/win situation.
The cafe’s coffee barista, who seems a bit pouty and totally uninterested in me, brightens when I ask about the cold brew. I am opening, letting my guard down, and his response is appropriate and sweet. I smile at those around me. Division Street becomes a street of fellowship and good tidings. One street, undivided, that can belong to us all.