The City That Confuses The Hell Out Of Me
August 13, 2009 11:54 AM   Subscribe

If you've ever lived in or visited Chicago and had a good time without getting hopelessly lost, you are cordially invited to post in this thread. Needed: an explanation of the grid system, tips and tricks on navigation, and recommendations for how to find the underground music scene, awesome beers, weird things to explore, and the best Chicago-focused blogs.

THE GRID SYSTEM: Whenever someone explains this to me I hear "It starts at State and Madison and blah blah blah blah blah and then you'll know exactly where you are!" Pretend I am a five-year old who was dropped on my tender infant cranium.

HACKS: I bought the Moleskine city notebook which is really helpful because I can pour over maps on the El without looking like a total tourist. I'm also thinking of buying a small cheap compass because I have no sense of direction and I'm too shy to ask the classic question "Which way is the lake?" My boyfriend is getting handed a dollar so he can get one of the CTA Tracker apps for his iPhone. Any other recommendations?

BLOGS: A focus on music, especially local/weird/electronic, is nice, and so are blogs that categorize/tag posts by neighborhood. I'm currently reading Cream Team, Chicagoist, The Chicago Weekly (I really like the focus on non-mainstream arts&music, and neighborhood catagorization), and Gaper's Block. Is There a Cubs Game Today? is a single-serving site, not a blog, but invaluable for a Wrigleyville resident like myself.

PLACES TO CHECK OUT: Metafilter let me know that Hopleaf existed, so I'm sure there's lots of wisdom to be shared.

BACKROUND: I've spent time in Chicago but never lived here, I live spitting distance from Wrigley Field, I will likely work in The Loop, yes I will be at the meet-ups, I like booze and electronica and lowbrow art and limited-run/old/obscure movies, I really liked this previous question though I am 21+, I do not drive and hence will be reliant on the CTA, I am kind of nervous about not knowing anything about the local underground music scene and how to penetrate it.
posted by Juliet Banana to Travel & Transportation (43 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
The Grid System:

Imagine a graph, at the origin of the graph (0,0) you have State and Madison, numbers increase as you get further from this intersection, numbers typically increase by 800 every mile, but not always. Actually the wikipedia entry on The Streets of Chicago is rather decent.

If you can see the Sears Willis Tower, plus either the John Hancock or Aon Center (formerly the Amoco Building, before that the Standard Oil Building), you can figure out which way is North, South or East.
posted by borkencode at 12:10 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I live spitting distance from Wrigley Field...

Marry me, Banana Girl. Right now.

The grid system is one of the best things about Chicago because it does make getting around awfully, awfully easy. State and Madison is zero. If you go two blocks north of Madison, you're at 200 N something. If you go three blocks west of State, you're at 300 W something. "East" always means east of State, and "South" always means south of Madison.

(800N and 800W is Halsted and Chicago, I remember that one. Wrigley is 1060 W Addison, which means it's 10 blocks west of State. Which is exactly right. It's also about 3500 north, I think, which is 35 blocks north of Madison. A lovely morning walk.)

Since you live in the proper and cool part of the city, the Lake is always east.

Every city should be so simple.
posted by rokusan at 12:11 PM on August 13, 2009

I don't know how much you really need to KNOW the grid system if you will be relying on CTA and maps. In reading about it, both before and today, it only seems useful for determining distances. I'd do that with a map and I'd do timing with a train schedule.

I'll recommend NFT: Not for Tourists' book of awesome maps. They have a Chicago version in at least two sizes.
posted by soelo at 12:18 PM on August 13, 2009

The grid system: the grid goes by "hundred blocks," radiating out north/south and east/west. Major streets are every 8 blocks; 8 blocks also = 1 mile. The way the grid is numbered in Chicago helps you calculate distance, as well as situate a location on a street in relation to its cross-streets.

For example, Ashland Ave. runs north/south, and is 16 blocks west of State. Ashland is thus the 1600W block, and 2 miles west of State. So if someone asked you to meet them at 1650 W. Fullerton, that would mean it's just west of Ashland. (Similarly, Fullerton, which runs east/west, is the 2400N block, so if the address was 2450 N. Ashland, you would know it was just north of Fullerton.)

There's a good guide to the grid here.
posted by scody at 12:21 PM on August 13, 2009

+1 for not needing to know the grid system. I lived in Chicago for 13 years and only needed to know the Loop which were the old dead presidents. I lived at 2500 N Clark area which is hard by the Weiner Circle. The usefulness of the numbers is that to walk to Wrigley at 3500N I knew it was 10 city blocks. As for the other stuff, I am too old and too far gone to advise, but I loved going to El Jardin for the pure grain alcohol margaritas before and after Cubbie games as well as going to the Wild Hare for reggae. The other beauty of Chicago are the neighborhood bars.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:24 PM on August 13, 2009

use it, love it, live it
posted by Oktober at 12:26 PM on August 13, 2009

The key to truly becoming liberated in really thinking in terms of the grid system, rather than just always trying to figure it out, is to start thinking of the word block as meaning "a unit of 100 street numbers" rather than "the area between intersections."

Another tip for integrating it all: with a few exceptions, there are big and important streets (once you get out of downtown) every four blocks (on the multiples of 400) going north and going west. Thus:

800N: Chicago
1200N: Division
1600N: North Ave.
2000N: Armitage, etc., etc.

1600W: Ashland
2000W: Damen
2400W: Western, etc. etc.

These are generally the streets that it's easiest to use when figuring out which major intersection is closest to a given address. This way, you know that, say 1550 N. Ashland is going to be a bit south of North Avenue.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 12:30 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some places that might be up your alley...

The Empty Bottle
Map Room
Quimby's Bookstore
Music Box Theatre
Reckless Records
posted by naju at 12:34 PM on August 13, 2009

Hopleaf is great. Other good beer bars:

The Long Room
The Map Room

And eamondaly will flip you the bird with reckless abandon at the next meetup. Don't take it personally. It's his thing.
posted by SpiffyRob at 12:34 PM on August 13, 2009

I carry a compass and I live in Chicago. Its hard to find the lake sometimes and the sun is often blocked by buildings. Eventually you'll get used to knowing which way is which from landmarks. I think there's compass apps for iPhone but I haven't tried any. I thought that the new 3Gs had it built in even.

I haven't sprung for a CTA app yet but I do have the CTA bustracker website bookmarked on my iPhone which is pretty handy. Don't be afraid of the buses. I know some many Chicagoans that refuse to ride buses. Obviously, take the El when you can but there's huge gaps if you're heading West from Wrigleyville. The next upcoming possible stop flashes on the LCD at the front of the bus, just pull the rope to request a stop. You don't have to be peering out the window for street signs.

Places to check out: If you like lots of beer (Hopleaf) you could try Quencher's or Map Room out in my neck of the woods. Both probably qualify as being in the Bucktown neighborhood.

Everyblock has lots of info, maybe not what you're looking for though.

Being Sweet in Chicago talks about stuff to do on the weekends and the author does bike pub rides.

Chicagorag is new and has less publicized stuff. Its too early to tell if its any good but give it a try.
posted by Bunglegirl at 12:35 PM on August 13, 2009

Welcome to the city!

I can maybe help with the "Places to Check Out" bit, but it will be skewed to the neighborhoods I hang out in (which doesn't include Wrigleyville):

Danny's: Specifically the first Wednesday of the month, for Soul Night. Sweaty tiny-crowded-dance-floor fun.

WeeGee's: This place is so money, I just discovered it even though I live nearby. It is a gorgeous classic bar inside that isn't too crowded, with tabletop shuffle board and a nice back patio.

Pilsen: Cruise up and down 18th street, it is a pretty friendly neighborhood that smells great and has cool mural art and places to sit and eat or drink.

Innertown Pub: Just, awesome shit on the walls and a leather bar and a cool bathroom in a quiet neighborhood. Happy Village is right down the street, check that out too but it is quite a bit more rustic.

Club Foot: I've only been here once, but some of my friends swear by it. And it also has cool stuff on the walls and a pretty interesting history (before my time, though. I'm a young 'un.)

Just a sampling. Then I guess, some neighborhoods you might want to wander around in are Ukrainian Village and Rogers Park, or if you don't mind more "gentrified" hoods, Wicker Park and Logan Square (my own hood, which I thought I would hate, but I love).
posted by little_c at 12:42 PM on August 13, 2009

One way to use the grid system is to help you know what way you are going. Since you're an northsider, if street numbers are going UP you're either going WEST or NORTH. That changes once you get south of madison (if you're in loop or going to southside) or east of state (which CAN'T happen once you are North of North Avenue. Everything in your neighborhood is North [streetname] or West [streetname]

For Lowbrow booze + movies....Keep an eye on the Brew and View. The MusicBox is the resident Art Film House. There's also old movie festivals waaaaaaaay out west at the Portage Theatre (accessible by CTA Blue Line if you don't mind a bit of a walk or by bus).

If you love music, save up money for a cab and go to The Hideout when something pops up on their website that strikes your fancy. Up in my neck off the woods (Rogers Park) is The Morseland. There's also several theatre groups up here that do some pretty interesting work.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 12:43 PM on August 13, 2009

Welcome to the Chicagoland area! When you're ready, hop on the South Shore and head to the Indiana Dunes and I'll be happy to give you a tour of Mount Baldy.

I have a feeling you might like Ed Debevic's. Eat and get out! hehe.

Don't miss Giordano's pizza.

FWIW I have never gotten seriously lost in Chicago, and people are usually very willing to help you with directions if you stop them on the street.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:50 PM on August 13, 2009

Since most of the other good ones were mentioned, I only have one place to add, since it's in your hood - Schuba's is an awesome place to see bands - I've seen everyone from Bob Pollard to Band of Horses in a small, fantastic room. Welcome to my Chicago, and now I'm homesick.
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 1:13 PM on August 13, 2009

(the small, fantastic room at Schuba's, not, you know, just some random small room)
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 1:15 PM on August 13, 2009

When I lived in Chicago, I would get turned around pretty easily myself (especially when getting off at an unfamiliar El stop). An easy way to figure out which direction you are walking is to start walking and look to see if the addresses are going up or down. For example, if you're in the north part of the city, and the addresses of the street you are walking on go from 4815 to 4809, you know you are walking south. If the numbers go from 1501 to 1507, you know you are going west (presumably you know you are farther north than the 1500 block so you couldn't be going north. Also, you can't be east of State that far north because you would be in the lake).

Easier to do than to explain, maybe.
posted by ekroh at 1:28 PM on August 13, 2009

Raised in the 'burbs, educated in the city.

People tend to discover Chicago in expanding co-centric circles. You start off in Lakeview, or Wrigleyville, or Boys Town, or wherever new transplants land, work in the Loop, go out in River North, realize there's more to the city than those 5 square miles - then move someplace that isn't a total hassle.

You probably should treat the city as a giant theme park for a bit. You're supposed to get lost and "look like a total tourist." Once you get past that, the best tip I can give you is get around by bike. Chicago's transit system just doesn't cover that much of the city, and the terrain is flat, flat, flat. The second tip is if you want "weird stuff to explore" - you need to get out of the city center, and out to the next co-centric band, out where it's not a theme park (and coincidentally, where it's also not that well-served by public transit).

The Chicago metro area is really about its history and the waves of immigration and gentrification and white flight that are all overlapping each other, all the way out past the Tri-State. By all means, start in the center, but don't stay there.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 1:30 PM on August 13, 2009

It's not a blog, but one of the best foodie forums around, and it's focused on everything Chicago, from food carts to Alinea: LTHForum.
posted by kmz at 1:34 PM on August 13, 2009

Some el stops have a giant compass in the cement when you walk out onto the sidewalk. Keep an eye out for it when you exit an el stop so you can orient yourself.
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:46 PM on August 13, 2009

It's true you don't really need a detailed understanding of the grid, just the basic gist of how it works. It's helpful if you can memorize the major streets, though - for example, since you're in Wrigleyville, it should help you to remember that Belmont is 3200 N, Addison is 3600 N, and Irving Park Rd is 4000 N. So you can figure that an address of "3700 N. Racine" is on Racine, just a bit north of Addison.

(Personally, I've lived in the area for about 18 years but the only block number I remember the other direction is Halsted, which is 800 W. )

I have both of those CTA bus tracking iPhone apps. They are awesome. SO much better than trying to pull up the actual CTA website on an iPhone, which takes forever. The apps are nice and fast. I think "Buster" is a bit faster, looks nicer, and is easier to use in general, however the CTA Tracker one does give more information - for example at whatever stop you're looking at, it shows buses scheduled father into the future than Buster, which only shows the next three or four.
posted by dnash at 1:50 PM on August 13, 2009

I was just beat to posting the LTHForum, so I'll second it. CriticalMass is a very cool, once a month, 5,000 person biking experience around Chicago. Watch "Check, Please!" on the local public station. Eat at least once at Hot Doug's amazing hot dog place. Most importantly, get a bike. Get a bike right now, and bike along the lake. Do this often.
posted by xammerboy at 1:51 PM on August 13, 2009

Response by poster: Most importantly, get a bike. Get a bike right now, and bike along the lake. Do this often.

I appreciate this encouragement; everyone keeps telling me how much they hate biking in Chicago but I really want to get some use out of my sweet Stingray.
posted by Juliet Banana at 1:56 PM on August 13, 2009

everyone keeps telling me how much they hate biking in Chicago

Really?? I love biking in Chicago and I'm going to miss it whenever I move to a less bike-friendly city.

I forgot to add this block party - would be a good way to see another part of Chicago.
posted by little_c at 2:06 PM on August 13, 2009

Even number addresses are on the north and west sides of the street, odd numbers on the south and east.

Keep an eye out for the street signs at intersections to learn the grid. It's quite convenient, compared to other cities, that the number on the street sign is the address range of the street you're on. Not the cross street. So, when the sign says "North Ave/1600N), you know that address further north will be 16xx N. Whatever. The address of every signle esablishment at the corner of North and any street will be 1600 (or 1601, if you're on the east side of the street). N. Whatever.

And on preview, I LOVED biking in Chicago. But then again, I hate biking up hills. There was only 6' of elevation change between my house and my office in the Loop.
posted by hwyengr at 2:07 PM on August 13, 2009

Memorize your grid numbers- then you can show off to people in bars. However, remember also that Lincoln, Clybourn, Elston, Milwaukee, Ogden and Archer are diagonals that bisect the grid. They are a holdover from Chicago's decision to implement the Haussmann plan following the fire, without actually building squares and roundabouts at the intersections. They are useful for getting across the city, but the six-ways are a pain. The city is a grid, except where it's not.

For a quiet evening with someone you care about check out The Violet Hour (Damen & Milwaukee, 1500N and 2000W). It's the only nice place left in Wicker Park.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:07 PM on August 13, 2009

Oh, and watch out for the diagonal streets, which break up the grid and make for the fabulous 6-way intersections. Clark (north of the Loop), Lincoln, Clybourn, Elston, Milwaukee, Ogden, and Archer all have N or S addresses, but they're going east and west, too.
posted by hwyengr at 2:11 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, if you're new to the area - the sounds you will hear overhead for the next three days are not an air raid. It's the yearly lakefront Air and Water Show. Since you live in Wrigleyville - depending where your building is, and how tall it is, if it has any roof access you might want to go sit up on the roof for a bit this weekend - you won't be able to see the whole show, but the Thunderbirds usually end up buzzing over the Wrigley/Lakeview area several times, generally in the 3:00-4:00 hour.
posted by dnash at 2:12 PM on August 13, 2009

Some of this may be helpful.
posted by Lebannen at 2:16 PM on August 13, 2009

Don't be afraid of the bus lines -- it's easier to see the streets than the L and you can find yourself walking the same route (for short distances) the bus uses later. The 22 Clark would be close to you.
posted by ejaned8 at 2:32 PM on August 13, 2009

Yes! Bike in Chicago! This may help with that. I think I have an extra hard copy version of the bike map, which is easier to use than the online one; I'll bring it to the next meetup we both attend.
posted by misskaz at 2:34 PM on August 13, 2009

You didn't ask about thrift stores, but as you have recently moved you may be looking for cheap stuff. I can't recommend Unique Thrift Stores highly enough. Monday everything is half price AND they open at 6:00AM.
posted by readery at 2:37 PM on August 13, 2009

Free Shit -- Chicago Reader tells you about, well, free shit to do/see/watch//drink/experience.
MyOpenBar finds you free/cheap booze, sometimes paired with burlesque shows and such.
MetroMix is good for learning about events.
Goldstar offers cheap(er) tickets for more mainstream events, plays, and shows.
Serious Eats has a guide to Chicago eating, and often publishes reviews of other places. There's more than pizza in this city.

I bet you'll like the Neo-futurists. You might want to check out Goose Island, a Chicago-based brewpub with locations in both Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park.

Also check out the Cheap Bastard's Guide to Chicago. Lots of suggestions on what to do, and how to do it cheaply ($20 hour-long massages!). Which reminds me, haircuts are only $14-16 at the Aveda school on N. Clark.
posted by runningwithscissors at 2:39 PM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh! Also, the Chicago Gluttons blog cracks me up. YMMV.
posted by misskaz at 2:39 PM on August 13, 2009

There's been much good advice in this thread already that I agree with. The grid plan is like a sheet of graph paper where the addresses increment by 100 every block with a common origin point (unlike, say, NYC where they're numbered serially, or SF, where they increment by 100 every block, but each street starts from 0 wherever it happens to begin). That's the key concept. If you are at 2500 N Clark and walk east one block, you'll be at 2500 N Lakeview. That sort of thing.

If you can get to a corner, almost every street sign will indicate whether the street is N/E/S/W. That, coupled with the direction that street numbers are increasing in, can be used to absolutely orient you.

In addition to the good advice to ride the lakefront, Chicago is an excellent city to walk in. Pick a neighborhood or a destination and walk. Walk down Clark all the way to North, and just take it all in. Walk up and down the streets of Lakeview. You'll start to orient on major intersections and landmarks after a while, and have fun in the process.

Other observations:

There are a few angled streets that break the grid. Clyborne, Elston, Lincoln, and Ogden are the major ones. Clark and Broadway (which you are near) are kind of angled but basically run N-S.

Lincoln goes forever. You can take it to Madison WI. North runs forever. You can take it to Oak Park.

Once you get about 3600 West, the N-S streets are named in rough alphabetical order. So you've got M-town, N-town, O-town, and P-town.

Very little of the city lies in the NE quadrant of the grid. If you're on the north side and not downtown, you are almost certainly west.
posted by adamrice at 2:50 PM on August 13, 2009

I'm going to agree with hwyengr. The key to me was knowing which streets were the diagonals - just memorizing them - so that when I got to those 6-way intersections I could orient myself appropriately. I would count Broadway was well even though it's only diagonal on one section since it's in the area you're planning on living in. I miss Chicago!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:11 PM on August 13, 2009

And I should add, that I totally miss the grid system. It was so easy to get around and know where things were. Once You knew that someone lived at 600 N State, or whatever, you could totally figure it out and know what that meant immediately.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:13 PM on August 13, 2009

I lived in Chicago until a few months ago. My husband marvels at my ability to get lost, despite the grid. People really are pretty nice about giving directions, though.

If your phone doesn't have a compass, buy a small one. I never bothered to memorize the streets/numbers (though I should have... and would have if I didn't have my husband around to tell me where we were) but I found that if I knew which way was north, it was pretty easy to get where I was going. Also, I have a terrible sense of direction, but memorizing the EL lines I used helped a lot (it just happened, hearing the recordings over and over again on my commute into the city).

For places to check out, the Edgewater Lounge, a few blocks away from the Hopleaf, is a nice low-key bar with good food where it's usually pretty easy to get a booth/table--Tuesdays are (or, were, as of when I moved) live bluegrass night. Ethiopian Diamond is the best Ethiopian food in the city. I only really went to shop for hand-made jewelry and eat pie at their surprisingly great little cafe, but a friend of mine took some cool classes at the Lillstreet Art Center. Oh! And I loved going to tapings of Wait, wait... Don't tell me!
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:04 PM on August 13, 2009

I like to check Oh My Rockness for shows, Gapers Block for events, and then pick up a weekly paper copy of the Chicago Reader.

Seconding exploring and learning where things are by bicycle!
posted by joydivasian at 6:39 PM on August 13, 2009

Chicago Decider. Welcome to Chicago!
posted by jeanmari at 7:29 PM on August 13, 2009

Yes, bike in Chicago. It's the fastest, most fun, and best way to get around. Join The Chainlink. There's a lot of good stuff to discover in this city.

Be sure to venture out of your neighborhood, especially to the west (Logan Square, Ukrainian Village, etc.). It's easy to get stuck going out all the time in just your neighborhood and places near your work.
posted by smich at 8:49 PM on August 13, 2009

This has probably been mentioned already, but the Chicago Reader's Early Warnings lists about every music act heading into Chicago in the upcoming months.
posted by Windigo at 11:53 AM on August 14, 2009 is a social news site for Chicago. People share and rate Chicago news and events and the best stuff rises to the front page just like Reddit. (Disclaimer: I own this site.)
posted by bflora at 7:35 AM on August 17, 2009

It sounds like you might like Delilah's, a somewhat divey, low key bar with good DJs doing punk, indie, alt/hard country, metal nights etc.
posted by cushie at 9:38 PM on August 20, 2009

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