What's living in Chicago like?
April 5, 2011 4:50 PM   Subscribe

What's living in Chicago like? How's is it different from Cambridge, MA? Should we move there?

My wife and I live in Cambridge, MA. I'm a software engineer, she's a healthcare consultant. We're nearing 30 and thinking of buying a house and having kids in the next couple years. While we've loved our 7 years here, we're wondering if it's time to leave. So tell us HiveMind, especially those in or from Chicago, what's it like there? Is Chicago a good match for us?

The details:

* My family is in Missouri, hers is in Colorado. I wouldn't have predicted this 10 years ago, but we want to be closer to them. Chicago is an easy weekend commute from both. From Boston it takes a full day to fly to either.

* MA housing prices in the near suburbs (Arlington, Belmont, Lexington) and Cambridge/Somerville haven't come down much from the bubble, and places in the 500-600k price range have such terrible quality it's hard to imagine ever paying that even if we could afford it. Looking at Redfin it looks like Oak Park and Evanston, and even Chicago proper have comparably cheaper houses with better quality too.

* We love being near Vermont, Maine, NH, Western MA, and the water. I know Chicago has the lake, but it does seem so landlocked and flat.

* We love being around well educated people in Cambridge, but we also get frustrated with the careerism and constant worry about where people went to college and how they'll get their children into an Ivy.

* We've been to Naperville. Its pretty much our idea of hell.

* Possibly above all else, we have no desire to sit in a car everyday for a long commute.

* Chicago has much better music than Boston (blues/bloodshot records/Wilco)

* We've had enough of living around mostly 20 year olds and the ability to walk to 15 different bars is becoming less important to us. That said, we do appreciate the liveliness of good bars, restaurants, and events nearby and would miss them if we didn't have them.

* Cambridge is just so dense. We've loved city living, but there's so such thing as a half empty bar here.
posted by david1230 to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Chicago can be pretty dense, too. Depending on the neighborhood.

The lake's so big it could technically be called a sea, so I doubt you'll feel landlocked. It is flat here, though, for sure.

I would recommend checking out some of the lesser-known neighborhoods in the city proper, like Ravenswood, Rogers Park, Edgewater, Hyde Park - I'm sure there are many others. They'll give you a nice mix of people, public trans and enough amenties to keep you occupied. Even Evanston and Oak Park could fit the bill, though they are suburbs.
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:09 PM on April 5, 2011

I ♥ Chicago. I've lived here for seven years, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

The city has a whole lot of variety to offer when it comes to where/how you want to live (and how much you want to spend to live there). Wikipedia has a really good breakdown of the neighborhoods, and is probably a good place to get started. Here's a pretty decent map so you can get your bearings.

If you're interested in something with a suburbany feel (tree-lined streets, children playing in parks) but still in the city and well-connected to transit, Ravenswood/Irving Park/Albany Park are good places to start.

I've lived in (though only as a renter; home-buying questions should go to someone else) Hyde Park, Pilsen, Irving Park, and occasionally the Loop, so feel free to memail me if you have any specific questions about those places.
posted by phunniemee at 5:14 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

...And as for how it compares to Cambridge, I don't know personally, but I've got a couple buddies here who went to MIT. They all love Chicago.
posted by phunniemee at 5:17 PM on April 5, 2011

To get a feel for the vibe of Chicago, watch the nightly news on WGN, and Chicago Tonight, online.
posted by blargerz at 5:37 PM on April 5, 2011

As a native of Chicago, there is nothing wrong with it, but since you are two childless professionals, able to move anywhere, I would consider places that are less cold and less stressful. Considering your desire to be closer to your parents, while being around educated people, Austin comes to mind, or the Rice University/Medical Center area of Houston.
posted by blargerz at 5:55 PM on April 5, 2011

Chicago is better than anywhere in Texas, we have water, a big lake of it.
posted by Max Power at 6:09 PM on April 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Odd, because I would have predicted that Naperville would be perfect for a New Englander. Did you visit the town center, or just the nasty sprawly areas outside of it? What made it seem hell-like to you? That area of the area seems the most East-coasty to me.

I haven't been to Cambridge, but I can tell you this: there are 4x the people in Chicago than Boston, and the Chicago metro area is twice the size and more dense than the Boston Metro area.
posted by gjc at 6:21 PM on April 5, 2011

It's the greatest city in the world. A much bigger city than Boston/Cambridge. Having a car is doable around the entire city, but not necessary.

Alot of jobs (especially IT) are in the suburbs, which would put you in a car alot, but you can get jobs in downtown.
More laid back than Cambridge and (depending where you live), less intellectual (imo), less career focused. Summers are incredible. THERE IS NO BETTER CITY IN THE WORLD in the summer time.. Sports are pretty important .Tons of young families live in the city (see Roscoe Village and north). I miss it every day and wonder why I moved.
posted by sandmanwv at 6:25 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I haven't been to Cambridge, but I can tell you this: there are 4x the people in Chicago than Boston, and the Chicago metro area is twice the size and more dense than the Boston Metro area.


I went to Northwestern in the 80s and moved to Boston in the 90s. Having grown up in small-town Maine, Boston was always perceived as this huge, sprawling mega-city, but after I lived in Chicago for six or seven years, Boston was nothing but a provincial little burg. I still sometimes marvel at how small this place is.

It's also hard to compare Cambridge and Chicago directly because of the scale. I lived in Evanston for most of my time in Chicagoland, but even Evanston and Cambridge don't compare well because Cambridge is so much a major part of "Boston", and Evanston is just a suburb (Evanston WISHES it could be Cambridge, but it ain't...and I say that as someone who loved living in Evanston).

There are plenty of pockets of insufferable careerists, striving yuppies, and what-have-you to be found in various communities throughout Chicagoland, but you won't find any that have quite the overall significance to the metro area as Cambridge has. Frankly, that's probably just as well, since Cantabridgians are a bit too full of themselves, as you know.
posted by briank at 6:30 PM on April 5, 2011

I grew up and spent the first 18 years of my life in Chicago. I've been in Cambridge (though admittedly, I was on a college tour), and there's definitely a difference in feel, even for a city with two world-class colleges. In Cambridge, the two seem to have some level of competition for the same area. In Chicago, the two big colleges are on opposite sides - Northwestern's all the way up north, and UChicago's pretty far down south. Though both are relevant, neither is really as central to the city as Harvard and MIT are.

Transportation: Chicago is very bikeable. Most neighborhoods are very walkable. The public transit is decent, but you really want to live near an El stop - otherwise, it's a hassle to climb in a bus and take that to wherever you're going. It's around a 30-minute ride to downtown.

Houses: Surprisingly inexpensive. My parents live in a two-story house with a basement that's got all one could ask for, and it's valued at around $330,000. I don't know if this is a trend around the entire city - we live at around 6000 north, which is closer to Evanston.

Music: It seems like every big-ticket band stops by Chicago. You could do far worse for music.

Recreation: The public parks are pretty good. Much of the lakeshore is zoned as parkland, and there's a completely free zoo. I don't think there's anything comparable to Danehy, but there are still some very, very nice parks.

Food: Chicago's got the most amazing selection of Thai restaurants I've seen in any city. Never mind the pizza; the Thai is excellent.

Also, you thought there were a lot of Dunkin Donuts in the Boston area? There are EVEN MORE in Chicago. No lies.

Neighborhoods: My favorite neighborhoods to hang out in were Andersonville and Lincoln Square. Both are close to public transit, have lots of great little stores, and aren't so close to the center of the city that you'll be overwhelmed.

IMPORTANT: Chicago's public school system is a little dubious. They've got some of the best schools in the country, but they're extremely selective magnet schools. You've seen how stressful it can be for parents to get their children into MIT or Harvard? Well, Chicago's magnet schools are even more selective. And the normal public high schools have pretty bad dropout rates and average ACT scores between to 16 and 18. If you can, I'd almost suggest living in Evanston - which isn't quite a Cambridge, but still feels like part of the city.
posted by LSK at 6:37 PM on April 5, 2011

I asked this question when we were considering a move from Cambridge to Chicago; it gave me good suggestions about neighborhoods to look at, one of which (Lincoln Park) we eventually moved into (and loved).

Lincoln Park is a pretty expensive neighborhood, though, and we've just moved down to Hyde Park and are still getting used to it here...
posted by wyzewoman at 6:39 PM on April 5, 2011

From what I hear (this is not from any personal experience of my own, please correct me if I'm wrong), it's kind of a pain in the ass having kids if you live in Chicago proper. The demand for all those helpful services like preschool, summer programs, and other kid activities wildly outstrips supply. One coworker cited her move to the suburbs as a result of having kids, but not making "gobs and gobs of money".

Assuming you guys get jobs in the city, you should have no reason to fear hours-long car commutes. If you can get to the metra or the el, you're golden.

The lake is certainly not the ocean, but it's nothing to sneeze at. The 18.5 miles of continuous public shoreline is a treasure.

Evanston does have an abundance of great restaurants, but the place isn't what I'd describe as "lively". The town was dry until the '70s, and it feels like it's never really recovered. I don't think there are any decent bars (except maybe one restaurant-pub).
posted by gueneverey at 6:39 PM on April 5, 2011

New England college student in my previous life, now living in Chicago, but super interested in city life (so take this with a grain of salt, of course.)

To sort of go with the bullets that you've set up:

Housing price: not qualified to discuss. Renting, at least, seems to be more reasonably priced than either NYC or Boston, but I've never rented there so this is just hearsay.

Lake and flatness
During the summertime, the lake is wonderful. I was born and raised in southern California (so I am kind of a beach snob), but I have nothing but the highest regard for how Chicago takes advantage of its lakefront location; in many ways I think it takes better advantage of its lakefront location than many oceanside cities (New York, for one.) fThe majority of the city's coast along the lakefront is public parkland which is gorgeous in summertime. There are a bunch of free concerts and other events taking place close to the lake. Also, there are sandy beaches open from Memorial to Labor Day -- sure, they're somewhat artificial, but considering that you can't see to the other shore of Lake Michigan, it's a pretty damn good beach experience for the middle of the Midwest. I actually like the sandy faux-beaches in Chicago better than the rocky Atlantic coast.

Flatness: not going to lie, this bothers me. I miss the LA mountains and New England hills. On the other hand, it makes running/biking in the warm months amazing.

Education and status
There are many educated people, but I don't think you'll find it as nakedly status-centered as New England. Chicago is essentially the cultural and intellectual capital of the Midwest, and for many Midwestern/Big Ten college graduates, Chicago is where they want to end up (sort of how New York functions for the greater US as a whole), and the intellectual and creative life benefit as a result, and I think the lack of a very ingrained elite educational culture makes it less pretentious than New England.

Suburbs and cars
I actually think this is one of the more important points you should look out for; I commute 60 miles round trip to a Chicago suburb 4x a week, so I'm acutely aware of this. If Naperville is your idea of hell and you don't want to sit in a car for hours, you almost absolutely want to make sure you can find a job downtown. Chicago has an excellent mass-transit system by American standards, but the entire rapid-transit system (the city rail and commuter rail) are built on a hub-spoke model to service downtown Chicago, leaving you with buses to fill in the gaps. The city of Chicago is fairly dense, but with an absence of natural barriers the Chicagoland suburbs sprawl like there's no tomorrow.

If you work downtown, commuting to the Loop by mass transit will be relatively painless and easy. However, many of the jobs are located in the suburbs, particularly the northwestern suburbs (Hoffman Estates-Schaumburg-Elk Grove, et al). I want to say there area lot of healthcare jobs along the I-88 corridor, for instance. To get to most of these places, you will almost definitely need a car, or commute for 1 hour+ each way by public transit. Chicagoland highway traffic, particularly at rush hours, is abysmally and catastrophically awful. If you hate sitting in a car above all else and want to take mass transit, for your sanity get a job downtown. Also, many of those job-rich suburbs are even worse than Naperville -- think no sidewalks, you have to drive everywhere, etc. Downtown Naperville is positively European in nature when compared to Hoffman Estates.

Neighborhoods in general
So I'm one of those twentysomethings that likes living around lots of bars, so I'll defer to everyone above with recommendations. But yes, many many restaurants, although for some reason I seem to have trouble finding good Japanese food in the city.

Chicago's great. As someone who never expected to end up living here for any period of time, I've found that it's very livable and reasonably priced. Of course I don't have to think about things like schools at the moment, which would probably totally change my thoughts, but yeah! Best of luck with the move.
posted by andrewesque at 6:55 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

sandmanwv is right that it's the greatest city in the world. :)

There are many jobs in the suburbs, but what you can do is take a job you're pretty sure you'll stay with a while and then buy a house in a close-by suburb to your suburban job ... but a suburb that's on a Metra line. One of my friends lives a 20-minute drive on local roads from her workplace two suburbs over (and she passes her parents' house and her preferred supermarket on the way), and they're also three blocks from the Metra line so her husband walks to the train and takes the train into the city for his job.

It's a city of neighborhoods, which makes it very manageable for such a large city, and it's a city stuffed full of midwesterners, so it's shockingly friendly for such a big metro. The food is unbeatable (the greasy street food, the comfort food, the ethnic food, AND the gourmet food). The arts scene is thriving, the music is spectacular, the museums are excellent.

Plenty of the older suburbs have traditional and walkable downtowns, if that's your thing.

Chicago is flat. But the lake is ginormous.

(Naperville is my idea of hell too, though I hear the old downtown is nice. But it's almost an hour out from the city and there are plenty of cute suburban downtowns far closer!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:55 PM on April 5, 2011

I have experience with both areas, and I would say that certainly housing prices are much more reasonable in the Chicago area. Some of the Chicago suburbs arise out of cornfields and are basically suburban hell, with McMansions (perhaps appropriately) sandwiched together. On the other hand, Naperville is actually one of the nicer suburbs, since it has its own downtown and local flavor. Though I'm most familiar with Boston/Cambridge, the suburbs around Boston do seem more varied, on the whole.

I agree with you that the music is better in Chicago. I'd also add that the food is better in Chicago. Even just pizza and subs are better in Chicago. Sorry, I'm thinking about an Italian beef right now....

I can address the issue of being near Maine, Vermont, NH, etc: Chicago's bit of Lake Michigan is wonderful. The rest of the Great Lakes is gorgeous and amazing. Northern Lower Michigan up to the Upper Peninsula, in particular, is spectacular. The drive from Chicago to a nice vacation spot in Wisconsin or Michigan would be at least 4 hours (8 or 9 to get really far north), but definitely worth it. The lake ceases to be "just a lake" when you can't see anything but shoreline and blue water.

I'd say that parents in Chicago can be just as focused on getting their children into good schools, it's just that they include UChicago, Northwestern, and Notre Dame on their lists along with the Ivies. However, things are definitely more relaxed in Chicago as compared to Cambridge, since the latter's identity is so linked to Harvard and MIT.

I'm not a true expert on Chicago neighborhoods, but I'd echo others' suggestions of Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, and Wrigleyville. I'd vote for moving to Chicago. You wouldn't be giving anything up, really, and being closer to your family is invaluable.
posted by redfishbluefish at 6:55 PM on April 5, 2011

I lived in Chicago for several years and live in Somerville right now, with frequent walks into Cambridge. I am not native to either region. They feel similar enough that there wasn't a huge culture shock for me; both are urban and fun and interesting and walkable. I lived in the city and can speak only a little bit about Evanston and not at all about Oak Park, but here are my observations (others' opinions may vary, of course):

- Chicago is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to Market Basket, but that's just peanuts to Chicago. There are whole neighborhoods I have never been in. It isn't a huge deal, usually, because if you're in an interesting neighborhood you don't have to look far for adventure, but if you're on the opposite side of the city from all your friends it can get tiring. And beyond Chicago, there is Chicagoland. Chicago has about five trillion suburbs. This doesn't seem to bother most people, but when I lived there, I felt very suburb-locked.

- Chicago is a breeze to navigate because its streets are laid out in a giant grid. So are many of the closer suburbs. This also makes public transportation way easier to figure out, because the El stops give you coordinates and most of the buses stay on one street for miles. So you hop on the westbound Diversey bus instead of the mumble-bound how-did-we-end-up-at-Sullivan-Square-again bus.

- Chicago wins at food, hands down. Boston has lobster rolls and better ice cream, but Chicago has deep-dish pizza (it is an acquired taste, but so good) and Italian beef and hot dogs and gyros everywhere. And that's just the junk-food-level stuff. There are so many good restaurants to visit. If you are a food snob, absolutely move to Chicago, but never ever leave because you will miss it too much.

- Lake Michigan is nice, but if you are used to the ocean it is really no substitute and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Judging by the answers upthread this is a minority opinion, but I'm sticking to it.

- Chicago is less intellectually snobby, but it is also less geeky. You can find geeks if you look, but it's not a part of the local flavor like it is in Cambridge.

- There is careerism and elitism in Chicago, too, but it skews a little more... corporate, I'd say? Chicago also feels a little more image-focused to me; I feel dumb in Cambridge, but I feel sloppy in Chicago. This depends on the neighborhood: Lincoln Park and Lakeview are full of yuppies, Bucktown/Wicker Park is hipstery. Other neighborhoods are lower-key while still being interesting (Ravenswood/Lincoln Square is nice and kid-friendly, ditto Roscoe Village). Many of the northern suburbs have a reputation for being elitist, too.

- Gentrification is an issue in Chicago, because there are so many neighborhoods to gentrify. You might buy a cheap place in an undiscovered neighborhood and have it crawling with twentysomethings and Starbuckses in ten years, or you might find a shiny brand-new condo in a neighborhood anticipating gentrification only for it never to happen.

- The winters are equally sucky. Chicago summers seem a little hotter.

- Housing is definitely cheaper. It's not exactly cheap, but it is cheaper.

I won't lie: when I left Chicago, I was ready to go. But I had so much fun, can't think of a better place to have lived, and would recommend it to anyone and everyone. Can you move there, rent for a couple years, and then decide about the house and the family?
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:09 PM on April 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

I haven't been to Cambridge, but I can tell you this: there are 4x the people in Chicago than Boston, and the Chicago metro area is twice the size and more dense than the Boston Metro area.

Here's a list of densities of Chicago neighborhoods, based on the 2000 census. These figures have probably changed for many of the neighborhoods over the past 10 years; some neighborhoods have probably gone up in density (I'm thinking particularly of West Town & the South Loop), some have probably been mature & stable (Lincoln Park, Hyde Park), and some have probably gone down (if I had to guess: Englewood, Bronzeville.) The most "desirable" neighborhoods are usually in the 16-20k per square mile range, which is just as dense or a little denser than Cambridge.

Also, keep in mind that in the context of Chicago, "less population density" does not necessarily mean "more green space". It can equally well mean "industry, warehouses, and/or abandoned buildings." For the extreme example of this, go look at that list again and find the "neighborhood" whose population density is by far the lowest of all of them. I doubt you'd want to live there.

If you're looking for less-dense Midwestern living, with affordable housing, good schools, and educated people, have you considered moving to a midwestern college town like Bloomington (IN) or Ann Arbor? Don't get me wrong: I love Chicago to pieces. I spent seven years there during grad school, and if I had the chance to move back I'd take it in an instant. But it sounds a little from your question that the Bright Lights and Big City are no longer the draw to you that they once was.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:45 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, Madison.
posted by blargerz at 7:56 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have never felt that Chicago is dense at all. And I say that having grown up in a city of 130,000 in Georgia.

I mean, yeah, if you're in Wrigleyville on a Cubs night or on Michigan Ave on a warm Saturday afternoon you're going to be fighting for oxygen, but those are special cases. Chicago is just so darn huge; there's plenty of room to spread out. To get a sense of things, according to wikipedia, Chicago is a little less densely populated than Boston.

It's not uncommon for me to see only a handful of people (or fewer) while out for a walk (even in non-residential places), no matter what time of day it is.

And oh my god the grid system. Chicago is the most easy-to-navigate city I've ever seen. Everything just makes so much sense!
posted by phunniemee at 8:04 PM on April 5, 2011

Native Bostonian in Chicago for almost four years now, with a detour to Manhattan in between. I will say I love Chicago, and will stay here at least a few years more, but don't plan to be here forever.

The pros:

CHEAP. Unless you insist on living in a high rise lakefront condo, you will not be paying anywhere near what you pay in the Boston area. My cruddy basement studio in Brookline circa 2003 was a steal at $750 a month. My current studio on the northside of Chicago, double the size? Rent was just raised to $645. If you're in Cambridge/Somerville and like that vibe, I'd say you could be very happy in Ravenswood, Lincoln SQUARE (Lincoln Park has a younger, more fresh-out-of-college vibe, and is more expensive) Andersonville or Edgewater. (Note: Andersonville is newly-hot and Edgewater is always on the verge of being hot, but never quite gets there. Still, it has some lovely homes and aparments at a good price. Edgewater feels a little bit like Jackson Heights, Queens to me. I like it.)

CTA: Honestly, of all the cities I've lived in and visited, Chicago's public trans is the most frustrating to me, but if you're on the northside, you can get around pretty well. Things get patchier as you go South and West. I don't have a car and I wouldn't even consider moving to neighborhoods/near burbs that I'm sure are really quite lovely (Hyde Park, Oak Park) just because it's a pain to get there. A really big pain.

Food: This really is an amazing food city. Having spent a few years in NYC, I wouldn't say it's the country's greatest, but it's for darn sure a contender.

Summer: Summers here really are hands-down the best I've experienced. Chicagoans really appreciate the three months of reliably good weather they get here, and bonus! This. Is. A. Drinking. Town. So if you've got a few years of mature partying left in you, come to here.

Jobs: There really are more jobs in the burbs but everyone wants to be in the city. Unemployment here had topped 10% not too long ago. If you *can* swing it, living in a nearby burb like Evanston and taking the Metra in for fun and driving to work isn't a bad idea.

Segregation: this is a contentious issue and I don't know if it's at all important to you, but as a POC, I did experience a bit of culture shock. I've argued this with native Chicagoans who *swear* up, down and sideways that surely Boston is worse, but having lived in both places, I've been more surprised and felt more uncomfortable here than I ever did in the Boston area. YMMV.

Schools: As several people mentioned, the public schools are patchy and the private and magnets are cutthroat and expensive. If you want to be here long enough to start a family and put children in school, it's an important factor to consider. I will probably move on when I'm ready to raise a family. That said, I know lots of (well-paid) people who do have families here, all either in private schools or too young to be in the public school system yet.

It's a fun, bikeable, friendly, lovely city with neighborhoods for every taste, and I'm glad I moved here. You'll find a lot to like about living in Chicago.


Feel free to MeMail me if you have any more specific questions. It's really nice here, it's affordable, and at the very least, if you can find a comparable salary here, what you save in rent over five years could make a nice down-payment on a house here or elsewhere, you know?
posted by OompaLoompa at 8:27 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

We're #1 in meetups.
posted by eamondaly at 8:38 PM on April 5, 2011 [6 favorites]

"Chicagoland" also extends into northwest Indiana in Lake and Porter counties. (Avoid Gary, though I hear it has been cleaning up its act.) It's about an hour from Porter County to Chicago, and the South Shore train goes right downtown. We are more rural than Chicago but not terribly far away - many people live here and commute every day to work in the city. Also we have the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and from some of the Lake Michigan beaches you can see the Chicago skyline on clear days.

Chicago really is awesome. You can find pretty much anything there and yes, it's the greatest city in the world. My longtime friend named her daughter Chi (pronounced Shy) as in Chi-town.

I can't talk about Chicago and not mention PBS chef's Rick Bayless' restaurants - Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, and Xoco. It's gourmet Mexican food and though I've only been to Xoco (which is more of a soup-and-sandwiches place), it is awesome.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:03 PM on April 5, 2011

I don't have the Cambridge MA experience to refer to, but here's my take on the time I lived in Chicago: I lived in Rogers Park just across the border from Evanston. First off, the Chicago public schools are shit. Yes, there are some decent charter schools and magnet programs, but there is no guarantee you'll be able to get your child into one.

Rogers Park, like probably a lot of neighborhoods, is itself subdivided into multiple economic and ethnic microcosms. Now, I lived in a "mixed income" rental part of RP (which included section 8 housing) and it may be different on a street of single-family housing, but even being the ballsy woman I am, walking around alone at night I did not feel exactly safe. Definitely urban, even on the edges. Again, I don't know Cambridge to compare it, but if you don't like density, there is not really any place in the city that is not dense.

It takes forever to drive anywhere if you're going someplace outside your neighborhood--the surface streets are slow--logical, but slow--and not designed to optimize traffic flow.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 4:12 AM on April 6, 2011

Live in Evanston or Oak Park. They're diverse areas with great restaurants and such (and all kinds of people), but you aren't living right in the city on top of all the bars. And you can take the train into the city. (Definitely the El or Metra [the "real" commuter train] from Evanston, and definitely the El from Oak Park but I'm not sure about Metra.)

Evanston and Oak park aren't new, manufactured communities. For the most part, everything is old and well built. You can certainly find old neighborhoods within the Chicago city limits that aren't on top of the nightlife as well, just move farther outwards.

Two thumbs up! (I grew up in Evanston.)
posted by iguanapolitico at 2:32 PM on April 6, 2011

One of my first exposures to the Chicago suburbs was walking along the Naperville riverwalk. One of the things I'll never forget is seeing the rocks along the river were actually made out of concrete, but they tried very hard to make them look natural. Ugh. That and the legions of SUV strollers pretty much represented everything that I thought was wrong with the suburban life.

Fast forward 10 years and we now have been living in Naperville for 6 months and we LOVE it here.

Yes, you have some uppity yuppie-ness to deal with. Yes, there is some artifice to the riverwalk. But we live in a neighborhood where we can walk downtown to hang out there or catch a train to Chicago if we want. Our neighbors are awesome, and the schools and libraries are top-notch. We can walk to North Central College to attend music or theatre.

So, I'd be interested in the "hell" aspect of Naperville that you speak of. It's one thing to not want to commute to Chicago from there, I can get that. I have commuted from Aurora to the Lincoln Park area and from Aurora to Evanston(!) where there is no direct rail (see the hub and spoke rail system mentioned above). Going from Naperville to Lincoln Park takes 50 minutes in light traffic, over an hour and a half in heavy traffic. From Naperville metra station to Union Station it is 37 minutes once you step on the train. So, I know commutes. There are shorter commutes and longer commutes. It all depends on what you're looking for.
posted by achmorrison at 7:33 PM on April 11, 2011

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