And What's the Deal with "Chicagoland" Anyway?
August 5, 2011 6:55 PM   Subscribe

I might have to move my family to Chicago. Share your insider knowledge, Mefites!

I applied for a job within my company that would require me to move to Chicago (I am currently in Texas). The office is downtown (Wacker).

I've never lived there, though I have lived in NYC so am not afraid of Big City Life. I have visited, and found it pretty, though I was only really downtown. Pre-kid, I would mostly have been concerned with my commute/how big a place I could get. But now I have to consider schools and access to decent places to play and room for at least some of my kid's Transformers collection.

To complicate things, my kid is starting Kindergarten in August, so his school year would be somewhat disrupted. His dad works at home, at least, so he wouldn't have to worry about commuting.

So, the suburbs, right? As close to the train as possible? But which suburb? I am good with renting for the first year while we look around.

If the move happens, it will happen pretty fast. I may only have a few weeks if that to find us a place.

In NY, we had good luck with the Village Voice ads and Craigslist, but that was 4 years ago. I have no idea where to start with Chicago.
posted by emjaybee to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in Downers Grove, Illinois. It is picture-perfect, John Hughes suburbanite Chicago and 20-30 min from downtown by Metra. No idea on current home prices, but it is a safe, serene community with good public schools, last I heard.
posted by surewouldoutlaw at 7:11 PM on August 5, 2011

I'm not intimately knowledgeable of schools, but I've heard there are good schools in Evanston and Oak Park, which are near suburbs that are connected to the El, the subway system there.

You can also go for anywhere by the Metra. A friend of mine moved way out to Geneva for a big house and good schools and his commute downtown is only an hour and ten minutes.
posted by ignignokt at 7:15 PM on August 5, 2011

Response by poster: esmerelda, tell me about the ones you know about! We are not anti-city-life, but we're not obscenely wealthy, and finding an affordable decent-sized place in the city proper with good schools and close to a park seems like it would be harder. But if you know differently, I'm all ears.

We do have a car, and feel like we need to keep it; wouldn't we have to pay a lot for parking in the city?
posted by emjaybee at 7:24 PM on August 5, 2011

Downers Grove is nice. My parents live there, about a mile from the train station, and when I moved back after law school, I lived with them for a short while. Downtown Downers has a couple decent restaurants, an IrishPub with live music. There's an express train at least once an hour M-F in the morning and the afternoon/evening. It's about a 25 minute ride from Main Street to Union station on an express train.

School's in DG are good; lots of parks. It's a straight shot on either the Eisenhower or the Stevenson to downtown--should you choose to drive. It's across the line in DuPage County, rather than Cook County, so sales tax is lower, but the politics are much more Republican.

But city living is certainly possible, even with a family--half the condo building where we live have children, as do neighbors on both sides and we live on a busy street with three bus routes. I know folks doing it on ordinary salaries in Hamlin Park, Portage Park, Wicker Park and even in Lakeview. There are lots of parks to play in (including city parks with sprinklers); we have sidewalks anywhere there are houses; you can buy or rent places with deeded parking. You can usually park on the street (you have to buy a city sticker or risk a ticket) in most residential neighborhoods without feeding meters. it's a different style of living, but one that people do easily,
posted by crush-onastick at 7:37 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I lived in Northfield and that area for several years. It was great. On the north shore and had a train that was convenient. I would call a RE broker that specializes in rentals.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:46 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

The best schools, and the most expensive towns, are on the North Shore -- anything that feeds in to the high schools New Trier, the Glenbrooks, Deerfield, Lake Forest, Highland Park, etc. Most of these towns are older suburbs (often with actual downtowns from when they were farm villages) and served by the Metra, so the commute isn't awful. If you're willing to buy in a less-desirable area, such as along the train tracks (that is, less-desirable relates to aesthetics -- not to crime or anything), you can find detached houses around $300,000 that are pretty reasonably sized for someone used to a city, post-war 3-bedroom houses and things. On the other end, there's basically no limit on what you CAN spend if you want to.

There's also been a move towards townhouses and apartments within walking distance of the train stations, I think because people in those suburbs are aging and want to stay in their suburbs but don't want to take care of a 4,000 square foot house anymore. So you can find more of that kind of thing than you used to be able to, but I don't know what those types of things cost.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:49 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

How long of a commute are you willing to put up with? I live in the far (far!) southwest suburbs (like, Joliet), and the commute to Chicago via Metra is around an hour*. Then you would have to walk to your office building, which is normally not a big deal, but in the winter can be annoying. The commute via car is not something a sane person would even contemplate, unless you really, really like your car. So, out this way (in order of approximate high to lower cost) we have Palos Park, Orland Park, Frankfort, Tinley Park, New Lenox, Mokena, Manhattan, Joliet.

If you go more south than west, Beverly, a somewhat suburban feeling neighborhood of Chicago, is nice, but pretty expensive. I would skip the near south suburbs (Oak Forest, Midlothian, Crestwood, Oak Lawn, Alsip) mostly because they don't have a great school system. With the possible exception of the last two, they are nice areas to live, however. The far south suburbs like Homewood and Flossmoor are very nice and very expensive, but now you're at about the far southern limit to public transporation.

I second Downers Grove as very nice, but it is also pretty congested. I know people who couldn't afford it, and went south to Darien. Woodridge is also nice and can be affordable. And of course, there's Naperville, which can be insanely expensive, but has terrific schools and the amenities of a nice small city (a nice downtown area, good restaurants, lots to do.) A little bit south of there are Lemont, Bolingbrook, and Romeoville, which are all nice areas, although Bolingbrook has some higher crime neighborhoods that you'd want to watch out for.

Closer in is Oak Park (expensive, but great schools) and Forest Park (sketchy in areas, but gets a lot of people who want to be near Oak Park but can't afford it). Both are close to the El.

*This assumes regular 8-5 work hours, when they run express trains.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:52 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've known people with kids who started in Forest Park, then moved to Oak Park once the kids were school-age. I don't have kids myself but the general consensus around there was that OP is much better. It's also a lot closer to the city/ more accessible compared to other suburbs- being able to rely on the El (as opposed to just the Metra, as is the case in further-away suburbs) is a huge plus. As far as living in the city goes, its the same thing- I've known people who lived in the city til their kids were school aged, then moved to Oak Park.

I've lived in many places in and around the city including suburbs both near and far (including the aforementioned Downers Grove, even) and given your circumstances I'd recommend Oak Park in a heartbeat. Personally, the only reason I left was because it was so kid-friendly, I felt a little out of place there! Anyway please memail me if you want to know more about it.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 8:01 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess I should have clarified, I didn't want to make my answer too long but think I should have explained it better:

The metra is the train that goes out to many of the suburbs, including far-away ones and mainly only stops at one of two huge stations downtown (union or ogilvie.) This is what stops in places such as downers grove. The el is the half-elevated, half- subway system that has stops throughout the city and for the most part doesn't go all the way to the suburbs. There are exceptions- the green and blue lines run west to the Oak Park/ Forest Park/ River Forest area. I think the red/purple/yellow lines get you to some northern suburbs, but you have to keep in mind that the city is basically a long, vertical rectangle. The western suburbs are a significantly shorter commute than the northern ones (20-25 minutes vs 45-60 depending on where you're going.) Furthermore, the el runs more frequently (every 5-15 min) whereas metra can be as slow as every 2 hours (on the weekends.) The el also runs later- in fact, the blue line runs 24 hours, although this may not matter as much to you as it did to me! But anyway, just wanted to point out that the value of being near "a" train depends a lot on which train it is. And in my opinion the el is much more valuable than the metra (but of course if you live in Oak Park you have access to both!)
posted by GastrocNemesis at 8:08 PM on August 5, 2011

River Forest is a nice alternative to Oak Park. Also on both the el (sort of--the last Oak Park stop is walking distance to where my Grandmother / cousins lived in River Forest) and the metra. Memail Readery. She'll have good advice.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:15 PM on August 5, 2011

I live in Irving Park, which is close to Albany Park and Ravenswood. I'm (oh lord hopefully) still quite a few years out from the having kids/being an "adult" thing, so I can't speak to the housing market or the school's really lovely and residential-feeling there. Tree-lined streets, great parks, kids riding on tricycles, people out walking their dogs, the whole shebang. Very reasonable stint to the Loop via the Brown Line.

Just don't write off the city until you've actually investigated your options! Chicago is a wonderful town, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be. I'm sure the suburbs are nice, but it sure does feel good to be able to say, "I'm from Chicago."
posted by phunniemee at 8:16 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

GastrocNemesis: "mainly only stops at one of two huge stations downtown (union or ogilvie.)"

There are actually five Metra stations in the Loop.

Some useful links:

Metra (commuter trains between suburbs and Chicago)

CTA (city buses, the El)

PACE (suburban buses)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:23 PM on August 5, 2011

If you are buying a house, look at property taxes as well as price. Illinois property taxes are higher than some other states.
posted by goethean at 9:59 PM on August 5, 2011

Yeah, there aren't a lot of good public schools in the city. That's sad, but true. Not zero, but not a lot.

But Chicago is a strange nut compared to a lot of cities, and especially anywhere in Texas. The Catholic school system is not super expensive, and it's huge-it's like an entire giant parellel big-city school system, and it's so ubiquitous that plenty of non-Catholic kids go there. I am an atheist (of the jerk-ass synod), and I would at least consider sending my kids to Catholic school in Chicago.

That being said, Evanston is pretty tolerable as suburbs go, and the purple line (express trains! much less shittiness!) is about as easy a suburbs->loop commute as there is. The public schools there (I believe it is Maine Township?) seem to have a good reputation.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 11:36 PM on August 5, 2011

Most of Evanston is covered by Evanston Township High School (Maine Township is Des Plaines and Park Ridge ... for some reason I know that both Hilary Clinton and Harrison Ford are from Park Ridge and went to the Maines). ETHS's reputation is rather up-and-down; you have a lot of Northwestern and hospital employees' kids, but you also have more poverty in Evanston than in a lot of nearby suburbs, and a LOT of Evanston people send their kids to private schools -- a much higher percentage than other, nearby suburbs. ETHS is reputed to have gang problems, but I'd read that as "gang" problems as reported by overprotective North Shore parents. (I wouldn't write it off out of hand, but I wouldn't hear "gang" and think "inner city drive-by shootings" either.)

And yes, the Chicago park system is hugely extensive -- the city's Latin motto translates as "City in a Garden" and I believe Cook County has the most greenspace of any urban county in the U.S.

And look, people from Terre Haute say they're from Chicago, it's code for "I'm from the midwest, I'm good people, and I doubt you've ever heard of Terre Haute"; if you're in the suburbs you can say "I'm from Chicago" and other Chicagoans will say "where?" and you'll say "Naperville" and this will be a totally normal conversation that people have all the time. Also, Chicago's four directions are "North, South, West, and Towards the Lake."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:06 AM on August 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I dunno where to live, but for the love of God don't commute by car. I did a reverse commute (Oak Park to Hoffman Estates) and it was hellish - I can't even imagine what it'd be like to go downtown.

My sister-in-law lived in Oak Park with her two kids until recently and really liked the schools, but she was paying something like $1800 for a smallish two-bedroom. I hear the Green Line from Oak Park is pretty sketchy, especially after dark.
posted by desjardins at 10:35 AM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

esmerelda_jenkins: "Plus, you don't want to live in the suburbs. You can't say you live in Chicago if you really live in the suburbs; it's a Whole Big Thing to us natives. If you decide that you absolutely must live in a suburb, the acceptable ones are Oak Park, Berwyn, and Evanston, although I think that one's kinda debatable."

I'm hoping this is kinda tongue in cheek, because really? Berwyn? I grew up there. You can't talk intelligently about Berwyn if you didn't grow up there. (Am I doing it right, as a native?)

Seriously, don't listen to anybody who tells you what "the natives" think, because it's a gigantic diverse area, and everybody has their opinions and favorite enclaves of greatness. And the suburb vs. city nonsense is just that.

Some facts that might help you narrow down your options are travel times (see my earlier links and, real estate & rental prices (I have no recommendation on how to find these, sorry), school ratings, crime statistics, and maybe Illinois census demographics (search for Cook, DuPage, Will, Lake, Kendall, McHenry counties).
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:43 AM on August 6, 2011

i've lived in a lot of places in chicagoland and traveled pretty much anywhere. most of what everyone is saying here is true except what esmerelda said about the suburbs.

city living is certainly doable, mostly on the northwest side. too many areas to mention.

since you'll be working downtown proximity to a train line is important--even if you plan to drive. you will appreciate the convenience of the train.

property taxes outside of the city proper are decided at the township level, not by towns. the town i live in is in two townships--one of them has higher taxes the the other.

most suburbs are in cook county, which does have more fiscal problems then the other 'collar counties.' because of the size of chicago cook county government will always be part of the chicago patronage system. this won't affect day to day life much except for the occasional tax.

i'd recommend checking out towns in dupage county--like downers grove/westmont/lisle mentioned above. i live in elmhurst which is along a train line and about 30 minutes by car from downtown.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 4:49 PM on August 6, 2011

Elmhurst is definitely a hidden gem. Nice little downtown, easy access to pretty much everything, good schools, nice park district. Definitely some areas are pricey, but it also has older, more reasonable neighborhoods too. Good call, lsp.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:04 PM on August 6, 2011

Just to give the discussion some texture, I'd kill myself before I moved to a Chicago suburb.

I have lived in a condo in Lincoln Square since 1993. Ain't goin' nowhere.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:20 PM on August 6, 2011

Echoing the Catholic Schools thing. True. Chicago is a parochial city. You will meet people and they will ask you where you grew up...then they will say "Did you go to St. Cyr?" Pretty interesting.

Think schools. There are sites that rank the CPS schools. There are many, many that are not good. HS drop out rates hover around 50%. You will need to live in the district of the school your child attends. Otherwise you will need to get into a magnet or charter school lottery (and test in).

I am on the far north side and it is pretty chilled out and relaxed. Near the Metra and Blue Line. I work on Wacker near Wabash and the commute (bus and CTA) is 45 minutes door to door. Metra would be a 20 minute ride downtown and a 10 minute walk. Send me memail if you want to chat more specifically. I'd love to assist.
posted by zerobyproxy at 7:03 PM on August 6, 2011

Just to give a bit of context, about 1/3 of (the city of) Chicago's school-aged population attends Catholic schools. And, yeah, you don't have to be Catholic. There are a few schools that are like 85% non-Catholic.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:56 PM on August 6, 2011

Response by poster: I understand that Catholic schools are filling a need, but they're right out. I am not giving my money to anything affiliated with an organization so rabidly antichoice and antiwoman.
posted by emjaybee at 8:19 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hit post too soon...many thanks though for all the tips. I will definitely use the Mefi Mail for those of you that offered as soon as I know more about what our plans might be. I don't yet know how much of a chance I have at this position, but I thought it would be stupid to wait to the last minute to do research.

I don't plan to drive each day, I much prefer train commuting and we'd like to stay with just one vehicle for the family.

It looks like the school quality issue is going to be the big decider here. Do any of you have kids in area schools, and what do you think? Have any of you dealt with "testing in" or lotteries, because that's also something I have no experience with.
posted by emjaybee at 9:19 PM on August 6, 2011

i have two kids--though one is no longer in school. i found the schools in elmhurst to be pretty good. it was a big reason why i moved here the second time.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 11:07 PM on August 6, 2011

If you live in the city you can come to our meetups!
posted by adamdschneider at 11:27 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So is kenilworth or worth the fancier place?

Ok, well, for the first year (assuming a standard lease) we'd like to keep rent below, oh, 1500/month at the outside. We have a car that needs parking and a cat, besides the three of us, and we'd need at least 3 bedrooms (one for husband's office). An apartment would work fine, though a house would be nice. We can take or leave a yard if there's a park nearby.

Per buying, I'm not even going to worry about that yet, because we'll need at least a year to look around, get financing together, etc.

And yes, there will be meetups!
posted by emjaybee at 3:02 PM on August 8, 2011

emjaybee: "So is kenilworth or worth the fancier place?"

posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:40 PM on August 8, 2011

Response by poster: Ach; did not get the job. But many thanks to all who helped, and maybe this post will be useful to someone (or to me if another opening shows up).
posted by emjaybee at 9:06 AM on August 30, 2011

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