Should this City Mouse Become a (pseudo)Country Mouse?
March 12, 2012 4:00 PM   Subscribe

MakeMyMindUpForMe-filter: If you were a not-so-young-anymore grad student to be, and had to choose between spending the next 6(ish) years of your life in Durham or Chicago, which would you choose on a purely lifestyle basis (academic/$$ considerations being relatively equal), and why? Looking for experiences of those who have lived (not necessarily studied) in either (or both!) places. Semi-relevant details inside.

I'm tired of weighing the academic and financial pros and cons of the grad programs I've been accepted to, and am trying to figure out where I might (possibly.....just maybe) actually be happy living. I've visited both campuses, but did not have much of an opportunity to get a feel for the city/lifestyle offered by either locale. On first glance, Chi-town seems the obvious choice in many ways, but I'm looking for thoughts on why the "obvious choice" may or may not be so.....obvious.
Here are some things about me that might be relevant (but I'm also interested in general thoughts about either city):
- I bike. A lot. I will be using my bike as my main/sole form of transportation wherever I end up.
- I currently live in a land where Winter is a Real Thing, and am therefore used to a Chicago-esque climate (but also pretty sick of a Chicago-esque climate)
- In my non-academic life, I'm seriously/professionally involved in contemporary dance. I hope to be able to continue this in some (though obviously reduced) capacity (especially taking regular pro-level classes in ballet and contemporary dance). This seems to be a point in favour of Chicago, but I'd be interested to hear about hidden dance gems in the Research Triangle area...
- I do not currently have a dog, but I want to get one when I move. I like Big Dogs.
- I grew up in a VERY small town near a small city, but have lived for the past eight years in a Big (BIG) City. I like both lifestyles pretty equally (hence the impossibility of this choice).
- I love outdoorsy things: camping, hiking, backpacking, rock-climbing, etc. Having (relatively easy) access to some serious Wild Spaces (as opposed to city parks) would be a definite plus.
- I'm Canadian.
- I like hockey. A lot. (This also seems to be a point in Chicago's favour, but since I'm a Canucks fan and don't interact well with Blackhawks fans....maybe it's better I go somewhere where I won't get beaten up for wearing my Burrows jersey on game days?)
- I do not have a SO whose preferences I need to consider, and my cat is pretty ambivalent on this issue.

So, MetaMind.....what would your Chicago/Durham sales pitch (or warning!) look like? What should I be taking into consideration when making my choice? Can you make my choice for me? Pretty please?
posted by Dorinda to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I moved from Chicago to Durham area (I'll call it RDU to talk generally about the areasl) 3 years ago. I moved to Chapel Hill, which is very different.

Here's my take on your points:

--RDU(if you live near school). Chapel Hill and Carrboro is very bikeable as well. Most of the area is sprawlville, however. Biking has gotten much bigger in Chicago since I left, it seems.

--RDU. Weather is very nice 8 months of the year. Summer through September is brutal. (I prefer Chicago, however)

--Chicago by default. No idea about this, but potentially being in a small pond, etc.

--RDU. A yard will be much easier to get

Type of Place:
-Wash. Chicago is a very big city with a small town feel in many places. RDU is mostly sprawlville, but Durham has a identity (in parts)

-RDU by a LANDSLIDE. Lots of hiking, biking opportunities minutes away. Chicago lake front isn't too shabby though.

-Wash. If this means anything, I met more canadians in RDU area than I did in Chicago (2 vs 0)

-Chicago. Chicago-ans LOVE sports, but are not rabid enough in most places to care if you like the Canucks, imho. Chicago is the sports-watching capital of the world if I may so. Everybar is a sports bar, so it seems. Nobody cares about hockey unless the Hurricanes win another stanley cup.

RDU, I think it would be a good fit for you, but personally Chicago is My Favorite Place in the World, and I would love to move back there someday.
posted by sandmanwv at 4:12 PM on March 12, 2012

I've lived in both places, and prefer Durham. I pretty much agree with everything sandmanwv wrote, so I won't repeat it. Except hockey - there is a hockey team in Raleigh, the Carolina Hurricanes and you'd be surprised at how into it the locals are. Also, tickets are probably easier to get than in Chicago!
posted by echo0720 at 4:36 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, also since you're in grad school consider cost of living. WAY cheaper in NC than in Chicago.
posted by echo0720 at 4:37 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have a sister in Raleigh. Cost of living in NC is definitely way cheaper, you'll be able to rent or share a house with a yard for dogs, plus you're not far from awesome mountains in one direction and beaches in another.
posted by mareli at 4:55 PM on March 12, 2012

I've lived in Durham, and I just wanted to point out that Durham has some pretty serious dance opportunities as well. The American Dance Festival is headquartered there.
posted by Kronur at 5:00 PM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding echo0720. You can live VERY WELL on a grad stipend in Durham. In Chicago you'd definitely be scrounging.

I am just finishing up a grad program at Duke (in literature, so I know the English and Lit departments quite well) and love Durham. It's a fun city with a surprisingly vibrant music and art scene. Some great restaurants and bars have moved in downtown in the last few years -- good enough to get written up in the NY Times food section a few times. It's a great place to spend your grad school years.

Weather is great. You'll have better luck with a dog here because you'll have a bigger property. There's a hockey scene here but it's not super large.

re: dance: The American Dance Festival is here every summer.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have more specific questions, as I just finished what you're starting and can maybe tell you more...
posted by gerryblog at 5:19 PM on March 12, 2012

I grew up in Durham and spent most of my twenties in Chicago, and would be happy to move back to either. I'd lean toward Chicago for you, because there's just so, so much to do there. Although Durham has much better weather and pretty trees and more interesting road trip opportunities (mountains! beach!). So I really think you'll be happy either way.

If rent/housing is a concern, you'll get a LOT more apartment for your buck in Durham. And you're more likely to find a place with air conditioning, a dishwasher, and parking. These are not amenities you're going to find in Chicago on a grad student's budget.

Durham has the American Dance Festival, which might be of interest to you (on preview, seconding Kronur).

Another thing to consider: will you be traveling a lot in the next several years? Chicago is one of the best places to live if you're a frequent flier.

And if you're interested in meeting other MeFites, Chicago has regular meetups!

This is sort of a rambly non-definitive answer, I recognize, but the point is either decision is a good one.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:24 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

But really, aside from the various characteristics of the two places, don't you want to choose the program based on its merits? Which faculty members' work do you find most inspiring? You visited both, yes?

You're Canadian, you'll be more of a rare bird in NC than in Chicago, that might or might not be good.
posted by mareli at 5:32 PM on March 12, 2012

I did my PhD at Duke and absolutely adored living in Durham. I had several friends who bought houses on their grad student stipend (although in science, so your stipend may not go quite that far). A number of them lived without cars as well and relied on bikes and buses. You do have to be dedicated and live in the right place, because the public transportation is limited and there are few bike lanes. But there are plenty of places to live that are easily accessible to campus and to everything else by walking or biking plus the occasional bus.

The ADF is a really big deal there. I got convinced to go see Pilobolus and got hooked.

In terms of outdoors stuff, parts of Duke Forest are in the city (I did most of my research there) and walkable from campus, and Eno River State Park is basically in the city and is stunningly wild and beautiful. And you're 4 hours or so drive from both the mountains and the beach (but you will have to use a car for that).

Although hockey is not historically part of NC, the Hurricanes have been very successful and I don't think it's hard to get tickets. The arena is on the Durham side of Raleigh. And if it matters to you, I knew lots of Canadian grad students so you won't be that weird or anything.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:44 PM on March 12, 2012

I'd really take the weather into account. Chicago is so miserable in the winter, it cripples lots of activities, even if you have a car (you'd likely have to dig it out). How much does this put you off? It's a huge factor, especially when one is snowed-under in the middle of the city during the blackness of January. But life there without a car isn't too bad-- I did it for years.

And you can find cheap rent in Chicago with a back yard, if you really look around and negotiate. It's not like NY or LA-- there are actual deals to be had in neighborhoods which are fairly nice.

And Chicago is very flat, so although there are tons of campgrounds and "wild spaces" within a couple hours of the city proper, you'd be walking more than you would be actually hiking. And rock-climbing... not so much unless it's indoors or you're willing to go to Wisconsin, basically. In any case, you'd need a car to get out there with your equipment, or a friend with one. The plus is that Lake Michigan, with its beaches, is close no matter where in the city you live.
posted by devymetal at 5:55 PM on March 12, 2012

I've lived in both places- well, I live in Carrboro, not Durham, but have spent lots of time in Durham.

Personally I like Durham more than Chicago. The weather is a huge quality of life factor. I grew up in Rochester, NY ("practically Canada") so I'm used to the crummy Chicago style weather.

Durham is more of a dog and bike friendly city than Chicago in my experience. Lots of good outdoorsy activities in the area, too. And the cost of living is much lower than Chicago.

Really, though, for me, it boils down to the weather. It was in the 70s today and that is going to continue. There are blossoms on all the trees and everything is flowering and pretty already. It barely snows and I don't need a huge winter coat like I did in Chicago, where I wore two pairs of pants to bike to work.

One downside is that, at least where I live in Carrboro, I do need a car to go lots of places. Not everywhere, but a car really is handy.

Good luck! Duke and UNC are both great schools, with beautiful campuses. You can't go wrong here, in my opinion. I want to stay in the South for the rest of my life; it really is nice down here.
posted by k8lin at 5:58 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Okay @dorinda...MeFites want to know your final answer. Do share when you've decided!
posted by bmorrison at 6:18 PM on March 12, 2012

I'd really take the weather into account. Chicago is so miserable in the winter, it cripples lots of activities, even if you have a car (you'd likely have to dig it out). How much does this put you off? It's a huge factor, especially when one is snowed-under in the middle of the city during the blackness of January.

This is when you finish your dissertation.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:40 PM on March 12, 2012

I currently live in Durham, having moved there from Michigan. And many years before that I lived in Carrboro. The lack of winter here compared to Michigan has been a relief.

As others have said, Chapel Hill / Carrboro is very bike-friendly, Durham somewhat less so. One thing to note, unless your life revolves only around school and home, you will need a car. I find myself driving to Chapel Hill and Carrboro fairly regularly, and also to Cary and Raleigh, although somewhat less regularly, for various reasons, including shopping in particular ethnic groceries. The contrast with Chicago is that while Chicago is one big city connected by public transportation, the RDU area has smaller cities in close proximity, and getting from one locale to the other is easiest by car.

So while rent can be lower here, the need for a vehicle can add to the cost (and what's with having to pay property tax on one's car???).
posted by research monkey at 6:49 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Having lived in Montana, Texas, and Colorado, and having briefly visited the countries surrounding Lake Victoria, I find that I strongly prefer to live in a place where it gets really cold at least once every winter.
posted by Bruce H. at 6:52 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the insight so far, friends!
I'm especially grateful for the head's up re: the ADF. That's excellent to know about. Now, if I can only find somewhere in the Durham area (or RDU, as the cool cats call it) where I can take class the other 11 months of the year. Unfortunately, dance is one of those things where you have to go every day, or Massive Badness descends upon you pretty quickly. ;)

Interesting to hear about the bikeability (or not) of Durham. I don't actually have a driver's licence, nor do I have any plans to acquire one (trust me, this is in the best interests of all humanity), so having a car in RDU won't be an option. Maybe if I decide to go there I'll have to get myself a buddy with a car, for essential/far away trips?

@mareli: Yes, I am certainly thinking about the academic (and financial) aspects of this decision. Believe me, I have the spreadsheets and self-compiled Professor profiles to prove it. But, because of my tendency to obsess over/get anxious about/overthink the Big Important Decisions in life, I decided to give my self a (much needed) mental break from considering academic/professional consequences of my decision and try to break that mental stalemate (the programs really are equally great for me, though different) by considering other factors that will influence the non-school parts of my life. :) (I know, I know....optimistic of me to assume that there will be and "non-school" aspects of my life.)

@bmorrison: I will absolutely update when I've made my decision!

Until then, keep the answers flowing! This is all excellent food for thought....
posted by Dorinda at 8:09 PM on March 12, 2012

I was not involved in *academia* in either place, which unquestionably gives one a good community regardless of the broader culture around you. That said, I would take Chicago in a heartbeat. (Experience: I lived in Chicago for a year, and I've visited the research triangle area and constantly hear about it from my relative who lives and works there.) In terms of cultural offerings, progressive community, and acceptance/diversity in every sense, Chicago would be for me despite its weather. I might well place more emphasis on a politically progressive city overall than you do, though.
posted by kalapierson at 8:23 PM on March 12, 2012

I've lived in both places and had to make a similar decision when I went to graduate school the first time.

I chose Chicago and lived just fine on my graduate stipend. It's not as cheap as Durham, but it has all the amenities that a large city has, including great food, culture, and architecture. And the winters? Not really that bad.

All of that said, where you live in Chicago makes a big difference. I would never move to Hyde Park again, for example. It's too insular and is full of shops and restaurants that close early--really early. My love for Chicago didn't start until I hot-tailed it out of Hyde Park and moved to Buena Park.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:27 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I lived in both places - Durham for undergrad, Chicago for a year as a working stiff. I was going to recommend Durham for the same reasons everyone has mentioned. Cost of living is way lower, which makes livability much higher. There are varied options in the RDU area - sure, Chicago gets the biggest acts and has the biggest art and theater scene, but it'll cost you twice as much to do any of that in Chicago, so I would say the availability is almost as good in the Triangle area if you're on a budget. And the three big colleges there means there's usually something interesting happening most weekends, though not as much as in Chicago obviously. The outdoors options in the triangle are better than in Chicago - I am very sad that I only got into hiking and canoeing after I moved away from Durham, because the few times that I got out in the area it was very nice. In Chicago, I had to drive 2 hours to reach a mediocre state park for a hike. I don't even know where the nearest good state park to Chicago is, and I spent a year there looking for good state parks. Oddly enough, I prefer Chicago's weather - I could hardly go outside in North Carolina summers, and the winters aren't so bad when you learn to bundle up, which it sounds like you have. I walked a mile to the train every day and didn't really mind it, and it was nice to have seasons other than "summer," "not summer," and "heat death."

Some of it comes down to what you like to do for fun and relaxation. If you like choosing from tons of options and aren't too worried about price, Chicago easily wins. If you like having a few good options, and are okay if those few options are all there is, RDU probably wins. I found myself fairly overwhelmed in Chicago and frustrated to learn that 90% of the restaurants were awful. In a smaller city, bad restaurants go out of business; in Chicago, bad restaurants linger everywhere and make it hard to find the good ones unless you eat out 5 nights a week. Durham has a few real gems and they aren't as crowded as the good ones in Chicago. Durham also has a few areas that are small, but nice. Assuming you're looking at Duke (since you mentioned Durham and not any other cities), 9th street is pretty small but is packed with real gems that I miss dearly. It's also easy to walk to from East Campus or bike to / take a bus from West. If you are a hiker or kayaker, doing that in Chicago is an all-day commitment as it requires a 2-4 hour drive. In Durham, outdoorsy activities are 45 minutes away at most, and you can always go for short hikes in the Duke Forest. There's even acceptable skinning in western North Carolina near Asheville. Nothing to write home about, but better than the "mountains" (glorified hills and basins) around Chicago.

But then I learned that you will not have a car. That's a significant limitation, especially if you are going to take dance classes several times a week. The Triangle area has a lot of suburban sprawl to it, and if you're going to be near Duke's campus then you're pretty much limited to the area around 9th street and the few miles around campus. It's doable, but if I were you I would ask some current grad students if they think they could manage without a car, and how they would pull it off. Rereading your question, I would slightly recommend Durham, but not having a car is a big unkown for me. You'd better find someone to ask about that.

Actually, that brings up a good point. You should call the Duke Dance department (the academic department) and find out about dance opportunities in the area. I'm sure there's a friendly grad student who would tell you what's in the area. And maybe you'll learn the studios there are weak, and that'll seal the deal :).

Responding to kalapierson's comment about a progressive city: I was not involved in especially progressive circles while in either area (I think I'm progressive, but I don't do much that shows it), but it's my understanding that thanks to the concentration of universities the Triange area has a pretty active "progressive" community (if you can really call "progressive" a coherent thing). I'm sure there's more going on in Chicago, but I don't think anyone would be lacking in chances to get involved in political causes, racial issues, LGBT issues, whatever "progressive" is to them. It's true, NC is a red state, and there are lots of not-very-progressive types there, but you can find lots of people on the other end of the spectrum there as well. As for "cultural offerings," I would have gone broke if I'd taken advantage of half of the cultural offerings in Chicago, and I was probable making 5 times what a grad student stipend pulls in. Hence my recommendation for the Triangle - cultural options don't mean much if they are hardly affordable.

BTW, almost no one calls the area RDU. We're just calling it that because it's easy to type. To locals, RDU is the airport. Locals either say "the triangle / the triangle area" or refer to the city they live in, which is usually Raleigh, Durhan, Chapel Hill, or Carborro.

Good luck! As others have pointed out, you can't really go wrong. Either area is a great place to live and study, so you'll do well either way. I guess that's why it's a tough decision.
posted by Tehhund at 8:57 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

*skinning = skiing
posted by Tehhund at 11:01 PM on March 12, 2012

Lots of good info in this thread. I'd lived in the area (Carrboro for 2 years, then Durham for 3) for the past 5 years, and I love biking, but yeah, you definitely need a car here.

I drive an old beat up thing that's 15 years old, and if it died tomorrow I could get by since I live close to downtown and campus, but basically all I could do is go to school, the bars and restaurants downtown, and walk to the Whole Foods to get groceries. You're gonna wanna do more than that, especially because Durham is actually very small and you'll go absolutely stir crazy without the ability to easily get to things in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, Cary, and Raleigh. Living here without a car will be EXTREMELY limiting to your fun and social life, and even your ability to get groceries. The sprawly nature of the Triangle coupled with the frustratingly slow bus system in Durham/the Triangle kind of demands an automobile.

I'm not sure why someone said earlier that they had more trouble biking in's much more bike friendly, lanes and riders everywhere, and the buses are free and fairly efficient, especially when compared to Durham. There is currently only one free bus in Durham and it doesn't really go anywhere that far-reaching, just up and down Main St.

Also, as a biker, be prepared for people to exclaim surprise that you are biking and offer you rides for distances that are 1 mile. Everyone drives here, and there is small contingent of really cool people at the local bike coop, but it seems that a lot of people here see getting on a bike at all as REALLY HARDCORE!!!1111

Oh yeah, and if you're single, be advised that this can be kind of a hard town for dating. I know people say that about every town, but I specifically applied to schools in cities in part because I was single and tired of the insular scene here. It's not hard to feel like you know everyone in town within a year or so (especially if you go out often and hang around the areas downtown) and I definitely felt like I needed more of the anonymity and diversity of a city, but your preferences might vary from mine.

Durham is still a great place to live, for all the reasons other people have said, and it's especially great if you want a big dog (see them CONSTANTLY, a lot of people adopt shelter pets here, and they are often hanging outside local establishments next to the dog water bowls business put out for them). If you want outdoorsy stuff, it's fantastic for that too. Good luck with your choice!
posted by cajalswoon at 11:42 PM on March 12, 2012

Chicago is a very bikabke town. And if it's icy or snowing, it's just as easy to get on a bus or el. Chicago is amazing and beautiful and the gorgeous Spring, Summer, and Fall make up for the nasty Winters (which are really only bad Dec-Feb, usually. I grew up in Chicago, and moved away to Europe about 5 years ago and I still miss it, Winters and all.
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 3:39 AM on March 13, 2012

As a PhD student in Chicago, we aren't/weren't scrounging here. Mileage varies heavily based on where you live and of course, how much your stipend is and what you want to budget for it, but for grad students in the typically under-paid Social Sciences we were doing pretty well.

I love Chicago, but my decision to go to school here was partly dependent upon visiting for a week or two prior to making my decision. Talking to current students helped a lot, but "trying it out" helped a great deal.
posted by sm1tten at 1:12 PM on March 13, 2012

You're Canadian, you'll be more of a rare bird in NC than in Chicago, that might or might not be good.

I don't think this is true. I'm from the triangle area and have met a lot of Canadians who moved to the area - as with many others, it's usually to work in RTP. It's actually a pretty diverse area - I even think this after having lived in the DC area for the past few years.
posted by fromageball at 2:33 PM on March 13, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the awesome input, everyone.
Just popping back in to say I've made a decision, and will be calling Durham home for the next 6 years! Yay!
posted by Dorinda at 2:02 PM on March 30, 2012

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