I don't know cities, and I especially don't know this city
May 29, 2014 7:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm interviewing for a postdoc position at the University of Chicago next month. I've never lived in a big city and I don't know much about Chicago at all. I'm going to be visiting and would like to at least get a feel for where I might want to live as a 30-something single woman, and how I would safely get back and forth from work. Advice please?

A friend of mine was a grad student at Chicago many years ago, and said that at least at the time, the campus was safe but the area surrounding it was scary to him (a tall guy). On the other hand, I've heard positive things about the city in general. I'm going to be moving to a big new city for the first time without any support system, and as a young woman that's a scary thing to do. So, safety questions!

Housing: I'll be looking for an apartment (with a roommate) in a fun, busy neighborhood. I've been specifically told not to live near the campus. I'd like to be cool restaurants etc., but really safety is my #1 concern — I want to feel safe when I'm home alone with the doors locked, and safe coming in and out of my building at night. From my preliminary searches, apartments in even the nicer parts of Chicago still seem to be reasonably priced when I compare them to NYC/SF (the only cities I know), so that's encouraging. What neighborhoods should I be checking out? I'd like to go visit them when I'm in town to get a feel for where I might want to live and what the commute will look like.

Commute: I love public transportation, and I don't own a car at the moment. If possible, I'd prefer to keep doing the carshare thing for errands, and ideally I'd like to be able to take the L to work. Will I be able to get from the campus to a stop without walking through dangerous areas? Is the L generally pretty safe? What about at night, if I get stuck at work after dark or want to go to an event on campus in the evening — are taxis a better idea for those situations? Is parking available on campus if I do need to do the car thing?

Thanks much!
posted by you're a kitty! to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would really not write off living in Hyde Park. I lived there as a single woman and didn't find it unsafe. Parking near campus is rough during the day, and the public transit situation in Hyde Park isn't great. It's doable to get there from hipper Northside neighborhoods, but it's a long commute. The university isn't on the El, so you're looking at either a bus commute or El plus bus. You probably don't want to walk from the El: it's a long walk.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:06 AM on May 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've been specifically told not to live near the campus.

I assume this is so you can get out of the Hyde Park bubble. Hyde Park is quite nice and plenty safe, but it's expensive, annoying to get out of without a car, and definitely feels separated from the city. You might decide that's a good thing, I don't know.

The complication with living outside of Hyde Park, though, is that it's going to be a pretty long commute to get there from anywhere else. Distance-wise, you may be happiest in the hipper parts of Bridgeport and taking the Red Line in. And then you'd have to wait for the 55 bus, which (at least when I lived in Hyde Park) comes sporadically at best.

Depending on your budget, the South Loop might be an option for you, too, and you could get there via the 6, 2, or 10 bus pretty easily.

Anything farther north and you're going to be looking at an hour commute, which is fine I suppose, but would personally drive me nuts.

As for the safety thing...I'm probably not the best person to address your concerns. I'm 28 and have lived here for 10 years (after growing up in an extremely whitebread low population suburban area). There are dangerous areas, sure, but I haven't encountered any problems. When I lived in Hyde Park, I regularly walked through Washington Park to the Green Line (Garfield stop) at all hours rather than waiting for the bus to take me there. People were horrified. It was always fine. But your personal comfort level is going to be what matters most here, and that's really something that only you can answer. Definitely spend some time walking around an exploring to get a feel for the place when you're out here for your interview.
posted by phunniemee at 8:17 AM on May 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I moved to Chicago as a single woman without a car to work for a university, though I was lucky my particular office was close to the Loop. I cannot speak for the commute to your campus and it does depend on your actual work (is it 9 to 5 job or will research and classes keep you late) and what your focus is (your life outside of work or the campus will consume your time). This will help you choose whether you are trying to have a life outside of the campus thus the commute is worth it or just need a safe place to doss down.

I ended up finding an extremely affordable apartment bang in the middle of the Gold Coast - Elm Street, which was very well connected by public transportation to just about anywhere in the city. And very safe no matter how late, just because of the sheer number of people around in the brightly lit streets all the time. It was my first time ever getting around after dark unescorted and it worked for me. This neighbourhood may not suit you necessarily.

Otoh what I'd done to find my apartment was discover that the Blue and Red lines ran more often and far later at night than the other lines, and which buses got me into work, then worked backwards from there looking for apartments in neighbourhoods that offered me easy access to one of the lines.

Similarly, you might want to start with the commute first, figure out the best connections into the city, and then reverse engineer neighbourhoods which offer easy access to the commute plus the other facilities you're seeking.

That might save you from ending up in the far end of the orange line only to discover that you can't have late nights or end up spending more on taxis etc
posted by infini at 8:37 AM on May 29, 2014

I've lived in the South Loop for the last fifteen years. If you go for South Loop, please consider limiting your search to north of Roosevelt Road. South of this road (where I live), things become a less busy, a little sketchier. Printer's Row (the very north part of South Loop) would be the best bet. It's very walkable, bars, restaurants, etc.

But let me caveat this. The South Loop and Printer's Row area skews heavily towards college students (there's a bunch of small schools in the area)— though mostly artsy-type college students, older retired people and young couples with and without very young kids. Most of the college kids are commuters, so it's not a rowdy college area. It's like the launch pad of young folks from the Midwest to get a job in Chicago, live in a building with a garage, have a baby and move out when the kid turns four. And many empty nesters. It is in no way a hip neighborhood. I like living here (married no kids), and you get a lot for your money. But as a 30 something single woman, you might want a more vibrant nightlife.

Hyde Park is a cool, small area, but it's a little bubble in the middle of some not so good stuff. Further north suits your demographic better, but as others mention, it's a long commute.

I've lived in this city for almost all of my 43 years, so if you have any more questions I'd be happy to help.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 8:39 AM on May 29, 2014

Unfortunately, the University of Chicago campus is poorly served by public transit, and is particularly a pain to get to from the fun, busy neighborhoods on the north side that tend to appeal to single 30-somethings. It can certainly be done, but it might take longer than you'd like.

There is not really an L stop by the campus; you'd have to transfer to a bus from the Garfield Red Line station. Your other option is the Metra Electric line (commuter rail), which runs from downtown right to the University. However, you'll have to factor in getting downtown (probably on the L) unless you actually want to live in the Loop, and the fact that the Metra runs less frequently than the L, so you won't be just showing up to catch the next train, you'll need to know the train schedule and time it so that you catch a specific train. (At rush hour, Metra trains run pretty frequently, but at midday, they might an hour or more apart).

Biking might be an option; the Lakefront Path goes past the campus. But again, depending on where you live, it could be a pretty lengthy bike ride to do every day.

Hyde Park proper is safe, but everything in that neighborhood revolves around the university, and almost everyone there is going to be affiliated with the school in some way. For that reason, I personally would not want to live there, but obviously for some people that might be a selling point.

If I worked at U of C I'd be maybe looking in Pilsen or Bridgeport, which are both neighborhoods a bit south of the loop (so you'll be closer to Hyde Park than you would be in any north side neighborhood), with restaurants, hipstery bars, etc (Pilsen moreso than Bridgeport). However, I suspect neither of these is going to feel safe enough for you. But it might be worth checking them out on your visit to form your own opinions firsthand.

There's also the South Loop itself. This would probably mean some kind of high-rise building, and it tends to be more expensive. While the residential population here has been increasing, it can still be kind of a ghost town at night, and has less of a neighborhood feel, fewer cool restaurants/bars/things to do. I wouldn't want to live here but I know people who love it. And transit-wise it's hard to beat living in the Loop when it comes to getting to any part of the city quickly, since every L line converges there.
posted by enn at 8:46 AM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

OK, here's the thing about living in cities: There's a lot of thinly-veiled racism in conversations around where to live and places that are 'safe.'

Hyde Park is as safe as anywhere in Chicago. I lived in Hyde Park and have been back as recently as three weeks ago. It is like a college town in the middle of a very large city.

The reality of the situation is also that Hyde Park is an island of gentrification in a part of the city that is among the poorest. Hyde Park is also very white, while its surrounding neighborhoods are overwhelmingly African-American. I have heard so many dozens of comments about 'wandering out of Hyde Park and finding myself in the middle of the inner-city' and 'scary, dangerous areas' to the south, north, and west. In my experience, in these conversations, 'scary' and 'dangerous' don't actually mean what those words normally mean. They sometimes mean 'black.'

Hyde Parkers by and large are also terrified of using the L station at 63rd/Cottage Grove because it is outside the Hyde Park bubble. Ditto the fast buses into the Loop that run on Cottage Grove. These are (varying by time of day), your fastest options into the Loop and further north.

So as a result, to a lot of Hyde Parkers, their neighborhood feels very isolated.

Add to this the fact that in Hyde Park, shops and restaurants close early as they might in a small town. I ultimately moved from my apartment on 51st and Harper to a place in Buena Park because I didn't move to the third-largest city in the US to live in a ten-square-block bubble. I was also dating someone who lived in Rogers Park (about as far away as possible), and am a night owl who could not stand the lack of options if I wanted to go grocery shopping or grab a sandwich at 10:00 at night.

So for me, for *all* those reasons, Hyde Park is not for me.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:50 AM on May 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

Yellowcandy said almost everything I wanted to say about Chicago and neighborhoods and how people talk about them, and I really wanted to second that. You will hear a lot of coded talk when you go to look for apartments!

SURE there are neighborhoods with higher crime rates in Chicago, and yes there are places still probably not to go (I visited Cabrini-Green in the 1980s, ask me anything!). But Chicago is viciously segregated for a diverse city, in a way that New York and Los Angeles are not, and the way people describe where it is "safe" to live and "not safe" to live (particularly when speaking in an all-white room) is remarkable and also remarkable for its inaccuracy. (In fact, if you were concerned about "property crime," you would avoid The Loop, which has the highest property crime rate.) If it helps, which it sort of doesn't, here is the shootings heat map. (It doesn't in particular because they fudge crime rate numbers.

But yeah, a lot of the Chicago experience is long, long L rides. :/
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:11 AM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're willing to bend on your public transportation needs and would ride the Metra rather than the CTA, there are two Metra stations that serve the University of Chicago campus via the Metra Electric line, and it's about a 15-minute ride from Museum Campus/11th Street, which is in the South Loop neighborhood. As stated above, that area has a lot of undergrad students living around there, but Printer's Row is a nice 'hood itself, and I lived at a building at 11th and Michigan for two years and felt safe as a single lady, and I always had something to do.

Your commute will directly impact your happiness. If you have the choice of going for a shorter commute with a less fun 'hood or a longer commute with a more fun 'hood, pick the former, at least for your first year here. The time you get back in your day will allow you to do more exploring. The Metra Electric runs northbound every hour after 7pm until just after midnight, so as long as you time your late departures wisely, you can always get home.
posted by juniperesque at 9:47 AM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

A college friend did his PhD at U of C and was held up at gunpoint twice in five years. In Hyde Park. But his wife took Metra every day to law school and thereafter to her first lawyer job downtown and was never robbed. She LOVED living in Chicago and loved Hyde Park specifically, maybe moreso than her husband because, you know, she hadn't look down the barrel of a gun held by what turned out to be a 14 year old.

So, yeah, experiences all over the map.

I have to say that it's amazing to hear of Bridgeport as being trendy- my dad grew up there in utter poverty and was physically attacked there (as in beaten unconscious at age 8) as a boy in the only "dago" family in an Irish neighbourhood, but this was in 1934. Amazing how things change.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:59 AM on May 29, 2014

I don't know anything about Chicago but I'm wondering if your postdoc research is going to involve a lot of crazy hours, like all-nighters in the lab or the library. If so, you should determine which public transportation options run 24/7 and possibly consider living within a short walking distance of campus. The university has an off-campus housing office and they should be able to help you.
posted by mareli at 9:59 AM on May 29, 2014

OK, this is getting political and racial. Forget what I said earlier. Here's what you should do.

If you've never lived in a city, let alone Chicago, look into signing a 6 month or one year lease with a female room mate your age in Hyde Park. Then when you have time off, you can go check out these other neighborhoods mentioned and decide for yourself.

I agree that crime can happen anywhere. I lived in Logan Square in the early 90s when it was a hell hole. Now it's full of hipsters, but still kind of a hell hole crime wise, same with Avondale and Uptown and all the other "gentrifying" neighborhoods. Edison Park is home to tons of cops and firefighters. It's quiet treelined streets are probably the safest I know of, but you would be bored to tears and the commute is awful. Bronzeville, which is predominantly black and middle class and not really far from U of C would likely be safe, but again, you'd be bored to tears living where you won't find many single people your age - men or women.

Almost every young transplant to the city ends up in Lakeview or Wrigleyville, and I discourage both because of crime and rowdiness.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 10:39 AM on May 29, 2014

Things can close early in Hyde Park its true. I lived both in South Hyde park at 63rd and then up at 51st and Harper. 51st felt a lot more open and easy to drive out of than 63rd did. The 6 and the metra were right there if/when I needed them and meant that when I wanted to get out of hyde park it was easy to do so. That was right around the development of Harper Court though so I don't know how much that changes things. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a bit more busy in the evenings and may be an area to look at. Really anything along the 6 would be pretty easy to commute in from.
posted by Carillon at 12:48 PM on May 29, 2014

I went to high school near U of C. I commuted every day from the far north side. I would get a ride from my parents downtown and then take the Metra electric line to school. The Metra felt perfectly safe. I'm not sure how it is now, but when I used to take the Metra, there were several conductors who would come through and check tickets and also keep an eye out for people looking to start trouble.

I felt very safe in the U of C area and perhaps that was because I didn't venture outside of it. It's a very pretty area and there are cute restaurants. On the other hand, there were a lot of stories about students being mugged after leaving the Hyde Park bubble.

(Also, you might want to factor in that Hyde Park can become very chaotic when Obama is in town. It recently took me 2 hours to drive 3 miles due to Obama traffic.)

If you don't want a car, I recommend living downtown, so you can easily take the Metra to campus. I wouldn't want to live as an adult without a car in Hyde Park.

I would stay away from Bridgeport/Pilsen if this is your first time living in a big city since you have to be careful which part you live and those neighborhoods also have micro-bubbles.

I could recommend lots of interesting neighborhoods, but you'd need a car given the place you are working.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:13 PM on May 29, 2014

I don't think I have a ton to add, but I will relate my experience just in case.

I moved to Hyde Park after having never lived in a big city last year. It's really boring and insular. You'll have an advantage that I don't have (UChicago affiliation), but for myself and my girlfriend (young college grads), we have found that there is just not a whole lot to do in the area. Most weekends we will drive or take the bus north and hang out in one of those neighborhoods. There has been some new development in the area, which has added a couple restaurants and shops, but it's mostly not great. Going through Yelp reviews of the area may give you some idea. The same five or six restaurants get old pretty fast.

The lack of public transit has been a hassle and somewhat frustrating. Yeah, you could walk to the green line station or red line station to the west, but it takes quite a while and you may or may not feel comfortable walking it by yourself.

With regards to safety, Hyde Park itself is pretty safe, and we haven't had much trouble. The UChicago police patrol the area and, though they don't follow traffic laws and park in stupid places and don't use their blinkers, they do tend to be on just about every corner. The University also has the blue light system and safety patrols near the campus, also on just about every corner.

I live right near the Kimbark Plaza (53rd and Woodlawn), and despite not liking Hyde Park itself, I feel pretty good about this location within Hyde Park. The plaza has a couple restaurants, a liquor store, and a small grocery store, as well as a CVS.

We have a car, and I don't think I would be able to have survived this past year without it in Hyde Park.

It's all personal preference, though, and I think if you ended up in Hyde Park for a year, you'd probably be okay, especially working so close to where you live.
posted by papayaninja at 3:42 PM on May 29, 2014

My friend is at UC and she lives in Ravenswood, a far northside neighborhood. So she does the Brown line to the Metra. It's a long-ish commute (though less than an hour each way), and she loves it. She claims to do her best reading on trains.

I would recommend against living near Wrigley. That neighborhood is a special kind of awful.
posted by special agent conrad uno at 11:15 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

This AskMe may be helpful to you in thinking generally about Chicago.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:57 AM on May 30, 2014

You won't want to take the El as such to/from Hyde Park -- it really doesn't go there -- but the #6 bus and the Metra both service the east side of Hyde Park and take you downtown quickly. Use this in the reverse direction if you end up commuting *to* HP! That part of the neighborhood is also nice for being close to the lake (Promontory Point is amazing!) and for being a little less university-bubble than the other areas.

The safety issues for Hyde Park are way overstated (I'm a petite woman and will happily walk home on my own at any hour of the night and nearly any street in the neighborhood). The University of Chicago police are everywhere, not just on campus.

There aren't a lot of bars/restaurants/shops/fun stuff compared to other neighborhoods and it's kind of a schlep for anyone living on the north side to come down and visit or vice versa, so it is kind of an isolating place to live unless you have friends who also live in the neighborhood. But also, in just the past couple years the university has enticed several new bar/restaurant things and more are coming in the next few years -- the area around 53rd & Lake Park is rapidly increasing the amount that it's a place you'd want to go to hang out and eat/drink/whatever.

Having a car is a more important amenity here than in typical urban areas; you can certainly get around without one, but if you can only leave Hyde Park via public transit you won't do it very often and then you'll probably feel claustrophobic/bored as posters above describe... you may want to get Zipcar or a friend with a car if you don't want to have your own. Also, there are several Divvy bike stations in the neighborhood and this is a good way to get to places like Bridgeport, the South Loop, etc. -- at least for the 2 months of the year that it's bearable to be outside in Chicago.
posted by anotherthink at 1:43 PM on June 2, 2014

Theme one: homebase

If you live on campus/Hyde park area you will have more time to hang out and socialize with your fellow students. If you live off campus you will not be part of the grad student posse. Hyde park has lots of amazing bookstores, including powells, the seminary and 57th, green monk parakeets flying around and is simply a pleasant space to live/exist in Chicago land. The restaurants aren't amazing, but I like Medici, Rajun Cajun, Far east kitchen and istria cafe, in addition to the five guys and there's giordano's for pizza. Friends from other parts of the city will find it a hassle to get down and visit you.

Around Hyde Park is a very poor neighborhood, which I regularly work in. I have personally had zero issues but there has been one incident with one of my staff in three years. As you can pick up from the previous comments - there's also a considerable racial tension in the area. For example the U of C hospital is being protested for not providing services that would benefit the local community.

Theme two: transportation

U of Chicago has a transit guide that covers your options in great detail. Note- as a student there is always night time security rides available.

Divvy is the bike sharing program and is 75$ a year, and there was only 4 months this year (the coldest in a while) I didn't ride regularly. Great stuff.

Enterpise car sharing is 25 to sign up, 25 a year for U of C students and then you choose a plan - usually "the keep it simple" and then its 8.50$ an hour.

There is also Uber which is like a taxi but will actually show up. And costs more. It's an app.

Parking is generally pretty crowded but not completely insane in the areas you'll be trying to go to. The transit system is ok to the area- the electric metra doesn't run often enough, the L is too far and so you'll end up on one of the many buses that serve the area to compensate. Folks who actually ride those services will know best if there is an evening time cut off. For example I would discourage tourists from riding the Green line past 9 PM on an average night.
posted by zenon at 2:20 PM on June 4, 2014

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