Chicagofilter: moving quickly for ladies of slender means
August 27, 2014 4:08 PM   Subscribe

So! My best friend and I are moving to Chicago. Our timeline just got moved up a little. How does a sheltered gal navigate this metropolis?

My dad, who is terminally ill, has scraped together about a thousand dollars to get me out of my parent's house ASAP. According to him, this is the best possible thing I can do for him. I've got-- probably $500 together. My BFF has about 5k, and has said she'll carry my dumb ass financially. We've found an apartment on craigslist that's ideal for our needs, and her parents will co-sign for it, if/when our pitiful credit isn't enough. (Humbolt Park, $1100/mo, utilities included, assuming we can get the place.)

I have a stupid amount of coffee experience, and given that it's my chosen profession, I don't think finding employment will be a huge problem? I could be wrong. I can wait tables, whatever.

But let's assume that housing and employment aren't an issue. What do I need to know about this city? Obviously the winter is going to be wickedly harsh, and navigating public transportation will require a learning curve. What did you wish you knew before you came here? What should I be prepared for?

Tell me how to survive in Chicago, any tips and tricks on how to keep one's sanity, any bright spots that make it all worthwhile. I'm excited, but also scared out of my mind. Any reassurance is very much appreciated.
posted by dogheart to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I moved to chicago from rural Indiana (at the tender age of 18). It was fun! (This is almost ten years ago now though--crazy.)

You might have a hard time securing housing from afar, especially without work lined up-- are you two open to living with roommates? That might be the easiest way to jump straight into housing and it would be cheaper, too. Plus, friends, maybe?

Public transit is not really that bad. Stick with the trains at first-- it's easier to end up somewhere and not know how to get home on the buses. Use CTA trip finder. The winter is miserable, but you get through it.

My favorite spots in chicago were: the Art Institute, which was free on Thursdays (not sure if that's still the case), the Lincoln park zoo, also free, both of the Conservatories--big glass houses of plants, warm and green and steamy in the winter (free), the bike path along the lake (free). Also, lots of free music and festivals and events (I didn't have much money when I lived in Chicago, can you tell?) Hopefully someone can tell you a few of the great things that involve money.

This past question from when I was considering moving back to Chicago might help you. Good luck!
posted by geegollygosh at 4:23 PM on August 27, 2014

I rent a two bed for 750 without utilities and probably around 900 with so it is possible to rent in an okay neighborhood for a little less if you have time to look. Humboldt park, Pilsen and little village are my go to options for low income housing. All are predominately Hispanic areas.

If you're not from a place that had windy winters make sure you have enough money to invest in clothes.

If you are young (and you sound like it) there are countless job programs out here. Check out jobs for youth. They will be able to link you up quick. Also apply for food stamps as soon as possible. Your roommates income doesn't count. It will help you stretch the money more.

If you can afford it get the monthly cta passes.

I'm around so I'd you need someone to show you around the city or something me mail me. Good luck !
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:27 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

You should start coming to meetups immediately!

Also, immediately, you should drop any and all allegiances to foreign pizza.

Chicago, as far as cities go, is easy as balls to survive. It's affordable, there's plenty of space, plenty to do, and generally everyone is pretty friendly. We're laid out on a grid system so it's basically impossible to get lost, which is great, and also means that even if you do get lost just about any random person on the street should be able to help you find where you're going.

Do you have any specific interests/hobbies/whathaveyous? Personally I love the Field Museum, the opera, iO for improv, and finding small places with insanely good food, which Chicago has in droves.
posted by phunniemee at 4:28 PM on August 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

p.s. Google Maps has full public transit integration and is a godsend for planning your journeys.
posted by phunniemee at 4:30 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

People measure distance by blocks. 8 blocks is one mile. Unless it is a diagonal block those are longer. Google maps is a godsend for travel.

The beach means lake michigan. It took me forever to get over that.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:33 PM on August 27, 2014

posted by AlexiaSky at 4:33 PM on August 27, 2014

Yeah learn the grid system. I am amazed by how many people get lost in this city, when it is really impossible to get lost if you have any clue at all/can count.

Don't get a car if you don't need one. (Probably you don't.)

Personally for cheap housing I like Rogers Park/Edgewater/Uptown a lot better than Pilsen and Humboldt, but YMMV. (I guess decide what kind of ethnic food you prefer, and how much more you like trains than buses.)

Set yourself a food budget because it is really easy to eat out all the time here. There are lots of small local grocery stores, and that's where you should buy your produce, because it will be cheaper and better.

Cheapness-related, and food-related: seek out BYOB places. TONS of places are BYOB, which is unusual outside of Chicago. You get a delicious meal but you pay liquor store prices for your beer, instead of restaurant/bar prices. Everybody wins.

If you can, buy a good coat and good boots. I have so many regrets from the winter I spent with $40 boots. It is worth saving up for that stuff.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:39 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you go thrifty for the coat you need to look at thrift stores before mid Oct for the best selection. Basically you want to get something before the first child snap.

And don't buy alcohol at restraunts or cigarettes in chicago.

Pilsen and little village are off of the pink line so trains are 100 percent doable. I find Rodgers park more expensive for less space. But I do soo many things on the north side I should eventually move there for the convenience.

If you have a bike you probably want to put lots of thought into storage and locking of bike as they get stolen rather often.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:53 PM on August 27, 2014

The CTA bus tracker is awesome, and there's a ton of apps for your phone that access its data efficiently (I like Transit Tracks on my Android.)

It's worth getting a bus/el pass if you'll be making 2 way trips 5x a week or more. Any less, and it's cheaper to pay per ride. Basically if you're a commuter, the pass is a break-even, but you also get bonus trips with a pass when you're going out for not-work.

Not all El trains run all night. Find out when the last train is (preferably before you're out on a platform in the cold.)
posted by Wulfhere at 5:24 PM on August 27, 2014

For me, the biggest "ohhhh, I get Chicago now" moment was finally riding the buses and integrating them into my travel. For more than a year, I'd take the red line all the way downtown from Uptown, transfer to the blue line, and ride it all the way back up to Wicker Park. Once I figured out the bus, an hour-plus ride downtown and back out again became a 20 minute jaunt. I stopped walking two miles from an L station to my destination in the cold or boiling heat/humidity, and hopped on a bus going that direction that dropped me off a block or two at most from my destination. Riding the bus as a supplement to the train was the most meaningful thing I did to make this big city feel like home.

Also, when looking at moving dates, be sure to double-check for neighborhood festivals that might interfere and bungle your moving plans. For instance, if you're moving to Humboldt Park, beware Riot Fest next month.
posted by juniperesque at 5:28 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are you trying to rent an apartment without seeing it in person? That makes me nervous, people do make scam postings on CL sometimes. It may be that going through an official apartment-finder office is a safer way to do that , I honestly don't know but I don't want you to get ripped off.

Getting the El is easier than buses, but with smartphones it's easier to find bus stops than it used to be. When it's cold you will want anything that minimizes your outdoors time. Key info: the bus driver will actually LOOK AT YOU while approaching you at the stop and you need to make it clear you want THAT bus. Stick your arm out, nod, etc.. Otherwise unless someone is going to alight, the bus probably won't stop.

I'm not sure how chilly your part of the country gets in the winter. Quite a few public trans commuters have knee-length or ankle-length down coats for the coldest winter days. I have snow pants and snow boots and various thicknesses of thermal undergarments.
posted by Anwan at 5:39 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chicago is amazing and wonderful and you will have the best time ever. Spend the money on warm, quality snow-proof boots and heavy, quality outerwear. (Hats and scarves and gloves too! Don't skimp -- if you are cold and wet in the winter you will be grumpy and catch cold.) There are tons of inexpensive options for nightlife, the arts, and sports.

Spend some time making your space nice so that during the winter months when you're indoors a lot you'll have a warm, happy nest.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 5:59 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Both groceries and eating out are relatively inexpensive in Chicago, plus there are a couple of CSA and regular grocery delivery services if you find you're unable to visit the stores you want. Cabs also are cheap if you're used to paying NYC or SF rates.

Nth the following: familiarize yourself with the CTA tracker, learn the grid system, don't be afraid of the bus, buy a warm coat, boots, and socks well before winter. REI's merino wool socks are your friends and they often have a deal if you buy 3 pairs.

Learn where the bad neighborhoods are as well as the areas that are alright in the daytime, and how to get out. If you'll be in the Loop for any reason, the Pedway is nice in the winter.

Learn also how to appreciate The One True And Righteous Way to prepare and eat a hot dog.

Enjoy one of the last great working cities in the USA!
posted by a halcyon day at 6:27 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Caveat: I have never lived in Chicago. I am answering this based on my experience of packing up and starting fresh in new cities in general.

Most major cities have one or more newcomers' guidebooks or residents' guides. For Chicago:
Newcomer's Handbook For Moving to and Living in Chicago
Not For Tourists Guide to Chicago 2014
Food Lovers' Guide to Chicago

I don't think it's safe to ever assume that employment won't be an issue if you're moving somewhere without a job lined up. In addition to your barista experience and willingness to wait tables, I assume that you have reasonable computer skills? So you might also consider registering with and taking employment tests (typing, etc.) at various temp agencies as a backup. That gives you the option to start earning money right away with various short term clerical gigs while you complete your Illinois ServSafe Food Handler Certification, hunt for the perfect barista job, etc.

Also, work your network! Ask your FB and IRL friends if they know anyone or know anyone who knows anyone who is hiring or works at the type of place you want to work at in Chicago, and post your resume/availability over in Jobs (MetaFilter is part of your network!).

As far as the logistics of actually moving cities goes, you might find this old comment of mine on a previous AskMe helpful.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:43 PM on August 27, 2014

Cabs also are cheap if you're used to paying NYC or SF rates.

OK, true, but I noticed in your profile that you're coming from "the wilds of Appalachia." I don't know if that is literal or tongue-in-cheek? But either way I suspect all these people telling you how "cheap" everything is might be accidentally leading you down a false path.

You should expect things to be somewhat more expensive here than you're used to--drinks, restaurant food, possibly groceries (well, certainly *some* groceries, maybe not all). No, it's *definitely* not NY or SF, but if you're used to say, Kentucky prices, it will come as a slight shock.

I think your market as a barista will be okay but you will likely have a hard time finding that work in your new hood (if it is Humboldt Park, as you say), as the neighborhood is still gentrifying and not quite as thick with coffee shops and hipster bars as others. So factor in the CTA or possibly biking into your work plans.

nth-ing good boots. Really good boots. Like these boots. These are how I survived the Polar Vortex last year, with a smile on my frozen, frozen face. ;)

Find a great dive bar where you can hole up when it's dark at 4 pm and 10 degrees but for the love of god, you need to see other humans or you will die. (that is a thing that happens, it is called ALL OF JANUARY.)
posted by like_a_friend at 8:32 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Since everyone else has already mentioned coat/boots, I'll pass along another winter-related concern my wife and I overlooked when we first moved here: the laundry situation. On-site washer/dryers don't really matter when you have to go outside and around your building to access the basement laundry room. Something we didn't think about when looking at places in July that came back to haunt us that Jan/Feb.
posted by HumuloneRanger at 10:17 PM on August 27, 2014

I love Chicago, lived there for 2 years and don't go a week wishing I was still living there. One thing to note, since it looks like you're coming from Roanoke area, that Chicago folks are actually friendlier than the folks back home, at least in the "oh, look at that dude across the street getting his car towed, serves him right" random chatting that makes me feel like I"m part of bigger community. I've lived all over the south and only folks in Chicago say hi more often.

It is THE BIG CITY, so coming from SWVA it's a big change. Most people you meet will be from the midwest (at least non-immigrants) so there's a little culture shock-- people will have no clue where you are from, and some things you chat about they'll not know.

If you live on the North Side you'll run into the Midwestern-bro, which is not at all like the Virginia Tech one you're used to. They love football just as much, however..

Also, be prepared for having some difficult times with your best friend that you'll have to get through together. One of you might get more friends or transition better or you'll find different friends. There might be jealously or whatever. I've seen it happen, especially when moving to a new place, full of optimism, especially when someone has a Best Friend with capital letters.
posted by sandmanwv at 6:33 AM on August 28, 2014

Humbolt Park is a big neighborhood. Before taking a coffee job, figure out where you can get on public transit at 4am (since you'll have to open, right?) Western, Grand, Chicago, Belmont are some of the larger bus routes that run all night (I think) and more frequently. The California bus oddly doesn't run as frequently or as far north. All this info is online.

Basically, once your home base is a given, do a lot of transit research to see where you could feasibly work before you commit to a given shop. (Memail me for a tip on one shop where I know a guy if you like.)

Winter clothes tip from a fellow southerner-- legwarmers fill the gap between the bottom of your long coat and the top of your boots. Also Yak-Trax are these grippy things you clip to your shoes and let you walk on icy sidewalks.

Definitely come to some meetups! These people are super welcoming!
posted by travertina at 7:41 AM on August 28, 2014

Chicago is great! And totally affordable! And has a huge, growing coffee scene!

If you're interested in riding a bike for transportation, this is a great place to do it, and it'll help cut down on your cost of living. Ciclo Urbano is an amazing community bike shop in Humboldt Park that can hook you up with a cheap, good used bike. (Although, as AlexiaSky noted above, you'll want to invest in a solid bike lock and store it inside when you can, because people will steal the hell out of your bike if it's unattended for long enough anywhere in town.)

I had some recommendations in a recent Ask that you might also enjoy.

I think there's something in this town for just about everyone, and I hope you'll find all kinds of things you love. Feel free to holler at me if you're looking for more info.
posted by torridly at 8:43 AM on August 28, 2014

Humboldt Park is awesome, but you should still get some mace or a whistle or something along those lines. Not that you will need to use it most likely, but it's better to have it and not need it than to not have it and need it if you know what I mean. It's still the west side. It's also not really convenient to get to a train from, unlike other neighborhoods along the blue line. The CTA is actually pretty easy once you figure out how to get on and off. People are generally pretty nice, if you need help just ask for it and there's a good 95% chance that you'll get a decent conversation out of it. People always complain about the lack of 'wilderness' around here, but the lake is basically our wilderness. Find a way to get out to the lake right away. I've found that staying warm is more about starting with a good base layer and layering up. Long underwear. The best you can afford. Then a few more layers. With a library card you can check out passes to most of the big museums any day. If you do get super cold and depressed go to the Garfield Park Conservatory. That is my cure for the winter.
posted by mike_bling at 10:27 AM on August 28, 2014

Chicago transplant from the suburbs here. Live near Humboldt Park. In addition to everything people have said about boots, coats, and public transportation:

1. California Clipper, Archie's, and Weegies are all pretty solid dive bars in HP.
2. Explore your neighborhood (and all the bordering ones).
3. In addition to a bike and a bike lock, get a helmet, a headlight, and a tail light.
4. Comcast is the devil incorporated, but may be your only option for internet and TV.
5. Being warm > fashion in the winter.
6. We really don't put ketchup on a Chicago dog.
7. Buy tamales from the tamale guy when he shows up at the bar.
8. Uber will be your friend when it comes to getting cabs.
9. We're generally all really friendly people.
10. You will be offered a shot of Malort at some point. Just take it and get it over with.
posted by moitz at 10:34 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most Monday shows at the Empty Bottle are free.
And you can meet all the right weirdos at the Empty Bottle.

-- MrJM
posted by MrJM at 12:15 PM on August 28, 2014

Another bit of CTA advice: look before you sit.
posted by mike_bling at 2:16 PM on August 28, 2014

Another bit of CTA advice: look before you sit.

omg yes. Sometimes that RedEye is sitting there just because a previous passenger left it behind.

Sometimes that RedEye is sitting there to soak up a puddle of urine.

Have your wits about you.
posted by phunniemee at 2:28 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sure Humboldt can be cheap and a good value for the space, but is it a great recommendation for a newcomer not from another big city? Walking around the neighborhood at various times (including after dark) is a good idea before committing to a neighborhood and I would definitely look at apartments with a critical eye. I would look at other neighborhoods as well

I love vintage places and would never look for a/c or a renovated kitchen, but all of the places I've looked at in Humboldt when apartment shopping were super run down. I've been watching this thread and wanted to make sure at least one person told you to really look before committing. My main issue with the neighborhood (and why I decided not to live there) is the distance to the L—you will be reliant on buses. Sure, I bike all year round and you should do it too, but there will be times late at night or in February when you really wish you had a train nearby.

I second looking into transportation, routes, and travel times before committing to a job. Chicago buses at times only run every 20 minutes and many end service quite early in the evening.

Chicago is amazing, and despite traveling the world and considering living other places I've always come home. Good luck, have fun, and take advantage of everything the city has to offer!
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:20 PM on August 28, 2014

I've got no suggestions for Chicago, but I'd like to recommend being really, really careful of your finances. You don't have much money, and you don't have a safety net, so as soon as you move (as cheaply as possible), get a bed, a winter coat and winter boots (preferably all second hand), and get a job, you need to start saving. In your situation, every dollar counts. It sounds like you need to be financially independent from now on, and you do not want to be living paycheck to paycheck.

For one, you need enough cash on hand to go back to your parents place immediately, given that they are both sick. Then you need a financial buffer. You want enough that if you lose your job, you can support yourself until you get a new one. And also pay for any sudden emergency. I'd suggest getting a second job for a while.

I realise this probably not the fun Chicago of your dreams. This will involve watching every dollar, eating at home, working a lot and missing a lot of the cool new things that a city has to offer. But once you've got a financial buffer, you can ease up a bit. Also, cities are also pretty good places to be frugal, as there is often a lot of free stuff going on.
posted by kjs4 at 9:40 PM on August 28, 2014

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