Moving back to Mid-West...alternatives to Chicago?
October 10, 2017 1:25 PM   Subscribe

For family reasons I need to move back to the Mid-West in the next few years. Chicago is the natural choice, but I want to look at alternative cities before deciding...where should I be looking?

My wife and I currently live in Philadelphia. Our parents are both getting to the age that health is becoming a factor and we need to be closer to help out. Her mother lives in Southwest Michigan, my parents live in Northwest Illinois.

The obvious choice would be's roughly in the middle of both sets of parents; it's a large great city very similar to where we live now.

Are there other cities I should consider, too? Ideally we'd want to be a 3 to 5 hour drive from either set of towns like Madison/Milwaukee/St Louis would all work.

We're very happy with the vibe of Philadelphia...large city with culture and things to do/see/eat. Relatively cheap housing, strong(ish) job market. Again, I seem to be describing Chicago fairly well. Bonus question: how worried should I be about Illinois' budget issues?
posted by Eddie Mars to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would not recommend St. Louis for your situation. Milwaukee and Madison would be better alternatives, particularly since you'd be close enough to Chicago to visit from either location.
posted by stannate at 1:35 PM on October 10

I'll throw in a vote for Columbus. It's about a 5 hour drive to Chicago; it may be too far from NW Illinois.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:38 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]

What ChuraChura said. If the parents live in Rockford, it may not be too much of an extra drive from Columbus. If they're in Galena or whereabouts, then it may be a road too far.
posted by stannate at 1:46 PM on October 10

I love Chicago and would easily advocate for anyone to move here, but purely for the sake of argument, I will present some legitimate downsides for you.

Chicago is a ludicrously heavily taxed city and county, so factor that into your salary and cost of living computations. I’m socially progressive as they come but the city Democrats, having no effective local opposition party pushing back (Republicans are almost non-existent in local city government), tax the hell out of the city, somewhat corruptly. A recent overreach on the part of the Cook County Commissioner in the form of a heavily and ineptly applied soda tax has proven so unpopular as to maybe cost her her elected position.

The temperature swings between the extremes pretty heavily – a joke I’ve heard is that the Second City is called such because we have two seasons, spring and winter. Fall and spring are heavily abbreviated seasons in Chicago. While I’ve lived here, I’ve lived through heat indices as high as 114 and wind chills as low as -50. (No exaggeration.)

The light pollution is pretty bad thanks to the prevalence of sodium lamps. If you live in the city itself, you will likely never see starlight. I’m not using exaggerated language there; you will honestly likely never see it, and you would have to travel a long way to get to anything resembling a starlit sky. That may change in decades to come, as the city’s slowly swapping out sodium lighting for LED lamps, but it’s not going to be a rapid change.

The rental market (to me) has become somewhat less “relatively cheap” than it used to be. I feel there’s a bit more gentrification. Definitely use something like PadMapper to pre-check price ranges in random city neighborhoods you might be interested.

That having been said, the job market is great, the culture is diverse, the public transit system is robust, it’s home to Second City (the birthplace of SNL) and lots of great theater (including Hamilton), we have two World Series-winning baseball teams and lots of good sports, good food … it’s a good place to move to. Plus there’s monthly Mefi meetups at the Billy Goat!
posted by WCityMike at 1:51 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]

You might check out some of the inner-ring Chicago suburbs, like Elmhurst, which has a fun little downtown full of craft beer places and interesting restaurants. It's not in Chicago, but it's Chicago adjacent and you can get a 3 BR 2 BA home starting in the high 200K range, a figure which wouldn't necessarily get you into most of the worthwhile city neighborhoods for even a much smaller condo.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:52 PM on October 10

Also: Madison is fantastic.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:54 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

You may want to consider Chicago as a couple of cities essentially rather than one big option, because it's a great city if you are able to align the housing/commute/job in a reasonable manner (and education/schools if you have kids adds a layer of complexity) and the neighborhoods/areas/suburbs can be fairly different experiences.
posted by typecloud at 2:04 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]

Actually, Chicago's two seasons are winter and construction...

Both Madison and Milwaukee are much more affordable than Chicago; the savings on housing alone might pay for monthly weekend getaways to the Windy City. Traffic is much less of a factor in daily life as well. The cities have different vibes; Milwaukee is more diverse in every way and more neighborhood-centric. Madison has a rock solid middle class due to the dominance of state and university jobs. Under Scott Walker, Wisconsin's state government is almost as dysfunctional as Illinois' so not much difference there.
posted by carmicha at 2:09 PM on October 10

Well, check out Kalamazoo. Really inexpensive housing, pretty good culture/things to do/see/eat (and not far from Chicago or Detroit, really). Job market is up.
posted by willF at 2:51 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

I live near St. Louis (burbs on the Illinois side). It's a cool city, but going through some pain right now. Michigan is decently far away, though. Chicago isn't that close either. They are trying to do high speed rail between St. Louis and Chicago which would be awesome once it exists, but I'm not holding my breath.

Madison, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis are all cool cities, but not in the same league as Chicago or Philly. If you really like city life, Chicago is your best bet.

As for "how screwed up is Illinois", the answer is "yeah, fairly screwed up". I wouldn't surprised at some point if people on state pensions get absolutely screwed by the state. But other than I pay very high property taxes (to make up for the state shafting local schools), moderately high state income taxes, the screwed-up-ness of the state doesn't really impact me visibility.
posted by cmm at 2:56 PM on October 10

I just moved to Philadelphia from Madison, and spent 6 years living in Chicago, too. I hated living in Chicago, mostly because it is geographically so big and sprawling. It makes it really hard to get around, especially in the winter.

Madison is charming, but it also has a small-town feel. You will run into someone you know when you go out.

For something in between Chicago and Madison sizes, you may want to consider Cincinnati. It's got a lot going on, and reminds me of a smaller Philly.
posted by coppermoss at 5:45 PM on October 10

Hi, Cincinnatian here. I really love my hometown. Please get us on your radar!

What we can offer you:

-Easy driving to both Michigan and Illinois to see your family

-Cincinnati is one of the most affordable cities in the US. My husband and I are in our early 30s and we just bought a house that literally would take a lifetime for friends in other cities to afford.

-By Midwestern standards, we have a strong(ish) job market. Cincinnati is blessed to not be reliant on a single industry and has thus avoided some of the fates of other Midwestern cities that were more reliant on manufacturing, for example. The big player employers here are P&G, GE, Kroger, the University of Cincinnati, and Children's Hospital. There are many smaller companies, a huge non-profit scene, a decent number of public service jobs (there are a few big federal government offices here) and although I'm not at all plugged into it, a small but growing startup scene.

-Cincinnati has a phenomenal arts culture. Mind-blowing stuff on deck every weekend, all year, from the Symphony all the way down to tiny string quintets made up of kids being mentored from low-income neighborhoods. ArtsWave is the huge umbrella support organization for countless arts organizations in town, check out their website for what kinds of events are going on.

-Cincinnati has the #2 public library system in the country after New York, and has 40 branch libraries throughout the county.

-The dining scene is getting increasingly good, and some of our food snobs that visit us will let on "This is a restaurant that would make a killing in New York/DC." Our beer scene has developed to the point where I am actively disappointed by East Coast beers and routinely underwhelmed by West Coast beers. I've given up trying to keep track of the number of breweries that are both opening and expanding operations.

-Finally, Cincinnati is a damn beautiful town. Lots of hills, picturesque views, and even though our river needs some serious TLC, there are always fun activities down on the Ohio River.
posted by mostly vowels at 7:16 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]

I justed moved to Milwaukee after living in a number of cities (Chicago -> Pittsburgh -> Atlanta -> New Orleans -> Albany) and I reallllllly reallllly like MKE. I mean I love Chicago, and PGH, but Milwaukee is really nice. It's much better than I expected it to be. Although, two downsides; the job market here is not that solid (I work remote for a company on the west coast so that doesn't matter to me right now), and it's got all the segregation and racism of Chicago only maybe somehow /worse/ which I was not prepared for *at all*. But you'll get that in all the major cities of the Midwest, whose racism is America's dirty little secret. Anyway, I highly recommend Milwaukee otherwise.
posted by dis_integration at 7:57 PM on October 10

I will throw out Iowa City as a dark horse. Much closer to IL than MI, but that might be nice if both parents aren't a longish trip. It's a small city, but super hippie and artsy and big university presence. It will be insanely cheaper than Chicago. If you're going to visit MI somewhat often anyway, you can stop in Chicago on the way for city stuff.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:54 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]

(Can I say that Chicago weather, while sometimes unpredictable, has been exaggerated here a lot, considering that this has been an extremely long summer and we are still expecting 75 degree temps this week? And got barely any snow last year?)
posted by agregoli at 9:19 AM on October 11

I like Milwaukee too (although, yeah, the segregation is SO BAD), the riverwalk, the Calatrava it got before Chicago ... and it's a 90 minute train ride to Chicago Union Station. Also +1 to Chicago suburbs that have their own downtowns (usually pre-war, and on a train line), so they are actual communities with neighborhoods, rather than subdivision after subdivision of identical houses with no sidewalks. There are a lot of nice little burbs that have a sense of place and community, but are a short train ride from the Loop. I don't actually know the south or southwest suburbs at all, but you might think about investigating those communities if you'll be in SW Michigan a lot -- much quicker drive if you don't have to go through or around the city like you do from the northern burbs (a drive I made many times growing up from my parents' house in the north burbs to my grandparents' house near Kalamazoo!). And still a nice clear shot out Rockford way. Not that getting from the north suburbs to SW Michigan is terrible or anything! Just that it'll add 45 minutes or so, and you'll have to time your driving around rush hour.

There's some really interesting early urban renaissance going on in Gary right now, and you can get to downtown Chicago in an hour by train, and you can buy a ton of house for your money, but you'd have to be pretty darn committed to living in a suffering Rust Belt city that may or may not be on the upswing. (I think it's got a hell of a shot since it's got great bones, it's an hour commute to Chicago as Chicago real estate gets pricier, and Indiana's so much cheaper than Illinois, but these things are unpredictable). I suppose it also depends on what kind of work you do.

"how worried should I be about Illinois' budget issues?"

It's bad, yo, but we have a budget and school funding reform, and the 2018 election is coming. Indiana and Wisconsin are not going gangbusters either in terms of political/budget issues. Their debt load isn't as high, but the trade-off is that Illinois's got a more robust job market. If you work in a government-affiliated industry, where a substantial portion of your work depends on state contracts and state money, it'd definitely be a concern. If you're in private industry, it's okay.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:54 PM on October 11

Current Madisonian, former suburban St. Louisan. Based on your aim of "3 to 5 hour drive from either set of parents", I think StL would be farther than you'd want to be from SW Michigan, and on the edge of too far from NW IL.

I'd recommend Madison from your list. It's a smaller city, sure, but the culture here is great, both in the big-C and small-c senses. There are lots of art & knowledge streams here, and lots of people who enjoy talking about that stuff. I won't go so far as to call it a meatspace Metafilter, but I find most people here to be interesting, interested, and often both. It's fairly low-cost in many ways, and its somewhat high (vs other WI cities) property tax is offset by really good services. The main economic axes do still run through the UW and state government, although that's been broadening, so depending on your fields there might or might not be a plethora of job options. Those public sector forces provide a lot of general economic stability, despite some recent boneheaded state gov't moves. The weather covers a big spectrum, and you'll find yourself becoming good friends with your snow shovel. If you get a craving for bigger-city things (museums, touring acts, pro sports), Milwaukee & Chicago are easy day trips away.

St. Louis is more metropolitan, with a more diverse economy, although prospects can vary a lot based on where you live and work. My parents & most of my family still live in the area and enjoy it. You'll want to consider what your tolerance for rednecks & red-staters is, though. StL is the bluest part of Missouri, and I know (& know of) a lot of of good folks across the political spectrum. However, you don't need to go far in any direction there for that to change. My folks' house is a mile north of Route 66, and we used to joke that the South begins at the yellow line down its center.
posted by NumberSix at 10:34 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]

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