I need thoughtful Chicago insights!
May 27, 2007 12:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm from Chicagoland. Me and my Canadian gal are soon moving from Toronto to the City of Big Shoulders so she can go to grad school there, and she's been asking me all kinds of questions about the character of the city. Though I consider myself a Chicagoan, I am embarrassingly tongue-tied. Please give me your insights on the character and atmosphere of the jewel of the Midwest!

Pictures of architecture are lovely, but what do they end up really saying? We tried renting movies shot in Chicago, but invariably, they mostly focused on the money shots of the Wrigley Building, Sears Tower, Hancock Building, or swooping camera action over the Chicago River, completely eschewing more intimate representations of Chicago's great neighborhoods and history. Because I lived and went to school in Hyde Park, I can accurately describe that particular area to her, but even areas I frequented, like Wicker Park, Boystown, Andersonville, and Rogers Park are difficult for me to describe. She is a very observant woman who likes rich details, and most of the time, I am happy to provide them, but I'm having some trouble here. I have a few insights, but I'd like to gather more.

I would like to tell her what the residences are like, what attitudes people carry, how the idea of community plays itself out, how its industrial/social history figures into the present-day behaviors, what the art scene is like, how city planning figures into the general "feeling" there, how it compares and contrasts to Toronto or our previous home in Brooklyn, NY, how its issues with segregation manifest themselves, how you can generally expect to be treated, if many people are polite, laidback, neurotic, conservative, liberal, blue collar, white collar, etc. and just as many details as I can possibly cram in before we make this huge move.

Oh, and I encourage the use of metaphor and lyrical language.
posted by Lieber Frau to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The winds do blow there. Oh, Lordy, do they blow (and this from a kid born in Nebraska and raised in Kansas). There are many days a year in Chitown when it would be dangerous to fly a kite. So, there's that.

But really, why not take her there on an inspection trip or two, and let her see for herself? Describing something as big, diverse, and complex as a city the size of Chicago, adequately, is going to be like piecing together the report of a blind committee on elephant anatomy. Take her there, and feed her some pizza, and go for a boat ride on the lake, and stroll down the Magnificent Mile and Navy Pier, and hit the museums, and see the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.

She'll talk herself into it, or not. And if she talks herself out of it, it will be tres less expensive for her to do it then, than to do that 2 months after you move.
posted by paulsc at 1:03 PM on May 27, 2007

Chicago is just, well, Midwest. Think "Chad and Trixie" versus Woody Allen's "Annie Hall", the best movie to represent this has to be "The Breakup," that not-so-bad picture that exemplified it. Chicago is much more laid back, to a certain degree less pretentious, than most other large cities. Much more spacious, things seemed generally cleaner than NYC. The East Coast seems much more segmented, much more class conscious. There's also a different kind of work ethic there, hard to describe, just very Midwest.

The competition level was totally different, it's not that Chicago is not as competitive, just in a different way. It is hard to describe. I recommend watching Annie Hall and The Breakup and seeing the two different attitudes come out. Think sarcastic, Big 10 School and frat versus Ivy League intellectualism.
posted by geoff. at 1:06 PM on May 27, 2007

Response by poster: paulsc, Thanks for that fire kite link. That looks like a ton of fun. They were even in my relatively obscure, smallish home town a month ago!

The Break Up is a good one, and I agree, it's a very accurate representation of the young and upwardly mobile on the North Side. Seeing as they are an incredibly visible percentage of the Chicago population, it's a good one to re-visit.
posted by Lieber Frau at 1:20 PM on May 27, 2007

Chicago is brash and in places, highly segregated in a nasty and pernicious way. There is more racial hostility than a Canadian can possibly imagine. But there are integrated neighbourhoods, and some of the best art galleries, music, theatre and book stores in the country.

It's a harder city to live in than T.O. (where I live)-- much higher crime and aggrivation rate--but it's also a whole lot of fun. It's lively, sophisticated, but seldom snotty or exclusive. You need to be very careful of crime, but people still manage to be friendly.

I'm surprised you haven't told her about the political corruption. Chicago is probably the most corrupt city north of the Mason-Dixon line, and people follow local politics like kind of a sport. I guess what I like so much about it as opposed to T.O. is how proud people are of the city and how engaged. It's easier to keep up a good attitude because Chicagoans are always pointing out the good and exciting things. And everyone will tell you about his or her alderman-- criminal and sexual histories, alliances, etc.

The intellectual climate is great. Are you going to the University of Chicago? That's kind of an odd place worthy of an ask Mefi of its own. I don't know much about it so I won't comment other than to say it feels like a fortress.

I am originally from Wisconsin. My peeps talk about Chicago like Canada talks about T.O. I, however, have been completely won over by the city. If your partner likes T.O., she'll probably love Chicago. Do Warn her before approaching Chicago from the south along the lake. It's perhaps the ugliest drive in the whole U.S. and makes a great city look like post apocalypic nightmere.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 1:37 PM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi Gesamtkunstwerk,

No, she is going into a small graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I, however, did attend the University of Chicago, and fond nostalgia/low rent prices are nudging me towards seeking out a rental situation for us there. But the fortress analogy is an unfortuntely accurate one and probably the reason why we will not live close to the campus.

I know a lot of people who come from T.O. really love Chicago, but they are equal to me in inability to articulate why. I think it has something to do with its similar neighborhood feeling, but its more individualistic, less "community" oriented outlook. People say nothing ever gets done in Toronto because in its need to make every single member of the population feel happy and represented, it winds up pleasing no one.

I highly doubt anyone would EVER say the same of Chicago.

And, agreed on the politics and corruption. It is an essential patch in the fabric. I think being from Chicago means you hear that kind of thing bitched about so frequently by your parents, that you end up sublimating it or disbelieving it.

Cheers, good answer!
posted by Lieber Frau at 1:53 PM on May 27, 2007

On either coast -

You're out to dinner with friends. It's a wonderful evening at a nice restaurant. The main course arrives. The conversation is lively. While enjoying your meal, you get some sauce on the corner of your mouth. Throughout the whole meal... no one mentions it.

In Chicago -

You're out to dinner with friends. It's a wonderful evening at a nice restaurant. The main course arrives. The conversation is lively. While enjoying your meal, you get some sauce on the corner of your mouth. Right away, one of the people at the table says "Hey buddy, wipe yer mouth. Ya gots some sauce dere."

We're more direct.

Chicago is a big city surrounded by farms. We may think we're sophisticated... but every day on WGN... you get a big reality check when you hear Orion Samuelson drone on and on about hog futures and wheat prices.

It's a big ass farm town with great food, beautiful women and sauce free chins.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 3:00 PM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I always say that Chicago is the type of place that if you're standing on a street corner reading a map, within a minute or two someone will likely stop, ask you where you're going, point out the best way to get there, and possibly recommend a place to get something to eat along the way.
posted by scody at 3:11 PM on May 27, 2007

It's really hard to sum Chicago up, in part because it's so segregated. (And I don't just mean in a racial sense. You know that whole "city of neighborhoods" cliche? It's true, and it has both positive and negative effects.) But I'll try, with the caveat that this is all subjective and other people might think it's total bullshit.

To understand Chicago, you have to understand that the city has historically been run by working-class, white Catholics. To a large extent, the children and grandchildren of those working-class, white Catholics still run the show politically, and even though they've rebelled against their origins in some ways, they're still largely defined by them. Chicago has changed hugely in the past fifty years, but in a lot of ways, it's still defined by its history. You can see that most obviously in the city's continuing racial segregation, which has been complicated but not, I would say, fundamentally changed by the growth of the Asian and Latino communities, and in the continuing dominance of machine-style politics. But I also think there are more subtle cultural holdovers, which may be more working-class than white or Catholic.

There's a certain tolerance for human failing in Chicago, a certain belief that you should strive to be virtuous but recognize that fundamentally we're all sinners. This can be good, because Chicagoans tend to distrust self-righteousness and have a fairly live-and-let-live attitude, and it can be bad, as in the tendency to tolerate corruption. Chicagoans tend to have a certain defensive pride in their city: a looming sense of inadequacy (and a silly tendency to compare themselves to New York) that lends itself to a sometimes irritating and sometimes productive boosterism. Chicagoans really want theirs to be a great city, which can push them to take some risks and take on some big projects that they would otherwise be inclined against. There's very low tolerance for pretension, but at the same time Chicagoans seem to be less likely than other Americans to dismiss anything high-brow or arty as pretentious. It's a city with a proud tradition of democratic and popular art, and people tend to value art as long as it's relatively accessible and doesn't seem to talk down to its audience. Chicagoans value loyalty a lot, which explains the tendency to tolerate some pretty deplorable behavior in people they define as their own, but also the entire phenomenon of the fanatical Cubs/ Sox fan. Chicagoans like good food (and are equally impressed by a good hot dog and a good four-star restaurant) and good alcohol and good music and a good time. Fundamentally, it's a city that was built and sustained by people who knew that life could be pretty shitty and unfair and that you should take your pleasures where you could find them. There's still some of that, although there's also a tendency to romanticize that history.

Also, you know that hoary old Canadian saying about how America is a melting pot and Canada is a mosaic? Chicago should put that to rest. Chicago is a mosaic, for better and for worse.

It's a pretty fascinating city. Deeply fucked up in a lot of ways, but fascinating. I think an awful lot of people end up loving it despite its many flaws.
posted by craichead at 4:05 PM on May 27, 2007 [5 favorites]

Do Warn her before approaching Chicago from the south along the lake. It's perhaps the ugliest drive in the whole U.S. and makes a great city look like post apocalypic nightmere.
Heh, I always pay extra to take the Skyway when I come in from Michigan because I think that part of the city is so starkly beautiful.
posted by transona5 at 4:48 PM on May 27, 2007

Response by poster: I can't pick a favorite answer, so far, these are all great.

I love the chin sauce analogy because Chicagoans are not only saucy, they know how to take one on the chin.


But also, I love to think about Chicagoans wandering through the Art Institute and giving even the most esoteric of installations a fair shake, because I worked as a security guard at an art museum during college, and I did notice that even more so than in NYC, Chicagoans were mostly willing to give even the most esoteric of works a fair shake. No pretension, but no disdain for what some might call "difficult" works, either. More like a genuine curiosity and willingness to consider.
posted by Lieber Frau at 5:00 PM on May 27, 2007

Thinking about it makes me want to move.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 5:54 PM on May 27, 2007

I'm from Toronto, I like Chicago more; but I'm an architecture student, so I'm biased.
posted by BeaverTerror at 7:03 PM on May 27, 2007

I'm not sure how thoughtful this will be but I'll try to be as objective as possible.

When I moved here in 1987 from Brooklyn, I had the feeling I could do or become anything I wanted. As a single person, that was true. When I landed at Midway and rode into the city on I-55 and up Lakeshore Drive, this place took my breath away. Anything was possible. Being married with a child and having 20 years behind me, I can honestly say this isn't the Chicago I moved to.

If you're thinking of raising a family here, look elsewhere. As single and dating person, it doesn't get any better than this place. Add a kid or family to the equation and this city will turn on you like bulldog to a pork chop. Run away as fast as you can if you have long-term plans for family. The public schools are for shit (still) and the mayor's idea of progress is rooftop gardens and more bike paths. If he has yet another scandal you can bet that we'll hear about rooftop gardens and bike paths because...well...that's what he does so well.

Taxes are high, parking ticket fees, parking fees, seeing the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Adler, etc costs an arm and a leg even if you're a resident. It wouldn't hurt so much if the property taxes and city taxes weren't so out of whack with reality. In this respect, Chicago is like any other large urban areas and worse in certain respects.

There seems to be a perverse pride in how corrupt the city is but when you drive though areas that Daley has probably never seen, you really get a sense of the sad state of affairs and pride goes right out the window. I have to laugh at the motto "City that Works" because clearly it doesn't unless you have connections, money or a little of both.

Sorry if I'm painting an ugly picture. I really think if you're single and/or dating, Chicago is a fun place to be so you can take what I've written with a grain of salt. Prepare for the worst if you start a family here.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:06 PM on May 27, 2007

U of C! YAY! Go Maroons! (I still have school spirit left in me, I haven't taken finals yet for the quarter :D)

I'm not originally from here, I grew up in West Michigan, but Chicago's always been my "big city"--much more so than Detroit, of course.

For all the hate for the administration and all of the problems that I certainly won't ignore, I love it here. I think it's the people... they're not New Yorkers, and they're not quite meddling Midwestern next-door neighbors. They're just interesting, and resilient, and, I think, do a lot more caring for one another than people are willing to admit.

It's so easy to poke holes in any place to live. However, I cannot deny the obvious advantages of living in such a crossroads of culture, thought, and interaction.

That all being said, Chicago is a city very much defined by its different neighborhoods. Though there is a unique culture tying them all together, you certainly must understand the differences between living in Hyde Park and Kenwood or the Near North or Edgewater or the South Loop or Pilsen... et cetera. There's something for everybody, and, as long as you're willing to try new things, there's nearly everything for everybody.
posted by rhoticity at 8:45 PM on May 27, 2007

Chicago is insular, highly segregated, overly expensive, and very corrupt. Affordable, clean housing in a good neighborhood is difficult to find and the job market is poor.

The buses and trains are dirty or filthy (except for trains and bus routes in the suburbs i.e. Skokie Swift or PACE). Fares will be going up but the buses will not be any cleaner or run any better. However, there will be enough money to install cameras--this will do nothing to ensure your safety.

People are friendly only if you're their own kind. Dogs crap on the sidewalk willy-nilly and their owners don't bother to clean it up. This is in the good part of town.

If the Olympics comes to Chicago, you're screwed.

Oh, and taxes are too high.
posted by who squared at 9:40 PM on May 27, 2007

Trasona5, do you mean driving north on I-94? That was my first view of Chicago and I thought the city looked like a smushed New York. It was a cultural oasis for me when I was at the Writer's Workshop. Unlike New York, it rolls up its sidewalks at 10 on weeknights, but it has wonderful small theater.
I've been to Toronto, but 9-11 happened the day after I came...I would say public transportation is better there than in Chicago.
posted by brujita at 10:42 PM on May 27, 2007

Response by poster: It's true, in Chicago, the ugly, the terrible, and the beautiful often lie side by side. For every gorgeous, distinguished old building facade, there's a crumbling, neglected project.

I highly recommend seeing "the Architect" for a sensitive and intelligent treatment of this phenomena. For a thrilling and intelligent treatment of it, see "the Candyman".
posted by Lieber Frau at 10:50 PM on May 27, 2007

I have to second the "segregation" remarks- moving from Toronto in '98 I was stunned by the insularity of different neighborhoods and the level of racial tension.

This is also reflected in the urban plan. Living in Toronto, you may have forgotten how difficult it can be to get around in the evening and just go to nice places. Everything is spread out and it's hard to just go out without a destination in mind and find something (and for some reason the bars and restaurants get really packed on weekends- not just lively crowd packed but 1 hour wait packed).

I don't know how long ago you were at U of C, or how long you've been in Toronto, but if you're considering living in Hyde Park, you may find the rents not so cheap and both of you feeling a little isolated (especially if you're not involved with the college). It doesn't help that the CTA is getting worse- for all the problems the TTC has, it's heaven compared to a system that often doesn't go where you need it to and occasionally derails. I highly recommend buying bikes.

Corruption is a big factor in this, as in everything (roads, zoning, the dog fights being run out of the water dept.), but this does also contribute to the "can-do" attitude many people associate with Chicagoans. Day-to-day life for many people can involve lots of negotiations over what are sometimes surprisingly limited resources. Often you just have to do things for yourself.

Oh, and if you shovel out a parking spot in winter, you can save it with an old chair. If someone else parks there, you get to smash their windshield.

All of that being said, there are many things I love about the city. The arts scene is vibrant and (mostly) unpretentious. There is plenty of good music. The architecture is amazing, in all it's crumbling beauty- even the industrial wastelands have a certain Gothic quality.

The food is excellent. You might not find good Jamaican or Chinese like you are used to, but the Vietnamese and Korean food are just as good and the Mexican food, BBQ and Soul Food here are unlike anything in Toronto.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:17 AM on May 28, 2007

I've lived here almost 21 years, and never expected to fall in love with the city as much as I have, despite all the bad things previous posters have offered.

That said, it's a lovely place in so many ways. The skyline still takes my breath away. Driving or riding a bike along Lake Shore Drive is a series of beautiful city views; walking up and down Michigan Avenue any time day or night, there's so much stunning architecture I often marvel that I actually do live here.

During the spring, summer and fall the entire city is in gorgeous bloom. Our local government takes great care (and spends countless tax-payer dollars, I'm sure) on its gardens and landscaping, bringing to life the motto "Urbs in hortis" (city in the garden). There's a level of visual pride here I haven't noticed in New York or San Francisco -- the only two other cities I have much experience with.

Winters, however -- which really don't start until January -- can be a monotony of gray, white and black. Any beauty is of the severe type only.

I don't notice the racial segregation as much as others -- every day I encounter people from all over the world. Yes, the south side is still considered largely black and the north side white, but that's a distinction that's becoming increasingly blurred with the influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants -- and is practically nonexistent in my far north-side neighborhood of Rogers Park (Chicago's most racially diverse).

People are more serious and hard-working here than in San Francisco, less "on the make" than in New York. We're less physically fit than folks in either city as well, and not as well dressed, I think.

All in all, Chicago shares the same drawbacks of any big city. However, all our advantages are uniquely ours.
posted by CMichaelCook at 9:41 AM on May 28, 2007

Trasona5, do you mean driving north on I-94? That was my first view of Chicago and I thought the city looked like a smushed New York.

Well, north on the Skyway, which is I-90 (sort of...it's not technically part of the interstate) and then merges with I-94. But yeah, I can definitely see that.
posted by transona5 at 10:58 AM on May 28, 2007

I've only lived in Chicago for 5 years; yet this city feels more like home than anywhere I've previously lived.

The first time I visited Chicago, I came from Austin, TX for a conference. It was an unseasonably warm and sunny late March day. My hotel was at the north end of Michigan Avenue; the conference hotel was at Michigan and Wacker. Every day of that conference I had the pleasure of strolling down Michigan, sky blue, sun shining, everyone in the city in a great mood thanks to the weather. The buildings, the food, the people... the city just stole my heart. My friends also took me outside of downtown to the neighborhoods and I was sold. I'm now lucky enough to work in a building on that very strip of Michigan Avenue.

It's very easy to start a life here. After I finished grad school, I moved up here with nary a job or a placy to live. Within a week, I had an affordable, clean apartment in a great neighborhood. I could keep my car. I got a job and a dog and before I knew it, Chicago was home.

I find Chicago to be incredibly diverse. I'm not blind to the north side/south side segregation, and the differences in services provided to the communities (I lived on the north side but my first job here was in Hyde Park). But at the same time many of the neighborhoods here are very diverse - if diversity is important to you, it isn't hard to find it.

The CTA is frustrating. Part of me loves it - coming here from Texas, the fact that I don't have to fight traffic for an hour to get to work makes me very grateful. Recently I've switched from the El to an express bus to get to work. I disagree with the comment above that the buses stink - one of the reasons I like the buses (compared to the Red Line) is that they don't smell like pee! They are clean and sometimes crowded but it sure as hell beats sitting in traffic trying not to road rage at people. But the CTA is woefully underfunded and/or poorly run, so there are service interruptions and threats of fare hikes and service cuts. I'm not sure what the solution is there. If I had a bike (and the fitness level), I could hop on the path along the lake and get all the way to work without having to be on roads with cars, which is pretty cool.

Rental housing is affordable in a variety of neighborhoods, but it's hard to buy if you don't like the idea of paying $200,000 for a small 2-bedroom condo. I don't think that's any different than any other major city - and I would wager that Chicago is more affordable than NYC or San Francisco.

Just to give you an idea of a diverse Chicago neighborhood: I recently moved to a new apartment in the Edgewater neighborhood (far north side). I love it - it's the 2nd floor of an old greystone on a residential tree-lined street. Just last night I walked 5 blocks to an Ethiopian restaurant for a friend's birthday, then headed to an old dive bar for some beers. Within a 5 minute walk of my apartment are African, Thai, Mediterranean, American, French, and Italian restaurants - everything from very fancy cafes to a hot dog stand. There are grocery stores, health food store, hardware store, dry cleaners, banks, drug stores, coffee shops, a gym, bars, and more. The Red Line stop is 2 blocks away. The stop for several bus lines that run express to downtown is 4 blocks away. And to top it off, I can walk with my dog about 5 blocks due east from my apartment and find myself at Lake Michigan on a nice beach.

This winter was especially long and grey (and I say this as someone born and raised in Buffalo.) But when the weather here is nice, it's really nice, and the entire city comes out to play.

To me, Chicago is one word - Home.
posted by misskaz at 11:28 AM on May 28, 2007

I think the question of whether Chicago is segregated comes down to whose perspective you're considering. Most white and Asian people in Chicago proper live in at least relatively integrated, diverse communities, and therefore they tend to think of Chicago as integrated and diverse. But it's easy to forget that a very large chunk of the black population lives in completely segregated communities. There are probably no all-white public schools in Chicago, but you'd better believe there all-black ones. If you look at this map, you will see that there are very few areas in Chicago that are more than 90% non-Hispanic white. But there are huge areas that are more than 90% black.

And the thing is, a white person living in Rogers Park or Lincoln Square will probably never set foot in those all-black areas. It's very easy to forget they exist, because they're not part of most white northsiders' emotional landscapes. But if you don't forget they exist then Chicago is very, very segregated.
posted by craichead at 1:51 PM on May 28, 2007

I always say that Chicago is the type of place that if you're standing on a street corner reading a map, within a minute or two someone will likely stop, ask you where you're going, point out the best way to get there, and possibly recommend a place to get something to eat along the way.

In fairness, I think that's true of just about every major U.S. city. I've personally had that very experience (OK, without the restaurant recommendation) more than once in NYC, defying the common stereotype of the brusque, intolerant-of-tourists New Yorker.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:34 AM on May 29, 2007

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