Lifetime Suburbanite wants to live the city life!
November 28, 2007 3:16 AM   Subscribe

Where do I start exploring the city?

I'm looking for some advice on making the transition of moving from the suburbs (of Chicago) to the actual city itself. I have lived in the boring suburbs all my life, and for a long time I was thinking seriously about moving out of state (which I still want to do at some point): California, Oregon, Colorado, Washington. But since I've lived here all my life, I thought recently, why wouldn't I move to the city for a while, before I make that big jump to somewhere I'm completely unfamiliar with?
So I'm pretty sure that's what I want to do. I'm single, female, early thirties, and I have family and some friends (mostly acquaintances) that live in the city, so that could be a good (and bad) thing. However, I'm scared. I have a not-so-good sense of direction, and mainly I am concerned with getting lost in a shady area. Maps tend to overwhelm me. It's not that I can't read them, it's that I freak out when I'm under pressure to choose my next step. I've been to the city numerous times, but usually by car, and usually not paying attention to the street names. When I move there, I want to wean myself off of using my car, and just use public transportation. I have plenty of time to explore the city before I move there, but I'm not sure where to start, and I'm paranoid about getting on a train and getting lost.
Obviously I can just have some friends show me around, but I really want to go explore it myself, just to kind of try to get over my fear. I don't want to be dependent on people I already know who live there, because I really want to go there, start fresh, and do it on my own. I figured it will be nice to have friends and family there just in case, but since I am not super close to any of them, it won't be "too" easy to just call them up when I'm lonely or paranoid.
What I do know is that I reeeeeeeeeeeeally need to get out of these suburbs, and quick. They are sucking the life out of me and I feel like life is passing me by.
So: any suggestions, advice, words of wisdom?
Where do I start? I know my living situation will depend on my job and etc., but where should I start exploring, without getting overwhelmed? Most likely I will look for a roommate to start off with, and I am a little short on cash, but other than that?? Anyone done this before? I just want to get a good feel for the city before I go...or is that playing it too safe (and boring)?
posted by Alive N Kickin to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's probably too safe. If you think about it, most people either don't get a chance to get to know a new city before they relocate there, or are already very familiar with where they are going. The middle ground (what you're after), not so much.

If it makes you feel better, when we moved the last time, I came over for 2 days to find somewhere to move into, and my husband had never seen this city in his life - and didn't until the day we actually moved in.

So, in a new city with a new job, what I did might help you out. (I was also not keen on getting lost!) I got a map, and marked out a path from our house to my new office in red ink. maybe not the most direct path, but a very straightforward one.

The weekend before I started work, I walked my map to my new office and back again - once on Saturday, once on Sunday. You develop a really good visual map with lots of references for where you are that way. (You can also do the same thing with public transport, we just don't have any.) But, I also knew that on the off chance it all went horribly wrong, I could get a cab home. And so can you, so you have a backup plan!

Once I knew where I was going both ways, I started taking detours on my way back, without the map, and I really got to know my city that way - just exploring.

So take the plunge. Remember that loads of people have done what you're doing in new cities and made the adjustment. There really is no reason you won't, too. You'll be much more confident on the other side.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:14 AM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I moved into Boston Proper, I started biking into areas I was unfamiliar with-- first other parts of Boston Proper that I hadn't seen yet. This was no-risk and allowed me just to get the feel of exploring on my bike.

After that, I would look at my map and pick a circular route that would take me through several neighborhoods and back to my apartment. Even seedy neighborhoods are quite safe if it's before noon and you're on a bike-- most of the offenders are still sleeping something off and you're constantly moving on the bike.

The next step is to find new neighborhoods that look interesting and safe enough, and to explore them by foot. Park your bike, go back by public transport etc. Then go into the shops, the food stalls, the parks, etc. After a while, you'll know a good portion of your city very well.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:15 AM on November 28, 2007

when i moved to new york, i found that taking the bus was helpful. you could see out the window, and the route was pretty much set. i don't know how much it's aboveground, but i would imagine riding the el would have a similar effect. it's good to get familiar with the transit system in any case.

start with the touristy areas and let your friends and family show you the rest. people who live in big cities are SO used to taking random people around. don't worry about calling them up and asking if they are free on a saturday afternoon. it's a part of city life. in a year or two, you'll be that person.

finally, don't worry if you end up in a sketchy neighborhood. do your exploring during the day, and if you get lost, go into a business or ask an older woman how to get to where you're going. (obviously, don't ask "how do i get out of here?" ask "how do i get to xx and yy?") most people in sketchy neighbohoods are not out to get you. they will probably laugh, and sernd you on your way.

good luck! it is really overwhelming, but a great experience. you -will- figure it out eventually, just hang in there and don't let your disorientation discourage you.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:18 AM on November 28, 2007

I don't know Chicago well at all, but here's what I would do. Pick a neighborhood and use that as your base. Get to know it inside and out, then start poking its outer limits, this way and that. You'll quickly learn what's safe at what time of day.

I'm a born and bred Manhattanite, and I've done a lot of traveling in my life - First World and Third - and I've never passed up a chance to meander. I'm really unafraid to walk in any neighborhood, especially during the day. And I have a highly developed sense of intuition. So I'm aware of when things don't feel right. That's something you'll develop too as you push yourself to try new places and things.

Just remember - most people mean you no harm, and are happy to help a turned-around stranger find her way to where she's going.

Cars are evil. It's the people and the walking that make cities of all stripes the fabulous places they are. Have fun.
posted by pammo at 4:25 AM on November 28, 2007

I can't speak specifically to Chicago -- I lived in Manhattan for over a decade, and just moved out to the NYC suburbs a couple of years ago. A few things about city life:

1. It's not easy to "get lost in a shady area," especially if you don't have a car. When you first get there, you'll navigate between work and home. You won't have any business in any "shady" areas. Eventually, you'll add other destinations and learn to get to those, too. Without a car, you just don't travel that far from home.

2. The odds are overwhelming that you'll be fine. The dangers of every city's "shady neighborhoods" have been way overblown by newspapers and TV "newscenters" out for ratings. Otherwise, our cities would look like something out of The Road Warrior. I wound up in places I shouldn't have been, and I got out fine.

3. Corollary to that: Don't freak yourself out. Calmly follow a few basic rules, and you can keep yourself at least as safe as you are in the suburbs. Avoid deserted areas. If you're going someplace that worries you, bring a friend. If you're in a place or a situation that doesn't feel right, stay alert and get out. That's "alert," not "terrified." If you're alert and thinking clearly, and you look it, you make a much less appealing target. And again, overwhelming odds are that you'll be fine.
posted by PlusDistance at 4:48 AM on November 28, 2007

I've found that carrying a little notebook with me really helps when I'm exploring a new city. I tend to start off by looking up places I'd like to go to on the internet, and writing down directions (sometimes drawing/copying little maps of the more complicated/important areas) in my notebook, as well as the full address (and sometimes telephone number) of wherever I want to visit. Then I follow those directions to the destination, exactly, and try to notice other landmarks along the way. After making some trips in that way, I become more adventurous, take more detours, need the notebook less, etc.
I don't really have a natural sense of direction, or even a well-developed gut instinct... so having the notebook with me really helps - not just in a practical manner of having directions to refer to, but also as a sort of psychological safety blanket, I guess.
Also, I write in large handwriting, in the notebook - that way it's much easier to read when I'm out and want to refer to directions quickly and discreetly.
posted by aielen at 4:54 AM on November 28, 2007

Chicago is a city with a rich history, and lots of important and interesting architecture. Consequently there are a lot of books that already exist to help you explore it. Get one, and take some of the guided tours.
posted by ubiquity at 5:14 AM on November 28, 2007

Don't get worried about getting lost. Chicago has the most organized street system on earth. A mile is always 8 blocks, streets are oriented to the points of the compass, and the numbering system makes sense. All numbers begin at the intersection of State and Madison downtown. It is really hard to get lost.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:43 AM on November 28, 2007

Start in Lakeview or Lincoln Park. They're great point-of-entry neighborhoods for recent immigrants from the suburbs. Plenty of people on the streets at all hours, professionals, families, and young people. Get a one-year lease in a friendly neighborhood near the Red Line between Addison and Fullerton or the Brown Line between Paulina and Armitage, and you'll have a great starting point to explore the city. They're not the hippest or most diverse neighborhoods, but they'll help ease you into urban life.
posted by tew at 6:04 AM on November 28, 2007

When I moved to Seattle from Guam I found just wandering around aimlessly very helpful in getting to know my new city. Either on foot or via city bus you'll learn alot about where you are, and bus drivers are very informative when you're lost, as are store owners and other people walking around on the street. You can always catch a cab if you get freaked out, but as long as you keep your head on straight you shouldn't need to resort to that.

Get up on a Saturday (or whatever day you don't work), go find a cafe and order a latte to go, then wander around your new home until you feel like stopping for lunch.

You could get one of these to help you keep track of where you've been (I haven't used one yet, but they look cool). The aforementioned idea about mapping out your way to work and back is fantastic, and can also be applied to day hikes to parks, museums, neighborhoods, whatever.

I wouldn't sweat the 'bad parts' of town. You'll see them coming and be able to turn around if that's what you feel like doing. New Orleans is the only city I've ever been to that had 'bad' neighborhoods that seemed to sneak up on me, but I imagine Chicago is nothing like New Orleans. Good luck, and have fun!
posted by Pecinpah at 6:53 AM on November 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I grew up in the Chicago burbs (Naperville) but attended Saturday school in (and now live in) the city.

Due to the strict grid system, Chicago is very, very difficult to get lost in. I'm not sure what I can say to calm this particular fear of yours, other than: "Look at the Chicago map." :-)

Here's a walking tour you can take that will give you a taste of some North Side neighborhoods. It's safe and will probably take at least 2 hours, depending on how fast you walk.

* Take the Metra downtown and walk to State Street. Walk north to Division. You'll walk through the Loop, River North and the Gold Coast.

* At Division, take a left (west) and walk until Wells.

* At Wells, take a right (north) and walk until North Ave. This is the main strip of Old Town.

* At North Ave., take a right (east) and walk until Clark St.

* At Clark, take a left (northwest) and walk until Diversey. This is Lincoln Park.

* At Diversey (a five-way intersection), go slight right onto Broadway. Walk on Broadway until Belmont. This is Lake View East.

* At Belmont, take a left (west) and walk until the el station. This is the Belmont Red Line station, and you can catch the train here to head back downtown. Catch a train that says "Loop" or "Dan Ryan/95th," *not* a train that says "Howard," "Kimball" or "Linden."

Have fun, and enjoy the greatest American city. :-)
posted by adrian_h at 7:03 AM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a petite woman and I've lived safely in cities since I got out of high school. First thing to keep in mind is that it's a LOT harder to get lost on public transportation than when you're in a car - just get yourself a map of the subway/bus system, figure out what train/bus to take to get where you want to go, and let the driver worry about the rest. Pay attention to the route, especially if you're on a bus, and get a feel for the areas you're going through. Pretty soon you'll absorb a sense of the city's layout and the best ways to get around quickly.

Then start walking. Again pay attention, keep your head up and your eyes moving. Walk briskly like you know what you're doing. If you avoid making eye contact with other people you will be nearly invisible, especially if you dress modestly and/or drably. I like being inconspicuous and tend to dress like a broke graduate student anyway, and I swear I'm a ninja - nobody sees me, nobody bothers me, I can watch without being watched - it's great!

Walking will give you the greatest sense of an area since you are literally immersed in it. If you're hesitant, check it out first from a bus or something before you wade into the mix. If you need to stop to check a map, duck into a doorway or something, don't obstruct traffic on the sidewalk (that says "urban n00b" like nothing else). Even locals look at maps occasionally, but they get out of the way first. Go up the subway stairs and clear the exit completely before stopping to gawk. Again, flatten yourself against a wall or something before looking around to get your bearings, then walk with confidence.

I guess my basic strategy for navigating the urban environment is to know where I'm going (I always have a map in my bag, even though I've lived in SF for almost 20 years), I stay as inconspicuous as possible (as an introvert, I don't like interacting with people, so why attract attention?), and I have a pretty good don't-fuck-with-me face. Not that I look dangerous by any stretch of the imagination, it's just that people can see they won't get a gratifying response to flirting or any sort of mild hassling. By avoiding eye contact I deny them the opening 90% of the time, and the rest of the time I just don't look worth the effort - why mess with a chick who doesn't smile?

Feel free to contact me for more tips if you like. Good luck, keep your wits about you and you'll have a blast in the city!
posted by Quietgal at 7:52 AM on November 28, 2007

+1 ironmouth and tew.

I grew up in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and when I visit Chicago today, just walking around remains my favorite activity.

So learn the grid system, learn how the addresses work. Learn the major streets in your neighborhood, and gradually work outward. You'll start learning about places outside your immediate area that you want to visit, so you'll learn how to get there, and pick up some additional street knowledge on the way. And don't feel bad about not knowing the city better. I've known born-and-bred Chicagoans who only knew their own tiny pocket of the city, and were as helpless as kittens outside of it.
posted by adamrice at 7:53 AM on November 28, 2007

I have a horrible sense of direction and I get quite anxious when I'm lost. I recently got a GPS (TomTom 920T - it was a gift - there are cheaper ones!) that will re-route you to your destination if you accidentally take a wrong turn.
You can also do a multi-stop route with it.
Using the internet, plan a small trip, with some destinations that interest you along the way. Possibly, have some overlap each time you foray out, so that you start to become familiar with an area.
Good luck!
posted by j at 7:58 AM on November 28, 2007

What others said: Learn the grid system, use the CTA trip planner, and roam the neighborhoods on foot. I always get to know new cities when traveling by wandering around on foot and occasionally hopping on a bus or train.

Also, use Hop Stop. You can have directions sent to your cell phone, so that if you're out walking and don't know how to find your way back, you can text Hop Stop and enter the coordinates of where you are and to coordinates of where you want to go. You'll then receive a text message with the best public transit options.
posted by smich at 8:07 AM on November 28, 2007

The maps in here are excellent.

NFT Chicago 2008.
posted by santojulieta at 3:58 PM on November 28, 2007

« Older Should we pay this fee (UK)?   |   UK air purifier recommendation Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.