Earlier this week, I posted an opinion piece on all the things that I hated about living in Washington, D.C. I think that this merits a look at my alternative city of choice: Chicago.
As a new resident of Chicago, I am definitely still learning about all of the things that this city has to offer. However, I can tell you that Chicago is infinitely better than D.C. And, as someone who spent her entire life visiting other cities along the Northeast coast, I am also prepared to say that city life in the Midwest trumps city life in the Northeast. Here’s why:
Without a doubt, the best part of Chicago, and the Midwest in general, is the people. I had heard that people in the Midwest were nicer and assumed that it was just a manners thing, or even a prairie naiveté, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. People here seem happier, more approachable, and are clearly more relaxed than in most other major cities in the U.S., especially those in the Northeast.
It may seem trite, but it’s not. Having happy people around me has made me happier. The feel of camaraderie in this place is absolutely contagious. Somehow, being in Chicago has made me feel less alone in the world.
If you don’t live in the Northeast, this may seem like an odd thing for me to be excited about, but…in downtown Chicago, you will get a genuine smile from the clerks in Walgreens or CVS! The first time this happened to me, I thought it was a fluke. The second time, I realized that not one CVS worker in D.C. had ever acknowledged my presence in the entire ten years that I lived there. I have visited Baltimore, New York, Philly, and Boston enough times to know that this is typical for the rest of the major cities in Northeast as well.
In Chicago, city transportation workers often make a point to say hello. Wait staff treat you like a guest, not just the source of their next tip. People strike up conversations with you for no reason at a much more frequent rate.
I even had someone in the doctor’s office say hello, find out that I was new in town and that we live near each other, and then straight up ask if my wife and I would like to have dinner sometime with her and her husband. All within a five minute conversation.
As an East coaster, this is incredibly bizarre to me but, I absolutely love it.
This is a bit of an extension of number one, since the amazing people here create the amazing pace.
In Chicago, people seem to work to live instead of living to work. No one leads conversations by asking what I do for a living. It’s not a contest to see who had the more expensive and exciting weekend activities. When people ask how you are, they are actually waiting to listen to the answer.
I will admit that there is an unwelcome flip side to this. They drive and walk slower here, too. It was infuriating at first. D.C. residents walk swiftly and with purpose. We drive like we’re having an emergency and trying to get to the hospital (or trying to cause an emergency and put someone in the hospital).
I tried weaving, honking, and bird-flying to no avail for the first few months until finally the Midwest wore me down. From what I can tell, no one honks here unless someone is clearly in danger. It’s crazy but I’m starting to learn to take it easy on the road.
It really is a nice way to live. Somehow, I don’t feel like I’m competing with everyone else in town any more. If anything, I won already. At least compared to the schmucks in D.C. who are spinning so hard that they can’t sleep at night.
The Cost of Living & Quality of Life
The COL was probably my biggest drive in choosing Chicago when moving from D.C. Any way you slice it Chicago comes out on top here. According to some calculations, you would need around $4,887.70 in Chicago, IL to maintain the same standard of life that you can have with $5,900.00 in Washington, D.C. (assuming you rent in both cities). Depending upon which calculator you use, the numbers change slightly.
My own numbers actually greatly surpass these. When I moved, I got to keep my job and go virtual. So, I was making a D.C. salary and taking advantage of Chicago pricing at the same time. I thought I was lucky. Then, in June, I took a new job. Now I make an additional $10,000 per year (pre-tax).
The feeling of being able to breathe (financially) for the first time in my adult life has been incredible.
In D.C., I lived within the city limits in a 50+ year-old townhouse that had never been renovated. There were a few updates (granite in the kitchen and the power had been heavy-upped) but it needed a new roof, I had to gut both bathrooms, and the basement was unfinished. We lived within a 20-minute (no traffic) drive to the Capitol, a ten-minute walk to Metro, and were in a quiet neighborhood with low-to-moderate crime (for D.C.). In order to afford a quiet neighborhood with low crime, we had to live in a neighborhood with no walk-able shopping, restaurants, etc. That house sold for $335,000 in March 2015.
In Chicago, I live two miles outside the city in the village of Forest Park, IL. We are in a 120 year-old home that has been fully renovated. Everything has been completely replaced (even the underground piping) within the last two years. Like in D.C., we live within a 20-minute (no traffic) drive to the downtown Chicago and are a ten-minute walk to two L stops. Our neighborhood has much less crime than in D.C. and is within walking distance of several adorable small town main streets as well as a few large grocery stores. This house was purchased for $355,000 in January 2015.
Yes, the new house cost $20,000 more than the last house but if I were still in my old neighborhood, the renovated house would be worth another $100,000.
If you took our house and planted it in a better suburb near D.C., it would be worth almost $200,000 more. In the most comparable suburb (Takoma Park, MD) our current house would go for upwards of $550,000. I know because we watched that market for a year before deciding that the D.C. area was just too damn expensive and that we needed to make a bigger move.
In addition to all of the above, Chicago is clean (for a big city), beautiful, has a well-rounded cultural scene, great food (though this is one area where I would give the point to D.C.), and makes a consistent and successful attempt to be a modern world-class city. It’s impossible not to notice the investments that Chicago has made into its art installations, parks, and architecture.
Compared to D.C., the transportation in Chicago is a revelation. Yes, the traffic is often bad. But, that is true of most major U.S. cities and, by many accounts, Chicago still beats many East coast cities. The public transportation in Chicago more than makes up for it. Unlike D.C. and Baltimore, Chicago residents have reliable alternatives to driving.
At first, I was skeptical of the small, shiny L cars moving along wooden tracks that are suspended above the streets of Chicago. However, it didn’t take long to see that that the city’s transportation department has its shit together.
D.C. residents: All you need to know is that the trains run regularly and with few malfunctions, less passengers died at the hands of the CTA last year than Metro, and all trips are assessed a base fare of $2.25 and no more (you can even get discounts for purchasing multiple trips). I’m sure that delays happen but I’ve been here six months and haven’t run into one yet. It’s like magic.
What’s this, you ask? How can the weather possibly end up on a ‘best of’ Chicago list?
That’s easy. First, I haven’t been here for a full winter yet. Second, I’m comparing it to Washington, D.C.
I actually arrived in town on February 14, 2015 in the middle of an awful cold snap with several days of sub-zero temperatures and a wind chill of -20. For the first two months, it was really, really cold. We had several snows and a lot of major temperature fluctuations in April. May and June were mostly rain.
None of this matters. At least, not to me.
Like everything, weather preferences are subjective. People in Chicago often complain about the cold. It’s easy to do. But, it just so happens that I love the snow. I love the fact that Chicago has real seasons with fluctuating weather patterns. And, most of all, I love that spring lasts for 2-3 months and that summers are shorter and milder here. I don’t think that most Chicagoans have any idea how brutal summers are up and down the East coast. D.C. gets about two weeks of spring, ya’ll. Max.
Also, D.C. was recently ranked as one of the sweatiest cities in the country, beaten out only by the likes of cities in Texas, Florida, and California. That’s a swamp and two deserts people. I stayed in my house as much in June, July, and August in D.C. as most Chicagoans do in January and February.Thanks but no thanks.
Honorable Mention: The Meat, Cheese, and Beer
So, I know that the title of this post notes only five reasons. But, I really think that an exception should be made for the holy trinity of Chicago. The food scene here is truly a celebration of Americana.
Stay tuned for more posts about how awesome Chicago is. I really can’t get enough.