Moving to Chicago? Meet Tanya. She’s a born and bred Chicagoan, and knows the city like no other.
Whether you’re moving to Chicago from the suburbs, from NYC, or from further afield in the world, be sure to check out Tanya’s advice. Is it expensive to live in Chicago? What are the pros and cons of living there? And is it worth paying $8 for popcorn?!
What are the main pros and cons of living in Chicago?
Chicago is one of the largest metropolitan cities in the US and it’s easy to connect with like-minded people. The residents are diverse and you’ll find neighborhoods, restaurants, and events that celebrate it.
Chicago also has a great public transportation system. The elevated trains, also called the ‘L’, bus routes, and bike-share programs are efficient ways to travel.
Living in the most famous city business area, The Loop, is great. It’s where Millenium Park is located with the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture. The amenities include the lakefront, shopping on State Street or the Magnificent Mile, and endless entertainment.
On the downside, living in Chicago can be quite expensive. Anyone purchasing a parking pass in the Loop (Chicago’s business district), can expect to pay between $300 and $500 per month. In the 80’s era, you could park on the street for free after 6 pm. Now, parking is metered 24/7. If you’re using a car for transportation, traffic in peak periods can be intolerable and may be worsened by our two seasons of the year – winter and construction.
For homeowners, city taxes are astronomically high and they’ve increased regularly over the years. High property tax is one of the main reasons residents leave Chicago or move across the border to Indiana.
Residents who opt for condo-living have very little personal outdoor space, but nearby parks are spacious.
Chicago also has a bad reputation for an underfunded public-school system and gun violence.
Tell me about living in Chicago as a family.
Oak Park is one of the best suburbs for families. Evanston, LaGrange, and Naperville are also great suburbs that are family-friendly. Raising a family in Chicago has a different set of challenges, but it’s doable. Some of the best city neighborhoods are Streeterville, Printer’s Row, Hyde Park, and Andersonville.
After marriage, we chose to live in Oak Park because of its proximity to Chicago. It offers a suburban life with easy city access. The Oak Park school district is commendable and highly regarded by the state of Illinois.
The neighborhood where we live, the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, is an inclusive, organized, and tight-knit community. We maintain an email distribution list to keep everyone abreast of incidents in the area (good or bad). The residents are vigilant and quick to report something that is out of order. We have a good relationship with our beat cop and proactively meet with him to discuss concerns. We host annual events like a progressive dinner and a summer block party. In the absence of high school graduation ceremonies due to Covid-19, the parents collaborated to stage a commemoration service. It really does take a village!
Do you have any advice for anyone moving to Chicago alone?
My advice for anyone moving to Chicago is to build a social network with neighbors, co-workers, and community (eg. church, fitness classes, etc).
For the most part, Chicagoans are very social and friendly, but not overtly. I didn’t notice this until I worked in Michigan where residents greeted passerby with a “hello” or “good morning”. It was the norm and I embraced it. When I returned to Chicago and greeted people, they either jumped or looked at me as if I wasn’t right in the head. It’s easy to make friends, but initiating conversations in certain scenarios can be tricky. City dwellers keep to themselves and mind their own business, but also maintain a sense of community.
Chicago is a melting pot of people, but the neighborhoods also resemble segregation because each area has a section of Polish, Germans, Italians, Latinos, etc. (there is even an LGBTQ neighborhood).
However, as seen in recent demonstrations and the George Floyd protests, all Chicagoans came together and united because we accept differences without disagreement. There are some parts of Chicago that suffer from lack of funds, social support, and education; thus, their struggle and frustrations will manifest differently than someone who has means.
With that said, Chicago has great (and free) opportunities for people to come together and enjoy life. Free summer concerts in the park, the Lincoln Park Zoo and city-hosted parades are a few that come to mind.
Is it expensive to live in Chicago?
Renting is the alternative to high property taxes, but that doesn’t make it less expensive.
Rental costs depend on the amenities and location. For example, a two-bedroom apartment in the Loop will cost between $3,000 and $4,000 for 1300 m2 of living space. Residents in this range will have luxe amenities like a doorman, grilling stations, a 24-hour fitness center, on-site dry-cleaning services, etc. However, a two-bedroom apartment with the same space rents for $1,600 in Avondale, but it will not have luxe amenities, just parking.
If you’re moving to Chicago’s western suburb of LaGrange, you’ll easily find twice the amount of living space, and more reasonably priced. A four-bedroom home with 2300m2 of space rents for $3500. The further away from the city, the more money you’ll save in housing, but it’ll be offset by the cost of the commute.
As a rule of thumb, the cost of housing and utilities shouldn’t be more than 30% of your gross monthly income.
Chicago has assessed special taxes on soda, cigarettes, etc. Currently the combined tax rate is 10.25% of cost of goods, which is very high compared to other US cities. Chicago also has special tax assessments for bottled water, grocery checkout bags, nicotine, fountain drinks, liquor… the list goes on. To help restaurants during Covid-19, additional fees are assessed for take-out; all these costs quickly add up.
As previously mentioned, public transportation is great and a monthly CTA (Chicago Transportation Authority) pass, or Ventra Card, at $105 will give you access to all metro buses and trains. If you live in the suburb and commute to the city, the Chicago Metra pass ranges from $116.00 to $239, depending on the station.
Costs for entertainment and dining are fair for a city the size of Chicago. You can expect to spend $150 on dinner for 2. Movie expenses are over-the-top here and I will never get used to paying $5 for a 16 oz soda or $8 for popcorn.
Is living in Chicago safe?
A foreigner would feel safe in Chicago. As with any city, be alert, use caution, and don’t put yourself in a vulnerable situation.
Chicago continues to be plagued with assaults, murders, and violence. Of late, toddlers and small children have been the target of shooters. It’s heartbreaking that no one speaks up and so little can be done to protect the innocent.
It is also uncomfortable to see unrest and the damage from riots – the statistics in Chicago are alarming. The key, as I’ve seen in my neighborhood, is to know who lives among you, be vigilant, and establish good communications. Successful neighborhoods are involved and protect their community.
Regarding neighborhoods, some are less desirable than others. In particular, the west side of Chicago is not great (between Austin and Western Avenues, and south of North Ave.) That area endured riots in the 1960’s and never recovered. Austin Street is west of Cicero (see map) and divides Chicago from Oak Park. There are some parts of Chicago on the southside with higher crime rates than others.
Regarding using the “L” train for public transportation, we have a saying in our family: “keep your head on a swivel”. The “L” is the least expensive mode for moving quickly through the city and it’s a respite for the homeless, drug addicts, and scam artists. A foreigner would feel the safest traveling during the day. If you travel late at night, then it’s best not to be alone. There are safety measures on the train that enable you to call the train operator in emergencies. I’ve ridden the “L” for over 30 years without altercation, but I’ve also seen a lot of craziness. If you aren’t comfortable, exit the car and wait for another train, or walk to another section. My best tip is to wear sunglasses and earbuds to drown out the drama.
What are your top tips for anyone moving to Chicago?
Build your social network. Chicagoans love happy hour and it’s never a bad day to have cocktails on the riverfront or a rooftop. If you want to blend in with Chicagoans, keep these simple rules in mind:
#1 – Chicago’s deep-dish pizza is better than New York pizza.
#2 – Do not put ketchup on a Chicago hot dog.
#3 – When it comes to baseball, pick one team and defend them to your death. It’s either Chicago White Sox or Chicago Cubs.
#4 – Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time in case you’re wondering)
On a more serious note, I recommend renting before purchasing a home. Get a real feel for the neighborhood and the type of metropolitan lifestyle that you want. Take advantage of the public transportation during your commute; a Ventra Card will save time and frustration from sitting in traffic.
All in all, is it worth moving to Chicago?
If I were single with steady employment, I’d move to Chicago in a heartbeat!
The city has great conveniences, two airport hubs (O’Hare International Airport and Chicago Midway International Airport), friendly midwestern vibes, and a ton of options for day trips, like state parks and wineries. We host some pretty spectacular events like the Chicago Marathon, the Chicago Air & Water Show, Lollapalooza, and The Taste of Chicago. And on any given night, you might run into Vince Vaughn, Chance the Rapper, or actors from a Chicago-based TV show.
If I were raising a family, I would move to the suburbs. They provide a better value and the educational systems have a better infrastructure. The city is just 20 minutes away and accessible by train. You can always staycation in the city when you want a change of pace.
Tanya blogs at Travels and Treasures, a travel, lifestyle and food publication. Follow her to learn more about living in Chicago and travel beyond.
You can check out my tips for moving to the US here too. Any questions about life in Chicago? Leave a comment below.