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How to pick a neighborhood in Chicago

Seven things to consider before choosing your new home

I live in a yellow brick six-flat (a building with six units) in Ukrainian Village, a smaller neighborhood north of West Town and south of Wicker Park. It’s a historic district, with charming workers’ cottages and brick two-flats, and down the street, there’s 207-acre Humboldt Park with swan-shaped pedal boats in the lagoon. There are good bus routes and an L stop within a reasonable walking distance from my front door. But there’s also terrible traffic on nearby Division and Chicago avenues, the Blue Line trains are often crowded, and the bars a few blocks away get loud on weekends.

Like most neighborhoods in Chicago, mine has tradeoffs, and as you’re making your move to the city, you’ll have to figure out what’s most important to you about where you live, too: To live downtown, you might have to sacrifice space. To be in a quieter, greener neighborhood, you might have to deal with a longer commute. To live near the L, you might have to pay a bit more.

Here are seven things to consider when picking a neighborhood in Chicago.

1. First, learn the layout of the city

Chicago is 234 square miles, with neighborhoods to the north, south, and west and Lake Michigan to the east. There are 77 official neighborhoods (sometimes called community areas) and many more informal neighborhoods, like Wrigleyville (the home of Wrigley Field) and Boystown (part of the LGBTQ community). From most neighborhoods, it’s easy to get somewhere else in the city, including the Loop, where many people work—all the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) trains stop there. If there isn’t an L station close to where you live, there will usually be a bus stop.

People unfamiliar with Chicago might wonder about the city’s reputation for crime and gun violence. The reality is that it’s concentrated to a few neighborhoods on the South and West sides, like West Garfield Park and Englewood, that have experienced decades of redlining, segregation, and police brutality. The issue is far more complex than what’s in the headlines. And it’s personal for the communities demanding resources and violence prevention strategies beyond policing. Those community organizations have created neighborhood watches and sports leagues, and are finding kids summer jobs. And now, new Mayor Lori Lightfoot has made neighborhood safety a big priority for her administration.

2. Next, figure out what you need

No matter if your search is guided by price, space, or proximity to public transportation, here’s what you should know.

The CTA is the second-largest public transit system in the country, and what’s more, the service is actually dependable. And it’s easier than ever to find an apartment near the L since the city is encouraging developers to build new housing along train lines. If you travel a lot, we’re one of the few cities in the world with train lines to two major airports (the Blue Line to O’Hare and the Orange Line to Midway). The Blue Line also runs 24 hours, and so does the Red Line. But lots of people want to live near the L, which means housing close to train stops can be more expensive.

If sticking to a budget is your main concern, target your search to neighborhoods farther away from downtown and the lakefront. This might mean exploring northwest areas like Humboldt Park and Avondale, or looking southwest at Bridgeport or Pilsen. Neighborhoods in these areas will usually have older housing stock, like workers’ cottages or two-story brick buildings, which traditionally have more space (and could even have a backyard).

3. Know that you don’t have to live near an L station to be able to get around.

There are other transportation options! The bus system is reliable and efficient, and living near one—instead of an L station—usually means it’ll be quieter. Try neighborhoods like West Town, Roscoe Village, and South Shore, which have many peaceful streets and are near major bus stops.

Also, bike culture is strong. There are more than 300 miles of bike lanes, and Divvy bike share has 6,000 bikes across the city, a number that’s projected to double in the next few years. And more good news: The average commute on a bicycle is only 23 minutes, according to the city. If you live in Edgewater, you’d be able to bike down to the Loop on the Lakefront Trail (where there are no cars allowed). Milwaukee Avenue cuts through Avondale, Logan Square, and Wicker Park, which makes those areas great for bikers as well. Scooters could come soon too; the city will be piloting them on the West Side, where there are fewer Divvy bikes.

4. The lakefront is beautiful, but there’s no reason to feel left out if you don’t live there.

It’s impossible not to admire Chicago’s lakefront; it’s one of the best parts of the city. If you live there, you’ll be near the water and the handful of cultural institutions and museums, like the Adler Planetarium and the South Shore Cultural Center. Plus, you’ll have an incredible backyard filled with beaches, harbors, golf courses, and trails. There are a ton of housing options, from the high-rises that line Lake Shore Drive in Old Town and the Gold Coast to the historic homes in Jackson Park Highlands and Hyde Park.

The lakefront can be expensive, though, and there are other waterfront options. There’s Bertand Goldberg’s River City in South Loop, or Ravenswood Manor and Horner Park, along the North Branch of the Chicago River. Owls, herons, and beavers have been spotted in this quieter part of the city. Or, on the west side in the summer, the Park District opens 49 outdoor public pools. In Pulaski Park, the pool overlooks an incredible Polish cathedral, and in Washington Park, the pool comes with a towering waterslide.

5. It’s also possible to live near nature trails and wooded parks.

Looking for greenery? The South Shore Cultural Center has natural wetlands and prairie habitats for wildlife. Montrose Point has a popular migratory bird sanctuary. Beverly and Gresham are close to the Dan Ryan Woods, one of the few forest preserves within city limits.

Or try the neighborhoods along the city’s historic tree-lined boulevard system: Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, and Washington Park. The boulevards lead to the city’s largest parks.

6. There are lots of high-rise options, too.

If you want to live in a skyscraper, look to downtown neighborhoods like the Loop or River North, or near west around River West or Fulton Market. You will pay a premium to live in these areas—rent can start at $2,000 for a one-bedroom or studio. But you’ll be near the revered restaurant scene in West Loop, the downtown theater district, museums like the Art Institute and the MCA, Millennium Park, and the Riverwalk.

If downtown feels too crowded, there are high-rises in more residential areas too. Try the pink, Beaux Arts Edgewater Beach Apartments or the only residence east of Lake Shore Drive, Lake Point Tower next to Navy Pier. Some high-rises are landmark buildings too, like the Art Deco Powhatan Apartments in Kenwood or Mies van der Rohe’s twin steel towers at 860-880 Lakeshore Drive in Streeterville.

7. And once you’ve picked a neighborhood, explore the rest of the city.

Once you’ve settled on a neighborhood, see what other worlds you can discover in the city. Find Mexican murals and fruity paletas in Pilsen or see a Shakespeare play in Douglas’s Ellis Park. Visit Polish cathedrals in Ukrainian Village or walk along Lincoln Park’s boardwalk. See the cherry blossoms at Wooded Island in Jackson Park. Or get tickets to a show at Uptown’s historic Aragon Ballroom. You may have found the perfect neighborhood to call home, but the whole city is full of things to love.

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