Living in: Chicago

This Midwestern city’s architecture, cultural and culinary scenes are easily pulling even with, and in some cases surpassing, New York and Los Angeles.

Chicago has picked up a fair barrel of nicknames throughout history — the Windy City, City of Big Shoulders, that Toddlin’ Town. One nickname that may soon be phased out is Second City (after New York, it is understood), as this Midwestern metropoliss’ architecture, cultural and culinary scenes are easily pulling even with, and in some cases surpassing, the Big Apple and Los Angeles. This city on the shores of Lake Michigan is enjoying its 21st-century moment.

Related article: Living in… New York

What is it known for?
Chicago has recently been in the spotlight for being the adopted hometown of United States President Barack Obama. Whether its January 2013 or 2017, he, Michelle and the kids will likely return to their home in Hyde Park, a neighbourhood near the University of Chicago, where they lived before moving to Pennsylvania Avenue and still own their home. And Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, is the city’s new mayor.

Chicago has always been one of the more interesting architectural spots in the US, with modern projects like Millennium Park, which showcases structures from Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano and sculptures like Anish Kapoor’s mercurial “Cloud Gate” jellybean. However, the 2008 economic crash cancelled some super projects like the Chicago Spire, designed by Santiago Calatrava, which was set to be the world’s tallest building.

But where construction may have stalled, the culinary scene has forged ahead with master chefs like Grant Achatz and Tony Mantuano, who are turning out some of the most creative food in the country. And on sunny, summer days a stroll through one of Chicago’s street fairs or along the shore of Lake Michigan is an easy reminder of what fun it can be to live there.

Where do you want to live?
Traditionally, there is a north-south divide in Chicago, with areas north of downtown being generally wealthier than those on the South Side.

Areas close to the downtown Loop (Chicago’s core financial, commercial and governmental district), such as West Loop and River North, are the most popular in the market, according to Loretta Alonzo, president of the Illinois Association of Realtors. These neighbourhoods have a lot of housing stock, restaurants and bars, and are close to public transport (known as the “L” when referring to the elevated subway lines that criss-cross the city). “Lincoln Park is always in great demand because it is right off of Lake Michigan,” Alonzo said. The condos and high rises here have retained much of their value. In the northwest section of the city, Wicker Park’s popularity and high prices have pushed people looking for value farther out to the Logan Square area.

South of the Loop, the area in and around Chinatown provides good value. “Just west and south of Chinatown there is some speculation going on, because it has older, cheaper housing stock and is close to the ‘L’,” said Alonzo. “It only takes 10 minutes to get to downtown.”

Side trips
Lake Geneva in Wisconsin is just 10 minutes over the state line and is a popular weekend getaway for Chicago residents. Farther into Wisconsin, people head to Madison, a lovely college town filled with cultural institutions and a pretty lakeshore. Even farther north are the bucolic Wisconsin Dells, a region along the Wisconsin River blessed with a number of state parks, hiking trails and campsites. Across Lake Michigan, towns like New Buffalo, Michigan, are popular for beachside breaks.

Chicago’s two airports, O’Hare and Midway, connect the city to destinations across the country and around the world. It is a two-hour flight to New York, a four-and-a-half hour flight to Los Angeles and just over an hour to Toronto.

Practical info
Prices are down across the market. While the number of houses sold increased slightly from 2010 to 2011, house prices have continued to come down. “We have been going through a lot of foreclosures and short sales that pulled the prices down,” Alonzo said. However, interest rates have also continued to descend, making this a great time for those with the funds and/or the mortgage to buy. For a fixed rate, 30-year mortgage, the interest rate is just under 4%, whereas in December 2010 it was almost 5%.

The median price of a two-bed condo or townhouse in 2011 was $240,000, but this is for the city as a whole. Condos or single family homes in Lincoln Park or Near North (just outside of downtown) can run into one million or more, while the median price for a house in Hyde Park is $560,000.

Further reading
Chicago Reader
: news, culture, restaurants and blogs around town
Chicago Magazine
: city-focused features, reviews and posts
Windy City Rocks
: blog about the Chicago music scene, bands and shows

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