A Rough Guide to Chicago’s Neighborhoods

Originally published on LiveJournal, 11.30.06

So, over the past month I’ve seen about 32,153.04 apartments in Chicago’s north, and I think I have a fairly good impression of the various neighborhoods by now. So here it is, Emblem Parade’s guide to Chicago’s north side. I’ll start from my favorite NW region and move out. Take note of my social bias: I’m an educated, white Anglophone progressive. There’s a whole different Chicago out there that’s Spanish-speaking, with its own cultural map of the city, overlaying this one. Black Chicago is even geographically segregated to its own spaces by America’s despicable past. I can also place minimum standards: I can afford to live in places that are not too dirty, and occasionally go out and spend some money. Keep these privileges in mind.

So, I’ve fallen in passionate, romantic, urban love with Albany Park. It’s like goD took a bunch of Arabs, Koreans and Hispanics, assembled them gently in a diorama, placed it by the riverside, and pressed ON, with everything springing to vibrant action at once. Throw a stone, and it will hit a Korean grocery, a Middle Eastern restaurant, a dive bar, or a taqueria. And it will pass over the heads of countless people of various colors and dispositions walking around. People say it’s far, but it’s not. 30 minutes from downtown. And only 10 minutes farther than Roscoe Village, which is considered the “near north.” And it’s travel on the Brown Line, easily the prettiest elevated track in Chicago. And the Kedzie stop is the best of all stops: just after the river, just after the train slides down to street level. Old timey and lovely. Lincoln Square, nearby, is just as multifaceted, though a bit classier (and whiter) in parts. As is Ravenswoood, a more Hispanic and quieter version to the east. Therein also resides an awesome lady who I like to bother. Just to the south is St. Ben’s, a nice but blander area surrounding the ultra-bustling Irving Park Rd., and touching Montrose Ave. From the region, smack NW of the loop, it’s very easy to get by bus to Logan Square/*Bucktown* to the south, and to Andersonville/*Lakeview* to the east. And, of course, easy access to Lakeview by train which Is Important.

Roscoe Village, as I mentioned, is closer to the city, though really not by much, but is very different in character. It’s really only a slightly more colorful version of Lincoln Park, that yuppy enclave surrounding DePaul University. It’s where adventurous, more progressive, or not-as-rich yuppies live. To its west, by the river, are disgusting malls, and beyond the river is far-off Logan Square where Ethnic Peoples live. Despite the progressive little cafes (or because of them?), I can’t shake that segregatedy feeling out. The Village borders with Wrigleyville to the east, an overly unpleasant neighborhood: loud, messy and dirty. At night you get to see schools of identical trashed blondes in skimpy, uncomfortable man-attracting clothing and shoes, even in the dead of winter. Football heaven, feminist nightmare. It’s saved only, as always, by the gays in Lakeview to the south. Praise the gays! Lakeview is a great place to hang out, but not so much to live in. It reminds me, oddly enough, of Tel Aviv... turned 180 degrees. The architecture and urban spacing is utterly characterless, but the people fill it with a kind of light. Again, great place to hang out, but not so much to go home to.

North of Wrigleyville hoods get progressively nicer to live in, but also more suburban and isolated. Not too bad, because the Red Line connects them all well enough, and can even take you, if you’re patient (and believe me, you’re not), to Chicago’s south side. Buena Park and Uptown are called the “mid north,” which really does capture their on-the-way-ness, though that isn’t too bad at all. You can find good deals for nice places, and be in easy access to Lakeview to the south and Andersonville to the north. Andersonville is very nice, actually! Gay friendly (it’s supposedly dyke-town), progressive, even a little bit hippie, and quite diverse in class, which means that there are cheap dives and also classy restaurants. It can be very pleasant to live to live there, except that it’s just so isolated from the rest of the city (kinda like Hyde Park on the south side, where I live right now). Beyond Andersonville is Edgewater, practically a suburb of Andersonville. But let’s not overstate it: it takes 30 minutes to get downtown from Edgewater on the pretty fast (and nasty) Red Line. Beyond that is the country known as Canada, which includes Rogers Park, Evanston, and Wisconsin, which I think is a state or something like that. They say “aboot” instead of “about” there.

The river is a good cultural marker, separating this whole north and north-west region from the west (and north-west-west), which is Blue Line, Green Line, and recently Pink Line land. Of these areas, Logan Square has some similarities to my beloved Albany Park, which it blends into, but as you move closer to the Loop things become radically different. Bucktown to the north of the Blue Line and Humboldt Park to the south have been heavily colonized by hipsters. The north is wealthy and pretty, the south is poor and a bit dodgy, as always. The influx of artsy people into the more diverse natives is not altogether harmonious, and though the haters love to characterize these hoods as Hipsterville, it’s true only in a colonial sense. The colonized are present but being pushed out, while the hipsters are aloof in their own cliques. Nowhere in Chicago is the overlay of the Anglophone and Hispanic maps more jarring. Moving towards the Loop, Wicker Park is already its own nation-state, complete with its own flag and national soccer team. At the fringes there are some nice little streets with expensive homes, but it’s mostly overly-priced, crammed tiny rooms and artist studios. People live there to be close to the action, not for any inherent qualities of the neighborhood.

Even closer to the Loop are Old Town to the north, and Ukrainian Village to the south. Old Town feels most like New York to me. Packed, wealthy, bubbly, connected. And also out of my price range and comfort. UK, as it’s called, is entirely different: badly connected in parts and quite suburban in feel. The Eastern European cultural influence is still strong, and a recent influx of young artists and students, who don’t feel a need to live right at noisy Wicker Park and the center of action, really do breathe new life into the area, and give it a very nice old-and-new character. You can find affordable and really nice housing here. The only real problem is its relative isolation. Close enough to Hipsterville and the Loop, but not so much to anywhere else.

That’s most of the north side. There are a few pockets around the loop, which are technically to the south, but still related. Pilsen, an Hispanic neighborhood south-west of the Loop, has been inundated by artists who shun the hipsters. They haven’t been doing too good a job at integrating, though, despite their intents. Just south of the Loop, practically in it, is Printer’s Row, which would make many New Yorkers feel quite at home. Pricey but still affordable (move quickly, because it is being gentrified), it allows you to live right there in the downtown skyline without being an investment banker.