At 2.7 million people, Chicago is the third-largest city in America, behind New York and Los Angeles. For folks that love big cities, Chicago easily ranks as one of the best in the country; it is top-rated in all of the “big city things” like food, culture, and sports. Chicago has the added advantage of having home prices that are reasonably close to the national average.
But as a big city, Chicago also suffers from all of the “big-city problems” like crime, traffic, pollution, and poverty. The one big difference between Chicago and America’s other big cities is that Chicago gets a lot of cold, windy, and snowy weather for much of the winter.
Below we will explore the pros and cons of calling Chicago your home.
The Benefits of Living in Chicago – Pros
1. Great Food
Chicago routinely takes top honors for having the best restaurants in the country. The city is home to 24 Michelin-starred restaurants. If you are on a tighter budget, the city has 58 restaurants that have earned the Michelin Bib Gourmands award, which honors locales with excellent food costing $20 or less per person. This is also a city that never sleeps and you will have no problem finding good food at all hours of the night.
2. A Neighborhood for Everyone
There are over 70 neighborhoods in Chicago and each has an identity and feels all of its own. Depending on where you work and what you are looking for, you are sure to find a place to meet your needs. Some popular neighborhood options include:
- Lakeview: A mix of housing options across multiple prices, popular for young professionals. Has access to three train lines to help get into work, and parking is OK. This is the home of Wrigley Field with great restaurants and bars. Also home to Boystown, the most LGBTQ-friendly area, and some to some very interesting clubs.
- Lincoln Park: On Chicago’s North Side, this is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, with a great history of architecture on display. Very popular among young singles with most residents being between the age of 20-34 and working in the downtown sectors. The area is just 2 miles from downtown and has access to three train lines. It has a large variety of restaurants and many different performing art houses. There is plenty of green; the community is named for the 1,208-acre park which includes beaches, gardens, a zoo, museum, and more.
- Pilsen: Once considered a high-crime area, the community is in the process of being revitalized. Houses are more affordable here. This is home to a strong Latino community and the best tacos in the city. The food and store options range from mom-and-pop to super trendy.
- West Loop: An expensive area with excellent fine dining covering every ethnic food imaginable. Once the former meatpacking district, it is now filled with must-try restaurants on Restaurant Row (Randolph Street).
3. Good Public Transportation
Chicago has the second largest public transportation system in the country (after NYC), running 145 train stations and 129 bus routes. Metra trains and Pace buses connect to the suburbs.
One of the perks of Chicago neighborhoods (see Pro #2) is that each community has everything you need inside of its boundaries. Chicago residents walk for most errands, and this is a bike-friendly town with over 200 miles of bike lanes. Owning a car is certainly optional for Chicago residents.
4. A Strong, Diversified Economy
Chicago has the 3rd largest economy in the United States, surpassed by only LA and NYC. With a gross metropolitan product (GMP) of $770 billion, the city has more economic output than Switzerland. The Chicago economy is nicely diversified, with no single industry employing more than 12% of the workforce. There are over 400 major corporations in the city, including 36 Fortune 500 companies.
5. Decent Price of Housing (For a Huge City)
We won’t be advertising Chicago as being a “cheap city”, but it does have a cost of housing lower than NYC and LA, and only a little higher than the national averages. So if you are looking for a “big city life”, Chicago will give you the most city for your dollar.
Average Monthly Rent
Median Sale Price for a Home
6. The City is Crazy for Sports
The city is one of 10 US cities that have teams in the five major American professional sports (baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer). It is also home to a variety of alternative sports including rugby, women’s football, roller derby, software, indoor soccer, and others. The Sporting News has ranked Chicago the “Best Sports City” three times (1993, 2006, 2010).
7. A City of Culture
The city is home to a huge number of cultural destinations:
- 100+ museums
- Several conservatories, zoos, and aquariums
- 13 Ballet/Dance centers
- 10 Opera houses
- 10 Symphonies and Choirs
- 8 major music venues
- 65 acting theaters
- Over 100 Festivals
8. A City with Freshwater Beaches
Chicago has 26 public beaches on Lake Michigan. Much like the neighborhoods, each beach is a little different than the next. The water is freshwater, albeit a chilly 60-75 degrees during the summer months. The City tests the water daily for pollution (and occasionally beaches have to close due to sewage in the water). The city’s Lifeguard Service is the largest municipal lifeguard service in the world.
9. Easy Access to O’Hare
Chicago hosts the O’Hare International Airport. While this airport doesn’t get the best reviews from flyers, it is certainly busy and can get you to just about anyplace in the world:
- Has 191 Gates
- Has 8 runways; the most runways of any civilian airport in the world
- Over 50 airline companies fly out
- 919,704 aircraft flights each year, averaging 2,520 per day; the most of any airport in the world
- 84 million passengers per year
- Between 1963-1998, had the most passengers in the world; today is ranked 6th busiest
10. Top-Rated Libraries
The city’s public libraries have been ranked best in the nation and third-best in the world. The library system is huge and covers all of Chicago’s individual neighborhoods, boasting over 80 neighborhood branches.
These buildings offer a safe space and activities that are especially important in Chicago’s poorer areas. “The library continues to be a community anchor, offering programs that help residents access the information they need in their lives. We are often the most important gathering place in a community, an anchor, where patrons meet, discuss and discover.”
The libraries offer way more than just book rentals. For example, Chicago native Chance the Rapper recorded his first mixtape from a studio inside a Chicago library. The library’s STEM program offers kids access to 3D printing and laser cutting machines.
11. Top-Rated Hospitals
Chicago has two hospitals that have been given high honors in the nation: Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Rush University Medical Center. Not only were their overall grades top-notch, but they also ranked high in most of the specialty procedures and conditions, including Neurosurgery, Orthopedics, Geriatrics, Cancer, Gastroenterology, and more.
The Downside to Living in Chicago – Cons
12. Winters Are Rough
Snow, blistering winds, long stretches of grey skies. Chicago spends pretty much the entire winter with below-freezing temperatures. At night, the average temp drops to the teens. The wind chill will be around 0 degrees. The city receives an average of 36 inches of snow each winter. The winds will howl, bringing blizzard-like conditions, and blowing snow into deep piles. When the temps finally raise a little above freezing, snow melts can lead to flooding, falling ice, and collapsed roofs.
13. Cost of Living (Versus National Average)
In Pro #5, we said the Chicago cost of housing compares well to other big cities. It is true that there are 12 large cities in America that are more expensive than Chicago. This makes Chicago a great value compared to NYC, DC, and most of California.
However, Chicago is more expensive than 74% of the cities in America. When compared to the rest of the country, Chicago costs about 20% more than the national average. Assuming you are not coming from NYC and LA, then Chicago will certainly feel more expensive to you. Housing, transportation, groceries, utilities, etc are all going to be more expensive than most of America.
One of the reasons Chicago has a high cost of living is because the city has some of the highest taxes in America. The combined sales tax of 10.25% is the highest in the country. The state of Illinois has the second highest property tax in America.
The city has also been “creative” in inventing nearly 25 specialty taxes and fees, including taxes on parking, gas, liquor, soda, bottled water, and a long list of others. The city even has some taxes that don’t exist anywhere else in America, such as a tax on streaming videos (e.g. Netflix).
15. Crime (in Some Areas)
Chicago continues to make national news for its gun violence. It is true that the city had a record 774 murders in 2020. It is true there are nearly 60 different street gangs in the city, with over 100,000 gang members.
However, it is important to note that Chicago is a big city so it produces big total numbers in many categories. When you divide total murders by the city’s 2.7 million people, you get a murder rate of 18 per 100,000. This murder rate is ranked 28th in the nation. Chicago is actually ranked right next to Buffalo, NY, and Chatanooga, TN. The worst murder rate in America belongs to St. Louis at 64, so Chicago has a murder rate 3.5 times less than St. Louis.
It is also important to note that much of the violence occurs in specific neighborhoods in the city, such as Englewood on the South Side and Austin on the Westside, where murder rates are ten times higher than other neighborhoods of the city.
If you are moving to Chicago, just do some research on crime in the neighborhood you want to live in. The overwhelming majority of residents go about their day without being troubled by crime.
The city of Chicago has seven major interstates running through it; however, few of them run fast. Overall, Chicago has the 3rd worst traffic in America behind NYC and Philadelphia and has the 7th worst traffic in the world. There is one stretch of Interstate 290/294 near the Interstate 90/94 interchange that has been declared the busiest traffic corridor in America. I94 also has the unfortunate position of being #7 on the list of deadliest roads in America.
After you fight your way through traffic, you may have a hard time finding a place to park. Residents of Chicago spend 56 hours per year looking for a parking spot. That’s the sixth worse in the country and triple the American average. Chicago also has the highest on-street parking in the country, with some spots costing $6.50 per hour.
The American Lung Association gives the city an “F” grade for its ozone pollution. The city has the 18th worst ozone pollution in America with an average of 14 unhealthy ozone days per year, four times the US EPA target of 3 days.
Chicago has also struggled with polluted waterways for most of its history. The Chicago River was “an urban waterway treated for more than a century as little more than an industrialized sewage canal.” Just a few years ago, in 2015, Chicago finally started to treat its sewer water before dumping it into the river. Chicago was the last major city to make an investment in sewage treatment. The Chicago River has become cleaner in the last few years, leading to recreational activities such as fishing and kayaking, but the water is still unsafe to swim in.
Chicago has a poverty rate of 20%, nearly double the US average of 13%. An estimated 550,000 residents fall below the poverty line. This mostly impacts Black (32%), Hispanic (22%), and Asian (19%) communities.
Neighborhoods on the South and West sides have 40%-60% of residents living in poverty. The neighborhoods of Englewood, Park Manor, and Woodlawn have poverty rates above 60%. It is not a coincidence that these are the same neighborhoods plagued by gun violence (Con #4).
20. Lead in the Drinking Pipes
An estimated 400,000 homes in Chicago receive public water through pipes that are contaminated with lead, the most in any city in the country. These pipes are most prevalent in the historically black and brown neighborhoods on the south side. If a homeowner wishes to replace these lead service pipes, the estimated cost is $27,000 per house.
21. Basements Flooded with Sewage
Chicago’s stormwater drainage system is combined with its sewer system; a design dating back to 1850. When there is heavy rain or snowmelt the drainage pipes get overwhelmed. The water, mixed with sewer, backs up and begins to enter the storm drains of homes, flooding basements. The problem occurs mostly in the lower-income neighborhoods on the south and west side. Between 2004 and 2014, the flood damage cost an estimated $1.8 billion in damages. That is similar to the damage caused by the hurricanes of the southeast states.
Final Thoughts on Living in Chicago
Chicago is a big city with a lot to offer. Great food, great neighborhoods, great cultural activities and libraries, and it even has freshwater beaches. Unlike similar big cities, Chicago has home prices close to the national average.
But Chicago also has big-city problems like crime, traffic, and pollution. The tough winters make Chicago a difficult choice for anyone who can’t tolerate winter’s hardships. The super high taxes are also a tough pill to swallow.
If you love the big cities like NYC and LA and can tolerate hard winters, then Chicago could very easily become a new home for you. If you are coming from small-town America, then any of America’s big cities could be a shock for you.