In a city as big as Chicago, neighborhoods are more than just physical boundaries: they’re identities, too. You shop at your local grocery, drink at your corner bar and drunkenly order afterwards from your closest pizza place.
It's a fantastic thing to discover and inhabit one of the city's many enclaves, but it also means you can be missing out on some of the city’s other wonders, and like I said, Chicago is a big city.
The solution? Explore. And I'm not talking about wandering around an L stop for a new sandwich shop. Go with someone who knows. Because even when you’ve been living in one of those enclaves for several months, as I have, you still may have a lot to learn about your neighborhood. I moved from the Southport Corridor to the South Loop in July and then, courtesy of a busy summer of weddings, traveling, weddings, and, to break things up, a few more weddings, I haven’t spent a ton of time in my new condo, or my new neighborhood, a situation I began to remedy last weekend, when I went on the South Loop Neighbors walk.
Just one of many activities put on by the South Loop Neighbors organization, the walk is an annual event where for a $15 ticket (bought in advance; $10 if you're a student) you can wander around a dozen or so homes whose owners have agreed to offer full access on a Sunday afternoon. It's a look at how some of the historical structures in the neighborhood have been converted into private homes, and what interesting and questionable things (a statue of two people engaged in a ceramic 69? Really?) owners have done to decorate them.
Stretching from Printer’s Row to the 1500 block of State, it's a hike to get to some of the homes, but well worth it, so we hoofed it to every stop (there’s also a trolley to take you south, but in the spirit of Halloween, it appeared to be a ghost trolley, because we never saw it).
The first unit we went in was a weekend residence owned by a suburban couple who explained to us they had purchased their condo in lieu of a lake home or other weekend getaway. As I could barely afford to get a bathroom with my unit when I bought it last summer, I'm not exactly sure I could relate to that, but nonetheless, I liked their decorating.
The next unit was a cool layout: two levels and anything but the typical big boxy room structure newer condos typically consist of, but since the family who owned it had been living there for almost a decade, they had filled every crevice and corner with things, making it a bit claustrophobic. That feeling was enhanced by the fact children lived there; "Really, only three of the things in here are mine," the father exclaimed. I wondered which three.
Many of the other stops seemed similar: rehabbed kitchens, hardwood floors, big windows. However, there were some notable exceptions, such as our stop at the giant University Center, which houses students from Columbia, Roosevelt and other area universities...and offers those wee 18-year-olds some of the best views in the city (their dorm rooms overlook the lake! The parks!). True to collegiate form, as we passed through the dorms at 2:30 p.m., hardly a soul was in sight. At 29, that's time to go on a loft tour; at 19, about three hours before you rise for breakfast.
One of our later stops included a condo located in the old operating room of a formerly posh South Loop hospital, which is sort of creepy when you think, hey, people probably died here in what is now your living room. Yeah, well, with views like they had and the unit’s private roof deck, I'd purchase property on top of a gravestone, throw down a couch and call it "Cemetery Place."
The last building we stopped in is one my friend lives in, which is known for having drastically different units. Still, nothing could prepare me for what I saw in the second unit we visited, which was by all accounts a nice unit...with a terrace roughly the size of my condo, plus another condo, and a lil’ bit of a porch thrown in for good measure. UNREAL. She had plants, lights and two separate seating areas. Sure, you could only use it for six months out of the year, but what a six months! It was the coolest and most unusual space I have ever seen in Chicago, and during my condo search, I saw a lot.
By this point in the tour I realized I could probably get myself into the kind of a place we’d been visiting for the past four hours in about, just estimating roughly, 2000 and never. After hours of taking in marble countertops, Soldier Field, lake views and bathrooms that looked suspiciously like spas, I knew it was going to be hard to go home that night.
Feeling poor and a little depressed, I took myself home and tried to figure out how I could spruce up my condo to look a little more urban. A new kitchen? Some new paint? But that all seemed so...work intensive. I think for now I will settle for unpacking that last box, which is still sitting in the corner of my bedroom...and has been since July.
Want to check out one of the South Loop Neighbors' other upcoming activities? Get to know the neighborhood at Southloopneighbors.org.
Erin Brereton is our resident urban cowgirl on a bi-weekly search for life on the cheap.