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I'm moving to downtown Chicago for school. Any tips?
August 27, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I'll be moving from the Saint Louis area to downtown Chicago in a few weeks for school. I've only ever been to Chicago once, and even then we weren't in the city much. What tips would you have for a country girl that'll be moving right to the heart of the city?

— Countryplaid89, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

Happy to be of service, kid, but you've already taken what would have been my first piece of advice: move to the heart of the city. Living downtown, you're going to get the full Chicago experience right in the chops. Many people like it. A few — let's be honest — don't. A program of cultural immersion will enable you to determine what category you fall into. After a couple months you'll either know you're cut out for city life, or you'll be looking into your chances of getting in for the winter term at Wash U.

1. Find a good newspaper. You wouldn't set off on a safari without a map. You're going to want to get out into the city at every opportunity, and you'll need a reliable guide to what's worthwhile and what's not. Sure, online services operated by cyborgs are plentiful, but if you'd prefer the human touch, I know just the thing. The Chicago Reader has introduced more than its share of newcomers to the best the city has to offer in the way of the arts, restaurants, politics, and other diversions since 1971. I venture to say we'll do right by you.

2. Get a CTA map. The Chicago Transit Authority, which operates the city's buses and trains, will be your main way of travelling to places you can't get to on foot. (I'm assuming you've already figured out downtown Chicago isn't the ideal place to have a car, and I'd hold off a bit on cycling till you get acclimated — we don't want you to get doored.) Notwithstanding the occasional unfortunate incident, the CTA is reasonably safe and will get you just about anywhere worth going. For your initial excursion I wanto you to visit the Baha'i House of Worship. This expedition offers many possibilities for error, and getting out of whatever fix you end up in will be a useful learning experience. The building, and the Bahai's generally, have considerable intrinsic interest, and the temple is in the North Shore suburb of Wilmette; other than your getting lost, not much can go wrong, and I don't want your parents on my case because I got you killed the first week. You probably will get lost, because the BHoW is a half-mile from the end of the Purple Line, which, if the express trains aren't running, as they won't be if you do this at midday, will involve one and possibly two transfers depending on route. But the two-transfer Brown-Red-Purple variant is all above ground and offers excellent sightseeing.

3. Wander around the Loop and vicinity. This is your new neighborhood we're talking about, so you won't need bus fare. You also won't need an itinerary, although there are plenty of tours and guidebooks and such.  That's the thing about downtown Chicago: you can meander aimlessly and find something of interest on just about every block. An old college friend was in town for the weekend a while back, and with no particular plan other than knowing we wanted to start with the spitting fountains and the Bean at Millennium Park, we encountered the following: Celtic Fest in Grant Park (this year it's September 12-13);  the Harold Washington public library; Printer's Row along South Dearborn Street; the museum campus at Roosevelt Road, which we viewed mostly from afar; Central Station, a pricey housing development on the south lakefront; Glessner House, a restored mansion at 18th and Prairie; and finally a concert of African music at Clarke House, another mansion at 1827 S. Indiana — a performance we stumbled on by chance. Had we been in more of a hurry I suppose we could just have walked out to the Adler Planetarium and looked out across Monroe Harbor at the Chicago skyline, one of the wonders of the world.

4. See a Cubs-Sox game. No, not a Cubs-Cards game — that's too easy. Cubs vs. Sox is a tough ticket, the next one isn't till May or June (the schedules haven't been released yet), and maybe you're not much of a baseball fan anyway. This is still something you need to see. As a Saint Louis native no doubt you're familiar with the concept of a city series, which can only happen in a town with two major league baseball teams, the one instance in Saint Louis having occurred in the 1944 World Series, when the Cards took the Browns in six. We have one every year in Chicago. True, it's not the World Series, and at the rate things are going on the north side it's never likely to be. Doesn't matter — baseball doesn't get any better than this. Who can forget 2006, when Barrett punched out Pierzynski after a collision at the plate, followed a month later by Pierzynski homering in the ninth to win the game? Few other contests offer such a delicious prospect: simultaneously getting to watch the team you've suffered with since childhood win, and your worst enemies lose.

5. Get out to a poetry slam. I hear it said the slam isn't cutting-edge any more. That may be so. All I know is it continues to pack the house, with most of those doing the packing seemingly kids, to my mind the mark of an art form that still has some legs. The two things to know about a poetry slam are, first, it involves performed poetry, which is to be distinguished from some guy in a turtleneck giving a reading, and second, somebody wins. There are those who take exception to the latter notion. In New York they have an anti-slam where everybody wins and feels good about themselves, just like in preschool. The real slam more closely replicates the urban experience, and for that matter everyday life: not everybody can triumph, but you want to hold your own. 

6. Take the Boulevard Lakefront Tour. Yes, I know I told you not to chance riding a bike for a bit. But the BLT in my experience is the best way to get to know the city short of driving a taxi, with the great advantage that you don't have people throwing up in your back seat. The boulevards, which go back to the nineteenth century, are threaded through much of the city. Some of the fanciest places in town are on these streets, or they were before the arsonists got to them. Many boulevard neighborhoods are gorgeous. Others look like there was a war and our side lost. I figure if you're going to come to Chicago, you might as well see the whole thing.

7. Visit Lincoln Square. Walk up and down Lincoln Avenue a bit, stopping in at whatever catches your eye. You'll want to get a load of the former Krause Music Store, 4611 N. Lincoln, the last commission of the renowned Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. (The name may ring a bell; one of Sullivan's most famous works is the Wainwright Building in Saint Louis.) I'm partial to Ravenswood Used Books, 4626 N. Lincoln, one of those shops with two-foot-wide aisles and inventory of such intense classic density that a half hour's exposure will boost your IQ ten points. Conclude with coffee and a pastry at the counter by the window at Cafe Selmarie, 4729 N. Lincoln, reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It'll be a low-key experience, and that's the point. Lincoln Square is what we might call an end-state city neighborhood — what they look like after they get fixed up. You see parents with strollers, college kids, guys with eastern European accents playing bocce ball in Welles Park. Your city-type person is at home here. I realize at age 19 or whatever you're more interested in the flashier aspects of urban life. I'm just saying if a neighborhood like this speaks to you at some level, that's something you should know. Working for you? There's lots more where that came from. Try this and this and this and this and this, and top it off with some of this.

 — Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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