Pity the poor people of Wilmette. Most of them have done quite well in life. They’re doctors, academics, architects, attorneys. But they have the misfortune of living down Green Bay Road from — and sending their children to New Trier with — people who’ve done even better.
You know who I’m talking about: Those rich swells from Winnetka.
The average per capita income in Wilmette is $67,298, about twice what most Americans earn. The average home value is $624,000. In Winnetka, though, the per capita income is $110,560, and the houses cost around $1 million.
As a result, Wilmettians don’t feel wealthy, or upper-class. I have a friend who moved to Wilmette from Chicago and became convinced Winnetkans looked down on his new home. Another acquaintance introduced me to a term that seemed to confirm his fears.
“Do you know what people from Winnetka call people from Wilmette?” the acquaintance said. “Wilbillies!”
They don’t just do it in Wilmette, either. I once met a woman from Kenilworth — the second wealthiest municipality in Illinois, in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation — who told me, “In Kenilworth, there’s a ‘kennel’ side and a ‘worth’ side.” She, of course, was from the kennel side, presumably west of Green Bay Road, where the houses are slightly smaller.
There’s nothing more North Shore than trying to convince people you’re not as rich as everybody else on the North Shore — that you’re a member of the lower-upper class who grew up on the wrong side of the Metra tracks. Saying “I’m from the North Shore” — especially to someone whose first exposure to that world was Risky Business, Mean Girls, or Rahm Emanuel’s biography — paints a picture of elitism that many residents would understandably like to disassociate themselves from.
Even celebrities do it. Wilmette native Bill Murray once told Vanity Fair that his family of nine children was so broke they gave each other combs and hairnets for Christmas. (Murray’s father was a lumber salesman.) One year, Murray bought his siblings cashews as gifts, wrapping them in individual packages of tinfoil.
When Charlton Heston’s family moved to Wilmette, he was just a humble ragamuffin who didn’t fit in with his posh neighbors.
“Because I grew up in small, rural St. Helen, Mich., Wilmette was a strange land for me,” Heston wrote in his autobiography, In the Arena. “It was an affluent suburb. I don’t think many of the men who lived there had the desperate worries about feeding their families that Chet Heston, my stepfather, faced during those Depression years. Here, where we settled as Chet finally found work, there were country clubs and beach clubs and wide, shaded streets.”
Sociologists would say that poor-mouthing in rich suburbs is a result of the fact that we measure our wealth not in absolute terms, but in relation to those around us. Economist Robert H. Frank conducted a study in which he asked people whether they would prefer to live in World A, a 4,000-square-foot house in a neighborhood of 6,000-square-foot mansions, or World B, a 3,000-square-foot house surrounded by 2,000-square-foot bungalows. Most chose World B.
“According to the standard neoclassical economic model of choice, which holds that utility depends on the absolute amount of consumption, the uniquely correct choice is World A,” Frank wrote in his book Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class. "For if absolute house size is all that matters, A is indeed a better world for all, since everyone has a larger house there than the largest house in World B. The important thing, though, is to focus on how you would feel in the two worlds.”
There are people on the North Shore, though, who chose World A, presumably so they can send their children to New Trier, which not only produced Heston but Donald Rumsfeld, Liz Phair, and Emanuel (who, as far as I know, has never claimed to be less privileged than his privileged classmates).
The next time you meet a Wilmettian who vacationed in Wisconsin instead of Cozumel, or who drives a Chevy Malibu instead of a Lexus, have a little sympathy. It’s not always easy living in Wilbilly Heaven, when there’s an even more expensive heaven on the other side of Indian Hill Road.