People from the Chicago suburbs famously like to say they’re “from Chicago.” People who live in Chicago famously like to get mad about that. But there is no hard and fast line between “Chicago” and “the suburbs,” giving those on the inside a greater claim to urban cred than those on the outside.
Consider the following families: a family of four whose father holds an executive position with the Chicago Park District, living in a $750,000 house in Norwood Park vs. a family of six whose father is a hotwalker at Hawthorne Race Track living on the top floor of a Cicero two-flat. I think most people would agree the first family is leading a more suburban existence, even though they’re doing it in the city.
Some suburbs are more suburban than others—and some Chicago neighborhoods are more suburban than villages just across the city limits. Just how suburban is your suburb—or your neighborhood? We rank them here.
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS: Right now it’s a 6, because the Arlington Park racetrack draws shady gamblers from all over the area, and provides it an identity distinct from Rolling Meadows, Palatine and Mount Prospect. After the track closes at the end of the year, it’ll be an 8. Building a Bears stadium on the site would restore its current ranking.
BUFFALO GROVE: A second-generation white flight suburb on the Cook County-Lake County border. “Buffalo Grove is like Skokie used to be,” a resident once told me. “And Skokie is like Rogers Park used to be.” An 8.
CICERO: It’s on the CTA. It’s a grid. It’s full of bungalows and three-flats (early 20th century red brick and urban-fringe midcentury yellow brick with glass blocks). It’s even more corrupt than Chicago. Former Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, an Outfit widow, went to federal prison for an insurance scam that robbed the town of $12 million. A zero.
EVANSTON: As the transition zone between Chicago and the North Shore, Evanston warrants a split rating. Howard Street, which has a Harold’s Chicken Shack, is a 2. The neighborhood around the Gross Pointe Lighthouse, where homes sell for seven figures, and on a clear day, you can see Winnetka, is an 8.
EVERGREEN PARK: Evergreen Park is more modest than its sister Chicago neighborhood, Beverly. The median household income is $76,557, compared to $98,416 in Beverly, home to well-paid Chicago municipal workers, and a 7 on the suburbia scale. On the other hand, its best-known landmark is a shopping mall, Evergreen Park Plaza. So it’s a 5.
FRANKLIN PARK: An inner-ring suburb architecturally indistinguishable from the Chicago neighborhoods it borders: bungalows, motel-style apartments, and those exposed brick accents you see all over the Northwest Side. A 3.
HARVEY: One of the poorest cities in Illinois, Harvey attracts residents who’ve been priced out of the South Side. Its poverty rate of 32.8 percent is nearly twice as high as Chicago’s. Its per capita income—$16,923—is more than twice as low. Harvey is so broke that in 2018, the state garnished its share of tax revenue because of its failure to make pension payments. As a result, the library cut hours and staff. Harvey is a 0.
HARWOOD HEIGHTS: Harwood Heights never wanted to be a suburb. The residents asked to be annexed to Chicago, but Chicago refused, so they founded their own village, which is mostly surrounded by the city. A 2.
HIGHLAND PARK: Highland Park was the setting for another landmark suburban movie, Risky Business. It’s also the home of Ravinia, which has catered to suburbanites’ musical tastes, and their love of picknicking on spacious lawns, for generations. Another perfect 10.
LINCOLN PARK: When a friend of mine moved to Wilmette, his new neighbor asked, “Did you move here from Lincoln Park?” “Yeah, how did you know?” he replied. “Because we all did.” Everyone in Lincoln Park either grew up in a suburb or will be moving to one once they sell their condo. It’s Suburbia’s Waiting Room. An 8.
MOUNT GREENWOOD: Mount Greenwood was the Trumpiest neighborhood in Chicago, but that doesn’t make it suburban. The cops and firefighters who live here cast far more votes for Trump than their neighbors in the surrounding suburbs. A place where 95 percent of the residents were born in Illinois, Mount Greenwood feels more like an insular, suspicious small town than a suburb. A 1.
MOUNT PROSPECT, PROSPECT HEIGHTS, CHICAGO HEIGHTS, VERNON HILLS, GLENDALE HEIGHTS, COUNTRY CLUB HILLS: There are no heights, hills or mountains in the Chicago area. The city and suburbs were built on a flat plain created by a proto-Great Lake. You’d think that would make building a country club easier, but Country Club Hills has not yet mustered one and has to coast off Flossmoor’s. For giving your municipalities such phony real estate names, you all get a 7.
NORRIDGE: In 2000, the Tribune published an op-ed, “Who Needs Norridge?,” arguing that Norridge should be annexed to Chicago, since it’s impossible to tell when you’re in one or the other. “It’s tiny, it seems to have no distinct image and it just plain doesn’t make sense,” author Brian Treglown wrote. “Norridge isn’t even a suburb—it’s a village. When I think of a village I think of a quaint little town in Vermont with a town square and Episcopal Church on the square…. The village of Norridge has strip malls, gas stations and 7-11s.” All good points. Norridge is a 3.
NORTHBROOK: Northbrook was the hometown of filmmaker John Hughes, and the inspiration for the suburb of Shermer in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. (Shermer Road runs through town.) Northbrook wasn’t just the prototypical Chicago suburb in the 1980s, it was the prototypical American suburb. For that, it gets a 10.
NORWOOD PARK: Norwood Park is a Northwest Side neighborhood, but if you get off the Union Pacific Northwest line there, you’ll think you rode the train all the way to Woodstock. East and West Circle Drive look like the set of a Judy Garland movie: every charming pre-war home is adorned with an American flag, a St. Patrick High School placard, or both. Norwood Park is populated by city workers who would live in the suburbs, so they’ve tried–and succeeded–to create a facsimile. A 7.
PARK FOREST: The last stop on the Blue Line, and the site of Forest Home Cemetery, which contains the Haymarket Martyrs’ Memorial, commemorating a landmark event in Chicago history. No, wait, sorry, that’s Forest Park. Forest Park is a 5.
RIVERDALE: Riverdale shares the same name and the same demographics as the South Side neighborhood of Riverdale, which lies just across the Little Calumet River. That would suggest a low score. But Riverdale is the home of Chuck’s Gun Shop — which, for years, has been the source of a huge share of guns confiscated in the city, the result in part of lax suburban regulations. So it’s a 7.
SCHAUMBURG: To get to the Schaumburg District Library for an author event, I had to take two Metra lines and an Uber, because my bus pulled away just as I was getting off the train. It was a two-hour journey. Schaumburg has terrible public transportation, it’s overwhelmingly White, and it’s most famous for Woodfield Mall and Ikea. That’s everything you could ever ask for in a suburb. A perfect 10.
WAUKEGAN, ELGIN, AURORA, JOLIET: These are not suburbs, they’re satellite cities, which developed independently of Chicago, and were subsumed by suburbia. All but Waukegan have casinos. All but Joliet are minority-majority. Elgin was the inspiration for the blue-collar town of Lanford on the sitcom Roseanne–close enough to Chicago to root for the Bears and the Bulls, far enough away to feel like Hicksville.
WILMETTE: Linden, the final stop on the Purple Line, is in Wilmette. So is the Baha’i Temple, a regional tourist attraction. Also, Wilmettians (?) are convinced that people from Winnetka (a 9) call them “Willbillies.” Also, Wilmette is the hometown of former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. So it’s a 7.
Correction: The post incorrectly stated that Elgin is not minority-majority. It is Joliet that is not minority-majority.
Ed. note: Evanston was added on Aug. 17.