Arts, Lakefront Among Chicagoans' Favorite Things

August 03, 2010

Like Roethle, people who live in the Chicago area enjoy taking the train downtown for an evening of free jazz in the park. Even if they never set foot inside Symphony Center or the Civic Opera House, they enjoy living in a city that has orchestras and opera companies.

Ask people what they like most about living in the Chicago area, and the answers aren't much different than what you'd expect from the millions of tourists who flock here each year — cultural activities, the lakefront and restaurants.

But while out-of-towners get to go home after visiting museums, eating deep-dish pizza and strolling the Magnificent Mile, Chicagoans have to deal with details they find draining: crime and high taxes.

Such are the flip sides a recent Tribune/WGN poll found when people named the best and worst parts of living in Chicago. Regardless of race and income level, whether they lived in the city or suburbs, or were young adults or senior citizens, appreciation for the city's vast cultural options topped the list.

"What I like is just the sheer amount of what is offered in Chicago," said Liz Weigel, 25, who grew up in Orland Park and now lives in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood. "You really have a choice of what you want to do here. This is the only city that consistently offers free activities in the summer."

Not that Chicago-area living is carefree. Although four out of 10 polled said their quality of life is about the same over the last decade, 34 percent think it has gotten worse and only 24 percent said it is better. City dwellers were more pessimistic — 45 percent surveyed think quality of life in Chicago has taken a downward turn in the last 10 years. Among suburbanites, 28 percent thought the quality of life had grown worse in the suburbs.

Driving the view that things are getting worse is the perception that crime is increasing. Nearly seven out of 10 Chicago residents polled listed that reason as most negatively affecting the quality of life in the last decade, with about six in 10 suburban dwellers doing the same. It does not matter whether people are actually exposed to crime — the perception that crime is occurring around them is enough to affect their views, according to Albert Hunter, a sociologist and director of urban studies at Northwestern University.

"People's sense of fear is sometimes uncorrelated with the actual risk they might experience," said Hunter, who noted that the fear of crime exists even in suburban areas that "are gated and have private security guards, so there is relatively little crime to begin with. But people are aware through the media that crimes are taking place."

Another top contributing stress factor in the city was high taxes. The sales tax rate hit 10.25 percent before the Cook County Board sliced it by a half-percentage point starting last month.

In the suburbs, political corruption was listed as the worst thing about living in the Chicago area by 51 percent of those polled, a tick higher than crime. Beyond the city's storied history of political scandal, the poll was taken as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's federal political corruption was running at full blast and several months after scandal-weary Democratic primary voters decided they didn't want another four years of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

For Virginia Roethle, 66, of Crestwood, the combination of negative factors has tainted her view about living in the Chicago area.

"The crime, the high taxes and political corruption are out of control," Roethle said. "Lately, there is someone getting killed every day."

Still, Roethle said, she has fond memories of growing up in Chicago and walking the lakefront as a young girl. Though she does not go there very much anymore, it is still the place she likes to visit on special occasions or when guests come to town.

"Some of my most memorable times were spent there," said Roethle, a retired payroll department manager who listed the lakefront as what she likes most about living in the area. "When I retired, I went to Navy Pier to celebrate. I've been there other times with my granddaughters, and it was just special."

Like Roethle, people who live in the Chicago area enjoy taking the train downtown for an evening of free jazz in the park. Even if they never set foot inside Symphony Center or the Civic Opera House, they enjoy living in a city that has orchestras and opera companies. And they're thankful that they can choose to spend the evening at a major Broadway-style production of "Billy Elliott" or a small neighborhood theater's presentation of "Aida."

City officials over the last three decades have invested heavily in making Chicago a destination for entertainment, lifting its status to compete with other major cities such as New York, Paris and London, according to Terry Nichols Clark, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago.

What began with Mayor Jane Byrne's introduction of street jugglers and horse-drawn carriages to the North Side in the early 1980s expanded in the last two decades under Mayor Richard Daley, who championed the rebirth of Navy Pier, summer festivals, lakefront bike paths and planting of trees, flowers and shrubs.

Such amenities are important as large cities compete for new, younger residents, said Clark, author of "The City as an Entertainment Machine."

"There is a fierce competition for people, and Chicago is doing very well because of the arts and culture here," Clark said. "This is not just fluff, it is a major driver of the economy today, and Chicago has realized it earlier than most cities."

It is an investment, Clark said, that has paid off in terms of attracting both visitors and residents.

In recent years, the Chicago area has experienced one of the nation's largest population increases, adding nearly 73,000 people between July 2007 and July 2008 to bring the population in the city and suburbs to 9.6 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Last month,, which publishes business forecasts, listed Chicago as one of the best places for young people, citing youth-friendly factors such as its large population of people under 35; the cost of living and rental rates; great nightlife and entertainment venues; and user-friendly transportation.

Those are things that young residents such as Weigel look at in choosing where to live. She enjoys the symphony and said she tries to get to at least a couple of musical events at Grant Park.

"I live near the Metra line so everything is easy to get to," said Weigel, who recently received her master's degree and is about to begin a new job as a campus minister. "That was not the driving reason behind my decision on where to live, but it contributed."

Dahleen Glanton, Tribune