Judging neighborhoods (and myself)

(Hilary Higgins / )
April 29, 2014|By Ryan Smith | For RedEye

It was to be my small, lofted Shangri-La. My Fortress of Urban Solitude. After weeks of scouring the hellish depths of Craigslist's real estate section and nearly every apartment-hunting website known to man, I'd finally unearthed my dream bachelor pad. I felt like Gollum from "Lord of the Rings" with a hankering for weathered hardwood floors and spiral staircases instead of magical rings.

My first instinct was to sign the lease as quickly as I could click a ballpoint pen, but then came a nagging voice in the back of my head. "What would people think if I moved to Pilsen from Old Irving Park?" it whispered. "Would I be perceived as trying too hard to be cool or edgy if I suddenly fled to the so-called arts district?" I suddenly wondered if I should pick a neighborhood that better fit my self-perception. Would Uptown be better for my personal brand?

It might sound ridiculous to put so much stock in the name of a prospective neighborhood. But this is Chicago, where judging people simply based on which of the 200-ish neighborhoods they choose to reside in secretly is everyone's favorite pastime. It's one of the first topics when you meet someone, whether it's on the CTA, chatting at a bar or Tinder -- "Hey, what neighborhood do you live in?" Many of us then dig into our deep grab bag of generalities and apply them liberally.

Oh, you live in Wrigleyville? Probably a huge dudebro or just moved from out of state. Many instantly equate Logan Square with hipsters. Wicker Park? Dudebros who've grown up a little bit and grew a beard. Old Town? Rich people who drive BMWs. Hyde Park? Nerdy academics.

There's even a cottage industry of websites that poke fun of -- yet also reinforce -- these stereotypes. The latest making the rounds on social media, Judgmental Maps, slaps an unflattering new label on each area in the city. For example: Yogas and Togas for Lincoln Park and NPR's Target Demographic for Ravenswood.

Some of these neighborhood cliches have nuggets of truth -- yep, there are an awful lot of ladies in yoga pants who push tank-like strollers in Lincoln Square, and Boystown is indeed pretty gay -- but in the end, they can be vast oversimplifications. We know that people naturally tend to flock to places where they feel comfortable and sometimes that includes self-segregating into neighborhoods with shared demographics or social signifiers. But there are a lot of factors that play into moving: price, easy access to work/school, public transportation and closeness to friends. Or maybe, like me, you found a bitchin' apartment with a roof deck.

So after much contemplation, I decided to check my reservations at the door and made the trek to Pilsen. I love it so far. Yes, the tacos are good and the ironic mustaches are plentiful, but there's way more here than meets the jaded eye.

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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