The American Dream and how Chicago magazine determined “Chicago’s Best Places to Live”

Chicago has a new list of the best places to live that includes 12 Chicago neighborhoods and 12 Chicago suburbs. Here are the factors the magazine used to identify these communities

First we looked at the factor that tends to be uppermost in the minds of families these days: safety. We eliminated from contention all community areas that notched violent crime rates higher than 7.0 offenses per 1,000 inhabitants last year (the city average: 9.3 per 1,000). That meant tossing out the Loop (9.9 per 1,000) and the historic South Side neighborhood of Pullman (11.2 per 1,000), for example. And we eliminated suburbs with violent crime rates above their county’s average—which removed from contention such otherwise appealing places as Evanston (2.2 per 1,000) and Oak Park (2.7 per 1,000), both in Cook County (2.1 per 1,000).

Then we turned to education. If a town or community lacks a public school whose students score above average on standardized tests, we dinged it. And because raising kids in an area that’s at least somewhat diverse is a goal of most parents, we nixed spots where more than 92 percent of residents are of any one race. (Bye-bye, Kenilworth, Western Springs, and Winnetka.)

For the places that remained, we looked at ease of transportation downtown, giving extra points to those that have several el stops and at least one Metra stop. (Places with outstanding schools and low rates of property crime also got bonus points.) And we considered how home prices in these places have fared in recent years compared with prices in neighboring areas, as well as whether buyers there can get good value for their money—which is not the same thing as paying the smallest amount. (For detailed price charts covering all Chicago suburbs and neighborhoods with at least 20 home sales in 2013, see this page with all the housing data.)

Finally, I hit the pavement to assess which spots possess those hard-to-define qualities that matter hugely when you’re looking for somewhere to live. Things like vibrancy (are there lots of bustling restaurants and shops?). Beauty (are there architecturally interesting buildings or just cookie-cutter developments?). Friendliness (does the community have a natural center that brings people together?). Is it, quite simply, a great place to call home?

So it boils down to safety, good schools, good transportation, higher than average housing values, and quality of life. Such measures are not uncommon on Best Places to Live lists.

However, it struck me upon reading this list that these traits tend to match a particular vision of a good community. If I may put it this way, it is a middle to upper-class ideal where kids are safe and nurtured and communities are protected from the difficulties of the world. It roughly matches the American Dream where people can live in small-town type places (even though most Americans do not live in such areas, they harbor the ideal of living in a tight-knit community – even if they may not want to contribute much to it) in relative comfort.

Just to take the two examples from DuPage County, Wheaton and Hinsdale, these communities partly derive their ranking from protecting this particular vision over the decades. Not everyone can move into these communities; it requires a certain amount of money as the affordable housing the communities discuss has much more to do with allowing senior citizens and recent college graduates to have somewhere to live rather than truly addressing low-income residents.

Maybe this methodology does reflect what many Americans want. The suburbs on the list are nice and the Chicago neighborhoods, while having more diversity, tend to be the more sought-after ones. At the same time, such lists could reinforce the notion that protected and wealthy places are the best ones, the ones we should all aspire to live.

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