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.

From star to persona non grata

The Tiger Woods saga is a reminder that fame and success can be fleeting: one can go from the toast of the world to a pariah pretty quickly.

Chicago’s version of this may be the tale of Sammy Sosa. Sosa’s story is remarkable: he grew up very poor, came to town as a skinny White Sox outfielder, was traded to the Cubs and became a prodigious home run hitter, and then quickly disappeared and according to one commentator “now is persona non grata in the entire city.”

As a profile in Chicago Magazine suggests, Sosa helped run himself out of town:

Sosa’s transformation from Chicago icon to pariah has a lot to do with the controversies that tarnished his image: his use of a corked bat in 2003; his walkout during the last game of the 2004 season; and his years of self-indulgent behavior, which exasperated teammates and management. Any discussion of Sosa’s perceived failings must also, of course, include the elephant in the locker room: the suspicion that steroids helped fuel his career total of 609 home runs, the sixth highest in major-league history.

In retrospect, some of these issues seem easy to spot – even the most ardent Cubs fan today can see some of the troubles Sosa brought. His part in the lingering steroids scandal, which will take years to sort out as voters consider more players for the Hall of Fame, is damaging.

Yet, at the same time, when times were good with Sammy, they were good:

For years he and the organization had formed a spectacularly successful theatrical partnership, staging the Sammy Show at sun-drenched, beer-sozzled Wrigley Field. If the production resembled home run derby more than actual baseball, that was OK—the show was a smash, and the team was happy to count the box office receipts that poured in.

The magnetic Sosa seemed born to play the role of Slammin’ Sammy, and the Cubs’ marketing muscle helped spread the image of a carefree and cuddly hero who hopped when he hit home runs, tapped his heart to show his love for his adoring fans, and blew kisses to the TV cameras. If the truth was more complicated—if the star could be a maddeningly self-absorbed diva offstage—that was OK as long as the baseballs kept flying out of Wrigley Field. And if he sprouted muscles like Popeye after an epic spinach bender, apparently that was OK, too, provided that the turnstiles at Wrigley Field kept spinning.

As the profile notes, even as the Cubs languished during some years, Sosa was the baseball show for numerous summers.

So now Sosa languishes in some odd celebrity limbo like Woods: once revered, they both have shown a more frail human side, and have not yet recovered. I think both of them could regain some measure of standing: Woods by winning again and Sosa perhaps coming clean about steroids or offering apologies to his teammates. But they may never again reach the peaks of fame they once knew. While we haven’t heard Woods comment on how this feels to him, it sounds like Sosa is still struggling with this lesser status.