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June 15, 2004

Chicago vs. New York

Dear Michael:

Your post about theater reminded me that I wanted to tell you about the impressions I've gathered about the differences between Chicago and New York since I moved here more than a year ago.

First, I told a friend of mine the other evening that the thing about New York is that the folks there remain obsessed with their work lives, for their entire lives. This is of course a gross generalization but the difference in work culture is palpable. Here, everyone knocks off at 6 pm, goes home, kicks off their shoes, and doesn't give the office a second thought as they drift off into family affairs or heavy drinking. In New York, it seemed to me, people would bodily leave the office but remained neurotically obsessed about the stuff they just did, the stuff that was pending, and what everyone else at work thought about the stuff they just did. I certainly felt that heavy air hanging about me when I was working in New York. This difference is compounded on the social scene: in New York, people really sum you up by the job you keep. In Chicago, others are curious, genuinely so, it seems to me, and not just for the sake of score keeping, in the "does she have a job that's better than mine" sense or the "what can this person can do for me now or in the future" sense. Am I horribly skewed because I worked in New York media? Perhaps. But life here, in that regard, is quite a relief.

Second, Chicago theater seems hidebound to me but I suppose you could see it as a good thing. You talked about Chicago's reputation for having "anti-glitz, anti-intellectual, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-into-it" theater, and, yes, it does. In spades. Almost, I sometimes think, to the point of parodic redundancy. The town has never shed its dependence on the Mamet-ian template for its theater art though there are interesting troupes around town doing fun stuff. The Hubster and I, for example, caught a show on Saturday called "The Rocket Man," which describes itself as being loosely based on a bunch of Ray Bradbury short stories, put on by an ensemble of twentysomethings called the House Theater of Chicago. It had a classic hokey sci-fi plot (boy is rocket jockey, boy meets girl in dreams, girl is Martian, boy gets girl, boy and girl burn up in the sun after system failure) and it was produced with hip ironic lo-fi stage effects (big plastic spheres for helmets, crazy straws as antennae on a Martian doctor, actors depict a rocket launch by running with a toy rocket overhead, 3D glasses). The thing that struck me was that the whole production's sense of hipster commentary (skewering homage to classic tropes) was very similar to stuff I've seen done in New York, specifically the Adobe Theater company's mid-career productions. But, the vibe was entirely different. Whereas Adobe/NY seemed to be clubbish and exclusive, the House/Chicago show was friendly and welcoming. Nothing specific I can report, just a feeling, really. Adobe shows were smart but cynical; the House stuff is smart too, but way more earnest. "Dare to love!" (That's my idea for the House's next tagline.)

Third, a little free association: New York, ruthless. Chicago, nuturing. New York, churn. Chicago, stasis. New York, great fucking restaurants. Chicago, restos that are not as good as everyone thinks they are. New York, stinky. Chicago, alleys for garbage. New York, bombastic. Chicago, modest. New York, defense mode. Chicago, eye contact and smiles. New York, pretentious. Chicago, serious. New York, a racetrack for ambition. Chicago, a place to settle down and play the long game. New York, pizza. Chicago, hot dogs. New York, Yankees. Chicago, Cubs. New York, Prada. Chicago, Marshall Field's. New York, subway. Chicago, SUV. New York, vodka. Chicago, beer. New York, the Atlantic. Chicago, Lake Michigan. New York, junior four. Chicago, 4BR, 4.5 BA, double-wide lot.

Love and kisses,

posted by Vanessa at June 15, 2004


Wow, that does seem to sum it up. Can't have it all no matter where you settle, I guess. The real-people life can get a litle dull and settled. The flashy neighborhood can wear you out. Interesting notes too about Chicago theater. Whenever I've seen Chicago productions that have been brought to NYC, I've always been struck by the way they're very un-hip (in a wised-up, NYC sense, anyway) but kind of raw, daring and super-energized anyway. New Yorkers can get pretty stunned by this. We're always surprised to discover that someplace else (especially if that someplace is in the midwest) might have a well-developed culture of its own to offer. We feel like whoa, we've discovered real primitive art or something. Since we're forever outsmarting ourselves and then patting ourselves on the back for doing so, we're really amazed when we run across something that's direct and earnest, and maybe even full of this myserious "life" thing. We seem to live in a hyper-conscious buzzy state and then race to the shrink to discuss how tragic it is that we're missing out on the Real Things in Life. And then it turns out that someplace like Chicago actually offers some of them, even takes some of them for granted. Damn!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 16, 2004 12:04 AM

You've nailed it. Stapled, mitred, caulked and laminated. I haven't spent that much time in Chicago so my impressions, as Michael B. pointed out, come mostly from the interface of Chitown shows and people coming east. When I quit acting every molecule in my body was pointing west. Unfortunately -- strike that -- mixedfortunately -- I fell in love with a uberGothamite. I only made it as far as Jersey City. There is a buzz, a hum to life here that is incredibly stimulating if you're pointed in the right direction. If not, it just seems twitchy and neurotic.

Posted by: Mike Hill on June 16, 2004 10:50 AM

This is going to come out a lot meaner than I want it to but my facility with the language is a little slow today...

I've found New Yorkers to really be remarkably provincial. The rest of the country knows NYC is the capital of the world. We're comfortable about that and reminded of it constantly. New Yorkers, though, are always in "defense mode" and seem terribly lost, to me, when not actually physically IN the City.

This is why, I theorize, New Yorkers always feel the need to compare every blessed thing to the way things are back in the boroughs.

And I really mean no offense at all.

Posted by: Karl on June 16, 2004 10:55 AM

>eye contact and smiles
What, Chicago, too? I thought this only applies to my mom and dad' suburbian Detroit "burg". When a few years back they visited me in Brooklyn (I lived in apartment then) mom asked me, how often people move in-out in my building. I said - pretty rear, it's a family neighborhood. "Can't be", says mom, "Nobody says hello and nobody smiles when I do. They all must be newcomers, not sure of themselves in new surroundings"...
>New York, vodka. Chicago, beer.
Oh, in my experience - vodka + beer, especially in neighborhoods with high Russian content. Usually in one glass, called "yOrsh" (very spikey small fish) - it hurts- looks like beer, bites like vodka.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 16, 2004 04:44 PM

I was just in NYC for the first time in a decade and was quite impressed with it. My feelings when I compared it to Chicago is that in Chicago there is a great deal of contrast. There's that midwestern mixture of huge buildings along with big spaces and smaller buildings and areas. In NYC everything was just big. There were no real small places anywhere. I was surprised by the amount of parks and trees in NYC. That caught me off guard.

The other big difference is energy and stress levels. I can almost smell the stress in NYC. That would get to me after a while. I am glad I am visiting now versus in the 70s and 80s. I am not sure if I'd last as long as I did.

As to the provincialism in NYC, I agree. I was talking with one of my contacts who has worked for the post office in NYC for 20 years and was telling him all the places I visited in NYC while I was there. Landmarks such as Pete's Tavern (longest running bar in NYC according to some) or McSorley's Tavern (oldest bar according to themselves) and he has never heard of them. He was from the Bronx and I assume that is the place he knows best.

As far as the food goes, NYC was amazing. Simply the best. Chicago is very good (I've had the best steak in my life there ever), but in NYC you can taste how much NYC cooks love to cook.

Great citites both. Would want to live in Chicago and visit NYC.

Posted by: KHH on June 17, 2004 10:08 AM

One of my favorite comebacks to the "second city" charge that I've read recently was some crusty Chicago newspaper person saying: "We don't give a fuck! We like it!"

Posted by: Vanessa on June 17, 2004 10:33 AM

You forgot the most annoying NY pretension of all: starting parties at least after 10 pm because people think they'll be considered squares if they don't (I personally won't open my door until after 11). That never happened while I lived in Chicago. Although I lived in Chicago in the early nineties and hung out with squares. Perhaps times have changed.

Another annoying pretension of NYers is how newly arrived New Yorkers are completely obsessed with the exact qualities of being a New Yorker and how they agressively pursue (and recount in tedious detail [do I really need to hear about the latest exotic sushi you ate and how it compared with the last completely ridiculous sushi you consumed?!!]) experiences as notches on their apparently very short New Yorker belt rather than for any natural desire to enjoy them. As they say, "That's sooooo NY." I've never heard anyone referred to as a Chicagoan (?) (Chicago-ite?) or say, That's soooo Chicago.

And just one more. Youths in NY aren't as well armed as Chicago teens. In Chicago every kid seems to be shooting off a semi-automatic weapon on the Fourth of July or New Years Eve. Kids get shot a lot more in Chicago than in NY. Chicago's youth gangs are much more sophisticated than in NY.

One similarity. New York has great swaths of toxic landscape in close proximity to the city (e.g., Fresh Kills and Newark) and Chicago does as well en route to Gary, Indiana and beyond!

Posted by: Wade on June 17, 2004 12:34 PM

I disagree with the comment about Chicago restaurants. I don't think there's any shortage of great restaurants here, and what's very important for me is the range of great *cheap* eats, which I have not seen paralleled elsewhere. And there are certain specific ethnic areas where Chicago is unmatched. Indian food, for instance (my favorite!)--the Indian-restaurant strip along Devon Ave. is the best I've ever encountered, better than anything in NY or (to my surprise) London.

Posted by: Woody on June 17, 2004 06:07 PM

My goodness, the circles you must run in!
Seriously, this sounds more like a comparison of
the well-to-do of Manhattan versus those of Chicago's downtown and the North Side.

While I understand this wasn't meant to be a rigorous comparison, I'll bet you could find a couple of steamfitters in Queens (hey is that even New York ?) who aren't shopping at Prada.
It's just that you probably won't find them at a party in Soho.

And I'll bet there are plenty on the West Side of Chicago looking to sign up for that SUV and 4.5 bath home.
Heck, I know I am!

Posted by: Hoagie on June 17, 2004 07:51 PM

You're right, Hoagie, but I'm just an observer to the circles you describe as a not-paid-for-shit journalist. I had the great fortune to live in a rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan and, here, I work downtown and consort with people who live in Lincoln Park. As for restaurants, I was thinking of the high-end tier. I would agree that Chicago has great vast stores of cheap eats but NY competes well there, too. (You really can't beat NY's Chinatown for its size, and there's great cheap Vietnamese, more accessible and varied than Argyle St. IMHO, and better Korean food in NY. The bagels and bialys, well, need I even mention those? I never found great Indian, Thai, or Mexican food in NY, though it probably had something to do with my Manhattan parochialism.) However, Chicago wins hands down when it comes to JUNK FOOD. I occassionally miss NY pizza by the slice (Coronet's, specifically, up by Columbia) but not often since I do adore the cut-into-squares thin crust from my neighborhood joint, Chicago-style hot dogs, and Italian beef.

Posted by: Vanessa on June 18, 2004 11:13 AM

And, while we're at it, can we agree that Chicago needs another tavern-and-grill-slash-sports-bar like I need a hole in the head?

Posted by: Vanessa on June 18, 2004 11:15 AM

Last time I went to Chicago I was excited to visit Wicker Park. I was told that it's the hip and artsy area--akin to New York's Williamsburg or Lower East Side. How disappointed I was! It's a dump. Bad indie record store. Tacky vintage junk shop. No style. Or a style stuck in some kind of early 90's neo-swinger type tatoos and wallet chain thing. Yuck.

Two pro-Chicago recommendations: Goose Island beer (and burgers!) and the nearby gigantic liquor/wine store Sam's.


Posted by: tim on June 18, 2004 08:01 PM

Wicker Park hasn't been hip & arty since some time in the 1990s. It's gotten too expensive for the artists, but doesn't yet have the affluence & amenities of the more upscale neighborhoods. I certainly wouldn't describe it as a dump but there are a lot better neighborhoods to live in. BTW, it does have a 1st-rate 2ndhand bookstore (the Myopic).

Posted by: Woody on June 19, 2004 04:10 PM

I am fascinated by the statistics on tall buildings offered on an indispensable (for architecture buffs) website called On this page,, that site's proprietors offer a statistical measure of "greatest skylines," measured on a point system based on high-rise floors per population--check the site for a more accurate description of their methodology. Anyway, the number one city in the world is Hong Kong, with 110,046 points. New York (measured as all five boroughs) is a distant second, with 35,181 points--though if only Manhattan were measured, I am sure it would vie with Hong Kong. Chicago, it turns out, is third of all the world's cities, with 15,069 points, edging out fourth-place Singapore.

An important thing, though, for people to remember about New York is that its oft-commented-upon bigness of scale is limited to one of the five boroughs. I, a transplant to NYC from Chicago, who after more than 20 years still pines for the "Second City," feel more at home in Brooklyn, where the 19th-century neighborhoods are among the most perfectly scaled urban neighborhoods on earth.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 20, 2004 02:10 PM

This is based on my limited experiences and perceptions of both cities. However, of the two, Chicago sems to be more genuine and real, and slightly rougher generally speaking. New York is both artificial and played out, trying to keep up with itself. The real New York is the outer burroughs, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, not Manhattan, which appeals only to the pretentious and self-important. New Yorkers, nay, Manhattanites delude themselves into thinking there is no place in the world worth even comparing to New York, probably to justify that they are paying $3,000+/month for a rat infested closet somewhere in the Village. Both cities have great restaurants, although New York restaurants are more expensive, not better. Chicago neighborhoods and projects are indeed rougher than anywhere in New York. Basically, you can have pretty much anything in Chicago that you can have in New York, art, theatre, restaurants, etc, but it will cost less and probably contain more personality and less artificiality. They are comparable in a point by point comparison, but Chicago feels more like someplace you could live in, and feel at home. Incidentally, I don't live in either.

Posted by: Christopher on June 20, 2004 11:10 PM

On the subject of theater, you may enjoy this article from the Guardian (London), proclaiming the supremacy of Chicago as a theater town:,11710,1244982,00.html

Posted by: Woody on June 22, 2004 11:16 PM

I live in Chicago and am glad you like it here so much. However, I was taken aback at the real estate comparison. In my experience, it's been more like "Chicago, two-flat, shotgun, street parking." Can I get a witness?

Posted by: Anne on June 24, 2004 07:53 PM

New York came of age in the early 20th century. Today Manhattan is a tightly packed island with large scale redevelopment difficult to achieve. The inferstructure is so well in place that it difficult to change what is there to adapt it to the future. Look at Manhattan's waterfront: highways line the shore and there is no room to add additional parkland short of additional land fill.

Chicago? It is coming of age as we speak. A city that always reinvented itself in innumerable ways, Chicago has spearheaded a "back to the city" movement unprecedented in any other American city. Quality high rise, town house, row house development is taking place in a city that, despite its size, still contains "breathing room" not found in Manhattan. People rushing to downtown Chgo and its environs north, south, and west find a vibrant, inviting, engergetic city.

A little like Goldilocks and the 3 bears (Chicago Bears?),Chicago's size is "just right". Unlike NYC and LA, it is not so big that you can't get anything accomplished because of lack of consensus. Unlike smaller cities, Chicago is in a position to mold its future and offer a phletoria of ammenities that few could match. Example: visit the block-buster Millennium Park on the downtown (Grant Pk) lakefront: $475 million worth of spectacular park that no other city could pull off.

New York is a totally fabulous if, at times, opressive city. NYC's fatal flaw: considering a mere 100 years ago, New York would hardly have been on list of what is "the world's greatest city". Today, there is no argument (particularly from New Yorkers who constatnly remind us of that role the city plays). So what is the fatal flaw: if NYC is truly predicated on being "the world's greatest city" and its crowding and ills of daily life only help enhance that image, what happens if the time comes (and it can) when NYC no longer is #1? Manhattan could not be Manhattan without that title; without it, how could you live with the crowding and the difficulies of daily life?

Posted by: esg on June 30, 2004 09:22 AM

..there's soo many differences between chicago and new york, but i can't name them all off. i moved to nyc from chicago and the one BIG BIG difference I immediately felt (even while visiting) was how the people of new york live each day to the fullest and do not have such big hang ups about race/ethnicity/sexuality/gender/age/etc... the list goes on, while in chicago the segregation puts a clouds on almost all aspects of social life. Granted, chicago has many ethnic/racial/gay/straight/old/young people who live their (almost as diverse as nyc), but people in chicago seem to be scared to talk to someone who is different than themselves, while in nyc no one cares. you can go to any park or square in the city and see a homeless person/yuppie/gay/old/raver/punk/etc. sitting within a few feet of each other. I NEVER ENCOUNTERED THAT IN CHICAGO!i've encountered much much much more ignorance in chicago.

-anyways, besides the smell of nyc i can never move back to chicago. I'm glad i grew up in the windy city cause i learned a lot and i still love to visit, but nyc is addicting, ambitious, passionate, integrated and beautiful, which makes me never want to leave.

Posted by: will on July 12, 2004 06:26 PM

I moved to Chicago from Brooklyn 15 months ago, and I think Vanessa is 100% on target about the differences between the two cities. I moved here in early 2003 for many reasons (wanting not to live in a city with a big bullseye painted on it, wanting to escape from a moribund urban planning career, needing a break from fair-weather friends). But the biggest draw for me about Chicago was something Vanessa pegs: Chicagoans smile.

An acquaintance once said to me, "Everyone in New York is aggressively ambivalent". They are--it's survival mode 101. You never say hello, please, thank you, excuse me, never smile, and sure as hell never respond back to any of those gestures made towards you. And, worse, you think everyone acts the same way in other big cities. It threw me of my feet when I visited here several times before I moved (mid-)west how it's the total opposite in Chicago. People of every background, in any location or situation, will acknowledge each other, smile, initiate small talk, and totally assume and expect that anyone they engage in this respect will respond back in kind.

And to any New Yorkers reading this, the miraculous thing is that, in Chicago, everyone does respond back. It's considered a normal, fundamental part of life. Whereas, in New York it's considered a quaint, lost, and unimportant social art from the 1950s. Every time I think about moving back to New York (and those times are rare), I see this social engagement occur, or it happens to me, and I am reminded why I came here. The culture is nurturing. Not because of some mindless midwestern commandment that smiling in public is next to Godliness, but because it's the right thing to do. You understand that once you live here.

In reference to another above poster, it's true, the real barometer of New York, and average New Yorkers, are found way uptown in Manhattan or in the other boroughs (which hold almost 7 million of the city's 8 million residents). Let's put it this way, I don't miss New York; I do miss Brooklyn where I lived for eight years. But Chicago reminds me of Brooklyn--bragging yet modest, crowded yet not overwhelming, and with a real sense of local pride and identity.

Finally, one thing Vanessa left out: the difference between New Yorkers and Chicagoans themselves. Chicagoans always call New Yorkers rude because of what they say in public. That's the biggest can of hypocrisy espoused on the shores of Lake Michigan. Here's the real difference: in a pinch, a fight, an altercation, or whatever type of public argument or situation you can mention, a Chicagoan and a New Yorker are thinking EXACTLY the same things. The only difference is that a New Yorker goes ahead and says what they're thinking to the person who they perceived did them wrong, and then lets it go. A Chicagoan, however, keeps temporarily silent while the situation is hapenning...but then goes and bitches about it to EVERYONE they know.

And they say New Yorkers are complainers ;-)

Posted by: Mike D. on July 13, 2004 03:03 AM


I do believe the old paradigm of Chicago being hung up on race and differences once rang true. I also believe that that has vastly changed today. As a native Chicagoan, I have seen a city virtually transform itself in innumerable ways in recent years. Chicago has gotten so (mercifully) past its racist, divisive past that it IS a different place now. Sure problems are still there now, but all cities have them. You can't tell me that NY and LA don't deal with the same type of issues (could anyone tell me LA doesn't deal with them). I've never seen anyone give a glance at the numerous black-white couples, walking together on our streets (or, to be fair, any combination of black, white, hispanic, Asian, etc. that we have in such numerous numbers today....the tremendous growth of hispanic and Asian Chicago has vastly disapated the old black-white divisons).

As for living life to the fullest in NYC, I do understand what you mean. But, then again, I believe that many Chicagoans do the same. Maybe even more so: Chicagoans go about living their life in a wonderful, friendly urban environment, filled with every type of cultural and entertainment ammenity without having to remind themselves (out loud, that is) that they live in "the world's greatest city". Seems to me that if you have to use the WGC term, you're not as secure as you think you are. NYC has turned urban angst into a badge of honor, that a city can't be that great without putting up with a lot of pain. They're wrong. It can. Look at Chicago. It truly is "the city that works".

I'm 58 years old and currently working on guided tours in Chicago. I'm in the city all the time. Yet I still find it incredibly exciting every time I'm in town.

Both cities are great, but I do believe Chicago's vibrancy is growing faster than NYC's. Come back in a year and it will look a lot different than today. Come back in ten years and you won't recognize it.

Posted by: esg on July 13, 2004 08:17 AM

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