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Chicagoland An Overview

The greater Chicago area, "Chicagoland", shares much in common with other major metropolitan areas but also has a great number of features unique to its location, built environment, and history. The city evolved with a focal point of trade at its center and progressive rings of commerce, industry, residential and agricultural areas moving outward. This pattern, along with the eastern boundary at Lake Michigan, funneled the metropolitan area into a shape somewhat like a baseball field or a half-moon that angles inward. The city itself showcases phenomenal architecture and world-class museums, mainly in its downtown Loop area. Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, as well as Lincoln Park with its well-known zoo, also represent major attractions for the city. The suburban areas have a great deal to offer, some of which gets frequently overlooked. Evanston and the North Shore highlights are well-heralded, as is Oak Park's world-known architecture and the fauna and flaura of Brookfield Zoo and the Morton Arboretum, respectively. Less celebrated but well-worth a visit are the historical and commercial landmarks of the Northwest Suburbs, and the picturesque Americana of the South Suburbs. Great natural areas and charming smaller cities line Chicagoland's frontier, and beyond these other cultural centers in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana abound.


City of Chicago

The city boundaries of Chicago contain many tens of communities, some with a polished urban character, others with industrial grit or suburban charm. Only in recent decades has the conglomeration gained a cohesion somewhat akin to other concentrated metropolises, although a description of the city as a "sprawling plexus of industrial towns, local shopping districts, crowded tenement neighborhoods, [and] green and spacious settlements" from a 1939 guidebook seems well-recognizable some sixty-five years later.

The focused center of Chicago and many of its tourist attractions lie naturally in the downtown area, concentrated in the Loop but spilling quite a ways over into the Near North and Near South sides of the city and with scattered sites in Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, and the Far North as well. Chicago west of the lake becomes largely a local's world of ethnic neighborhoods, industrial corridors, gleaming churches, lovely parklands and suburban-like residential enclaves.

Northern Suburbs

The area north of the city along the lakeshore hosts Chicago's most affluent suburbs, foremost among them the elite set of less than ten to which the term "North Shore" collectively applies. Immediately to Chicago's north lie the suburbs of Evanston, home to Northwestern University, Skokie, known for a sculpture garden and for its celebration of heritage, as well as Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, and Niles, primarily residential suburbs..

Further north, the heart of the North Shore area includes Wilmette, where the stunning Baha'i Temple stands, Kenilworth, famous for its stately homes, Winnetka, a village of lovely homes and churches, Glencoe, with its celebrated Chicago Botanic Garden, and Highland Park, home to the Ravinia Music Festival. West of the lakeshore, other suburbs, some of which also are sometimes included under the "North Shore" umbrella, have transformed themselves rapidly from sleepy agrarian communities to affluent residential areas comparable to their lake-front couterparts.

Far to the north, Lake Forest hosts a college of the same name and is home to sprawling estates built from the late 1800s to the roaring 1920s. Nearby Highwood once hosted military Fort Sheridan, but has gone residential.

Northwest Suburbs

The Northwest Suburbs of the Chicago Area cover an enormous area of land, spanning from just west of Waukegan, to just south and southeast of the Chain o'Lakes Region, to east of McHenry and Crystal Lake, to just north and east of Elgin, finally to the area right around O'Hare and the "island" of Norridge / Harwood Heights surrounded by the city of Chicago. Along the way they include many significantly different areas; the near northwest suburbs like Park Ridge appear similar in respects to neighboring Chicago neighborhoods, but moving north a ways to places like Libertyville and Des Plaines they gain a small-town Americana feel, where as further west in cities like Schaumburg and Arlington Heights one finds the archetypal 20th-Century suburban landscape of tract housing and indoor and outdoor malls. Farther out, the Northwest suburbs start to mingle with the agricultural and recreational countryside. In Central Lake County, especially the Round Lake area, the villages have much in common geographically with the nearby Chain o'Lakes, but are more culturally diverse and have in recent decades seen an influx of Hispanic culture. Barrington Hills, in the Far Northwest suburbs farther south, is reputed to have the largest land area of any village in the U.S., but its low population density reflects the sense of open prairie of rural Illionois, and it boasts several small, very affluent communities within its borders.

Western Suburbs

The Western Suburbs offer great variety, but also share a common character: gracious, attractive, affluent, and with the down-to-earth charm of many of these communities' agrarian and industrial roots. The Near West Suburbs have a history closely tied to Chicago's, but proudly independent of it. Oak Park and River Forest have venerable architectural and literary heritages. Cicero and Berwyn are known for politics and ethnic character. Riverside was one of Chicago's first planned suburbs and the first to adopt a then-revolutionary meandering street plan. Brookfield hosts Chicagoland's world-famous zoo. Farther West, the Aurora commuter corridor offers pleasant residential suburbs such as Hinsdale, while the Geneva corridor is more industrial with shipping hubs like Berkeley. In the Far West and in the Fox River Valley, lovely villages full of history charm visitors.

South Suburbs

The South Suburbs are generally newer than their Northern and Western counterparts, and some are only now coming into their prime. A handful, however, such as Chicago Heights, Crete, Matteson, and Orland Park, like neighboring villages in the Joliet area, have vintages which stretch back to the mid-1800s and architecture preserved from that time. Some of the near south suburbs bordering Chicago's far-southside neighborhoods, on the other hand, such as Riverdale and Calumet Park, seem in some peril of being subsumed by the sprawl of urban decline that that region has found hard to reverse, although they simultaneously offer a somewhat safer haven for those trying to escape it.

The more affluent, newly developed South Suburbs southwest of the city, like Oak Lawn, now offer shining new downtown facilities within very efficient commuting distance to downtown Chicago. The older communities farther out, though, such as Tinley Park, are nestled among forest preserves and recreational opportunities, as well as steeped in the Americana charm -- and peculiar uniqueness -- for which the South Suburbs are famous. These primarily residential centers offer cultural, recreational, and historical points of interest for locals and visitors alike, and good values for residents.

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