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2005-05-09 - 5:14 p.m.

Housing trauma

I'm a renter. I've never been good with money. Or math. Or adding, percentages, bills, etc. We're getting VERY close to entering the home-buying market, and it terrifies me. My husband is great with math, negotiating, and so on, but he's not obsessively planning things so that the very second he gets a job offer we can immediately buy the perfect house. And the reason he's not doing that? Because it's not possible. But in my brain, it is. And I want a house SO MUCH -- that I can care for like it's my own, not have to call the landlord every time the heat goes out, make a little garden without feeling like I'm going to be uprooted in only a year, get a playmate for my dog.

I also have some geography issues. I was a geography major in college, which is not the cause -- it was a symptom of my larger obsession. When I was 8, I visited my Aunt in Alaska with the rest of my family. We drove from Michigan to Southeast Alaska in a motorhome. I fell in love with a place for the first time and have continued an odd cycle of falling desperately in love with places -- but not necessarily in a logical way. I love my hometown, the lake I grew up on, I have a ranking of which Great Lakes I love most (If you're curious, it goes from most to least loved: Michigan, Superior, Huron, Ontario, Erie), I love Chicago (I know, you're all surprised). I have rational and irrational reasons for everyplace I feel strongly about.

In high school, I went through a phase in which I made fun of people living in square states -- I defined it as any state without at least one naturally defined boundary. Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming are good examples. When I eventually ended up living in a square state (Colorado) for two years, I had forgotten about my earlier attitude. But I soon discovered that as much as I can love a certain place, I can hate another place with just as much fervor. I also have some reasons for why my two years in Colorado were filled with my complaining and scheming how to get out, but mainly I was miserable, babyish, and whiny. I'm surprised I have any friends left. My husband felt similarly, but not as strongly. Or perhaps he's just better at keeping his mouth shut when he's unhappy. So many people we met were horrified that we didn't like Colorado. It's a dream state! Everyone moves there! Outdoors! Fresh air! Except for me. And him.

I have opinions (what? I have opinions? Who knew?) about city vs. suburbs issues as well. And as I'm sure you've guessed if you've ever read this site before, I'm a city girl. I grew up in a tiny town far from anywhere big, but I've formulated the opinion that the city (Chicago, at least -- I can't speak for other ones) is far more conducive to the small town attitude/upbringing than are the suburbs. I leave my door and car unlocked far less now, but the community togetherness is prevalent in any cohesive city neighborhood. People down the street from me were asking me if I had found a new job yet every time I walked home from my car when I worked at my old, horrible job. We have some neighbors that get on our nerves, but you learn to live with people instead of around people. You're all together in this, so you might as well make it work. That's a completely different attitude than I've ever found in suburbs. There it's more of an individualistic, car-centric, I-want-what's-best-for-myself-and-screw-everyone-else attitude.

Disclaimer: Most of the people I know really don't feel like this. They're there because it's what they're used to. Or the schools tend to be better (though that seems to be questionable lately). Or housing is cheaper once you get really far from the city. Taxes are less. But, I spent enough time in the northwest ritzy suburbs working a service industry (retail) to realize that the stereotypical attitudes really are there quite often. The city isn't perfect. Me and my Urban Studies minor can go on about that for a LONG time, but it fits me.

When I fall in love with a place, it turns into an extremely important part of my life. In my world, my family, friends, and church are VERY CLOSELY followed by my location.

This is the main reason that I've become so obsessive about the home-buying situation. I've managed to accept some compromises. We probably won't be able to stay in Bridgeport because the prices are just skyrocketing. And even with my location-focused nature, I won't make irrevocably stupid choices based on emotion. (usually.) We're resigned to moving to Garfield Ridge (the neighborhood around Midway Airport), which has tons of pluses and a few minuses. Pluses: cheap housing prices (comparatively), safe neighborhood, all homes are noise-proofed (paid for by the City), quite a lot of extended family nearby. Minuses: similar (not-so-unique) housing stock, longer commute (30 minute el ride on top of however long it takes us to get to the Midway stop on the el. It will probably involve buses, which add quite a bit more time), fairly generic/not-so-personable neighborhood, extended family living VERY nearby.*

We did, however, just find what could be the perfect compromise. My husband had a craving on Sunday for a sandwich from the Sub Port in Gage Park. He grew up in Gage Park until he was 10 years old, when the area was becoming the territory of the Two Sixers (a Latin gang in Chicago). The area's not great, but we'll run down there sometimes (during the day, generally) to eat at this place on 51st and California. We wandered down Archer Ave., got us some (damn good) pastrami, and headed back along Western. We were around the McKinley Park neighborhood and I then noticed a huge empty lot with a "Coming Soon: Home Depot" sign on the fence. Now, I'm not normally a huge proponent of the chain big-box stores. But in an area that has had its fair share of disinvestment and falling property values, that's a pretty major sign of reinvestment and an up-and-coming neighborhood. We started talking about McKinley Park, and how it's probably about where Bridgeport was 5 years ago with its property values. And how we wouldn't really mind being one of the early-movers into an upcoming neighborhood. And how we should really looking into the crime and housing price data.

What did I find? McKinley Park had fewer crimes than Bridgeport over a few two week intervals recently (according to the EXTREMELY fascinating Citizen ICAM by the Chicago Police Department). It has fewer registered sex offenders. The housing prices are a little higher than I had thought, but still far below Bridgeport's. And the median housing prices have gone up around $40,000 since 2001.

I love Bridgeport, but it's just seems like this change of heart makes so much sense. And I like to make decisions like these FAST and my husband likes to make them very deliberately. It makes us a good team, but it also sometimes means that we both end up frustrated. We can't do anything until at least this winter, so I just need to settle the heck down. But the way housing prices act in Chicago, I have this vision of us having to choose between renting for the rest of our lives or living out in freaking Aurora. (What? Me? Overreact?)

*I need to say that I adore my husband's family. They're wonderful and polite and kind and I have nothing to complain about. That being said, I also see a lot of benefit in being just a few minutes away. Perhaps fifteen minutes instead of three. This is probably the main difference between me and truly native south siders -- I'm a bit more reserved and more focused on my little nuclear family. My privacy is important enough for me to worry about silly things like this. But it's something I think about.

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