Finding your Best Places: All It Takes Is a Little Fairy Magic

Reflections from a year into my new best place

By Matt Carmichael on June 2, 2015 at 3:17 pm CDT
Oak Park soccer practice

“Do you have any glitter I can borrow?” It’s not a text message I ever thought I would send. Let alone at 9:30 at night.

Sure, I’d seen those quaint '50s TV shows where the neighbors run over to borrow a cup of sugar. It takes a village to bake a pie, it seems. I wasn’t baking. I was having a tooth-fairy-related emergency that would take some glitter to solve, and I was fresh out.

Thankfully, I now live in a village, and by 9:35 p.m., my neighbors hooked me up with some vials of the sparkly stuff. No, this isn’t a metaphor. I really needed glitter.

You know that part on those HGTV/DIY house-buying shows where the host comes back when the project is done to see how it all turned out? Friends are invited over to gather around the huge island in the kitchen, eat hor d'oeuvres prepared on stainless-steel appliances beneath granite counter tops and show how this new home in this new neighborhood has made their lives perfect.

If this is the moment in the show where you finally lose it and hate these people, you should stop reading this post now. Because I like you, dear reader, and I don’t want to have you throw your shoe at me or the screen you’re reading this on.

A year ago my family packed up from Chicago and moved one suburb to the left. We’d outgrown our home and essentially outgrown city living. It happens. Our story is far from unique. I blogged about it at the time and felt that one year in was a good time to circle back, invite you over for a BBQ and let you know how it’s all turned out.

As you can guess from the intro, it’s turned out pretty darn well, thank you very much. We had certain criteria in choosing our new best place. This list will sound familiar to parents of young kids in 2015: Solid schools, kids to play with, parks and recreation, low crime rate, simple commutes, a house that was big enough for our family and still affordable. We also wanted a little more cultural diversity than the city (Chicago is wildly segregated) offered and a suburb with its own identity as something more than a sprawling mass of mall-du-sacs.

We choose Oak Park. Now that we’ve been here a year and most of the boxes are unpacked, I think we have some perspective on how it turned out. The schools are great, not just by our opinion. Great Schools gives each of the elementary schools a rating of 8 or above providing a high level of both quality and consistency. I enjoy walking my kids to school, and I enjoy that I don’t have to if the weather is awful and I’d rather drive. It’s a quick trip and on the way to the subway or the highway if I’m headed downtown.

That’s a pretty key factor right there. Oak Park is one of the few suburbs served by Chicago’s subway system – and it is even served by two different lines. A highway literally cuts through Oak Park, which is a downside but convenient for driving. The commuter rail makes several stops as well.

The park district has kept us busy year round with soccer, archery, tae kwon do, a leprechaun trap-making class, two fantastic pools, skating and, of course, playground after playground – all within a quick walk. We walk to the nearby grocery for quick pick-ups and to a couple of neighborhood bars. The kids love the no-frills ice cream store around the corner, aptly named The Hole in the Wall. Soon one of the city’s favorite food trucks will be parking full time and opening a physical restaurant backed in part by a crowd-funded campaign in the community.

But I think the real pay-off of this move comes at the end of the day. There’s just something so quintessentially wonderful about turning the corner on your way home to see all of the block’s children out on the sidewalks playing together. In just the past year, we’ve added to the 30-some-odd block with new movers and births, and seven more kids will be added before the year is over (due to immigration and fertility).

We’ve seen them egg each other on and inspire each other to take the training wheels off, learn a new jump rope song, and practice tee-ball and soccer. And the adults cover for each other at pick-up and drop-off. They share stories and kid-watching duties and yes, glitter too. We spend time together and not just at the block parties. It’s small-town living, but right next to the third largest city in the U.S., with all of the awesomeness that Chicago has to offer.

The big question is what has this move taught me about “livability?” It’s great to write about from a philosophical perspective, but another thing entirely to live it and put it in practice.

It’s taught me that you have to think a lot about the life you want and then find a place that fits it. We started our search with suburbs we’d heard of and a variety of home-shopping apps and sites looking for the perfect home. As we drove through those areas, we quickly found that they required compromises we weren’t willing to make. So we reverse engineered and realized that the reverse was how we should have started.

How important were schools? How much time did we want to spend commuting vs. spending with our family in our new home? How much time did we want to spend caring for a yard? How much did we want to walk and have places to walk to? How much did it matter if we could grab burgers for the grill around the corner, or if we had to drive to a market? How important was it to be near an airport or a highway or a subway?

Here at Livability, we’re working on some great new tools related to this questioning/answering and have some research coming out next week about how others have answered. In the meantime, visit our city pages or our lists of Best Places to Live and Best Small Towns for inspiration. You can never anticipate all the questions you might ask (like, how important is it that my neighbors have craft supplies I can borrow in the middle of the night?)? But if you get the questions right, it will help you find the right answers that can lead you to the right place.

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