My City in the Suburbs

Elgin recently announced a new slogan: we are now “The City in the Suburbs.” In a lot of ways, this meshes with my own perception of Elgin, if the slogan itself is a bit drab.

I have always loved Elgin because it is a very unique blend of urban (walkable, lots of amenities, plenty to see and do) and suburban (every kind of big box store you could want, good park district, dark enough for stars), with just a twist of rural (farmstands).

Over on BocaJump, Paul Challacombe writes about our Burbtown, noting, “if your kid grows up, illiterate, unhealthy and bereft of culture, it should not be blamed on the city we live in.”

I’ve lived in areas on both ends of the spectrum. I grew up in a cornfield subdivision halfway between Crystal Lake and McHenry, where we were marooned seven miles from civilization, which I often bemoaned, especially without a car. My freshman year of high school, my family lived in Budapest, Hungary, where most people didn’t have cars, so an extensive public transit system whisked you around town. (Returning to the cornfields at 15, and remaining through the rest of high school, was especially difficult after a year of relatively free movement.) Then I spent 7 years in Chicago without a car, where I rode the CTA and walked anywhere I needed to go.

I didn’t know all that much about Elgin when I moved here, but I knew it appeared to hit that balance. I could have my walkability – to the train, the library, the grocery, entertainment and restaurants – and at the same time, a car puts me in easy range of anything else I could possibly need, though a tank of gas typically lasts 3-4 weeks. Heck, I can walk to the Symphony or bike to concerts in Wing Park – I couldn’t do that in Chicago!

A city with 100,000+ people is large enough to support the symphony, a great library system and lots of events. Our sheer size – and historic homes – helps set us apart from all those other suburbs. I’d rather live in a place with a huge variety of houses than another cookie-cutter subdivision. In my neighborhood alone, we have homes dating all the way back to the 1860s, with most built between 1890 and 1940, ranging from Victorians, Queen Annes, 4-squares, bungalows, Sears Kit homes, and even a few 40s ranches.

So while I’m not thrilled that consultants were paid a lot of money to develop a relatively mundane slogan, I think they got it right. We really are the city amongst all the northwest suburbs. While Schaumburg and Naperville may be larger as far as populations, they’re really less cities and more loosely strung together subdivisions, connected by overly congested arterial roads lined with strip malls. Sure, Elgin has that on Randall Road, but the majority of our city is concentrated elsewhere, in areas where sidewalks link homes with schools, parks, small businesses and other amenities.

What’s your impression? If you’re a native (or recent) Elginite, do you agree with the “City in the Suburbs” moniker? If you don’t live here, does it fit your conception of what Elgin is (or isn’t)?

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6 responses to “My City in the Suburbs

  1. I like your blog! It looks like we have similar feelings about Elgin and why we moved here. It’s nice to see a positive forum!

    Anna Moeller

  2. Thanks, Anna! Glad you found the blog.

  3. I’ve only been to Elgin a few times and was not aware that there was a symphony. In fact, I am ashamed to say this, but I’ve stayed away from Elgin for the most part because everyone I’ve ever known has only said bad things about it. They tell me not to drive down certain streets and make it seem like it is a seedy place that a girl should not be driving around at by herself and the few times I’ve mentioned going there I get raised eyebrows and a “Why?”. A few co-workers that I have that live there are not very enthusiastic about the place. I’ve been to the downtown twice and it seemed lovely enough with sculptures & fountains, and we sometimes frequent the Habitat ReStore a little North. You should create a comprehensive list of the “must see” places in Elgin that does not include Randall Road. It seems most people cling the newness of Randall and see it as the safe outskirt of Elgin, avoiding the downtown all together. I’d like to know more about it, where to go, what to do, but usually I end up just driving around lost and probably missing out on a lot.

    100,000, wow! My town only has 15,000!

    • Yeah, Elgin suffers from an image problem. In many people’s eyes, it’s still saddled with the problems it faced 15-20 years ago. (Some long term residents seem to embrace this image, almost as a badge of honor or martyrdom, and don’t see any of the new improvements.) I got quite a few raised eyebrows when I chose to move here, but as I show people how it’s changed, they’re impressed. The downtown is fabulous, with all kinds of festivals and events, art fairs, wine tastings, live music, etc, and it gets better every year. (http://downtownelgin.com/). Crime is down 67% in the last ten years, and our crime rate is now lower than Schaumburg’s. Yes, there are blocks that aren’t so nice, but that’s true in any city of this size.

      I think that’s, in part, why I created the “Elginista” moniker – to dispel some of those old notions of what Elgin is (and isn’t).

      I love your idea, Beth – sounds like a great project! Elgin is so much more than Randall Road (which is my mind, epitomizes everything that’s wrong with suburbia) and the casino. Places like the local deli and pubs. Our Downtown Association just banded together to save the shop of an old Elgin business when its owner fell ill (http://triblocal.com/elgin/2010/11/09/shop-owner-gets-help-from-her-friends/). You don’t get that in big cities or many of the “bedroom” suburbs.

      I’d love to show you some of the best of Elgin!

  4. Love your blog, Crysta. Just read several posts and am now a subscriber. We (my husband and I) moved to Elgin because it looked like our beloved Oak Park, except that we could afford a house here and only a tiny condo there. The crime rate is much lower than when we first moved in 1993, something we should be crowing about. We loved the diversity, And the big trees. And the houses with character. All these years later, I still love this town.

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