How Chicago Changed Me – And How What I’ve Learned Can Help You

Do you ever think how a place changes you over time? February 28th marked the 18th anniversary of my arrival in Chicago, and I find myself reflecting how this city has changed me, good or bad. Take a look at a few specific areas and let my growing pains help you avoid mistakes 😉


1. Ketchup!

If you don’t yet know and don’t want to be ridiculed when ordering your hot dog, Chicagoans frown at ketchup. When I say “frown”, I mean it! You may receive a frown face in ketchup or a glare from everyone behind the counter. Now, I’m from Ohio, college at Bowling Green State, surrounded by Red Gold tomato farms (used mostly to make ketchup or catsup). I’ve always been a ketchup person, but I’ve successfully changed my palette to eat foods without.

I dare you to ask for ketchup. Go ahead…when I’m not with you.

2. Mustard.

Hated the stuff. Well, if I wanted to be acceptable in public, I needed to learn to like this yellow condiment. I’ve been successful at it and now blend in with the locals (in public, anyway – except I still don’t get the sport peppers). Between you and me, I still add ketchup AND mustard in private. Shhh!

3. National chain restaurants.

This is a big one and what separates the locals from everyone else. It’s where Chicago has spoiled me (or ruined me?).

This city’s a culinary mecca! Why would you visit here and eat at Chili’s? (Sorry, Chili’s, you’re a good option in the suburbs!) Don’t get me wrong, Chicago has its own chains and I do enjoy them and take clients to try them; but in my early Chicago days, I was advised not to be afraid to try the “greasy spoons” (a term possibly unfamiliar to you in other countries) and the “neighborhood joints”. Truth is, some of these hole-in-the-wall places have outstanding eats!

The other bonus to steering clear of national chain restaurants: Cuisine from around the world. I’m not talking going to Chipotle for Mexican or Roti for Mediterranean. I’m talking mom cooking her recipes and first generation son turned it into a restaurant.

So now I’m addicted to the local eateries and can’t go back to cookie cutter menus and knowing that Panera in Chicagoland will pretty much be the same as Panera in Florida (Nothing personal, Panera). Visiting other cities has become difficult at meal time, I’m not going to lie. I feel the same about apartments, with Chicago’s unique uses of space, but that’s another topic. I admit, I’m saddened seeing more and more national chains opening downtown or into the city limits (which is a BIG deal and sometimes involves petitioning city government).

Do me a favor. When you visit Chicago, try a restaurant you don’t have at home or in other cities. If you’re here to get a bit of the Chicago culture, why not include the food!


1. Distance x 3.

What does that mean? When planning to go somewhere, do you check the distance? So did I. Until I began noticing people explaining the commute in terms of commute time. Rarely will you hear someone say they drive 18 miles to work, rather they drive 50 minutes. With public transportation, you’re more likely to also hear the length of time or ‘a bus and a train’.

It’s a mental shift, not only in verbiage but in determining if you or some activity is worth the commute. Even I’ll confess to doing this over the years as my life (my “world”) as become more centralized. I find I learn to rely more on my local neighborhoods rather than driving or commuting an hour away.

2. Parallel parking.

Remember when you were learning to drive and possibly had to take a test to obtain your Driver’s License? There was this section devoted to parallel parking. Seem vaguely familiar? Have you ever used this skill? Until living in Chicago, me neither, but it has definitely honed my parallel parking skills.

If you plan to drive in Chicago, best dust off your skills. If it takes you 3+ tries, you’ve failed. (A joke!…if you ignore snickers from the passersby)

3. Transportation.

Never had I dreamed I’d ever give up my car, my “baby”! I admit, I miss having my “space”, listening to music…maybe singing along, or the control of going somewhere in a timely manner. My assessment: Unless living in a densely populated neighborhood with markets and shop NYC- or European-style, don’t do it!

Public transit. The opposite of having my “space” or singing along to music (unless it’s the guy’s playing on speaker in the back), but it gets me around and gives me a chance to read or see the city…or people watch. This would be the birth of my popular “Thoughts From The Bus” series. So many people from different neighborhoods, cultures, languages, smells…

Many who visit may find public transit intimidating or fearful. While I guarantee you’ll see things you aren’t used to, I wouldn’t dismiss it. If nothing else, there are great photo opportunities! I recommend trying to bus, the ‘L’, even the water taxi (an awesome way to see the river-lined architecture!)

4. Getting From Here To There.

While on the topic of getting around, let me help you get around Chicago easily. I’m usually fairly good with directions but Chicago makes it SO easy, even for the direction-challenged, and I love it! Why? Thanks to the historic division of lands in the U.S., Chicago was laid out as a grid system. Now, it’s had its flaws over time, with growth and expansion, multiple streets with same names, renumbering, etc. But, if you learn the grid system, you can become a directional genius!

To get around, remember one intersection: State Street and Madison Street = 0 N/S and 0 E/W.

What hundred block is your destination in what direction? 600 N? Easy. Approximately, six blocks (give or take) north of Madison.The size of blocks vary depending on where you are, but it certainly gives you a guide to get you where you need to go!

Helpful tip: The Lake is always East (We’ll use this point on our tour).

Bonus: Laying the city out as a grid allowed the E/W streets in the Loop to exactly align with Spring and Fall Solstice. If you have the opportunity to be here during one of these, grab your camera and tripod and bunch up with the rest of the photographers. It’s a wonderful experience!


1. Not Just Small Talk here!

It’s its own topic and much talked about. By everyone. In fact, Tom Skilling, WGN Senior Meteorologist is a Chicago rockstar. I never knew I wanted to learn meteorology until moving here. It’s quite a fascinating school to learn in and, in return, benefits photography.

2. The temperature isn’t the the temperature.

It took me eight long years to finally understand this. The temperature on that weather report or app isn’t what I’m going to feel when I walk out my door or head downtown or visit the suburbs, and if I don’t dress according to where I’m going to spend my day, it can be a BIG mistake. I’ve learned to heed two words when it comes to weather: “Feels Like” or the wind chill. Before living in Chicago, I never knew this second number existed.

And, if it feels warm where I am before heading down to the Riverwalk? It’s possible to feel a temperature difference up to 10F degrees!


1. Music is a Culture!

Chicago was my first exposure to “live” music in Classical, Jazz, Blues, world music and is one of my favorite things about the city. It’s a wonderful city to experience music, from high caliber music venues to clubs to Millennium Park to a neighborhood restaurant; it’s a core part of the culture. I seek it out at every opportunity, and I recommend you do too!

2. Heritage.

Chicago’s a steep learning curve if you grew up as I did where your cultural heritage was rarely discussed or not a significant part of your identity. I’ve learned (or been taught?) different terminology for even my own heritage, what neighborhood I “belong” and how to respect that there are differences I previously knew nothing of. It’s no secret, Chicago is segregated, and it’s a fascinating lesson in cultural diversity in one city, dating back to its origins and development of neighborhoods. If you’re from a place that lacks diversity, come here and enjoy learning about it!

3. Politics.

I’ve never considered myself a very political person and remained that way my first several years here. Only recently have I noticed, Chicago has made me much more political than I ever was, even before the current national scene. It’s a very political city with a heavy political history and definitely permeates its residents and culture. Maybe all large cities are this way.


1. Hats in Winter.

Mom said hats keep us warm by preventing body heat from escaping the head, right? You hear her saying it. Well, I’m a bit stubborn and wasn’t about to let my “big hair” be messed up with a hat. In fact, I was a proud no-hat person the first half of my life.

Now? After living in Chicago several years? Who cares what my hair looks like if my head and ears are warm!

Wear a hat here in Winter and I promise not to laugh at your hair.

2. Black and Jeans.

Black pants and jeans. Black pants with every color, pattern and style of shirt. Jeans with black shirts. Black on black, even. Black on black with a black jacket and black bag. What is Chicago’s fascination with black clothing? I know, ‘it’s just simpler’. *sigh* Well, at least I’m easy to find in the snow!



Chicago has led me back to photography and gives me countless reasons to capture it. Which led to wanting to show off the city. Thank you, Chicago!





I hope you’ve enjoyed the glimpse into my evolution from Midwestern suburbanite to urban dweller and a different type of list than you may find elsewhere.

  • If you’ve moved from your place of origin, how or what has changed for you?
  • Have the changes made you more or less exploratory?
  • Have they opened or closed your mind?

Becoming mindful of the answers to such questions could inspire new photographic opportunities.



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