Home Sweet Home in the Western Suburbs
If you consider your home to be your castle, then the local neighborhood and surrounding county are of immense importance to your enjoyment of it. Many towns in the western suburbs have risen in popularity in recent years, and for good reason. People are proud and protective of the towns they call home, and so there is always a subjective element in evaluating and comparing places to live. While some prefer wide-open spaces, others enjoy the hustle and bustle of a busy main street.
This year, we decided to avoid naming a single overall “top town,” choosing instead to provide a Top 20 list. We use rankings only when reported data on the 63 suburbs is quantitative and easy to compare, with the exception of the Most Vibrant Downtowns category, where subjective criteria are also factored in.
People moving to a new town often do so with objective data foremost in mind. Yet once a person settles in, he or she inevitably starts making friends and putting down roots. And with those roots comes an instinctive loyalty — just as you become part of a community, the town becomes a part of your identity.
Realizing this, even providing an overall list of top towns is to some extent subjective. Our selections are inevitably going to generate some disagreement. How come that town is included among the 20 favorites and mine wasn’t on the list, you might ask? There is no easy answer because those suburbs were selected based on an analysis of a variety of criteria, some objective, as summarized in the charts on the following pages, and some less so. That’s because certain quality-of-life attributes — such as community ambiance — are hard to quantify and are valued differently from person to person.
That said, to the degree possible, our choices reflect those characteristics commonly valued by most everyone. Home values, for example, are a key criteria because for many, a home is not just a place of residence; it also represents a major financial investment. Happily, over recent years, that investment has been back on the rise, regardless which western suburb you call home, as housing prices have gained momentum not just locally, but nationally. We went to Midwest Real Estate Data, LLC to obtain information on current home values and how they’ve changed during the past five years. Just five years ago, most suburbs saw double-digit percentage decreases in value; today’s figures are overwhelmingly positive.
Schools and education are also deemed critically important, not just for families with kids, but also as an indicator of stability of the community as a whole. We excerpted information from the Illinois State Board of Education annual high school report cards. A comparison of ACT scores and graduation rates provides a general sense of the quality of the schools. We then factored in other considerations. Several area towns, for example, are home to colleges or universities and they provide the surrounding community with access to life-long learning opportunities, as well as cultural and artistic resources.
Public safety is another universally valued attribute. For that information, we accessed data from the most recent FBI and Illinois State Police Universal Crime Reports, comparing statistical information on the frequency of violent crime, as well as each community’s overall crime index.
There are a number of other characteristics of a community that are considered beneficial as well, albeit to varying degrees — things like great parks, a vibrant downtown area, good libraries and diverse shopping options.
After comparing and weighing the data, we came up with our list of 20 Top Towns. Most, to greater or lesser degrees, share certain characteristics, such as strong home values, excellent schools, easy access to Chicago, O’Hare and Midway airports and major expressways, and attractive downtown areas. Each of the these suburbs earned its place by scoring consistently well across all categories. Interestingly, the list includes both large cosmopolitan suburbs like Naperville and quaint villages like Wayne. This reveals that, when all is said and done, we all seek many of the same things — steady home values, an attractive downtown, diverse shopping, great parks, an exceptional library system and strong schools.
As with all cross-community comparisons, this one has its flaws. It can’t take into consideration the value of good neighbors, or a great block, or any number of special circumstances that may make your town ideally suited to your needs.
If, for example, you prefer more of a small town ambiance and safety is a high priority, Hinsdale is an especially good town in which to live. It has the least amount of crime reported in any area community and, as an added bonus, has sustained high home values — even in comparison to Chicago’s north suburbs — over the past five years. Other smaller, more rural communities like Clarendon Hills and Wayne also have very low crime rates, as do Western Springs, Burr Ridge and La Grange Park.
For those who work in Chicago, proximity to the city and easy access to Metra and/or the CTA might be the most important consideration. Oak Park, River Forest, Riverside and La Grange are all excellent options. Since all are older towns, they also offer tree-lined streets and historic architecture. And for those looking for racial and cultural diversity, Oak Park is often cited as a community that especially embraces people of all backgrounds.
Living closer to the city means more traffic and congestion, which can be a major negative for those who prefer wide open spaces. These folks will likely be more comfortable further west in Fox River communities like Geneva and St. Charles, or southwest in Oswego, Yorkville, Plainfield or Lockport. All have preserved open space through their extensive park systems.
Ultimately, each and every community in the western suburbs is a top town if it meets the priorities of its residents. Statistics can provide helpful comparisons and insights, but numbers can never capture the essence of a community. Indeed, the most important factors that make a town special — friends, family, neighbors, shared experiences — simply can’t be measured.