CHICAGO — Chicago’s tiny population growth spurt a few years back has trickled to a halt.
Population experts will tell you even posh Lincoln Park is leaking people and places to live — a decline in housing units that matches Englewood between 2000 and 2012. (Meanwhile, the Lincoln Park rat population is booming.)
Even super cool West Town — home to hipster-yuppie hybrid 'hoods, including Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village and Bucktown — is home to about 100,000 fewer people than during its working-class glory days in the 1950s.
Pick almost any neighborhood that doesn’t ring the Loop and you’ll find similar trends.
Whatever reason people are moving out — the corruption and failing schools or the bogus red-light tickets and skyrocketing property taxes — there is no doubt the slow exodus has created a new business opportunity for an entrepreneurial real estate service catering to the suburban-bound.
It’s called Suburban Jungle Realty.
The New York City-based company caters to … wait.
How can I put this nicely? Ugh, I can’t.
The way I see it, this service is for a breed of bland folks who desire a life in a cultural void, consider a trip to Sam’s Club a “Sunday Fun Day” and always wanted a riding lawnmower with a cup holder.
I’m not saying these city defectors are horrible people.
And I’m not prejudiced against them. I have suburban friends.
They’re just, you know ... boring.
As a suburban refugee-turned-city boy, I understand why certain people might need the help of a suburban real estate sherpa when their significant other insists it's time to move to where fun goes to die.
Still, it pains me to know that there’s an actual business that helps people do that to themselves.
I haven’t talked to Mayor Rahm Emanuel about it, but I’ve got to think he wouldn't be a fan of a niche real estate service helping property tax-paying refugees escape across the city border — to pay even more than what he’s charging.
When I brought that up to Suburban Jungle owner Allison Bernstein she laughed — well, sort of.
She said I was “being funny.”
Bernstein assured me she’s not in the business of actively courting upper-middle class Chicagoans with suburban tendencies to relocate.
She doesn’t dangle the promise of high-performing schools (I’d argue there are plenty, maybe even six or seven, really good city schools), markedly lower crime rates (OK, you got us there), IKEA-anchored strip malls (you can have ‘em, buddy), fancy country clubs (if you’re not banned, that is) or any other suburban delights (fast food, Wal-Mart and boredom, to name a few) in an effort to tempt breeding urbanites who aren’t interested in such things.
Bernstein is right. I am “being funny.”
But my advocating for strong middle-class families to enjoy a vibrant, culturally diverse life and help make Chicago better instead of settling for a bland joy-sucking existence in the hinterlands assigned to ZIP codes that don’t begin with “606” isn’t a joke.
I firmly believe that Chicago can be a better place if nice people with well-paying jobs and kids who aren’t jerks stay in Chicago.
Chicago needs more decent, hardworking people to stay and help finish rebuilding what generations of racism and neglect destroyed.
Also, a person dedicated to being a citizen of a culturally diverse city that’s home of a kick-ass music scene, is considered comedy’s mecca, harbors an art community that has redefined entire neighborhoods and is home to world-class museums, universities, sports teams and restaurants, certainly will enrich his or her lives in a way that no suburb ever could.
Regardless, Bernstein affirmed that her employees don’t influence the home-buying decisions of people who, like me, enjoy the excitement that comes from city living despite the danger lurking in forgotten parts of town … and so many parking tickets.
So I don't have a problem with her very successful company.
This is America. Some people prefer to be lame. I'm pretty sure a desire to be boring, along with racist real estate redlining and a postwar baby boom, is the reason suburbs with indoor shopping malls exist.
Suburban Jungle advisers only step in to offer their service, which is akin to a personal shopper that tells you what town looks best on you when an urbanite couple comes face-to-face with the sad reality of a perceived suburban destiny — which is pretty much how Bernstein explained her own exit from New York City.
“We’re strategic advisers. You can get a consultant for everything in the world. They have consultants for what preschool to pick. Potty-training consultants. Everything … except real estate,” Bernstein said.
Potty training. Moving to the suburbs. I got a kick out of that comparison.
“Different towns have different personalities. … A broker takes a real estate-first approach that focuses on things … how many bedrooms and baths and taxes,” Bernstein said.
“Our concept is that every family works with a personal strategist to find the town that is the best fit.”
Suburban Jungle strategists offer details about villages based on census and marketing data, news stories and the political leanings of small-town elected officials.
Sometimes, they even set up their house-shopping clients on blind coffee dates with prospective neighbors who can offer a street-level perspective on the town they're flirting with before their divorce from city living is final.
The process starts with filling out a questionnaire packed with lifestyle questions and a “get-to-know-you-session” that Suburban Jungle house shoppers use to pair them with the leafy suburban paradise as close as possible to their delusions of an ideal post-city existence.
“We want to know where they grew up, what kind of child care they have, how they want to raise their kids,” Bernstein said.
“And if they want to walk everywhere and be surrounded by restaurants and culture, well, we will tell them they should probably stay in the city. But we don’t help pick the perfect neighborhood.”
(The perfect neighborhood is Pullman, Chicago's only national monument.)
Some of you city folks standing on the suburban cliff interested in Bernstein’s services might wonder how much a personal suburban house shopper will cost you.
Suburban Jungle Realty does take its cut of services from the “buyer side commission,” which is to say a chunk of cash that would normally go to a Realtor. (Bernstein wouldn’t say how big of a cut her company takes, and since I’m not moving to the God-forsaken suburbs, I didn’t care enough to push.)
The way Suburban Jungle’s Chicago area lead strategist Heather Jagher explains it, their real estate service, also offered in New York, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles, is gaining popularity here.
Jagher said she’s noticed that there is a reason more city people are considering suburban migrations these days.
“Three years ago it should be noted that more families were saying, 'We’ll figure out how to pay for private school and do anything to stay in the city,'” Jagher said.
“Now, with all the crime, we’re hearing them say, ‘You know, let's think about it and see what’s out in the suburbs.' They have the money to stay. It’s a safety issue.”
And it’s got people running for Barrington Hills — or whatever boring suburb that fits best.
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