I traveled to Chicago and Detroit for the first time, and some things surprised me as a New Yorker.
The Midwestern cities seemed to be quieter, slower, and more friendly.
I found warm weather and trendy restaurants on my trip, as well as a surprising amount of traffic.
There's an emptiness to the Midwest that I'm not used to as a New Yorker.
As a resident of Brooklyn, I've quickly learned it's nearly impossible to have a moment of solitude in this city. Everywhere you look, there are people no matter the time of day. There's almost no such thing as an empty street in New York.
In the Midwestern cities I visited, that wasn't the case. When I walked through Chicago, for example, there were some neighborhoods, especially downtown in the Loop, that seemed completely empty. Even some of the subway stations were deserted. It felt eerie and almost apocalyptic to be walking down city streets alone.
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While the pandemic definitely plays a part in this, it's important to note the vastly different population sizes. In Chicago, there are 2.6 million people, while in New York, there are over 8 million people in an area that's only one-third larger. I definitely felt this difference on the streets during my trip.
Things move at a slower pace in the Midwest, including trains and restaurant service.
I've always heard things move quickly in New York — there's the phrase "in a New York minute" for a reason — but I never really understood what it meant until I went to the Midwest. While touring the region for the first time, I noticed things moved at a much more leisurely pace.
For example, trains in Chicago run every 10 to 15 minutes, while in New York, many run every five to 10 minutes. At restaurants in New York, you typically get served within minutes of sitting down and get the bill shortly thereafter. In the Midwest, you could be sitting at a restaurant for two hours without ever feeling the need to rush out the door.
There seems to be a greater emphasis on nature than in New York City.
While New Yorkers love to escape to the Catskills or the Hamptons, nature doesn't seem to be a priority for many living in the city. During my two weeks in the Midwest, most people I spoke with talked about heading to a nearby cabin or going on hikes at parks.
I was even more surprised to learn just how important Lake Michigan is to people in Chicago. People head to the water for the beach, boating, and water sports regularly. They all know the temperature of the water at any given moment and when you should and shouldn't jump in for a swim.
In the Midwest, nature seems to be of the utmost importance, and city life comes second. In New York, it's the opposite for most.
To my surprise, many Midwesterners told me winters weren't as bad as New Yorkers made them out to be.
As a New Yorker, I always thought of the Midwest as a region bombarded by winter storms and freezing temperatures. I spoke with many Midwesterners while touring the region, and all agreed the winters were not that bad. One woman I spoke with told me that the winters were usually only 5 to 10 degrees cooler than in New York and that they get only a few blizzards each season.
From an outside perspective, I thought the Midwest was unlivable during the winter months, but the Midwesterners I met told me that narrative was false.
But I was surprised to find "no parking" signs that are weather-dependent.
One street sign I saw in Chicago read: "No parking 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., December 1 to April 1 or when snow is over 2 inches."
I've never seen a "no parking" sign like this in New York City.
I was even more surprised by how hot it gets in the Midwest.
As I said, I always thought (quite ignorantly) of the Midwest as a frigid region that rarely broke 70 degrees in the summer. I couldn't have been more wrong. When I visited in June, the temperatures climbed to 90 degrees every day. In fact, every day of my trip, it was 10 degrees warmer in the Midwest than back home in New York.
Everyone I met was extremely nice in the Midwest, unlike some of my neighbors in New York City.
New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude, and it's not necessarily wrong. When I went to the Midwest, I was confused by the friendliness I encountered. Every time I entered a store, people greeted me and then told me to have a nice day when I left. Strangers wanted to chat with me and learn a little bit about my life. People in the Midwest even seemed to go out of their way to help me when I was lost.
As a New Yorker, the friendliness surprised me and, if I'm honest, made me slightly uncomfortable.
Pedestrians wave and thank cars as they cross intersections.
People in the Midwestern cities I visited were so nice that they thanked each other for the right of way. Several times, I saw pedestrians wave at cars and thank them for letting them pass. In New York City, we just cross the street and hope the cars stop when they see us.
In my experience, things are cheaper in the Midwest, including grocery-store items and drinks at restaurants.
As a New Yorker, I've become accustom to $15 cocktails and $50 dinners. In Chicago and Detroit, I was excited to find prices were much lower.
The cost of living is significantly higher in New York, according to Nerd Wallet. Food costs are 36% higher in the city compared with Chicago, and entertainment costs are 25% higher.
People love to say "cheers" in the Midwest.
"Cheers" is a common word heard around the US, especially while people are having drinks, but I noticed Midwesterners say it a lot more in everyday conversation. They seem to use it as a replacement for "thanks" or "thank you."
The Midwest has more than enough entertainment and culture to keep any traveler busy.
I've heard some people say that New York has everything and other cities are just small towns — some of my family members have even gone as far as to say the Midwest contains only cornfields. I immediately found this was not the case and there was more than enough entertainment to fill my itinerary.
Chicago and Detroit have chic restaurants, trendy stores, unique bars, and popular clubs. While the theaters were closed, one Midwesterner told me theater in Chicago is comparable to Broadway in New York City.
New York City is known for its traffic, but I was surprised to learn Chicago has even more.
As a New Yorker, I know how the city transforms into gridlock during rush hour, but the traffic is even worse in Chicago, US News & World Report said in 2020, citing Inrix's Global Traffic Scorecard. In 2019, Chicago residents spent 145 hours in traffic on average, while New Yorkers spent 140 hours stuck in their cars, according to the report.
During my visit, I definitely experienced the Chicago traffic, which made me late to a few appointments. But in Detroit, there was no traffic, and the highways were mostly empty.
I found Uber and Lyft were less dependable in the Midwest than they are in New York.
When I order an Uber in New York City, it typically takes about 5 minutes for a driver to arrive. During my visits to Chicago and Detroit, it took at least 10 to 20 minutes to connect with a driver on Uber or Lyft. Every time I needed a ride, I had to plan ahead; otherwise, I'd be stuck somewhere for 20 minutes or more. I even arrived late to a few appointments because the wait times were longer than I was expecting.
I also found Ubers to be more expensive than I expected in the region — the company recently cited the lack of drivers for the area's long wait times and higher costs.
There are fewer homeless people on the streets of Midwestern cities.
As heartbreaking as it is, I'm used to seeing people who are homeless on practically every street corner in New York City. In the Midwestern cities, I was surprised to find the streets in downtown Detroit and Chicago mostly void of homelessness.
In the state of New York, there were 92,091 people experiencing homelessness in 2020, compared with 10,199 in Illinois and 8,575 in Michigan, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Midwesterners show pride for their cities on signs and branding throughout the streets. New Yorkers don't show their pride in the same way.
All over Detroit and Chicago, there were signs for the city's best pizzas and best hot dogs: Signs read "Chicago's best ..." or "Detroit's favorite ..." Everywhere I looked, there was branding for the cities, and Midwesterners' pride was on full display.
But in New York, this isn't generally the case. When you get to some parts of the city, you'll see signs that read "I Love New York," but that's mainly for tourists. Real New Yorkers typically don't show pride in their city in this way, at least not to the degree Midwesterners do.
The differences between New York and the Midwest don't stop there. Throughout my two weeks in the region, I learned the Midwest was filled with great entertainment, great people, and great weather. But at the end of the day, there's no place like home.
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