Are Chicagoans the toughest big city dwellers in the nation?

When it comes to hot and cold, Chicagoans get hit on both ends

March 5, 2014

WBEZ/Monica Eng
Chicagoans suffer through low lows and high highs as the seasons change. But do we have to deal with the worst of both ends?

During this season of multiple polar vortices, we Chicagoans have been told more than once to suck it up. My Canadian and Minnesotan colleagues claim this is “no big deal” where they come from.

“Welcome to my winter,” they scoff, pulling on industrial-sized parkas and marching into the snow.   

I silently endured their scoffing while secretly plotting to prove that we native Chicagoans are not weather wimps at all -- but just the opposite. It's my contention that while we may not embrace the Inuit lifestyles, Chicagoans have to work and live through more weather extremes than probably anybody.

And we have the potholes to prove it.

After surviving this wretched winter, for example, we may face summer temps that exceed 100 degrees for days in a row.

Certainly, we must get the worst of it on both ends, making us the toughest people in the nation. Right? Probably.

This would require some reporting.

Barbara Mayes Bousted, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Omaha, Neb., recently created the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index. Using factors such as temperature and precipitation, it basically measures how miserable winter has been for communities across the country this year and beyond.

Unfortunately, it is not exactly what is needed, because I am looking for misery on both ends of the temperature spectrum.

“That’s an interesting puzzle to piece together, to figure out the range of extremes all the way from the heat to the cold,” she said. “But the index that I’m using doesn’t account for how far we go to the other end, the warm side.”

She and colleagues pointed to everyone from scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to scholars to WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling. All were super nice, but none could answer this question of overall toughness. 

Just when the search seemed like it hit a dead end, I stumbled on Citydata.com. It cranks out all sorts of Top 101 city lists by crunching statistics in a variety of categories. These include lowest average temperature, highest average snowfall, coldest winters and -- YES! -- largest annual temperature differences in cities with populations above 50,000.

Certainly, Chicago would top this this, right?

Well, not on the face of it.

The list led with Grand Forks in North Dakota, followed by a bunch of towns in that state, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin. Then finally Illinois, whose most extreme weather town (with over 50,000 people) is Rockford (No. 41), followed by Hoffman Estates (No. 43). Chicago didn’t show up til No. 66.

Why is Hoffman Estates, in the northwest suburbs, so much colder than Chicago? That’s a story for another day.

I decided that this list was crowded up with too many small towns. The target was metropolitan cities whose residents have to venture miles to work or school each day -- no matter what cruel joke Mother Nature served up.

So I narrowed it to cities with more than 250,000 residents. On this list, Chicago soars to sixth place. Only Minneapolis and its twin city St. Paul, Omaha, Milwaukee, and Kansas City beat us in temperature differences in an average year.

But how much time do these other urbanites really expose themselves to frosty or broiling transit platforms or street corners to get where they need to go each day?

The data on public transportation usage showed that only pesky Minneapolis bested us here. It seems that 14.4 percent of them take the bus or trolley to work, while we check in at 13 percent. 

But when we added in the share of people who take the subway or elevated train to work each day, Chicago (at 9.7 percent) pulled ahead.

It is true that Minneapolis doesn't really have a subway or el system to help them on that list.  But I think we win fair and square.

Still, some folks from the Twin Cities disagree.

To Lynette Kalsnes, my fellow WBEZ producer, our winters hardly compare to the those of her Twin Cities youth. “I laugh at the very idea,” she said. “I’ve been in Chicago for 12 or 13 years and this is the first winter that has approximated anything like Minnesota.” 

Still, she acknowledges that our summers are  pretty brutal, even though folks in Minneapolis also get hit with high temperatures, copious mosquitoes, and humidity.

But how can they say they’re tough when they have those skyways between buildings.

“You’re only using that if you work in downtown Minneapolis to get from your job to get your lunch,” Kalsnes parried. “But you’re outside the rest of the time. It’s not like the whole state is a pedestrian mall.” 

It’s clear that these arguments could go on forever. But as one colleague pointed out, it is a little weird that we would engage in a debate over whose city serves up the most misery.

And yes, you could look at it that way. Or you could say that these debates really reflect how much we must love our cities in order to endure such extremes.

You could also say that these extremes make us all the more grateful for good weather. 

As Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said, “I think that no one appreciates a perfect, beautiful, summer, spring, fall, or even winter day more than a Minnesotan.”

Well, we could offer a debate on that, but I think we should  just call it a draw. That is because, even though Chicagoans are tough, we’re also a very generous people. 

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing the Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org