It turns out I really like cities. I’ve sort of always known this, I mean, I was the kid who liked Athens when everyone was like, “No way! Go to Corfu!” Hmm… the birthplace of Western Civ… or getting plates smashed on my head while consuming copious amounts of ouzo. Let’s see. Athens FTW. But this was not a new phenomenon. San Francisco always fascinated my little Sonoma County self. I loved the sprawling craziness of Mexican municipalities. Then there was New York… Vancouver… London… Beijing… Sydney, and of course the amazing 852. Cities. And my love of what is urban brought me back to San Francisco when given the choice of where to alight from my trans-Pacific relocation.
Scholars have long claimed that the primary characteristics of a “civilized” people – of civilization as it were – include advanced cities, specialized workers, complex institutions, record keeping and advanced technology. Declaring what is and is not civilized is a bit touchy. I find focusing on the etymology safer, even though the five characteristics have expanded a bit, it is still dicey territory. Regardless, cities are always listed as the first sign of a settled people with potential. And it is true – what do we always look back upon with awe and wonder: Cities. Atlantis, the Cretan cities of the Minoans, ancient Sumer, Alexandria, Athens, Pompeii (yes, and Rome…)
The word ‘city’ comes from the Latin civitatem (nominative is civitas) meaning citizenship or community of citizens.” We use cities as our primary judgement of people, places, and entire nations; a default marker for better or worse. Is something cleaner than Stockholm, safer than Saigon, dirtier than Delhi, more diverse than New York, bigger than Beijing, more misleading than Mandalay… on and on. Cities are collections of patterns that would make M.C. Escher envious. I could wax on forever about the unique ways cities have developed and the crystalline-like patterns of growth and the controversial genius of all the models used to explain the phenomenon of cities: Christaller, Burgess, Hoyt, Harris and Ullman… But I might lose all but three of my faithful readers, so I will not. [Though I will comment that Old Walter’s model, by design, could work only on a featureless landscape – and no offense to the Midwest, but you all lack some major features out there. I never realized how much I depend on the ocean and mountains for my orientation…]
And I have to admit, a lot of my knowledge of Chicago outside of sports teams and stockyards really comes from the OPI Chicago collection. It is how I learned about Mrs. O’Leary and her oops-“barbeque”, Lincoln Park (“After Dark” – and now “After Midnight”), the Magnificent Mile (being “Marooned” or otherwise), how I always remember which of the Great Lakes Chi Town sits on (“Skinny dippin’ in Lake Michigan”), and all that “Razz”y jazz, the “El” (of a color) and “Blues” (for red). So, it is with this all of this urban fascination and personal national naiveté that I headed to Chicago last week to meet up with the leader of the A-Team and D for Lollapalooza and some quality city time. Being a tourist in your own country is great fun and something I’ve not done for ages. And there was the added bonus of being totally generously hosted by The Shazams for the first half of the trip. Win, win, win.
And so Chicago. Gimme what you got one time.
I flew into Midway because I was flying on the only domestic airline I will ever fly if given the choice, and that is where they fly. For this trip I had the added bonus of flying on a buddy pass, which was great because it was free… but it turns out a lot of people were using their freebies that week so not to spoil the ending, but getting out of Midway would prove a bit challenging. But hey, I am a girl on summer vacation sans deadlines of any tangible nature, so it’s cool. I met A at the airport and we took the El into town where we would meet our very gracious hosts. We would be staying right near De Paul University in the Lincoln Park area – I had more than a few moments of regret for not having chosen LPAD for my pre-adventure mani-pedi… but I would soon get over that when I saw that everyone else had, in fact chosen said color. Why I was surprised to realize that De Paul is named after St. Vincent de Paul I have no idea, but I was. [Don’t even get me started on how I still mix it up with DePauw.]
The El was interesting to me. After my five-year love affair with Hong Kong’s MTR, and my more complicated relationship with BART, the El was different. First of all, it seems very anachronistic. It is like the Airstream of rapid transit trains. It has a very old feel to it. And it seems small. The way it runs through the neighborhoods is fascinating and really just kept making me feel like I was in some gritty crime drama starring Tim Hutton or Sean Penn. Why it did not remind me of The Blues Brothers, Chicago or Ferris Bueller, I don’t know. I just kept thinking dark, Law & Order type stuff. (Yeah, I know L&O is in NYC – this is a loose association.)
We had several things we wanted to do to “see” Chicago – an architecture tour by boat, the Field Museum, the Art Institute, the Magnificent Mile, lots of eating & drinking and of course, Lollapalooza. Interestingly, A and I collectively had about zero interest in seeing the Navy Pier, apparently the “Number One Tourist Destination in Chicago.” This is really telling about the type of folks that visit Chicago – if that fact is actually true. I was able to see the pier from my hotel later in the week and that was plenty for me.
I was much more interested in the locks adjacent to the Navy Pier area that effectively reversed the flow of the Chicago River. That is nothing short of OMG amazing.
By the 1870s the dumping of waste from industrial and commercial development led to visible signs of pollution and increased concern about threats the river posed to public health. Between 1889 and 1910 the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago completed two major engineering projects to direct the flow of the river into the Des Plaines River and divert wastes away from Lake Michigan. The 28-mile Sanitary and Ship Canal was constructed between 1889 and 1900. Locks located near Lake Michigan and at Lockport diverted the flow of the North Branch, South Branch, and Main Stem into the canal and to the Des Plaines River. The completion of the 8-mile North Shore Channel in 1910 diverted wastes from the northern suburbs from Lake Michigan into the North Branch.
Of course the obvious problems that would arise from the whole Upton Sinclair described dramz entering the river – among other things is not all that shocking to consider, but damn if they didn’t straight take that river to task. Cholera what? One of the most interesting buildings downtown for its idiosyncratic appearance and resulting reverence is the water department edifice (it is the only building that was not destroyed in the 1871 fire that leveled the city leading the way for the birth of “American Architecture” described by many as the Chicago School and the result of a Malcolm Gladwell-like series of un/fortunate events that allowed a revolution in design to take place in Chicago around the turn of the 20th Century.)
The architecture tour was fascinating. In terms of architecture, Chicago is supremely important in the United States because it is effectively the birthplace of the skyscraper. The story of the Great Fire is legendary (and not just in the mani-pedi circuit) but as with most great legends, the accuracy is debatable. Still, it’s a good story and regardless of the cause, all seem to agree on the effect: nearly complete destruction of the city. Following the fire, land rent shot up along with population and a new kind of entrepreneurial vision: mail order. The Montgomery Ward building (1908) is still one of the city’s biggest buildings (1.25 million square feet) and now home to Groupon, among other interests. For a broad, yet succinct presentation of the key points in Chicago’s architectural history, check here. The river cruise architecture tour is a nice 90 minute over view, with cocktails, of the high points (literally) of the Chicago skyline.
Following the tour, the Shazam’s led us down the Magnificent Mile. and it is magnificent. We would lunch at Rick Bayless’ Xoco, do a little shopping in the Water Tower, and then have a view with drinks at the John Hancock Building (where you can pay $15 to check out the observation deck, or sit in the bar and have drinks with the same – actually a little higher – view. Granted the drinks are about $15, but it seems like a better deal.) The lunch was fantastic, the Magnificent Mile was mostly magnificent, the Water Tower had water features and John Hancock – as always – got the job done. Plus, we got the biggest upskirt shot of all time thanks to J. Seward Johnson’s 26-foot sculpture, Forever Marilyn, on Michigan Avenue. Win.
And this was all in the first couple of days… along with food trucks, board games, thunder and lightning, wine and beer, and soaring temperatures.
An awesome town, but seriously Chicago, your wet heat hasn’t got shit on Hong Kong.
ps: because someone asked… EVERY single photo on here is mine. Just sayin’.
Though the Encyclopedia of Chicago was amazing as an info source.