The Chicago River is also a product of human design: In 1900, engineers reversed its course.
Chicagoans cling to the notion that theirs is still a toddlin' town, an unpretentious, blues-listening, shot-and-beer-drinking, Vienna hot dog–chomping outpost for those who refuse to take themselves too seriously. They celebrate their colorful personalities in an endless eponymous parade—Harry Caray's Restaurant! Paul Harvey Way! Jack Brickhouse Square!—and never downplay the historical calamities that round out their hometown's identity: the great fire of 1871, the Valentine's Day massacre of 1929, the Democratic convention of 1968, the Chicago Cubs of pick-a-year. That's exactly what you'd expect from a city that set itself on fire, promptly put out the flame, then started to rebuild almost the next day.
However, as I strolled down Columbus Drive on a beautiful sunny afternoon not long ago, I could almost believe I was in an old European city. The well-planned open spaces, the parks, the museums, the grand and graceful architecture—all of it contributes to a certain duality of character evident in this urban American treasure.
At any rate, you must come, and you must come in the spring, when Chicago is unlayering from the cold weather. Thirty-three miles of lakefront are open to bicyclists, joggers, and strollers; you can walk down Michigan Avenue without the fearsome wind blowing you through a window and into the arms of a mannequin at Lord & Taylor; and the Cubs are once again in business at Wrigley, hope electric in the air.
One of the keys to seeing Chicago during a whirlwind trip is fitting in your shopathon on the Magnificent Mile (eight blocks of Michigan Avenue and side streets lined with more than 400 stores and 200 restaurants) as well as your visit to some truly magnificent sights in the same day. You can do that by continuing south on Michigan Avenue, a splendid walk that takes you to Millennium Park and the museums beyond.
A few blocks from the retail frenzy, Millennium is a place to kick back and forget you're in the third-largest U.S. city. The park, which had its grand opening last year, is an exquisite marriage of architecture and open space. Within its 25 acres are an ice rink, several alfresco restaurants (safely removed from auto exhaust), and the stunning Frank Gehry–designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, home to the Grant Park Orchestra.
Next stop, the incomparable Art Institute of Chicago. Marc Chagall's superb blue-tinted American Windows (which he completed at the age of 90) serves both as a display and as part of the museum's window structure. The kids can check out the Arms and Armor collection while you head to the rooms that house the impressionists. The popularity of artists like Renoir, Monet, and Cézanne has almost started to work against them, the conclusion in some circles being that there must be something overrated about something that well liked. Nonsense. Give me 30 minutes just to stare at the extraordinary Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte.
The Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium, must-sees if you have kids, are your final stops on this pleasant walk. The star attraction at the Field is Sue, "the world's most complete Tyrannosaurus rex." The Shedd features Granddad, an Australian lungfish whose ancestors roamed the sea 370 million years ago. Having arrived at the aquarium in 1933, Granddad is now the United States' oldest aquatic animal in captivity, although he's slightly younger than Studs Terkel, the beloved and crusty chronicler of all things Chicago.
Such big personalities dominate the history of this town: Capone, Ness, Butkus, Oprah, and all those fast-talking ward heelers, culminating with hizzoner of hizzoners Richard J. Daley and his son, current mayor Richard M. Daley. Chicago earned the name Windy City, insiders say, not from the wind off Lake Michigan but from the blustery harrumphing of its politicians.
One of these larger-than-life people who has long fascinated me is Emma Goldman, the country's best-known anarchist. Goldman did some of her hell-raising in Chicago, considered the capital of American radicalism in the late 19th century. She is buried at the lovely Forest Home Cemetery (a 20-minute El ride from downtown), surrounded by a dozen or so of her fellow radicals, near a monument to the Haymarket Square riot. A bomb blast at a pro-labor demonstration in May of 1886 killed seven Chicago policemen and four other people at Haymarket. Four union activists were later executed for the crime, and people are still arguing over exactly what happened.
Emma would want you to check out Wicker Park–Bucktown, a très hip area near the converging intersections of Damen, North, and Milwaukee avenues. The neighborhood boasts restaurants, distinctive boutiques, and more upscale thrift shops (is that a contradiction in terms?) than I've ever seen concentrated in one area. Grab a booth at Filter, the local coffee joint on Milwaukee Avenue, and peruse the satirical newspaper The Onion, handed out gratis there; trade in some vintage vinyl at Reckless Records; or try on something black and funky at Una Mae's Freak Boutique—Saks on Michigan Avenue it ain't.
Months before your trip, of course, you've scored tickets for an afternooner with the Cubs. Their home turf, Wrigley Field, is not so much a baseball stadium as a collective habit, the city's comfortable old shoe. Chicago has hosted its beloved Cubs in the same spot for 89 years and Wrigley never got prettied up much. The Cubs still play many of their games in the afternoon, when fans shed their shirts, join in singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and throw back onto the field baseballs hit out of the park by the opposing team. Now that the Boston Red Sox have claimed a World Series, Wrigley is unchallenged as the ultimate sanctuary of sports hope and heartbreak—in that order.
After watching the Cubs, you have no choice but to hear the blues. There are a half-dozen or so popular clubs, and as good a choice as any is Kingston Mines, with music seven nights a week. One of the great things about the Mines is that you're not embarrassed to show up at the nonbluesy hour of 10 p.m., which is what I did. The place was popping, the music was loud, the dance floor was packed, and the emcee was in rare form. "We're not supposed to get drunk and disorderly around here," he yelled, "but nobody pays much attention to that."
If you've spent too much, eaten too much, or gotten a little too drunk and disorderly, you can cleanse your soul and say good-bye to Chicago at the Sunday morning Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues on Dearborn Street. Make sure to secure reservations a couple of days in advance, because tourists and locals alike come for the chow (the buffet includes everything from omelets to prime rib) and the heavenly music ("a Holy Ghost party," as gospel leader William Smith Jr. proclaimed).
The crowded, picnic-style seating will have you making friends quickly, but you would've done that anyway, as the morning inevitably turns into a communal hand-clapping and hip-swaying sing-along. "I believe I've been saved," said the man next to me, "but it may have been the biscuits."
Only in Chicago.
So little time, so much to eat
If you have the stomach for it, you could forget about all the other things to do and simply come to Chicago to eat. Herewith, a minuscule sampling of my favorite dining establishments.
LA DONNA is a secret Italian treasure in the formerly Swedish working-class neighborhood of Andersonville. The appetizer of polenta crostini with Gorgonzola and leeks was the best thing I ate during my trip . . . and I ate a lot. 5146 N. Clark St., (773) 561-9400.
MANNY'S COFFEE SHOP & DELI is the kind of place where visiting politicians have to show up to score votes with the common man. And where else in the United States will you encounter a sign warning first come, first served . . . quantities are limited for the pickled tongue? I went for the pastrami. 1141 S. Jefferson St., (312) 939-2855.
SALPICÓN treats tequila as seriously as wine (I enjoyed lime-tequila sorbet for dessert), and the stuffed poblano chiles are described as "lightly egg battered and sautéed; one with a mild pork picadillo and the other with Chihuahua cheese; served with a roasted tomato sauce and frijoles borrachos." Somebody sweated over all that writing, I had to order them. They were delicious. 1252 N. Wells St., (312) 988-7811.
WISHBONE has long been popular for its Southern comfort food. Try the andouille hash, corn cakes, or red eggs-a delicious mélange of two eggs on corn tortillas with black beans, cheese, ancho chile sauce, sour cream, and salsa. Two locations: 3300 N. Lincoln Ave., (773) 549-2663, and 1001 W. Washingon Blvd., (312) 850-2663.
Come prepared to crane your neck
The great fire of 1871 killed about 300 people and, as Donald L. Miller wrote in City of the Century, reduced "a great part of Chicago to charred prairie." It was at once a devastating tragedy and an exquisite opportunity.
Chicagoans, being Chicagoans, concentrated on the latter. From the debris and the dust, which lingered in the air for months after the conflagration, Chicago built a modern city whose creators revolutionized U.S. architecture, turning the potential monstrosity known as a skyscraper into a sublime coalescence of form and function. Over the next seven decades, Chicago also made immortals out of three architects forever associated with the city—Louis Sullivan, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Their brilliant creations are still in evidence, and if you do only one thing on your trip to Chicago, make it a half-day outing to soak in the city's architectural history. Options include a guided walking tour, an architecture cruise on the Chicago River, or a visit to the suburb of Oak Park, where Wright, the immortal of immortals, had his home and studio and developed the Prairie school of architecture. For tour information, check out the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Web site at www.architecture.org or call (312) 922-3432.
Photography by Kelly/Mooney
This article was first published in May 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
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