Saturday, October 4, 2008


The City of Big Shoulders

My mom hails from Chicago, so I heard lots of stories about it while I was growing up.  She talked about putting coins on the track for the sleek Burlington Northern Silverstreak to glide over as it passed behind her two story apartment.  She was dazzled by the 1933-34 Century of Progress Worlds Fair, and she loved the Brookfield Zoo.

Of course as a kid from California when I finally saw Chicago in the late 1960's from my Great Aunts mothball infused apartment on Diversey Street I was stunned. Stunned by how old everything was. Stunned by the sweltering heat of her stifling apartment. Stunned by the amount of poverty and grime I saw.

I was also disoriented when we ventured into its suburbs where there were so many trees and everything was so flat. In my world, their were always mountains to the east and water to the west. Here water was on the East! 

But she brought me back again and again and showed me a little more each time. And as each complex layer of this incredible city pealed away I came to see why she loved it so. It is truly an American treasure.

From an urban planning standpoint it is stunning. After it's great fire of 1871 it embraced the "Burnham Plan" that created  a framework for a rational and sustainable city. A mere 22 years after the fire Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition welcoming 21 million people during its run and, from the standpoint of world population at the time, must be recognized as the most successful world's fair in history. 

Architecturally, Chicago is perhaps America's most inspirational City. From the beautiful 1869 Water Tower to the present, Chicago has taken the quote of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to "dream no small dream" seriously.  It was home to the world's first skyscraper; the 1883 Montauk Building by Burnham and Root. It then followed that only two years later with William LeBaron Jenney's Home Insurance Building which was the first skyscraper to use a structural steel frame. The architectural milestones go on and on. The commercially based "Chicago School" gave way to Frank Lloyd Wright's residentially focused "Prairie School".

I remember on one trip to Chicago my mom described in detail how during the depression a chauffer driven limo had pulled up to her elementary school class.  A fur draped matron emerged to come to her class to select a few little girls to come play with her grandaughter. Mom was one of them. This all came to light as I was driving her to see Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece the Avery Coonley House in Riverside. 

She said the women was named Kroehler and she was heir to the furniture empire. Mom said the house she had visited was very modern and a little gloomy (dark). It had brown floors and a separate playhouse for kids with sparkling stained glass. 

As I triangulated in on the Coonley house she stopped talking and was clearly speechless. In a twist of irony our stories had meshed as it turned out the Coonley's sold the house in 1917 to the Kreohler's. The "dark modern house" mom had played in as a kid was indeed the Avery Coonley house.  As we stood on the sidewalk, my 50 year old mother was able to describe the house to me in detail from memory. Four decades later she could remember her day there right down to the peeled grapes they had as a snack.  Heady stuff for a kid who lived above a bakery.

Chicago continues to reinvent itself with creative new downtown housing, new public buildings, museum's and parks. It never fails to inspire the best architects in the world to do their best. This is particularly evident in Frank Gehry's Millennium Park.

Children Play Beneath the 4 Story High Moving Faces in the
Fountain in Millennium Park

This is a City that has maintained its vibrant retail and financial core in "The Loop".  The "L" trains running above and the Metra trains running below keep people moving smoothly. This downtown is alive year round with theater, conventions, and sporting events. 

Besides being a feast for the eyes, it is kind to the tummy as well. With its roots in the meatpacking industry this is a city where you can always get a great steak. One of my favorite places for steaks is Gibson's on Rush Street. Housed in the space made famous as Mr. Kelley's, it has the proverbial "brag wall" of nearly every significant american icon of the last few decades. My family and I found it completely by accident (while my wife was looking for a bead shop). When we walked by we got an intoxicating whiff and dipped in around 4:00 pm.  Being early, we were seated quickly and proceeded to enjoy one of the best meals of our lives. When we left a couple of hours later the line was out the door and down the block.

This is not the City for vegan's. It is the City for Red Hots, deep dish pizza, Italian beef, and wonderful frozen custard.

While tourists flock to Pizzeria UNO where you stop in, order, and then take a stroll while it cooks. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the deep dish type of pizza, so I cross the street and go to the Weber Grill.

Like San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York, wherever you land in Chicago the food will probably be great.

Chicago's Museum's house stunning art (Chicago Art Institute), natural history (The Field Museum), and history (The Museum of Science and Industry). I love them all, but have a special place in my heart for the Museum of Science and Industry. What other museum has a full size german submarine, a full size Boeing 707 suspended from the ceiling, and a whole room filled with steam train engines. The scale of the place is just phenomenal.

This is not a City to spend "a day or two". It is a destination to absorb. While there also make sure to explore its close in "suburbs" and the legacy left by Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park.

Beyond Chicago venture out to wander the Morton Arboretum, the Brookfield Zoo, its college towns, and the lovely cities up and down the beautiful Fox River Valley.

Robert AM Stern in PBS's remarkable "Pride of Place" series called Chicago's suburbs "Arcadia for Everyone". He got that one right. I marvel at their streets with canopy trees, wide parkways, alleys with garages in the back, and those big old houses with wide "wave-at-your-neighbor" front porches with screened sleeping porches above. As I hear architects wax rhapsodic about the "new" concept of neo-traditional neighborhoods popping up around the country, I think of Chicago's burbs and chuckle a bit.

When you visit Chicago somewhere in heaven my mom is smiling.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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