Home from Chicago

Chicago skyline

Because the period of US history that interests me the most extends from the Civil War through the start of the 20th Century, Chicago was a natural destination for a site-seeing vacation. From the 1871 fire that destroyed a four mile long swath of the city to the 1893 world’s fair. events in Chicago did much to shape the lives we live today. I’ll elaborate on that theme in future posts but for now, here are some quick impressions of life in the Windy City in the summer of 2010.

Every day was sunny, humid and 90-degree hot, a consequence of the same heat wave that’s settled over New England for the past two weeks. The parks in Chicago are amazing. There’s an almost continuous strip running from south to north (Jackson, Grant, Millennium and Lincoln) roughly separating the most built up areas from Lake Michigan. One night as I sat in Millennium Park listening to one of the free outdoor concerts that run throughout the summer, I came to admire the city for preserving these parks. How tempting to say “think of the added tax revenue we’d get if we allowed a new skyscraper to be built here on this green space” but that would yield short term gain at a devastating long term cost because the parks do so much to make the city more livable. Just this morning, several hundred residents were stretched out on yoga mats and beach towels on the grass as an aerobics instructor led group exercises – another free event.

These parks provide a fitting front yard to Chicago’s amazing architecture. You can’t visit the city without noticing the amazing variety of tall buildings throughout, but on the first day of this visit I took a narrated architecture river cruise that really unveiled the beauty of these buildings. Ironically, Chicago’s dominance in architecture flowed from the need to rebuild after the devastation caused by the 1871 fire: If you were an architect in America in the 1870s, you went to Chicago where there was an entire city to rebuild.

But I’m not alone in acknowledging the attractiveness of the city’s buildings. This weekend, beginning at 8 pm Thursday and lasting until 8 am Monday, Michigan Ave (the main drag) was completely closed from the Chicago River for several blocks so that Hollywood could film scenes from Transformers 3. This morning the Michigan Avenue draw bridge was in the up position with a wrecked car teetering on the top edge while other wrecked cars and debris were strewn about the street. Supposedly, the cost of this rental to the producers was $20 million.

And now I’m back in Lowell and back to blogging. Thanks to Marie, Paul, Tony and Andrew for their posts while I was away. While I’m getting caught up with local events, I’ll write a few more things about my new favorite city.

10 Responses to Home from Chicago

  1. Corey says:

    New favorite? Wow. I’ve been trying to justify a trip to “America’s Second City” for a long time, but my East Coast snobbery always gets the best of me. I’ve had quite a few people tell me it’s a good place to visit, but then when you say “is it worth travelling the extra distance for what sounds like a smaller and flatter New York?” the answer leans towards no, with usually a hint of “it’s actually more Boston in feel” thrown in. What is uniquely Chicago that makes it worth going to? My favorite city is San Francisco, by the way. I know I just said I’m an East Coast snob, but it has that maritime/industrial/cultured feel of Boston with a much more laid back atmosphere and better weather.

  2. paul@01852 says:

    Coincidentally I also was in Chicago this past week but just for one day. I spent the majority of the time visiting the Museum of Science and Industry which is one of the only buildings still standing from the 1893 Columbian Exposition.Following my museum visit we travelled north to the Navy Pier for a late lunch/early dinner @ Harry Carey’s who do a nice job on a fat juicy hamburger! Harry’s also has a lot of baseball memorabilia seeing as Harry was for many years the announcer for Chicago’s White Sox for 11 years and ended his career as announcer for the Northside Cubs. He was especially famous for leading the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in his own unique style and for exclaiming “Holy Cow!” whenever there was an exciting moment during a game.

  3. DickH says:

    Someone said the New York, Boston and even San Francisco have a European feel to them (which having been to Europe several times I would tend to concur) while Chicago is a purely American city. To me, the physical aspects of Chicago – the parks, the river, the lake, the public and private buildings – all mesh together better than they do in Boston or New York.

    There’s really no excuse not to go. Compared to East Coast prices, food and lodging are quite reasonable and Southwest flies from Manchester to Chicago Midway several times each day.

  4. JoeS says:

    As a recent visitor to Chicago I would agree that it is special, although maybe not my “favorite” – so far that is Boston, because of its history.

    But Chicago has a different history that is also worth investigating. I just finished reading “Devil in White City” which tells the story of the creation of the Columbian Fair (White City), and the macabre exploits of one of its citizens (Devil) in that time. The landscape for the Fair was a creation of Olmsted of Tyler Park “fame”. The feat of pulling that off in such a short time gave a lot of credibility to the architects of Chicago.

    In visiting the city I was surprised by the expanse (not a walking city, at least not all at once) and the height (I believe 4 of the 5 tallest buildings in the Western hemisphere are in Chicago). And the Chicago river is an engineering marvel in itself, the only river in the world whose flow was reversed by man. Riding a boat through the canyon of buldings is quite an experience. It will be nice if someday we can take a similar ride through the much stubier canyon on the Pawtucket Canal in the dowtown area of Lowell.

  5. DickH says:

    I purchased “Devil in the White City” in Chicago and just finished it. Reading it while I was out there added a lot to my visit and to my reading of the book. We visited the Museum of Science and Industry which is the only building in Chicago still standing from the 1893 Columbian Exposition (which celebrated the 401th anniversary of the “discovery” of America.

    While you can do a lot of walking, I agree that Chicago is not a “walkable” city in the sense that Boston might be. Trains, buses and taxis are essential to getting around, especially when it’s 90+ degrees.

    Finally, I should have clarified that my “new favorite city” label on Chicago meant “besides Boston”

  6. Jamison Tomasek says:

    There is a great PBS series on Chicago history. I’m sure it’s available via Netflix.

    I actually grew up near Chicago (and went to Carl Sandburg HS!). It is certainly very very different to living in Boston/New England, where I have been for the last 28 years.

  7. Maxine says:

    Chicago native here, it is a great place to visit . . . and a great place to be from. Strange as it may seem, Lowell is about the same size as the neighborhood I grew up in . . . and has about the same size population. The Museum of Science and Industry was a few blocks from my grandmothers house and for many years it was our playground.

    When I was growing up we lived 8 miles north of downtown. . . in high school we would go downtown every Saturday, to go to movies, or to shop, or to go to the Art Institute. A few times we forgot to save carfare and ended up having to walk home . . . Mostly though we depended on public transportation.

    I can remember studying Burnham’s plan for Chicago when I was in high school . . . long after I moved away, my father would send me updates on the new buildings that were going up in the Loop . . . and on the public art that was an essential part of any walking tour of Downtown.

    I’m glad you enjoyed Chicago . . . but, no comments on the Chicago hot dog????

  8. Greg Page says:

    While we’re talking great cities, I’ve got to put a plug in here for Montreal. I was just up there two weekends ago for my third time ever, and every time I go I think, “This city is an incredible cultural experience/resource just a few hours from home, and I should do this more often.”

    You don’t get the amazing exchange rate that you would have, say, 10 years ago, but Montreal is still an easy drive from Greater Boston (or even greater NYC if you take the NY Thruway) and it’s relatively inexpensive. Tons of the great things discussed in the comments above (walkability, culture, history, food, etc.)

    From the architecture, signs, language, etc. you know you’re not in the States, but it’s so close you could very realistically wake up and have breakfast at home, jump in the car, and be in downtown Montreal by lunchtime.

    I haven’t made it up to Quebec City yet but look forward to doing so in the future.

  9. DickH says:

    Maxine, we spent one day at Museum of Science and Industry and roaming around the University of Chicago campus. I had to see the sight of the first sustained nuclear reaction and the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. We ate lunch at a great place called Medici where the waitstaff wear t-shirts that say “Obama ate here”. I had a hot dog on a prior trip and it was excellent but didn’t have a chance this time.

    Greg, Montreal is a great cosmopolitan place but be sure to get to Quebec City asap. It’s like it was plucked right out of the middle of France – completely unlike Montreal. And it’s filled with history. I retraced the steps of my ancestor (I wish) then Captain William Howe who led the British troops up the steep path from the river to the Plains of Abraham. Then I found the spots where Benedict Arnold was wounded and General Montgomery killed while trying to capture the city on New Year’s Eve 1775. It was weird to read historical plaques praising the stout defenders for repelling the invading hordes when the invading hordes were American soldiers.

  10. Maxine says:

    When I was a kid, my aunt and grandmother lived in Hyde Park while my aunt worked on her doctorate at the University of Chicago . . . I spent a lot of summers on campus, tucked in the libraries. The U of C campus of the 60’s shaped my idea of what a university should look like. . . gray, granite, Gothic. When I got to Boston it took a very long time for me to wrap my head around plain Jane, red brick Harvard as university . . . the architecture was just ALL wrong!