Chicago is the sprawling metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan, known for its magnificent and innovative architecture. With three million people, it is the largest city in the Mid-West, and the third largest in the U.S. Like some of her inhabitants, she has a glamorous reputation and a filthy past. My cousins are recent transplants to the Windy City and invited us to stay over the Memorial Day weekend. I knew they would take care of the glamour, and I would have to dig up the skeletons on my own.
The poet Carl Sandburg described Chicago as the “Hog butcher of the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat, player with railroads and the nations freight handler; stormy, husky, brawling City of the Big Shoulders”. I looked up historical pictures of the city and found gloomy, unsettling images of the legendary slaughter houses, Al Capone wielding a machine gun, criminals and prostitutes slinking around back alley Blues bars. Extreme pictures showing radical weather conditions from glacial freezes to sweaty street urchins desperate for shade under the clattering elevated railway.
In 1837, four thousand brave souls declared the swamp land on the southern shores of Lake Michigan a city. Grand sewer projects including a reversal of the Chicago River were needed to stop residents from dropping dead of typhoid. Decades of dirty dedicated work began to make the city liveable. In 1865 the Union Stock Yard became the largest employer in the Mid-West. Millions of pigs and cows and many workers as well, suffered unspeakable deaths in seas of blood. Upton Sinclair’s stirring novel “The Jungle” described the punishing conditions of the employees, and inspired the government to form the Food & Drug Administration. In 1871 The Great Fire of Chicago destroyed most of the downtown area and left three hundred dead and one hundred thousand homeless. After the fire, the city passed a law prohibiting wooden structures in downtown. Local architect William Le Baron Jenney saw this as an opportunity and designed the Home Insurance Building in 1874. This innovative structure was ten stories tall
with a steel skeleton and gave rise to the term skyscraper. Jenney’s design paved the way for the canyons of tall buildings in downtown Chicago and improved the lives of the locals beyond measure.
The flourishing economy of the 20th century brought waves of European immigrants eager to build a better life for themselves. The Italian and Irish communities hold on to their traditions to this day. (The St. Patricks Day parade is the largest celebration of its kind in the world, with 13% of Chicagoans identifying themselves as Irish.) The availability of industrial jobs attracted blacks from the Southern states also in search of better living standards. Racial tensions flared in these early years with only so many jobs to go around, and this brought forth a new form of expression: The Blues. Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and Nat King Cole all made their mark in Chicago’s rough and tumble music scene. In 1919 Prohibition came into force and the sale of alcohol became illegal. Gangster culture was born from the illicit trade in booze and was defined by John Dillinger, Al Capone and the mean streets of the south side.
Chicago’s growing pains have long been assigned to the history books, as the modern city is gorgeous and gleaming, open-minded and cosmopolitan. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the brutal weather. After a shocking winter and every resident speaking of the Polar Vortex, spring sprung just in time for our arrival. My cousins pad was on the 23rd floor of a five star building with full on views of Lake Michigan. Looking out at the dazzling view and popping the cork on a bottle of Moet, Frank Sinatra’s tune came to mind: “My kind of town, Chicago is”.
It wasn’t long before we were sipping our first martinis and preparing for a giddy swirl through Chicago’s nightlife. This is a city that takes libation very seriously, and there are thousands of restaurants and bars to satisfy every kind of appetite. After visiting several chic watering holes, we stopped for a bite at popular BBQ bistro to sample some of Chicago’s famous hams. The entire evening’s consumption consisted of vodka and ham, and by the end of the night I was declaring we had found a new weight loss program: The Vodka & Ham Diet. “I’ve lost three days already!”
The next day was beautiful and sunny and it was the perfect time to explore the city from the perspective of the Chicago River. Many of the city’s most magnificent slender monoliths are lined up along the banks. The Trump Tower shimmering in blue, the outer space corn cobs of the Marina City complex, the grandeur of the Wrigley Building and the golden crested Carbide and Carbon tower. There are over fifty bridges along the river and the banks now feature green spaces and inviting promenades. The colossal Merchandise Mart built in 1931 has the largest square footage of any building in the U.S. save for the Pentagon. Breathing down on it all is the 110 storey Willis Tower, the world’s tallest building from 1973 until 1996. After our river cruise, it was time to get stuck into another Chicago favourite. A big steak dinner at The Cut on the banks of the river, serving the best beef in the U.S of A. If you want a table here on St. Patricks Day when the river is dyed
green, you better book several years in advance.
Sunday was another gorgeous day, and we decided to explore the waterfront. Navy Pier is a natural place to begin, but it was closed for renovations. We walked down the lake front passing joggers, fishermen and then on to the golden sand beaches! You can easily pretend you are in a holiday seaside destination complete with beach bars and volleyball players. Lake Michigan is so vast, you cannot see across it even on the clearest days. It is 307 miles wide and over 1,000 feet deep. The only thing that gives it away, are the skyscrapers lurking beyond the deep blue waters. Most prominent is the fabulous black Hancock Tower
known as “Big John”. From there, we turned into Lincoln Park, the largest and most popular green space in the city featuring the delightful (and free) zoo of the same name.
Across town we visited the new Millennium Park (a bit of a misnomer, as it opened in 2004). This is a fantastic urban park where the city’s culinary festivals are held. It features an amphitheatre designed by Frank Ghery and the instantly iconic Cloud Gate, commonly known as “The Bean”. This huge reflective sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor unites the skyline and the sky with the hundreds of people standing around gawking at it. It is a fascinating piece of art, and has already become a symbol for the city. Nearby is the Art Institute of Chicago. This is one of the world’s greatest museums and features celebrated paintings such as Edward Hoppers Night Hawks and American Gothic by Grant Wood. It is also has the largest
collection of Monet’s anywhere in the world including Paris. Just around the corner from The Art Institute you can get your kicks at the official starting point of Route 66.
We rounded out our stay in Chicago with a train ride out to the leafy suburbs and a fabulous BBQ with friends. There are some very desirable towns just outside of the city that offer big beautiful houses around idyllic little Main Street’s. Both city and suburbs are served by the second busiest airport in the U.S. Chicago O’Hare has eight runways welcoming over thirty million visitors a year. Ten million business travellers funnel billions into the city’s coffers and from the looks of the immaculate city, they seem to be investing it well. America’s richest woman, Oprah Winfrey created her media empire here. Chicago is clearly big and bold with “broad shoulders”. Friendly, lively and optimist, it is truly one of the Great American Cities. My kind of town, indeed.