Chicago September 2019
Now we’re living in New York we want to explore as much of the US as possible. Once you’ve got off the runway tarmac it’s only about 2 hours in the air from New York to Chicago, a city I’ve heard about from friends, books and movies for years but never seen. Once in the Windy City we took the Blue Line subway train from O’Hare airport and 50 minutes later were dropping our backpacks at the hotel in Chicago’s downtown district ‘The Loop’. Dave went online and booked an architectural boat tour recommended by a local. We headed straight out to join it, dropping in to buy snacks from what must be the most architecturally impressive Walgreens situated on the ground floor of the beautiful Wrigleys Building.
Our initial walk out in to this area called The Loop quite simply dazzled us. I personally wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the turquoise river running through the city bordered either side by the stunning buildings and the bridges spanning it. The colours and details are extraordinary. Bright sunlight reflected from one soaring monumental facade to another. Acres of glass glitters as it hugs the lines of the river. Glamorous 1920s and 30s behemoths shoulder their weight in marble and granite amongst the contemporary skyscrapers. And all of this solidly anchored by the moveable iron bridges connecting one side to the other.We accessed the sightseeing boat from a point along the River Walk. We booked with Architecture.com Chicago’s First Lady Boat and associated with The Chicago Architecture Centre. 90 minutes flew by as we cruised around the river with an informative guide who loved her subject and shared details of the buildings we passed along the waterfront. You get a fantastic perspective from a boat, looking straight up at these structures which loom upwards out of the bedrock they’re secured to. Details of rooftop water ballasts and open spaces built scores of levels above to protect skyscrapers from the buffeting 30 mile winds. Hulking Bascule bridges (a personal favourite). Buildings like beehives. And one of my favourites, the 1968 corn cob shaped Bertrand Golding Marina City, built as a city within a city incorporating its own food stores, bowling alley, and marina. Resembling something from Blade Runner with its stacked car parking hovering above the river which looks fascinatingly precarious viewed from the outside.
I couldn’t get a good photo due to scaffolding but the Chicago Tribune newspaper building, Tribune Tower, is neo-Gothic architecture and bizarrely features fragments from the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, and the Great Pyramid, allegedly embedded in to its exterior! And two absolute behemoths, The Civic Opera Building soars boldly from the rivebank.Whilst the huge 1930’s Merchandise Mart sprawls outwards and at 400,000 square feet is so large that it has its own postcode. The boat tour leads out towards Lake Michigan to the Navy Pier ferris wheel and another two interesting buildings; Lake Point Tower a luxiourous apartment complex with bronze-tinted glass and a gold-anodized aluminum facade. Designed by George Schipporeit and John Heinrich, who were architectural students of Ludwig Mies van der Roh.And the beautiful 1930’s Chicago Union Station Power House, an Art Moderne design from architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White built to generate and supply power to operate a system of trains and buildings. Currently owned by Amtrak it’s sadly on the endangered building list facing demolition. I really recommend this boat tour, it’s a fantastic introduction to the city and a relaxing way to learn about the architecture and history from the viewpoint of the river. You cover a hell of a lot in the 90 minutes. People I Met Today. Andre standing on the Columbus Drive Bridge blowing bubbles to the passing sightseeing boats on the river. “I’m homeless but this is my way of spreading joy. I want people to be happy. I’m Chicago born and bred. This is a great city.” The guide on our architectural boat tour gave Andre a shout out when we passed under the bridge…so we went up to find him and say hello.We walked over to join the river walk on the opposite side….it bustled with Friday afternoon workers coming out of their offices to start the weekend and tourists heading down to the riverside bars and restaurants.
People I Met Today. Stephanie, Chicago. She was pretty tipsy hence the pair of underpants on her head. “Take my photo, hey you take my photo!” Still very photogenic despite being three sheets to the wind. Out on the town on Friday 13th with her work colleagues….and her Boss! Good luck on Monday Stephanie…ha ha! She was as mad as a box of frogs. Trying out our first Chicago Deep Dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s which was less of a pizza and more of a shortcrust pastry pie which takes 45 minutes to make. Unfortunately they got our order wrong… twice… and at that cooking time we made do and got a reduced bill eating what we didn’t order but had a fun evening laughing with Kurt and Christina from Philly on the next table….who were also served the wrong order! I’m sticking to traditional pizza, takes 10 minutes, more tasty.Walking back to the hotel we stopped for a while to stand and look out over the Merchandise Mart which in summer projects famous works of art and theatrical pieces on to the facade of this huge building. Turns out the hotel has a club; lousy night of sleep trying to block out banging EDM tunes. Lying in bed on Saturday morning we looked up breakfast ideas from friends. Little Goat Chicago offers Fat Elvis Waffles but no free tables. So we repacked our bags and left them at reception for a room change and hit the streets, eating breakfast at The Smith with its beautiful black and white mosaic tiled floors and brasserie style bar. Walking to Millennium Park we see a fantastic mural of Muddy Waters by Brazilian street artist Kobra, not far up the street from a Chicago Theatre with a beautiful sign.
The star of Millenium Park. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate with its reflections of the stunning Chicago architecture on one side and the trippy reflections of people gathered underneath it. Standing at approximately 10 metres high and shaped like a giant curved jellybean it’s mirror finish is made from 168 stainless steel plates welded together. A walk through the colourful flowerbeds leads to the Millenium Park’s Crown Fountains (at the Michigan Avenue/Monroe Street entrance) which randomly ‘spit’ water on to excitable kids. Designed by Jaume Plensa, the two fountains are 50-foot-tall video boards featuring changing faces of people from Chicago. A short walk from the park to the Chicago Arts Institute to see Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, something which is wonderful to see in real life after seeing it replicated everywhere for years. I love the way he depicts the angular familiar bulk of the buildings contrasted with his incredible use of light. Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Coincidentally my friend Jayne had texted me a photo a little earlier of her son Jed’s school art project where he’d replaced the male figure’s face with his own. I bought the postcard to send to him and later that evening we saw American Gothic again…projected on to the Merchandise Mart. A bizarre theme to be following us around Chicago. And among the rest of the big hitters like the Pollocks and Picasso’s… some personal favourites. From top left clockwise: Rainbow Prismatic by Piet Mondrian, The Shattered Tree by Otto Dix, The Leap of the Rabbit by Souza-Cardoso, Madame Paul Escudier by John Singer Sergeant, The Annunciation by Jay DeFeo and Farm near Duivendrecht by Piet Mondrian.
Across the street to The Palmer Hotel allegedly where the chocolate brownie was invented. A lavishly decorated main ‘salon’. From there we wanted to get out to some neighbourhoods and explore outside of ‘The Loop’. A subway train ride to Clark/Division station to the Northwest side of Chicago to Wicker Park, with buildings dating to 1870 where we walked the beautiful tree lined avenues of Victorian houses. There are some fabulous residential homes on N. Hoyne Street from Queen Anne to Second Empire style. Polished granite and decorative porches, wrought iron fences, steep walk up steps, turrets and gingerbread style wooden detailing.
Out on the main street of N. Ashland Avenue it’s grittier but with character. Low rise taco and hamburger joints mixed in with independent shops and art galleries.
People I Met Today. Carlos working at Dusty Grooves, one of the best record stores we’ve been in. Really well racked and friendly staff…no music snobbery! A fantastic selection of vinyl plus one of my favourite musicians played here for the store’s 15th Anniversary; Phil Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. Damn. I wish I could have been here for that. Look up a track by them called ‘The Minstrel’ and try to sit still whilst it plays. Carlos if you ever see this post you won’t believe how many people are hankering after your cardigan. Stylish….very very stylish.
We ate tacos at Big Star sitting outdoors not far from the elevated train line, served by our lovely handsome waiter who had a 1970’s Californian vibe going on but with blue nail varnish. He gave us loads of local tips to seek out the next day. After stuffing our faces with tacos we wandered in and out of the shops and independent boutiques lining N. Milwaukee Avenue.
People I Met Today. Looking like a Princess…Selma modelling for a photo shoot for a local business and wearing a huge bead embellished gown “I’m worried about how we are going to fit in the car!”Back to The Loop where we sat under the trees planted among the steep steps designed as seating along the riverbank, watching the water taxis, tour boats, kayakers and random hen night (bachelorette) pedal boats negotiate each other. It’s only one can of Stella away from disaster. Sunday morning we took the red line train to Belmont to explore the LGBTQ neighbourhood of Boystown in Lakeview; the first officially recognised gay village in the US and a cultural centre for the community. We walked around the streets of Halsted and N. Broadway where rainbow crosswalks and ‘rainbow pylons’ celebrate LGBTQ people and historical landmarks. The Chicago Pride Parade takes place yearly in this area on the last Sunday of each June.
The streets were very quiet but if you’ve been partying hard the night before I wouldn’t expect it to be jumping on a Sunday morning. We asked some locals where to head next and they pointed us in the direction of a local art fair just a few blocks away. The artwalk was fun, a lot of it a bit too commerical for what we like personally but there were some great photographers showing their work… check out Scott Fincher http://www.scottfincher.com for his thought provoking vintage black and white photos and Hillary Johnson https://www.hillaryjohnsonphoto.com for her beautiful landscape photography.
People I Met Today. Mack in Boystown at the art walk. “Mack. As in the Mack truck. I am a Megalodon Shark…always moving”. He talked a lot about Egyptology…I think his reference was actually the TV show ‘Stargate’. It was a bit confusing. A fascinating character…and I looked it up; the Megalodon shark was the largest shark in the world that became extinct around 3.6 million years ago. You never know what you’re going to learn in random conversations with a stranger. Leaving Boystown and walking N. Clark Street we didn’t realise that our route would take us right by Wrigley Field where a big Cubs game was already underway. All along N. Clark leading to the stadium, sports bars spilled out fans in the blue and orange club colours, some heading to the stadium others watching the game on giant TVs in the bars. One bar had chairs shaped like giant baseball mitts another had chandeliers made from baseball bats and everywhere was saturated in the colours. We watched as hundreds of people filed in to the iconic stadium. We could hear the sports commentary floating out over the top carried by the breeze. Great atmosphere on the street. It’s a controversial subject but I wasn’t in the least bit tempted to go to the game being as every US sports game I’ve attended so far has gone on for hours and hours…. and hours, with tons of commercial breaks. Sorry my American friends…but I just can’t hack it. We were actually heading to Graceland Cemetery…deserted other than a handful of other wanderers and a small group on a graveyard tour. I wanted to see the statue of Eternal Silence grave marker for the ironically named Dexter Graves. A bronze suplture backdropped by sparkling black granite, it strikes a spookily intimidating pose peering out from under it’s hood. Dexter Graves led a group of 13 families from Ohio to settle in Chicago in 1831 and died 75 years before Lorado Taft’s statue was erected. Folklore myth predicts that if you look in to the eyes of the statue you will see a vision of your own death. I did….and I didn’t. Thankfully.
It’s an attractive cemetery with some handsome tombs. My favourite were the three grave markers below, presumably a family. There’s a wonderful personality and poignancy about them.Worn out from walking we took a taxi to Logan Square Farmers Market set up during the summer outdoors every Sunday from 10am til 3pm on 3107 W Logan Blvd…it moves indoors for winter. As food markets go, it’s not bad and must cater well to locals but as a visitor there wasn’t much to hold us here longer than a 10 minute stroll through. It’s a lot more urban on the main streets around Logan Square than some of the other neighbourhoods, it’s got a similar hipster vibe that turned in to the behemoth of Williamsburg in New York. It’s going through gentrification with bars, clubs, and restaurants settling in. There’s also the old Logan Theatre and Logan Square Auditorium, formerly an historic ballroom built in 1915. The original train line is now the 606 bike trail.
There’s some small boutique style shops and upmarket clothing stores, street art which is now ubiqutous to trendy city neighbourhoods. Feeling hungry we ate at The Whale at 2427 N.Milwaukee Avenue. It’s got a high rollers gambling theme, hence its name. It’s a bit flashy for a late brunch but they’ve obviously spent a lot of time and love designing the place and it looks pretty cool. Better still was the excellent service we got and the delicious food; crabcakes with béarnaise sauce with a hint of a chilli kick were fantastic…and this was the only place we ate in Chicago that got our order right from start to finish. And don’t miss the toilets, I’d love to know where they got the gorgeous wallpaper from. Photos below taken from their website. https://thewhalechicago.com/Dogs I Met Today! Chai in Chicago. Walking his owners around Logan Square. “He’s like the David Bowie of dogs.” Young owner “Other people have said that too”. Latino mum “Who’s David Bowie?” Lovely people. Chicago is a very friendly city.Back at our hotel to rest up for a bit from 2 solid days of 8 miles of walking each day we were driven out of our new room, having been moved once, by the repetitive beats of banging EDM music. We’re big music fans but this was way too intrusive for a hotel; their website manifesto ironically states “peace and welcome.” We asked to be moved again but no free rooms even on a Sunday afternoon so out again for more walking we ended up back by the riverside just as a taxi boat was pulling in. 30 minutes up the river at dusk to Chinatown where a fantastic hulking old iron bridge sounded a horn to signal that it was about to move upwards to let through a wide load-carrying river barge. Now owned by Amtrak this 1915 vertical lift railroad bridge is close to Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park, just a little up the river from where our Chicago taxi boat pulled in. We watched as a group of women near the riverside lit chinese lanterns to mark the three year anniversary of the death of a friend from cancer. They floated up carrying their messages written on the fragile paper, their poingnant personal memorial made me think of my friend Jules who died 3 years ago this August.
A walk in to Chinatown was made more interesting when we stumbled in to a private resident’s pathway. Vines curling up around fire escape stairs and sitting in the middle of the residential suburban houses, overgrown almost to be hidden, was a temple. Incongruous amid the hard red brick boxes. The main drag of Chinatown resembled a strip mall of low rise brick buildings, no doubt more lively whilst trading during the day but nothing to hold us here on a Sunday evening when most places are closed other than the Chinese restaurants. I peered through the back door of one to watch the cooks with their woks…waving when they saw me.We walked back through Ping Tom Memorial Park crossing the open railway tracks where signal lights cast an eerie red on to shrubby bushes scrambling at the edge of the tracks. Back at the taxi boat landing it was pretty much deserted. The Chicago Taxi boats only charge $10 for an all day pass and it’s a great way to see Chicago at night but if you can afford to join one, they can’t replace the architecture boat tour for the information and insight you get about the buildings. People I Met Today. Bunny in Chicago in the Loop district waiting for a car. Inspired by the Harajuku sub culture style in Japan. “I get my outfits from San Francisco and from Japan.” Bunny looked fabulous.One last night in the hotel trying to sleep through the EDM music still playing in to the early hours and the next morning it was goodbye Chicago. Leaving on a foggy morning a final walk over the bridge, we’d seen this fabulous river dazzled by sun, glittering at night and now wreathed with mist. It’s a view that will impress whatever the weather’s throwing at it. Sure we wanted to punch the hotel DJ square in the face and we didn’t like the infamous Chicago pizza pie…but this was a great 3 night trip to a city with class. Get in now before it’s overrun with hen and stag nights…you can see it sneaking in. And time for one last ‘People I Met Today’. Scott also on his way to the airport. I saw him at the subway station and said “Hey! Maybe you’re flying our plane!” His reply “Not flying it but maybe working on it!” Turned out we were both heading to JFK and both flying out at 12.30pm…rode the subway all the way there chatting about our travels and favourite countries…and he was on a different airline. Near missed big coincidences. I told him I’d wave from our plane as we raced him to New York.I haven’t named the hotel as they’ve agreed to refund us in full which was fair enough. All I can say is make sure you research on trip advisor before you book anything because this place did have a lot of reviews complaining about the club bar and the music going on late in to the night.