Seeing America, Part 4 – Chicago

Whenever I tell people that I love Chicago and that I used to live there, the most common response usually goes something like “Oh, I love the Field Museum / Shedd Aquarium / Art Institute!” or, “You must love going to the Taste of Chicago!” or, “How many time have you been in the Sears (now Willis) Tower?”

However, just like most Memphians never visit Graceland, most people from Chicago rarely go the the Taste and only go to these landmarks when friends or family visit. These attractions attract tourists, but they are not what make Chicago great. Chicago has character.  It’s a tough city with a heart of gold.  It’s the best urbanity and Midwestern work ethic. The Jay Pritzker Pavilon, designed by Frank Gehry is the center of Millennium Park and embodies these contradictions in the way that the rear elevation highlights the support beams necessary for the polished face. Chicago embraces its contradictions – that’s what makes it great.

Jay Pritzker Pavilon – Wikipedia Commons

Really, when I think of why I love Chicago, I always go to its neighborhoods. Even with 2.7 million people in the city and over 9 million in the metro area, your neighborhood can feel like a small town. For example, I used to live in an area called Uptown. The area is known for some of the best music venues in the city: the Aragon Ballroom and the Riveria. Less than a block away sits the Green Mill, one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world. Al Capone had his own booth, and jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Al Jolson performed there. Only a few block away is Argyle Street, home to some of the best Viet-Thai
restaurants and stories. The best Pho in the city is served by Tank Noodle. I share all of this because when I lived there, it was my home. The baristas at my local coffee shop knew my order. I knew the servers at Tank by name.  To me, that’s Chicago.

The other best feature of Chicago is its lakeshore.  Unlike most industrial midwestern cities (Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit), Chicago did not sacrifice its shoreline to industry. The 1909 Burnham Plan was an ambitious attempt at urban design that preserved this space. Every person who bicycles to work along Lake Michigan and every tourist who walks from museum to museum can thank the legacy of this plan. Other cities emulate Chicago; when I visited Mud Island for the first time, I thought, “Thanks Daniel Burnham.”

Chicago is a great city, but like Memphis it struggles with poverty and crime. Gun and gang violence are rampant in some parts of the city. Chicago has had over 2000 shooting victims this year already. In the last couple years, stories have surfaced about a Chicago Police Department “black site” in which the CPD detained and tortured African American suspects, denying them due process. Violence isn’t new to Chicago. For example, the events in Dallas this week reminded me of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in which someone (perhaps a Pinkerton seeking to discredit protesting laborers) threw a bomb killing protesters and police alike.

In the end, the museums, the lake, the neighborhoods, the racism, and the violence are all part of Chicago. However, when you love something, you love it better when you know its flaws.

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