CHICAGO – Chicago’s weather can be murderous: Heat waves have been known to kills hundreds, and bitter cold snaps last for months. But the Windy City in late summer can also suddenly take on the feel of an urban Lake Tahoe. Retail, museums and parks rival Paris. One can even imagine the Mediterranean in Spain from the sands of the city’s beaches.
A recent trip was a lucky one. The weather was nearly perfect, the breezes off Lake Michigan positively alpine, temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s.
That was important, because the longer you can be outside in Chicago, the better to see its landmarks, neighborhoods, stunning parks and waterways. The weather will usually inform your itinerary in this town, from taking in a game at Wrigley Field to climbing aboard a tall ship for a cruise in the lake.
But we’re guessing you know that already, and this ain’t Travelocity.
Aboard the Chicago’s First Lady.
The CAF estimates that 175,000 folks a year take these cruises (there are three ferries), staffed by volunteer docents like Marie Spicuzza, who charmed a jam-packed 3 p.m. cruise with her encyclopedic knowledge, delivered in an unmistakably cheerful mid-Western accent, tangy with Chicago colloquialisms.
Asked if she ever tires of giving the same schpiel over and over again, like a live-action PowerPoint presentation, Spicuzza was unequivocal. “No, not at all,” she said. “The buildings, the skyline – they are always changing.”
Even in recession, the story changes. That’s because, at least with Spicuzza, the ownership of the towers is touched on as well as the styles and history. In fact, Spicuzza informed the boatload of gawkers that the Sears Tower, the 110-story icon at 233 S. Wacker Drive, would soon no longer be the Sears Tower. Shortly afterward – during our visit, in fact – it officially became the Willis Tower, named for its new owner, London-based insurance giant Willis Group Holdings.
Something tells me that “Sears Tower” will hang on for quite a while, though.
The cruise starts on the river’s Main Branch, which extends from the Navy Pier on Lake Michigan through downtown. The city’s infrastructural quirkiness is first encountered here, where engineers – in 1900 – did nothing less than reverse the river’s direction to protect the lake from the city’s mounting sewage problem and bring in clean water to the city. A massive lock was built at the mouth of the river in 1930 to regulate intake from the lake.
“That is the ultimate example of a city that prizes its waterfront, and it always has,” said Chicago native Tom Corcoran, the incoming president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., speaking at a recent Penn Institute for Urban Research event. “[Burnham’s plan] said that 29 miles of the waterfront will be forever open and preserved for public use.”
The river turns starboard along the North Branch, and the cruise makes a U-turn and motors down the South Branch before turning around and coming back. Perspectives change dramatically on the return trip.
Part of the scene at the Pritzker on a Friday night.
I’ve been to tons of weddings, but I’ve never seen a dance floor with as many smiles. And I’ve been to my share of outdoor concerts, but never observed as many people actually dancing (Dead shows don’t really count).
The city-for-adults theme was evidenced at Wrigley, too. It’s not that there weren’t many kids there – this was a Sunday afternoon, after all. But Wrigley – its confines indeed as friendly as lore has it – doesn’t seem to brook constant back-and-forth from the seats to the concessions for ice cream, then cotton candy, then a souvenir, then nachos and a another Coke, etc. You can get all that stuff in the one main concourse, but it seemed like mostly hotdogs or bratwurst and a cup of Old Style (which is no Yuengling, but beats a Bud or a Miller Lite). People get in their seats and stay there, for the most part. Sure, there are plenty of beer runs, but they happen between innings, when they should.
To call the Pritzker Pavilion a “band shell” is like calling the Philadelphia Museum of Art a place to hang paintings. Taking five years to construct (opening in 2004, most of Millennium Park was over-budget and a little late to mark the kickoff to the new millennium, but whatever), the Pritzker is the home of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the free Grant Park Music Festival. The distinct design is complimented by an overhead “trellis” – which again seems like an understatement, since the 22 lattice-like arches form a complicated sound system as well as a wondrous work of art in itself. With weatherproof speakers mounted everywhere, the sound is supposed to be carried up and over the great lawn in such a way that millisecond delays replicate concert hall acoustics. Sadly, I didn’t get chance to confirm this.
As for the “Cloud Gate” sculpture by Anish Kapoor, photos don’t do it justice. As with the Crown Fountain and the grounds of the Pritzger, the main ingredient, judging by visitors’ reactions, is simply joy.
In the Mexican / Italian neighborhood, southwest of downtown.
“Agora,” statuary art installation by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Grant Park.
Contact the reporter at www.ThomasJWalsh.info.