Chicago welcomed us but presented quite the challenge to us travelers. We arrived in Chicago just in time to watch the Cubs win the World Series, a monumental event that we participated in as faux locals. That weekend there was an Ireland vs. New Zealand international rugby tournament at Soldier Field that jammed the streets, bars, and pubs with a bunch of Irishmen and New Zealanders. We drank alongside them and enjoyed their Irish folk songs. We focused on being tourists on our day off, Monday, checking several items off the list. But then Election Day happened, and again the city became difficult to navigate, especially near our hotel, which was on the adjacent corner of the Trump Tower. Protests erupted, crowding the streets, and an overall feeling of gloom settled throughout the city. All of these events combined to present a pretty crazy time to be in Chicago; for good or bad, we were able to witness historic events. The city pulled at our heartstrings and allowed us to ride with it on this roller coaster. On the traveler front, I was starting to feel as though I did not get a chance to fully experience the city because we were always navigating around these events. But then again, maybe I actually got a chance to see the real Chicago, one full of vibrant life, with highs and lows and multiple points of view.
Chicago is an international city, with many languages being spoken around me on the streets, but it still has a distinct Midwest quality, seemingly aware of the farmland and “rust belt” that surround it. Though a sprawling metropolis, it is not overwhelming. The city is laid out on a grid, mass transit is accessible, and neighborhoods outside of downtown house most of the locals. Chicago is known as a beautiful city, with celebrated architecture lining the riverfront. This is due to the well-known and devastating Chicago Fire of 1871. No one is sure how it started, but many believe the story of a cow kicking over a lantern. After the fire, they decided to consciously rebuild the city, keeping beauty in mind. Notable architects have left their mark, such as Frank Lloyd Wright. The city also preserved 23 miles of public land along the shore of Lake Michigan, of which it faces. There are parks, beaches, bike lanes, marinas, and sidewalks all along the shore, with the dominating city skyline just behind it. Maggie Dog particularly enjoys Montrose Dog Beach and all of the parking and grass surrounding it. Lincoln Park has a free zoo, and Millennium Park houses the Cloud Gate sculpture, typically nicknamed “the bean,” as well as one of the best playgrounds I have ever seen. Maggie Dog and I strolled the paths and gazed at the buildings, the lake, and the river often. We were able to feel the rhythm of the city as we walked around the heart of it, aware that it was pushing energy into the extremities of the Chicagoan neighborhoods outside of the loop.
We tried to enjoy as much of it as we could. We drove by Wrigley Field, walked the newly developed 606 trail, and had brunch in Andersonville. We did the architectural boat tour and went to the Chicago Institute of Art. But the events of the two weeks just seemed to dominate our agenda, as well as seeing friends. Known as a theatre town, the city supports three Broadway houses, several Tony recognized regional theatres, and a thriving storefront theatre scene. There were many lunches and dinners with jovial communing and old friends. I did the Chicago Prohibition Tour one night, where we went to four old speakeasies. It was a history tour with alcohol, so right up my alley. Our guide discussed the politics of the time, as the legislation was a national policy, but it was left to the states to fund and the local government to implement. Well, the Chicagoan police force was predominately made up of Irish Catholics, who took offense to the prohibition law; it seemed targeted towards European Catholic immigrants. Add to it the fact that the gangs known as the Italians, the Sicilians, and the Northsiders all had plenty of money to pay the cops off, and the speakeasies thrived. A green door let people know that alcohol was served at that establishment. They brought in jazz bands to play music or burlesque shows to perform, and the idea of nightlife was born. It is still a cornerstone of the general feeling of Chicago today. Many continue to speak Italian in their restaurants, an Irish bloke will pour you a whiskey in a pub, and a general knowledge of the mob is fairly present in the plush booths of the steakhouses. Chicago blues and jazz clubs populate the music scene. When we would go out in the evening, the bars would be championed with businessmen singing alongside a piano man. Sometimes I half expected to see Al Capone or Gatsby walk through the door. With this in mind, the city just has an overall older, more mature, feeling to it. While other metro areas around the Great Lakes are finding newly revived life, Chicago has long since redefined itself and thrived. It is an anchor in the Midwest. I sat in the last speakeasy of my prohibition tour and sipped an Old Fashioned. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
As the protests progressed over the course of several days, the tone changed. It became angry and unfocused, lacking its original meaning and momentum. We had to walk Maggie Dog through police barricades to get into the dog park near the hotel, consequently next to the Trump Tower, of which was guarded by armed police officers. As I stood there, letting her play, I remembered waking up around 3 am on election night to a creepy stillness, trying to make sense of a floating voice. He shouted, “CHI-CA-GO! Hey, Chicago!” The voice began to cut through the stillness with more purpose and intent. “CHI-CA-GO! Wake up, Chicago! It’s done. He won. CHI-CA-GO! Wake up, Chicago!” over and over… I woke up hubby and asked if he heard the voice too. Groggy, he listened and answered yes, asking if I wanted to turn on the TV. I shook my head quietly. We held each other and went back to sleep. The sound of that man’s voice cutting through the night still plays in my mind sometimes, ringing eerily in my ears. By our last day there, the whole city seemed to be on edge, putting out any dimly lit spark the downtown area had left. Our last day felt depressive and lonely; it was a stark difference from the hyper and ecstatic tone of the week prior. Maggie, hubby, and I took a slow stroll. Just up the sidewalk stairs from the dog park, in the opposite direction of our hotel, is the iconic Wrigley Building. It faces a strange statue that was recently placed in this plaza at the beginning of November, before the World Series ended. It is one of Abraham Lincoln showing the way to the Modern Man. There is no plaque explaining the statue or naming the artist or purpose. It just exists and presents a moment of thought, towering over the persons walking beside it, completely bewildered. Locals are taking pictures of this thing, trying to figure it out. I looked at it, reflective. I think that we are all trying to figure out our new world, our new reality. Oh how very timely for this statue to appear…
Chicago. It is the city of Obama, of a Trump Tower, of Lincoln and the Modern Man. It is a city of immigrants, all from different generations, nationalities, and beliefs. It is a city of protests, of championship sports teams, of fantastic arts companies. It is a city that swings to jazz and blues music, with a little mob action on the side. It is a complicated, diverse, Midwestern city, filled with beautiful buildings and bridges. It is a city that has been a little rebellious throughout all of its history. And it is also a city that challenged me to reevaluate my beliefs, making me a stronger person. Travel takes you out of your comfort zone, forcing you to define who you really are as a human being. Combine those thoughts with the major events of the week, and I have been changed in some way. I may not have seen all of the museums or eaten at the best steakhouse, but I think that my experience here will remain as one of the most unusual and influential of all my travels.
P.S. I’m still not sure what I think of that “bean” sculpture…