Portraits of Chicago #2

If there’s one thing Chicagoans (I mix up what I call them) hate, it’s Navy Pier, “the place where families from Wisconsin who wear fanny packs go.” One of my dates warned me of it, but I’m a tourist and this is a tourist destination. If you have time, have a look. It is very much just a food court, but has good views back to the city and a neglected fareground- two things which fill my heart with a melancholic glee.

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It was meant to be

This was my tourist day, though I was self-powered rather than public transport or taxi, which is a point of difference to most tourists. The two mile walk from Navy Pier up to the Museum Campus is one of the most pleasant stretches in the city, with views to the great lake and back across the greater city. Note that if you are walking along here, you have to have a plan of how you are getting back to the main urban areas. Chicago’s urban planning seems the most overt in its trying to separate tourists from the mainland.

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A foggy Adler Planetarium, with its bus loads of school kids and other miscellaneous tourists

The Near South Side and Prairie Avenue Historic District was among my favourite neighbourhoods in the city. It’s the historian in me. Two of Chicago’s oldest houses – Clarke and Gleeser – call this district their home. Clarke House offers free tours twice daily Wednesday to Friday. I never quite got there in time. There are signs around the neighbourhood which point out the different areas of interest within the four or so block radius, from old mechanics to churches to the aforementioned houses. The district was devoid of people on my visit. People are so reluctant to visit south.

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While I missed Clarke House’s tours, I happened upon the Second Presbytarian Church during its architecture tours hours on a Wednesday (12-3). This was the most beautiful of the churches that I saw in America, and the staff were incredibly knowledgeable, engaging in a long discussion about wide-ranging worldwide architecture. Another British person came in. “You two sound similar”. Historical tour guides often lack social subtlety. A number of the windows are Tiffany, and there was an interesting fact about the window in the entrance, so interesting that I have forgotten it. The limestone/sandstone exterior brickwork is a feature of many of Chicago’s buildings, one which gives a grandeur to the city away from Skyscraperville. The discoloured bricks on this church are in their natural colour. Imperfections add to beauty. Pilgrims should head southwards and away from the fame queen that is the First Presbytarian.

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From south to north, this time to the suburbs of Evanston. The Baha’i House of Worship is on the very northernmost of the El lines (Purple, yeesh). It is impressive, but less so than I had anticipated. All Baha’i temples, of which there are very few, are arranged with nine sides, their magic number. The principles of faith. It billows impressively from the Linden skyline, completely out of place with the large white picket suburban houses, but then again fitting in so well: the middle classes love their crowning jewels. The weather was miserable so I got a mere peek at the gardens before my umbrella dragged me back to the El.

Evanston itself is very affluent-suburban. No fear of knife or gun crime here, unless there was a fight over a bag of reduced chia seeds. Norah recommended me a pie place but it was overpriced, overcrowded and I wanted to head back to the comfort of the city. The suburbs is the most discomfiting of the population clusters for me, and no-one does suburbs quite like the Americans. Clustering features several times in Evanston’s town plan, with supermarkets, coffee shops and churches all presenting visitors with choice without their having to walk at all.

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The Cultural Centre is another “worth a look”. Exit to the underground pedway, and wonder why the Pedway Tours are always oversubscribed. At ground level, the streets around shriek with the culture of theatre and retail. Prepare to elbow your way through tourists.

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A sudden freak hailstorm. I took cover in the former Three Arts Club which is now a ludicrously pompous department store, with each room laid out like a room in a wealthy person’s house. Customers are given champagne before they are sold artwork that starts from $5000. The staff didn’t seem to mind this dripping wet tourist wandering around. Look like you belong and people will expect that you do.

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The Frank Lloyd Wright suburb of Oak Park is worth the visit west, and it’s still included on the El ticket. Brett and I went on Good Friday and had a very good Friday indeed. Where Chicago is friendly, Oak Park is Chicago friendly on crack (that is: very friendly). People smiled and said hi in the street; the woman at the tourist information genuinely seemed happy to be working there an helping people (she even waved us in from the street); drinking in a coffee shop felt like you were a part of the town. I can see why people move to the suburbs in their older age, if the suburb has a small town vibe at least (as opposed to being great domestic sprawl interspersed with supermarkets).

The non-FLW houses reminded Brett of the houses back East and made him miss home a little. He said that Chicago’s buildings didn’t really have much character, which I disagree with. Armed with a map from tourist information and Google maps, we began looking around the high density of Frank Lloyd Wright houses – and Ernest Hemingway’s childhood home – and quickly became self-proclaimed Frank Lloyd Wright experts.

My favourite house is shown below. The upper storey was built twenty years after the original house following a fire. In doing so, it serves as a time capsule of domestic, and FLW, architecture from these different decades. Around Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright’s style clearly became an ever-present influence on other architects. This suburb could very easily just be called Frank Lloyd Wrighttown, if that wasn’t such a mouthful. A pilgrimage destination for architectureites and those who crave small town, old America.

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The land between Oak Park and Garfield Park is a great wasteland. If you want to see the range of Chicago’s wealth distribution, take the green line all the way West. Garfield Park Observatory is the preferable observatory in Chicago, and for those who are sick of plants there are good views back to the city: a view to the worship of the urban and the decay of nature. If you want summer or rainforest in Chicago year-round, this is the place. And a fine feat of engineering.

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The view from the train showed a gold building glowing in the near-distance. We went in to explore and were met by the quietest speaking woman that I have ever met. As we moved closer to hear her, the quieter she got. She thought we were lost and was surprised that we wanted to have a look around, but left us to our devices. Half a dozen people popped their heads out of the many rooms in this fading building, all curious at our curiosity. In the basement we were asked if we were here for the dance; we were not. Tis better to be an underused grand ex-municipal building than a derelict one.

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Social events over the weekend included brunch, dance, dragging people to unexpectedly good exhibitions, real American church in a real American high school, and Easter dinner. Sociability is a wonderful thing. Watching Norah dance made me beam with pride and wonder at the hidden (or thus unseen) talents of my friends, even though Duncan Dance is a quite left field practice. The Easter dinner was thrown together but spectacular and has started a sure to be lifelong love affair with s’mores, mac and cheese, ham (someone just had a ham) and “biscuits”. Planning is overrated; the company is crucial. Then karaoke to top it all off, show the Americans’ enthusiasm for it, and my ineptitude in singing.

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I spent my final day wandering around cemeteries, supermarkets and Andersonville more widely. I finally came upon the fake beaches of Lake Michigan and sat down to enjoy my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee (strong, not regular). As I looked across to the city, back to the neighbourhood, then across the vast lake, I took in how much I had grown to love (yes, LOVE) the city and while I felt a stab of sadness to be leaving, to have experienced something so enjoyable was good enough. Norah and I spoke about this phenomenon at the airport before spinning around and generally making a show of ourselves.

Sometimes all we Brits need is a trip Stateside to put our lives and selves into a better perspective.

Eternally American dreaming

Eternally American dreaming

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