Last week I was in Chicago for a presentation, actually a history lecture and book signing in Chicago. I was in the village of Park Forest, the subject of my book America’s Original GI Town, Park Forest, Illinois (see right and above header). Chicago is where I grew up and have my earliest memories of the “Urban Life.” High school escapes to Old Town on Wells Street (head-shops and deep dish pizza in Piper’s Alley), great jazz and Stan Getz, the movie Endless Summer at the Playboy Theater, illicit drinks at Mr. Kelly’s (now Gibsons and still a great watering-hole) and college tours of the great buildings and architecture balance the ‘68 Democratic Convention and Chicago politics.
Chicago is like New York but more manageable. The two core areas State Street and Michigan Ave. remind me of neighborhoods in San Francisco, Boston, Wall Street and mid-Manhattan: walkable, busy, good food, and a street level texture that keeps you involved. With the exception of an over-priced and inadequately poured drink at one hotel, the bars in this town know what a real pour is. Glorious food, good God, now I know why Oprah still lives in Chicago. As a kid I remember Italian – that was the special meal for a kid from the ‘burbs, even though our town 30 miles south of the Loop was half Italian. The magic of downtown restaurants is still here, walleye at the Millennium ice rink, great pizza – Chicago style, burgers at Gibsons, Italian everywhere, pancakes at the Pancake House (pure Midwest). Visiting Chicago is worse than a cruise vacation on the waistline.
The retail is both vertical and horizontal. Michigan Avenue for its ¾ mile is one of the best retail streets in America. Great on-street stores and the vertical malls at Water Tower Place and North Bridge, from Tiffany’s to Crate and Barrel to the American Girl store; high-end to low-end clothing are everywhere (New York is creeping in with Filene’s Basement, Bloomingdales, and Barney’s), sadly Marshall Field & Company only exists as a memory (the bastards!). In late autumn and at Christmas the streets are alive with shoppers from all over the Midwest making a day or weekend of it. Other cities would kill for the opportunity.
The town is also becoming a vertical residential community, especially to the east of the Loop in the areas between Michigan Ave. and Lake Michigan called Streeterville-it is a city onto itself. Thousands of high rise condominium and rental units have been built, most in the tradition of good to great Chicago architecture. This increase in downtown residents has pushed high-end boutique food and service retail into the area. There are excellent parks within walking distance such as Millennium Park (one of the best urban parks in America), a very classy park called Park No. 946 (I think?), all surrounded by high rise condos and apartments; numerous smaller urban parks as well as the 16 mile long lake front from Rainbow Beach to Grant Park are a short walk or stroller push from thousands of residents.
I love this city and get back often, but so as not to sound like a travel log all is not well in Chicago. I had lunch with one of the best Midwest and urban bloggers Aaron Renn whose base is in Chicago (go to his The Urbanophile.com site) for the latest, he cautioned that one must look beyond the glass and glitter. As a Californian now, it is easy to look around and wonder what's the big deal about race. California is without a doubt the most integrated place in the world. The friction is minimal, the advantages great. Sure there are problems, huge problems, but they stem more from small minds not big ideas. But across the heart of the country race plays an important part, and, as some tell me, we should watch the upcoming race for mayor of Chicago. It is pitting neighborhoods against neighborhoods, race against race, and sadly the future of the streets may be held up for ransom. Richard Daley, the current mayor, is the poster boy politician for not having term limits, he has helped to make this city one of the best and has adapted the city to the changes of the last twenty years, but the city is in serious debt and the ugly bits of urban life are returning with unemployment and empty stores.
Sitting out on the sidewalk at the Tavern-on-Rush on a comfortable Thursday evening brought home a unique urban experience that other cities dream of. A steady stream of residents, business suits, visitors, shoppers, and cute young and not-so-young ladies in tight skirts (not those ladies but as the bartender said, Thursday is “cougar night”). I had not seen this kind of sidewalk pedestrian life since the Left Bank days in Paris and the Sloan Square type neighborhoods of London. This is the urban life at its ancient best: sidewalk tables, a constant flow of the interested and disinterested, good looking girls, bright cars, good food and even better drink, shorts, suits, high skirts, cute dogs, a few chain smoking Argentinians, and horse drawn carriages. This is what the city is about, that is why we are attracted to it (even though rare), and it is what we aspire to.
Stay Tuned . . . .
P.S. My latest mystery/investigator story, Land Swap 4 Death is now available on Amazon as an ebook and in paper. Shady developers, oversexed environmentalist, and a good looking red head that carries a gun, what more do you want?