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Seeing the sights in The Windy City

September 28, 2007|By DAVE THOMPSON

"I have noticed that some visitors arrive in Chicago still expecting little more than a provincial town. That attitude amazes Chicagoans, and it amazes me."

- Julie L. Belcove, writing in "Frommer's Chicago"




While on business in Chicago a few years back, I struck up a conversation on an "el" train with a young man who turned out to be from Philadelphia. It was his first time in Chicago.

"See anything that surprised you?" I asked.

Slight hesitation. Then he blurted, "Well ... it's ... it's just so BIG!"

Now a pause on my part as I tried to keep any hint of incredulity out of my reply.

"Well, yeah, it's the second-largest city in the country," I said.

If you live in Chicago or grew up around there (as I did), you eventually resign yourself to the fact that some folks believe nothing of consequence exists in the United States between, say, Ohio and Las Vegas. It is, as Belcove says, an amazing attitude, but one that probably will persist as more and more persons crowd within 30 miles of the coasts.

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Well, having just returned from a June vacation to Chicago with my wife, Joyce, and friends, Roy and Andrea Struble, I feel compelled to report that it's still a big place. Only third-largest now (the exercise in urban sprawl known as Los Angeles is presently second), but still not too bad for a "toddlin' town."

What did surprise me were the flowers sprouting up all over the city - in street medians, in window boxes and even on the back porches of the two- and three-flat apartments along the "el" tracks. It's probably the biggest display of flowers in Chicago since the gangster funerals of the '20s. What was going on?

It seems that Richard M. Daley, the current edition of "hizzoner, duh mare," has become an environmentalist. He's crusading for tree and flower plantings, and green "roof gardens" are springing up all over the city. He's even trying to outdo the effete Californians.

"You know, they're always talking about how everyone on the West Coast is 'environmental' but what we're doing here is so much more advanced," he said in a January interview.

It's hard to imagine the mayor's father, the late "Boss" Richard J. Daley, making flower growing a priority, but Dad would approve of the growing crop of skyscrapers that are sprouting up due to Son's wooing of big business.

In fact, if you visit Chicago and go back a couple of years later, you're probably going to see something new - such as, oh, an 80-story building. The 601-foot Prudential Building, tallest in the city when I lived in the area in the early '60s, was 32nd in height last time I looked. It might be 42nd before long, as 10 taller buildings (including a 96-floor Trump Tower that's going up rapidly near the Chicago River) are scheduled to be completed by 2010.

Whatever their faults (and there are plenty of those), Chicago's leaders always think big.

All the new stuff combined with the tried and true gives the city some attractions well worth a visitor's time. If you'd like to visit someday, but are as clueless as the young man from Philadelphia, here's a look at just a few places of interest. (And we're not even getting into restaurants, blues and jazz clubs, theaters, festivals, etc.)

THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO



This beaux arts building at 111 S. Michigan Ave. went up in 1892-93 in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition. This is one of the world's great art museums, with a collection of approximately 260,000 works spanning 5,000 years. Chicago civic leaders snapped up some of the "radical" new paintings of the late 19th century with the result that the institute has one of the most impressive Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections outside France. Monet, Czanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec are all represented by important works.

Probably the most viewed is Seurat's pointillist "A Sunday on La Grand Jatte," which inspired the Sondheim musical, "Sunday Afternoon in the Park with George." As Chicago journalist Studs Terkel says, people who've never been in an art museum before ask, "Where's the one with the dots?"

Other very recognizable paintings include Grant Wood's "American Gothic" and Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks."

We went to the institute on one of its occasional free admission Thursday nights. It was packed. Allow plenty of time to stroll around. This is a huge museum, and the sixth addition to the original structure is due for completion in 2009. (I told you they think big in Chicago.)

MILLENNIUM PARK



Just north of the Art Institute is this interesting newcomer to the cityscape, which has attracted hoards of visitors since it opened in 2004. Stunning architecture and public art characterize the 24-acre park, starting with the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a band shell designed by in-vogue architect Frank Gehry. It features Gehry's trademark of billowing stainless steel sheets and an innovative sound system consisting of a steel trellis holding speakers over 4,000 fixed seats and a "Great Lawn" with space for 7,000 more to sit.

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