Chic Chicago

It is the city of jazz, Nat King Cole, mafia. Political home of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, it is also quintessentially American, writes Lalit Mohan

The Millennium Park is an unprecedented centre for world-class art, music, architecture and landscape design. The Crown Fountain (left) is a major attraction of the park. It features two 50-foot high glass block towers that are activated with changing video images and (right) Cloud Gate is another prize exhibit in the park. It is a giant metallic bean designed by an artist of Indian origin, Anish Kapoor
Photos by the writer

AS the aircraft descends over the shimmering waters of Lake Michigan the spectacular skyline of Chicago looms ahead.

Chicago has a special quality: the quality of being quintessentially American. Because of all major US cities it is more American than any other city. New York is too international, while Los Angeles is defined by Hollywood and boulevards. San Francisco may have a character of its own, but it is not typically American.

Chicago is the city of jazz and Nat King Cole, of the mafia, the hub of a farming state, the political home of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, and looks, not across the ocean towards other continents, but on to a lake that is a part of the history and geography of the American landmass.

The city was founded in 1833 when 350 settlers settled in an area that was the home to the Potawatomi tribe of Red Indians. The city grew fast as it became the base for westward expansion of the nation. In 1871 the entire town centre was razed to the ground by a fire that spread fast through its wooden structures.

Legend has it that the fire started when Mrs O’Leary’s cow accidentally kicked over a paraffin lamp. It raged for 27 hours and left over 100,000 people homeless. Eventually, when a rainstorm put it out, only two buildings were left standing – the Water Tower and Mrs O’Leary’s stable! The Tower today houses the city’s information centre for visitors.

The fire was blessing in disguise as it gave an opportunity to rebuild. This time they went in for high-rise buildings built around a metal skeleton – now called skyscrapers. The 1454-feet Sears Tower, constructed in 1973, became the highest structure in the world and for several decades retained this status.

Other buildings, too, became famous; John Hancock Centre for its diagonally-strutted frame, the Chicago Tribune tower for its Gothic pinnacles and porch and the Wrigley Building, which belongs to the company that makes the famous chewing gum, for its walkway-connected twin towers

Chicago is located in northwest Illinois on the southwest tip of Lake Michigan. Fifteen miles of sandy beaches or parks mark its well-tended lakefront.

At the heart of the city is the Magnificent Mile. This is a section of Michigan Avenue between Oak Street and the Chicago River. This is where the action is. Malls, boutiques, galleries, shops, restaurants, theatres etc make it glitzier than even the famous Fifth Avenue of New York. What is more, it is tree-lined.

Here you also see the city’s diverse ethnicity. Caucasians, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Poles, Italians, lesbians, gays – Chicago has them all. These ethnic groups bring their own cuisine, music and other expressions of immigrant culture.

Off Michigan Avenue lies Vivekananda Street where the Indian sage had delivered a stirring discourse in 1893 at the Parliament of Religions.

Away from the heart of the city is another road, officially called Devon Avenue, but split into four sections named respectively, because of the origin of most people who live on them, after Golda Meir (former Israeli Prime Minister), Mahatma Gandhi, Jinnah and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. This would probably be the only place in the world where Jewish and Muslim leaders coexist peacefully! And this is the only road stretch where paan stains can be seen on the sidewalk.

In the 1920s Chicago was notorious as the home of Al Capone, who benefited from the liquor prohibition and built a crime empire based on smuggling. One of his chief lieutenants was a man whose son later became a World War II hero and had the city’s main airport – O’Hare – named after him.

The days of the mafia are long gone. Today Chicago is the third largest city in the US. It has some excellent centres of art and music, including the famous Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra.

Also worth a visit are its museums. At the Field Museum of anthropology one can see Lucy, a pre-historic humanoid, Sue, the world’s largest and most complete tyrannosaurus, and Unis-Ankh, the mummified son of Pharaoh Unas. Another fascinating place is the museum of Science and Industry. And there are many more, to suit all kinds of interests.

Chicago’s parks are not to be missed either. Located in downtown Chicago on Michigan Avenue the Millennium Park is an unprecedented center for world-class art, music, architecture and landscape design. The Cloud Gate is a prize exhibit in the park. It is a giant metallic bean designed by an artist of Indian origin, Anish Kapoor. The 110-ton elliptical sculpture is forged of a seamless series of highly polished stainless steel plates, which reflect the city’s famous skyline and the clouds above.

The Crown Fountain is another major attraction of the Millennium Park. Designed by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, the fountain features two 50-foot high glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers are activated with changing video images and lights, and water cascades from the top of each. Anchoring the southwest corner of Millennium Park at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Streets, the Crown Fountain is a major addition to the city’s world-renowned public art collection. It is inspired by the people of Chicago whose faces appear on the glass towers’ changing video images.

Getting around the city is no problem. It has a regular bus service and a metro, known as the El-train, because it runs on elevated tracks. It is only when one wants to travel out of Chicago that transport becomes a problem. This is a major issue for any tourist to the US. Outside of the large cities the only public transport are the taxies. To travel long distances that can become expensive.

There are several places to visit in Illinois state. On its northwest corner lies Galena, the quaint 19th century town and the home of Ulysses S. Grant, general of the Unionist army in the Civil War. It also has some of the most picturesque golf courses in the country.

Lake Geneva is another destination where one can rent a boat and cruise around its banks where Chicago’s millionaires have built imposing residences.

Chicago is also a major sports centre. Its favourite teams have animal names: Chicago Bulls (basketball, the game Michael Jordan played), Chicago Bears (American football) and Chicago Cubs (baseball). It is one of the serious bidders for the 2016 Olympics.

Summer is the best time to travel to Chicago. During the winter it may live up to its description, the Windy City. And then outdoors can be definitely uncomfortable.