It’s a beautiful summer dawn and I’ve just left a small Indiana town, called Valparaiso – heading for Chicago, the third-largest city in America, also known as the “Hog Butcher for the World,” and the “City of the Big Shoulders,” as America’s great poet and writer Carl Sandburg called it. Today it’s the midwest mecca for young people from cities such as Detroit and Cleveland. I travel on I-90 moving past the industrial steel towns of Gary and Hammond, Indiana. I cross the Illinois border and then onto the popular Skyway and on into Chicago.
There’s something exciting about motoring to this city, especially when one firsts spots the huge tall-building vista. It’s almost as if at that very moment, those famous songs and sayings about this metropolis on Lake Michigan begin ringing in your ear: “Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town,” as sung by Frank Sinatra, or Chicago: the Musical’s “All That Jazz,” or the famous opening lines of one of America’s greatest novelists, Saul Bellow, in his, The Adventures of Augie March, “I am an American, Chicago born-Chicago, that somber city.”
Bellow, who was Jewish, found the city vulgar but vital, and more representative of America than New York.
Chicago stands as a center of trade, industry and transportation, an attractive and vibrant, tourist city, especially in the summer. The downtown skyscrapers rise against the backdrop of Lake Michigan, and these and Lake Shore Drive combine to represent one of the most beautiful scenic and inspiring sites in the US.
Chicago extends about 40 km. along Lake Michigan’s southwest shore in northeastern Illinois. Actually, its growth in population and commercial and industrial importance has been largely due to its position at the head of the lake.
I drive along Lake Shore Drive, and the beckoning, blue lake entices me. But unfortunately, I don’t stop to dip my toes in the water. In winter, from off the lake come the cruel, brutal, freezing winds that bring heavy snow storms. That’s why they call it the “Windy City.” The summers can be uncomfortable heat-wise, but from June to September, Chicagoans “forget” their outrageous winters.
Visitors should meander through Lincoln Park and its zoo. This beautiful patch of green, also known as the city’s most popular playground, is said to be 50 percent larger than New York’s Central Park. I observe young people flocking to this park area too.
The L, the city’s largely elevated rapid transit system, also has a line that circles the “Loop.” But I wander aimlessly on the ground in the Loop, which is “the financial and historic heart” of this metropolis, including the famous Art Institute of Chicago and theaters.
Some say that Chicago possesses an inferiority complex in regards to New York City; that it is second to the Big Apple.
But Jerry and Billie Cohen, (now retired in Florida) who have lived in both cities for extended periods, say that Chicago is called “The Second City” because it was rebuilt after the great fire of 1871 and was a “second Chicago.”
That fire killed at least 300 people, and destroyed about $200 million in property.
A popular story, unconfirmed by historians, proposes that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the blaze by kicking over a lantern.
“Chicago is more livable, less expensive and easier to get around,” add the Cohens. “If we were to move to a northern climate again, we would go back to Chicago.”
Saunter over to Grant Park, another large patch of green between the skyscrapers and the lake, and then to Millennium Park. Both parks host huge public events.
As in any major metropolis, Chicago has its most popular skyscraper: The 70-second elevator ride to the 103rd floor skydeck of the tallest building of the city, Willis Tower, it’s actually 108 floors. At the time of its completion, the structure, formerly the Sears Tower, was the tallest building in the world. Sears Tower remained the tallest until 1998, when it was overtaken by the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
It remained the tallest building in the US until May 10, 1993, when it was outdone by One World Trade Center in New York City. The second-, third- and fourth-tallest buildings in Chicago are the Trump International Hotel and Tower, the Aon Center and the John Hancock Center respectively.
Of the 10 tallest buildings in the US, four are located in Chicago.
For baseball fans, Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, is a beautiful ballpark. Take a boat ride in what are called “architecture cruises,” along the Chicago River; and then head to the 800 meter Navy Pier, actually said to be the city’s most visited attraction. One of the most frequented sites is the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, the first planetarium built in the western hemisphere. It was the gift of Max Adler, a merchant executive and brother-in-law of Julius Rosenwald who was part-owner and leader of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The latter was principal founder and backer for the Museum of Science and Industry. Both men were Jewish.
Its reputation involving crime goes back a long way. Often when I traveled the world, I would mention Chicago to friends in foreign lands, and instead of “stockyards,” I would get “gangsters” as the first response.
Crime and violence in Chicago reached the world after the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 when Al Capone’s men dressed as police, killed seven members of the Bugs Moran gang in a warehouse. Some businesses like the idea of talking about crime; there’s even an “Untouchable Gangster Tour.”
Over the recent Fourth of July weekend, about 50 people were shot, 17 of them fatally.
Driving through Garfield Park on the South Side, I observe urban blight and yet one can not but notice the various architectural motifs in this old, poor neighborhood.
Not far from the park stands one the country’s leading institutions of higher education, the University of Chicago.
Northwestern University in Evanston boasts a beautiful campus.
The mayor, Rahm Emanuel, whose father was born in Israel, is trying to save the city from financial calamity. Serving as mayor since 2011, he must face the fact that Chicago has the worst pension gap of any big American city.
Of course there are various ethnic streets and neighborhoods: Devon Avenue, formerly a Jewish area, contains Indian, Pakistani, Hindu and Muslim establishments; hundreds of ethnic eateries abound.
Historically, the first European to arrive was trader, Nicolas Perrot in 1671. He was followed by fellow French explorers, Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette. The name “Chicago,” is the French version of the Native American word, shikaakwa (“stinky onion”), named for the plants along the Chicago River. In 1804, the US government built Fort Dearborn on the river. The first city waterworks were constructed in 1834, and from then on, the growth was steady and at times, rapid.
Out of about 2.7 million residents, most of the 290,000 Jews live in the suburbs, such as, Skokie and Northbrook. Skokie houses the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Noted, too, is the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.
Aaron B. Cohen, vice president of marketing and communications for the Jewish United Fund, tells me that many young Jews are moving into Edgewater, a lakefront community on the North Side, as well as the Lake View section near Lake Shore Drive.
Illinois first permanent Jewish resident arrived in Chicago six years after the Ordinance of 1787 providing for the organization and government of the vast territory secured by the US. He was John Hays, grandson of David Hays, who had settled in New York in 1770. In the 1830s Jews began settling in Chicago that was incorporated as a town in 1833 and as a city in 1837. In 1862, there were about 1,000 Jews.
In the final analysis, much to do and see in this metropolis. As the song goes: “Bet your bottom dollar you’ll lose the blues in Chicago.”
Ben G. Frank, journalist, travel writer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond. Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com, twitter @bengfrank