Blown Away by the Windy City
by Barney Brantingham
“You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe wrote. But after half a century, I thought I’d try it anyway and make a hit-and-run visit to my hometown of Chicago. No, not to my Old Neighborhood, which is 100 blocks south of downtown, but to the Loop and Near North, as the area north of the backward-flowing Chicago River is known. (Backward? Years ago, city fathers reversed the river to keep pollution from flowing into Lake Michigan, then and now the main source of Chicago’s drinking water.)
“You must see Chicago,” friends told me. “It’s beautiful, gorgeous, and full of swank hotels and restaurants and places to drink local Goose Island beer and eat stuffed pizza.”
So Sue and I went and found it everything a big city should be: thronging with happy people enjoying a sunny day in the park along the Lake Michigan waterfront, pushing baby carriages along the river, prowling the Art Institute, and families swarming Giordano’s on Rush Street, stuffing themselves with wedges of the famous pizza an inch thick.
There was no sign of the gritty Chicago I knew when we dropped in at the lovely Peninsula for high tea. Tea? No one I knew back on the South Side even drank tea.
That night, young women in sleek black dresses were arriving at the Peninsula and a singer was murmuring gentle jazz in the Four Seasons Hotel’s elegant lounge.
From our room at the Four Seasons, Sue and I could look out over Lake Michigan and see the lights of Navy Pier, once a barren branch of the University of Illinois but now a long pleasure palace sporting, of all things, a 15-story Ferris Wheel and an IMAX theater. Only a block or so away from the hotel was the condo-atop-a-hotel where Oprah lives, we were told.
Our airport driver talked about her friendliness toward the drivers and staffers.
This was big city and bright lights, a town bursting with prosperity and confidence. Bustling, in fact. There, on the river near the wedding cake Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, Donald Trump is erecting a hotel/condo said to be climbing to 92 stories.
“That’s nothing,” the taxi driver said. “They’re planning a 124-story condo over by the lake, which will be the tallest residential building in the world.” Sears Tower, once the world’s tallest building at 108 stories, has lost that title, but the 103rd-floor Skydeck offers great views. (Note: Chicago does not have earthquakes.)
At the foot of the Wrigley Building we jumped on a tour boat and got a 90-minute discourse about the architectural history of all we could see, including the old warehouses converted to residences after Chicago lost its place as a catalog mail-order mecca.
Chicago loves its rags-to-riches history, but not enough to keep the new from razing the old. This, after all, is “the city that works.” And makes money. “I don’t know how they can afford it,” the taxi driver gasped, staring at the $1 million-plus condos going up. “Everyone wants to live by the river and walk to work in one of the skyscrapers.”
Heading south of the river on Michigan Avenue, Sue and I spent hours in the Art Institute, one of the great museums of the world. We gazed at Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,” a wall of Van Goghs, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte.”
Tired and hungry, we found a delightful restaurant in the museum’s courtyard.
But as the skyscrapers rise and world-class hotels and charming restaurants open in the Near North, some of Chicago’s downtown retail icons are falling. Marshall Field’s, a magic name in the Loop for more than a century, is (horrors!) becoming a Macy’s. And another longtime downtown temple of consumerism, Carson Pirie Scott, one million square feet, has been sold. “They’re white elephants,” one management professor observed.
Likewise, many of the classic hotels of my parents’ day are losing out because visitors say they don’t offer 21st-century amenities and the rooms are too small. Two of the top hotels these days are the Four Seasons and Peninsula, located in the heart of the action of the Near North near Chicago’s beloved landmark, the Water Tower, brilliantly lighted at night and having survived the devastating 1871 fire.
Both hotels command excellent vantage points: Chicago’s skyline is steps from name shops and restaurants. One night we walked to Spiaggia Restaurant, a couple of blocks from the Four Seasons and said to be the town’s hottest Italian eatery. The main room’s menu had entrée prices the size of my parents’ rent in the old days, so we opted for what looked like the more affordable Spiaggia Café just down the hall.
It’s a low-light, romantic place and from our table at the window we watched as the gloaming fell softly on Lake Shore Drive and the lake beyond. The ravioli dishes were pungent and the chianti classico went down well. With the tip, the bill killed a century note. My parents would have choked.
Alas, time ran out on Chicago before we could climb down to the lower level near the Wrigley Building and down a beer at the Billy Goat Tavern in honor of the late, great columnist Mike Royko, who used to hang out there. The Billy Goat was also the inspiration for the Saturday Night Live “Cheezborger, cheezeborger” skits. All of which, I guess, means I’ll have to return to Chicago. But I’m not planning to wait another half-century.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at 965-5205 or email@example.com. He writes a Tuesday and Friday online column at independent.com and a Thursday print column in The Independent.