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Chicago Days

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 barney@independent.com. He
writes a Tuesday and Friday online column at independent.com and a
Thursday print column in The Independent.

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