Beneath the floodlights of its elevated train system at nighttime, Chicago comes to life. Herein the Orange Line train hints at the spirit of a metropolis, with musicians on nearly every platform, murals that loom at dusk and foreboding weather befitting of the “Windy City.”
The skyline is a study in modernity with the concrete-and-polymer bellwether of Midway Airport, any of the daunting stonework building fronts or the patrician trencherman-nÃ©e-Evanston. Who would know that it has all risen from ashes?
The Great Fire of Chicago on Oct. 8, 1871, a quiet 19th century autumn night, was helped along by human ineptitude and a vulnerable alarm system that did not take the twenty fires the week before as foreshadowing.
There had been fires before in the city; sweeping fires that were difficult to control with slow and tired fire departments. Just the previous day, four city blocks had burned. Rarely a week went by without stone facades falling off the crumbling buildings, and there had been less than three inches of rain between July and October.
As the legend goes, a cow kicked over a lamp and sent the city to its fate. But residents began a rebuilding effort that led to a welcoming lattice of avenues, shops, and pedestrian thoroughfares that brightens the present day. Is this apparent to any visitor? To hazard an answer, one would have to visit Chicago.
The world’s largest extra-national Polish population would bid one wita (vee-tatch, for “welcome”), and the splendor of Lake Michigan abutting Lakeshore Drive will dazzle the eye. Like the Purple Line train out to Evanston, Lakeshore curls into the heart of the city like a predator into a herd, but not those herds of individuals who cross the streets of northeast Chicago.
Perhaps those walkers and talkers are searching out a slice of the trademark Chicago-style pizza. Served pan style with tomato sauce above and cheese below, Pizza Hut pales in comparison with this meal-in-itself; here food is able to satisfy an appetite as Guinness-on-tap satisfies a thirst. To one partaking of such a slice while on the Roosevelt Road train platform, satisfaction is never more than a bite away.
While chewing said bite, the diner might notice the pure horizon of Roosevelt Road, uninterrupted by its intersection with State Street. That view continues into profundity like a priceless vinyl long player by The Supremes, throwing out stints of apartment complexes like so many lines of song. Chicago has come to roost in the eye of the observer, containing no less than the epitome of the industrialized city.
So industrialized, even, that its cuisine is appealing to all tastes, with innumerable establishments offering their own take on the traditional gyro (yee-ro, lamb, tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce served on pita bread), taco, or noodle delicacy. This variety pulls the eatery-bound toward sentiments of “I love Chicago,” or at least some form of Midwest affection; one might stretch the “big city” archetype to include a visitor-centric Chicago that could warm any traveler.
It would not be far off to label Chicago proper as “fair” toward those visitors. Found while traveling out from either of the major airports, O’Hare or Midway, Chicago Transit Authority route maps are of infinite help to anyone. Public transit — such as it is between downtown and Wicker Park, Oak Park and the South Side, or Bensonhurst and Skokie (via the Yellow Line) — welcomes revelers and families alike; even different elements coexist during the weeklong warm-up to St. Patrick’s Day, as anyone can enjoy a Chicago River that has been dyed green. However, don’t let that reduce the wonder that is a city defined as much by its populace as it is by its architecture.
The city — led by a subtle liberalism — has struck the hearts of young and old; the academic support of University of Illinois-Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola and the University of Chicago is a draw for students and professors alike. Maybe all those who venture into this academia stop with sensible traveling and become sensible outright — it doesn’t take much to feel the need to move to Chicago; never mind the snow flurries and discomfiting winds that persist through the ides of March.