The Chicago river is probably the tamest in the world. It has been engineered to reverse its flow, and since the year 1900 it flows out of Lake Michigan. As you can see from these photos, this segment of the river has been straightened out. Unfortunately, it can’t take much rain. It floods if it rains for more than one and a half inch in a couple of hours.
The reversed flow eventually connects Lake Michigan with the Mississippi river system. This bit of geo-engineering was, quite appropriately, celebrated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as the biggest civil engineering project of the last millennium. The reversal of flow was originally meant to check pollution of the drinking water from Lake Michigan. Next it served water-borne commerce. Now, it also provides a pathway for invasive species to spread from the lakes into the rest of the USA.
The bridges that you see in the photo can all be raised. I tried to keep a watch for this, but never saw it happening. Since water traffic has decreased tremendously in recent decades, barriers are now being built to prevent invasion by invasive mussels and carps from spreading into the Mississippi river waters.
I pushed open the doors to the gilded lobby of the London Guarantee Building and was taken aback by the glitter. My faint earlier acquaintance with this building was due to its connection with Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, who played in the Chicago Jazz Nightclub and Steakhouse which was once situated in this building. Looking at the lobby I found it easy to understand why one would move to the Vanguard in the Greenwich Village.
But the building itself is historic, as old as the storied Wrigley building. I walked out to find a plaque which said that Fort Dearborn was situated roughly here, at the mouth of the Chicago River. The area came to be part of the USA in 1795. The fort was first built in 1804, and became the nucleus around which the city of Chicago eventually grew. The Neshnabe native Indians defeated the army in a lightning strike and burnt down the fort. This is commemorated in a plaque at the head of the bridge across the Chicago river on Michigan Avenue, just across the road from the London Guarantee Building. The fort was rebuilt in 1816.
In a sense, I was standing at the historic beginning of Chicago when I entered this lobby.
I passed by a wall of shiny black granite on Michigan Avenue and looked up to find that it was the facade of the Carbide and Carbon Building. It reminded me of an interesting conversation I’d had the previous evening about things to see in Chicago. At dinner with a group of colleagues, all visitors to Chicago, someone asked about art in Chicago. There was a discussion of museums and famous public sculptures. Someone brought up blues. But in my mind the major art form of Chicago is architecture.
The Carbon and Carbide Building is an example. The lobby, which you see in the featured photo, reminds you of Flash Gordon comics. This is not an accident: this is how the future was imagined in 1929, when the building was finished. This Art Deco future influenced the look of the Flash Gordon comic strip of the 1930s. The vertical bank of video screens added to the lobby adds to this retro-future look.
When you step back a long way, the upper part of the building comes in view. It is an interesting burnt green in colour, with gilding at the top. The whole thing is mounted by a golden structure which is supposed to be a battery, but has led many people to think of the whole structure as a bottle of champagne.
Why a battery? Because this was the headquarters of the infamous Union Carbide, a company which was responsible for the world’s worst industrial accident in 1984. I remember the shock with which I read the headlines about a poisonous gas leak from its plant in Bhopal which affected about half a million people. The company got away lightly, some say with the collusion of the Indian government, paying a compensation which came to a little less than one dollar per affected person. Responsibility was diluted even further when the company merged with Dow Chemicals.
The building is now the Hard Rock Hotel. I prefer to think of this Chicago Landmark as a bottle of champagne.
One of the recurring themes of Westerns is the cattle drive. Most of these drives used to end in Chicago. So, if you eat steaks, then you could suspect that you might be able to get good food in Chicago. You would be right. It is possible to eat a good steak every evening at a different restaurant if you are a tourist in Chicago.
For those who like a little spice in their lives, the first bit of variety one can think of is the deep dish pizza. One Saturday evening I made my way to an old and well-known pizzeria just north of the river. This was either fun, or a big mistake. No reservations are taken, and there was a forty five minute wait. The energetic eleven year old who was our guide for the weekend was beginning to wilt. The bar food (photo above) included a few things which she was happy with, while her parents and I sampled some of the other things available at the bar. Was it worth the wait? Does Chicago stand by a lake?
Earlier in the day we’d walked through Chinatown looking for good dim sum. Some of the most popular food known across the world as Chinese was invented by Chinese immigrants to the US over a century ago, but I believe dim sum is not among them. We passed interesting restaurant like the one in the photo above before reaching a place which Yelp considers one of the best for dim sum in this area.
I used to put on weight when I visited US even for periods as short as a week until I realized that I have to stay off sweets and muffins. This time around, the weather helped with working off extra calories. Some of the other tricks involve not eating muffins which come on the side of an order of fruits and yoghurt. It was easy to find places with calorie count indicated with each dish. This works as long as you stay off uncharted bits like salad dressing or bread and butter on the side.
Chicago has wonderful Italian restaurants, and Asian restaurant with amazingly good sushi. I’m told by a local authority that there are wonderful Indian restaurants; in fact such a diversity that you can eat at places which specialize in regional Indian food.
Whatever you eat, its good to remember that it started off as 96% water. It got tastier as the water was replaced by butter.
I wonder how many movies I’ve seen which show the elevated trains of Chicago. The Blues Brothers, The Fugitive (the one with Harrison Ford on the run), Ocean’s Eleven, While You Were Sleeping, to name just a few. So the bleak look of the parking lot below the century old tracks which you see in the featured photo didn’t come as a surprise. One of the amazing things about the USA is that the transport infrastructure is as old as it looks. The elevated tracks were finished in 1897!
What do you call it? The Chicago Tribune gives you the definitive answer: the L is preferred over El.
How often do the trains run? Jake’s (John Belushi’s) question was answered by Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) in The Blues Brothers: "So often that you won’t even notice it". That’s right. Before I finished cursing myself for fumbling a shot of a train passing the intersection in the photo above, the next one came along.
The electrical power to the train is, famously, supplied through a third rail. If you are wondering about it, then it is supplied at 600 Volts. Although, as Billy Crystal says in Running Scared, as he chases a bad guy along the rails, "It’s not the volts, it’s the amps".
Of course not, Chicago is in Illinois, and, like Kansas, allows people to carry guns around with them. But, in the sense of being deeply outside my zone of normality, the phrase "Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore" passed through my mind when I saw the notice in the featured image at the entrance to my hotel.
This reassuring sign reminded me that Chicago is more dangerous than Sao Paolo. But crime in a city is not evenly distributed, so I searched for safe neighbourhoods in Chicago. Once I found that the downtown area called the Loop is safe, I figured that I might as well enjoy the experience of being in the city where Alphonse Capone worked.
Since Chicago was unseasonably warm, I walked a lot. I walked north of the Chicago river a little past the Magnificent Mile, up to an area called the Near North Side, and southwards down to Chinatown. I took buses and trains in this part of Chicago. All this felt perfectly safe to me.
When I first saw photos of the massive sculptural installation called Agora, I didn’t much like it. Chicago has so much public sculpture, many by great modernist masters, that I thought Agora would not be high on my list.
Eventually, Agora was the only sculpture I managed to see, apart from the Cloud Gate and the famous lions of the Art Institute. What changed my mind? Meeting up with a very determined eleven year old who led me here early on a Sunday afternoon.
Walking through the sculpture changed my mind. This is a piece you need to interact with. As I walked through the crowd of towering legs, hollow men of rusted iron, I liked the way Magdalena Abakanowicz has used space. Situated at the southern end of Millennium park, on Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road, you can look north through the crowd of walkers and see the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago (featured photo). Its a short walk from there to the many attractions of the Museum Park.
Many years ago I came across a wonderful exclamation in a film whose name I’ve completely forgotten: “Ce n’est pas une chateau, c’est patisserie.” When you try to describe the Chicago establishment called Macy’s on State Street or the Marshall Field Building, patisserie is a word which comes easily to mind.
I’m not a great shopper, and when confronted with miles and miles of shopping racks, my neocortex shuts down. I head for the toilets. I bring you happy news from the trenches: the building has clean and usable toilets. The rest of the time I stood near the Lancome and Estee Lauder counters, gawking at the five storey tall atrium topped off with the piece of pattiserie you see in the featured photo. It is called the Tiffany’s mosaic ceiling.
Exiting on State Street near where it meets Washington Street, I saw the signature clock of the building. Its said to be 6000 Kgs in weight, and is a popular landmark to meet at. I hope it is well anchored. The mural on the wall behind it celebrates Black History Month. That’s a wonderful tradition. I wish in India we had even a week dedicated to the history of the less-advantaged sections of society.
Although there are significant collections of Mayan art in various museums around the world, I seem to come back to visit the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago roughly once a decade. Each time I find that I have forgotten what I saw before. Every time I’m blown away by the pieces I see.
The pieces which caught my eye this time turned out to be from the classical Mayan period, lasting roughly from 200 to 800 CE. The piece which you see in the featured image is essentially undated, in that it could have been made at any time during this period. The liveliness of the figure caught my attention. The museum considers this to be one of its best pieces and gives it a prominent place in its website. It is described as a story teller, a description with which I found myself in instant agreement.
The second piece was a fired clay figurine, whose head you see in the photo above. The attention paid to modelling the face probably implies that it belongs to a general, and not a common soldier. In any case, it is as impressive a portrait (in its diminutive way) as the famous statue of a general in Xi’an
It is interesting to walk through the Loop area of Chicago with its lovely skyscrapers. If I remember correctly, it was in Chicago that the first skyscapers were built in the late 19th century. Sullivan then developed a new style of building called the Chicago School. Later developments in the construction of these buildings also came from Chicago. I think this is also the correct season to emphasize the role of Fazlur Khan in the structural engineering fundamentals of all modern skyscrapers: he worked in the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
I liked walking through the fog on Michigan Avenue. The best thing about fog in Chicago at this time of the year is that it keeps the city warm. On a night without fog the temperature dropped almost to 10 Celsius below zero. With the fog the temperature is a mild 2 degrees above. The second is that you get lovely photos of the city: from the view of Michigan Avenue above, to the riverside skyscrapers in the featured photo. Chicago is beautiful at this time.