We have decided its good practice when we are visiting a new city to buy a ticket for a bus or trolley tour so that we can get a good idea of what a city has to offer as first time tourists. Once we have done that, we then have a good idea of how we would like to use the rest our available time.
Just around the corner from our hotel was our nearest Hop-on Hop-off bus stop in Water Tower Plaza. The Water Tower, built in 1869, looked more castle than water processing site. Today it is a tourist office and a gallery for local artists. It is also used as an emblem of Chicago…we regularly came across small colourful copies of the water tower as we trekked around the city.
One of the pivotal events in the history of Chicago is the great fire of 1871 that burnt down roughly 9 square kilometres of the city and left more than 100,000 citizens homeless. It started on the south side of the Chicago river and destroyed much of the central area of the city. The area around the Water Tower was within that area and survived because of its stone construction where all the buildings around it were of wood. The artist’s image below left is from a tile mosaic exhibition of events from Chicago’s history and illustrates a city memory of how the water tower survived against all odds. Our Bus guide told the story of the client who insisted that the Great Fire of Chicago was caused by an earthquake, not by a cow kicking over a fire bucket in someone’s house. She argued with him all the way around the streets of Chicago until the end of the trip when she confessed that she might have been mixed up Chicago with San Francisco. It can be confusing when so many world cities were devastated in times past by great fires! The famous story of the kicking cow was illustrated by the cartoon displayed in the Chicago History Museum.
As a result of our bus tour, we knew where we wanted to have lunch. A number of our group were impressed by our bus guide’s promotion of Portillo’s, a hot dog and pasta restaurant on Clark Street so it was hot dogs and chilli dogs with onion for lunch.
After lunch we decided we would walk down to the Chicago river and explore slowly what we had admired from the bus windows earlier that morning. The river isn’t very wide in this part of the city so past citizens of Chicago have taken advantage of this, building 10 iron bridges across the river here, one for each street that leads to the river and crosses over. So many bridges surrounded by so many ornate sky scrapers makes for a very beautiful stroll; there is even a Trump Tower of immense proportions here for those who wanted to have a debate about President Trump and the impeachment proceedings that had started on the day of our arrival in this city.
There is a concrete walkway along the river’s edge that we were told was best taken in summertime as it could get a bit icy in winter months. Although snow had arrived in Chicago, the river walk was still safe and pleasant to walk along. There was a boat tour passing us at this point which is called the Chicago Architecture tour. It was probably a bit more high-brow than the Gangster bus tour that we had seen a little earlier, designed for those tourists who wanted to follow the trail of Al Capone, John Dillinger (the Johnny Depp of his day) and George “Bugs” Moran who was apparently the ‘pioneer’ of the drive-by shooting if the word pioneer can be used in that context.
Amongst the more interesting buildings in the city are part of the Marina City complex; favourite buildings attract nicknames so our bus driver called them the ‘Twin Towers’ as well as the ‘corn cobs’. They were built between 1961-68 and were the tallest ‘residential’ buildings in the world on completion. Apartments take up the top sections of the towers and lower down are the garages. Best of all, at the river level, there were ‘boat=garages’ so executives like James Bond could jump in their jet boat and be on the Chicago river within seconds. Hollywood was of the same view and Steve Macqueen in his lesser known film, ‘The Hunter’ (1980), car-chased a suspect through the Corn Cob car-park, forcing him to lose control on the top level of car park and he sailed out the ‘windows’ into the river below.
As strangers to Chicago, we didn’t realise we were walking through the original centre of the Chicago settlement when we turned left along the river, heading for Michigan Avenue. There were a number of clues in the form of monuments, street names and embedded footpath signs that should have alerted us. The first one was the large impressive monument on the corner of Wabash and Wacker Streets at the start of the Irv Kupcinet bridge called Heald Square Monument. It depicts George Washington with two civilian patriots who were amongst the most important financiers of the American revolution, Robert Morris and Haym Salomon. The inscription underneath these figures reads…”The Government of the United States which gives to bigotry no sanction – to persecution no assistance – requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. President George Washington 1790.”
in the footpath as we turned left to head back up the Magnificent Mile was a marker to indicate that this was where the original Fort Dearborn had been constructed by American troops in 1803 on a key crossing of the Chicago River. The fort had been built as part of the war against the British and one of the sadder events of this war was the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812. The fort residents evacuated towards Lake Michigan and 75 people were killed in this battle between American troops and local native Americans who were pursuing a last ditch effort to reclaim traditional lands. Captain Heald (of the nearby Heald Monument) was wounded in this battle.
The DuSable bridge, like all the other bridges along this section of Chicago river, is a drawbridge that stopped us in our tracks one morning when we were about to cross it. It was only around 9 AM so clearly river traffic has priority over cars and pedestrians on their way to work over to the south side of the river. In the image below left of the open DuSable bridge, the Trump Tower and the Marina City towers are in the background.
Having not long before spent a week in New York, admiring and disparaging the famous skyscrapers of the city, we were presented in Chicago with another skyline of tall buildings and were greatly taken with the vista. Perhaps it was the eclectic nature of these buildings that lined the river in central Chicago that made them so interesting. Perhaps it was the small touches that made them more personable such as the ‘Father Time’ clock attached to the corner of the Jewellers Building, apparently weighing in at 8 tons. Who doesn’t love a building whose summit was inspired by a champagne cork? The old Carbide and Carbon Building was built in 1929 and has been renovated in recent years, particularly to touch up the gold-leaf on its summit.
From the river we were able to enjoy our stroll along Michigan Avenue back to our hotel. The main curiosity of this walk was making our way past a long queue of locals lining up for entry into a new Starbucks store that had recently opened up near our hotel. This was very mysterious as there was another Starbucks coffee shop a block away in the corner of our hotel building! Americans appear to be happy waiting hours in queues!
(Appendices…information that readers can freely ignore; the writer just was interested in these less than important topics!)
APPENDIX 1…City Nicknames
A. The Windy City
New York has a nickname, the ‘Big Apple’, that is commonly known by most visitors. Chicago’s nickname, the ‘Windy City’, is not universally known but when you plan a visit there, it often comes up in the city reviews. Whilst the term ‘Big Apple’ appears to have little perceivable links with New York City, once you spend any time in Chicago, the story behind its nickname becomes immediately obvious. I am not a meteorologist but I can only assume that being a city on the edge of a lake as large as Lake Michigan, the topographical reasons for the regularity of strong winds blowing in off the lake would be immediately obvious to most people.
If we were in any doubt as to Chicago’s nickname before arriving at our hotel (Hyatt Centric), the name was immediately encountered in the foyer of the hotel where the curious piece of sculpture on the right was prominently placed. Although we weren’t blown off our feet while in this city, we could appreciate how it got its name.
B. City of Big Shoulders
In the lounge area of our hotel there was another piece of sculpture that looked similar in methodology to the more prominent piece of the three folk being blown away while waiting at the bus stop. Named “Big Shoulders’, this piece is by Californian artist Brad Oldham and he is the same artist who produced the plight of locals ‘blowin in the wind’. However the name of the ‘Big Shoulders’ and its use as another nickname for Chicago is a bit more obscure than ‘Windy City’. Chicago was named the ‘City of Big Shoulders’ by the long lived, winner of three Pulitzer prizes, poet Carl Sandberg. It’s a great name, coined by a great poet in a great poem! Read and enjoy!