Chicago on My Mind

While my wife Pam and I love our adopted city of Charlotte and especially our lovely neighborhood of NoDa, occasionally we get nostalgic for our long-time home in Chicago. On a trip back to the City of Big Shoulders last month, I started to ponder what I missed most about life in Chicago, as well as what things have changed since we left town in 2004 and headed south with our two boys and a dog.

First, a listing of the things I miss that are exactly the same fifteen years later:

  • People will think that I’m crazy (and maybe they’re right), but I actually love riding the El in Chicago. For the uninitiated, the El is short for “elevated train,” even though a big part of the system runs underground. The loud, rickety lurching trains are exactly as we left them, and the vast range of people that you sit next to, watch intently, and sometimes interact with is a representative slice of the diversity of a big city. People across the economic spectrum—black, brown and white, speaking a plethora of languages—all make their way onto and off of the train as it rumbles through every neighborhood in the big city. I find riding it fascinating and constant.
  • The Green Mill jazz nightclub in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago has been serving up cool jazz in an elegant throwback venue since it was one of the favorite haunts of Al Capone. Word has it that Capone had a series of secret underground tunnels that could transport him swiftly away from authorities into nearby venues or even to Lake Michigan where he allegedly kept a getaway boat hidden. The place feels like a relic of a bygone time when gangsters ruled the streets of Chicago, enriching themselves through the sale of bootleg liquor during prohibition.
  • The iconic home of the Cubs, Wrigley Field, is one of the most enduring and endearing places in my memories of Chicago. Since we first moved to Chicago, they’ve added lights and an electronic scoreboard, but the heart of Wrigley Field is virtually unchanged since its opening in 1914. For my money, there is no better place on the planet to enjoy a baseball game, a Chicago style dog, and an ice-cold beer.
  • When you need a little downtime from the buzz of the big city, an outstanding place to find respite is Graceland Cemetery. Idyllic, manicured, and unchanging, the winding paths in this iconic setting are home to massive monuments serving as the final resting place for some of the titans of industry who helped shape the current city, including Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan, and Marshall Field. But my favorite monument is a small statue depicting seven-year-old Inez Clarke, who was killed by lightning in the late 1800s. Inez’ statue is encased in glass, reportedly to keep her spirit from wandering the cemetery at night looking for her parents. Eerily, her empty glass case has been reported by several cemetery caretakers, especially during thunderstorms.

While much of Chicago remains unchanged from our time there, several key changes have occurred in the city, all of them positive in my opinion. These include:

  • Millenium Park, previously part of the lakefront Grant Park, now houses a symphony bandshell, the Maggie Daley children’s play garden, the Lurie Garden, and the newest city treasure, The Cloudgate reflecting sculpture (commonly called “The Bean”).
  • The 606 Trail is Chicago’s answer to New York City’s Highline. What was once 2.7 miles of abandoned elevated rail line, The 606 is an alternative transportation corridor for walkers, runners, bikes, and rollerblades. The meticulous native plantings make the space a living work of art and a spectacular new green space for all to enjoy.
  • Dubbed “Malt Row” in 2017, the Ravenswood neighborhood industrial corridor and surrounding area has quickly earned a reputation as “Chicago’s most diverse beer destination.” NoDa beer enthusiasts would enjoy touring and tasting in this fast-changing area on the north side of Chicago.
  • When my brother-in-law, Jeff Hutson debuted his gondola business Olde World Gondoliers on the Chicago River in 2000, little could we imagine that the Riverwalk would eventually become one of Chicago’s most popular walking, dining, boating, and people-watching destinations. Completed in 2016, the 1.25 mile path along the Chicago River adjacent to the Loop transforms the river into a recreational destination that weaves the river into the fabric of Chicago’s urban core.

While much of the Chicago I remember remains virtually unchanged, many new developments continue to push the boundaries of urban design. These new venues demonstrate that Chicago continues to evolve as one of the more interesting and diverse urban centers in the world. While we love our new community in Charlotte, a tiny part of our hearts will always remain in the Windy City.