Return to the Windy City by Ron Kapon

The city of Chicago (in 2000 the population was almost 2.9 million) is known as The Windy City, and inquiring minds wanted to know the origin of the term. Proximity to Lake Michigan with its prevailing winds is one theory. Another is the way the city is laid out in a grid system resulting in man-made wind tunnels in the Loop and other high-density areas. My favorite theory is how Chicagoans were considered “windbags” and full of braggadocio. Regardless, the annual wind speed in Chicago is just slightly higher than New York City and Los Angeles; Chicago doesn’t even make the top 25 windiest city in the US! The windiest city at 35.1 miles per hour is Mt. Washington, NH. You decide which theory you believe….. For those yet to visit this Windy City it is worth remembering the temperature is always cooler by the lake in summer and warmer in winter.

I lived in Chicago (and got married there) from 1964-1969. I ran a chain of five wine and liquor stores within a discount department store. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s (1989-Present) father, Richard J. Daley, was the mayor at the time. The elevated train system ran to O’Hare and Midway airports, and the expressways moved the traffic north, south and west (east is lake Michigan). I lived on the south side my first year in a furnished apartment and moved to the top floor of a building on the near north overlooking Oak Street beach. My then wife worked for Playboy and walked to work. I drove north to my office in Morton Grove. Returning from my Hawaiian honeymoon I spent three days snowbound during the great storm of 1967. On January 25, 1967, it was 60 degrees in Chicago. On the 27th there were 23 inches of snow and winds of 53 miles per hour. I spent three days snowbound in my office. We had beds, TV and food. When the food ran out we went home. The Bulls, Cubs, White Sox, Bears and Blackhawk’s are still at home in Chicago.
An invite to attend a wedding during late February brought me back for a weekend and a chance to see the old and the new Chicago. I had written about the Intercontinental Hotel in my Green Hotel & Resort story, and they offered me a very attractive journalist rate and upgraded me to a suite. The hotel has 792 rooms and 175 different room configurations in the Historic Tower where I stayed. In 1929 Walter W. Ahlschlager, the same architect who designed the Beacon Theater a few blocks from my Upper West Side place, designed the Medinah Athletic Club. The 23rd floor had a miniature golf course, shooting range, running track, gym, boxing arena and bowling alley. What still remains is the indoor swimming pool and the stands built for watching the action in the pool.
Even though I paid for my ticket, I have to put in a plug for Delta Express (operated by Shuttle America). It leaves from the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport where I was the only person checking in and at the security checkpoint. In two hours I was at Midway Airport, on the south side. For $2.25 I connected with the Orange Line and after one transfer to the Red Line got off three blocks from my hotel located on Michigan Avenue and is referred to as The Magnificent Mile. The “L” for elevated has all their lines designated by color. The nice folks from the Chicago Tourism Office booked me on two morning tours. They both left from the Chicago Cultural Center, about a 10-minute walk from the Intercontinental, crossing the Chicago River (the only river on earth that flows backwards). The 1897 Beaux-Arts style Cultural Center was formerly the Chicago Public Library. It serves as the public center for culture in the city, with free admission and the largest Tiffany Dome (38 feet) in the United States. The Chicago Visitors Center is on the first floor and the Venetian inspired staircase and mosaic-lined hallways lead to the second floor where the dome serves as the centerpiece for numerous free concerts. The front part of the building originally was the home of the GAR- Grand Army of the Republic home for Revolutionary War veterans.
My Taste of the Neighborhood tour ($50-$45 seniors & students) left from the Cultural Center with 11 dates per year. The type and ethnicity of the three restaurants visited are changed monthly. We first stopped at Pho Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant and dance club in the Argyle/North Broadway area of the Uptown District. The area is often called “New Chinatown” and has a strong Asian population. Typical dishes such as Vietnamese pancakes with shrimp, pork, beef with Chinese broccoli were in abundance. With some free time I found several bargains at a locally owned $1 store. Next we drove to the Devon Avenue area and a Pakistani restaurant-Sher-A-Punjab. They served buffet style with lamb, chicken, rice and spinach, but I was still full from the first stop so I was off to do more shopping. This area has a strong Indian and Pakistani influence in what was once predominately a Jewish neighborhood. Dessert was in the mostly residential Ravenswood area at Café Royal where assorted sweets and Cappuccino were offered. There are 27 other half-day bus tours of Chicago’s 77 distinct neighborhoods highlighting the history, stories, traditions and the people of Chicago. The cost of these neighborhood tours is $30 ($25 for seniors and students and includes refreshments). You can visit President Obama’s neighborhood on the Hyde Park & Kenwood Tour.

Four of the world’s tallest buildings are in Chicago. The Sears Tower (1,450 feet- 108 stories and the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere); Trump International Hotel & Tower (1,362 feet); AON Center (1,136 feet) and the John Hancock Center (1,127 feet). Crossing the afore-mentioned Chicago River, past the Tribune & Wrigley buildings (newspaper and gum), and the Intercontinental Hotel, and walking another 4 blocks one comes to the John Hancock Building. Riding up to the 94th floor observatory 1,000 feet above the Magnificent Mile, the clear day gave me a great view of the city. I still had a few hours before the wedding and I decided to re-visit Navy Pier and its 50 acres of gardens, shops, restaurants and rides. Historic Navy Pier was built in 1909 and is Chicago’s lakefront playground. It is the Midwest’s #1 tourist and leisure destination, attracting more than 8 million visitors per year.

The next morning I met John Popik, my guide, for the three hour Chicago Greeter (started in 2002) walking tour. This is a free service of the Chicago Office of Tourism for groups smaller than 6 people. Visitors can book their Chicago Greeter visits online 7-10 days in advance. I was a one-person group. After walking through and talking about the Cultural Center we took circuitous routes through alleys, under bridges up and down ramps, stairs and elevators and ended up in the 241/2-acre Millennium Park in the heart of downtown, built over the former Illinois Central train yards There is still service from those yards. Opened in 2004 it is the center for art (there are 100 public art pieces downtown), music, architecture and landscape. There is an indoor theater for music and dance, a 4,000 seat Frank Gehry designed pavilion for free outdoor concerts. The Great Lawn has a canopied overhead sound system that brings you right on stage and can seat an additional 7,000 people. There is also a free seasonal outdoor ice rink and the bookend towering fountains bearing LED images of Chicagoans with water coming from their lips. You have to see Anich Kapoor’s “The Bean” as it is called unofficially; the real name is Cloud Gate, the stainless steel sculpture that faces Michigan Avenue and reminded me of a space ship. If strolling and relaxing is your thing, the park has 2 1/2 acre of gardens. We walked past the Art Institute which will be become the second largest art museum (The Met in NYC is number one) when its expansion is completed in May 2009. I wanted to revisit many of my old haunts including: the Loop (the second largest central business district in the US- New York is number one), the Palmer House Hotel, State Street, Marshall Fields (now Macy’s), City Hall, the Picasso Sculpture, the Marc Chagall Mural and the Hotel Burnham, formerly the Reliance Building and the first skyscraper (12 floors) in Chicago. It is now a 122-room European boutique style hotel managed by the Kimpton Group.
Is this a complete tour of Chicago? No, I had only a short time to relive my 4 1/2 very happy years living there. The city can still hold its head high. It is first class and worth another visit.