Sunday, May 3, 2009

Seeing cities postcards

This is not Chicago.

This is Cloud Gate, otherwise known as The Bean, otherwise known as a really cool piece of seamlessly welded stainless steel that draws tourists to Millennium Park to see themselves in the curved reflection and have fun with a few hundred strangers doing the same thing.

This is not Chicago.

This is Pritzker Pavillion, designed by Frank Gehry — you can tell because there's an explosion of curves and angles and gleaming steel and arching pillars. See the bridge there, the one that looks like a snake? It's a wooden walkway surrounded by stainless steel, and just try strolling that at a nice leisurely pace on a 90-degree cloudless day. You're not on a bridge, you're in an oven. But this makes the bridge, the pavillion, or the bandshell no less fantastic if you're a fan of architecture.

This is not Chicago.

This is Millennium Park, the home of Cloud Gate and Pritzker Pavilion. It also houses the Crown Fountain, 50 feet tall and made of glass blocks. It changes color as water cascades down, and it also works as a giant magical picture frame showing faces of Chicago citizens who open their mouths and "spit" water to the ground. Children and adults play in the water as a free cool-down on warm days.

This is definitely not Chicago.

This is Navy Pier, the home of a giant Ferris wheel, IMAX theater, Museum of Stained Glass Windows, dozens of stores, several restaurants, an indoor tropical garden with water sculptures, and a children's museum. The Ferris wheel is enormous and gives riders a view of most of the downtown area. At night, it lights up with the rest of the city. Navy Pier, as the name implies, is on Lake Michigan and a perfect spot for tourists who want to pose for photos with both water and city as their backdrop. On July 4th the Pier is jammed with tens of thousands of people gathered to watch fireworks explode over the glistening lake.

This is not Chicago.

This is the Art Institute. You can't miss it, as a pair of giant lions prove you're at the right place. The exhibits constantly change, but the permanent collection always includes photographs, miniature rooms (tiny houses designed in varying styles to reflect different cultures), sculptures, drawings, textiles, architecture, and other artifacts. The Institute is a huge place (soon to get even bigger with a Modern Art Wing) and includes a gift store full of Chicago tzotchkes and re-printed art on everything from fridge magnets to umbrellas.

This is not Chicago, although it would like to be.

This is a burger joint hidden away beneath Michigan Avenue and made famous by Saturday Night Live decades ago. You know why: Cheeborger cheeborger cheeborger cheeborger. No Coke; Pepsi. No fries; chips. The "cheeborgers" are delicious, and the chanting is fun for a while, until you realize that now, it's all for the tourists and not for the staff or the regular customers. It's lunch on a sound set, and if your cheeborger comes from the Billy Goat outpost at Navy Pier or the giant Taste of Chicago festival, it's a sound set lost in a sea of tourists.

And speaking of...

... this is not Chicago, either.

This is the notorious Taste of Chicago, a gigantic festival of food offering samples from hundreds of the city's restaurants. It's also the best time to wear stretch pants. TOC takes over two main streets and all of Grant Park (think Obama victory celebration, but with food instead of hope) and always offers free music from local and national acts (past performers have included Stevie Wonder and John Mayer). Families come to spread out picnic blankets in the shade, couples smile and broil in the summer sun, and cops earn overtime by reuniting hundreds of children with the frantic parents who've lost them.

This is not Chicago.

This is night time in the downtown area of the city. Everyone's awake, yet everything in the dark seems more relaxed than the hectic and noisy workday. The jackhammers and taxi horns have gone quiet; the lake glistens with reflections of the gleaming lights, and people still strolling can slow their pace enough to actually enjoy where they are.

This is not Chicago — but now we're getting warmer, at least.

This is Chinatown, cut off from the downtown area by a noisy and complex freeway interchange that makes walking from one area to the other impossible. It's only a couple of blocks further than the museum campus and Grant Park, but because of the freeways it's a whole different experience; it's a neighborhood.

Like this one, Wrigleyville, way up on the north side, where restaurant meals don't start at $30 and three-story buildings are as high as the high-rises go, and the clothing stores are indies, and the blues bars play to residents, not tourists, and you can spend half a day playing chess at the local coffee shop (unless you prefer the omnipresent corporate chain down the street) and walk to the grocery store three blocks from your house to get fresh produce for dinner.

And this one, the Boystown neighborhood, a thriving, safe, and welcoming gay community ("village," in the city's terminology). Rainbow flags fly proudly from everywhere, couples and singles of any orientation mingle without fear or loathing, Belmont Harbor offers a great alternative to the phoniness of Oak Street Beach downtown, and rent is actually affordable.

And this one, too. High-rises are nowhere in sight, trash bins are not on every corner, sidewalks are not sprayed clean of gum and spit every night, and stores have wire cages over their doors and windows. This, at last, is Chicago — the one that does not appear in the visitor guides and tourist pamphlets, the one that the city doesn't brag about, the one that police would rather not be called to late at night.

So why, when we say we "love" big cities like Chicago, New York, Detroit, St. Louis, Boston, New Orleans, and the rest, do we only picture tiny, artificial enclaves of those cities — the tourist areas, the parts of town designed to host people only temporarily and then send them back from where they came?

As Michael Moore said in his film Roger and Me, about the not-so-wonderful life experienced by residents inside a big city, it's because "most people don't like to celebrate human tragedy while on vacation." We ignore the real parts of the city so we don't have to think about life beyond the fancy stores and giant Ferris wheels.

But there can't be too much blame placed on tourists, as most have no reason to think about any real, unglamorous places that exist in the city. A vacation, after all, is a time to get away from problems, not go to where there are more. So it's no shock that tourists don't choose their vacation destinations to learn about daily life issues facing residents, like the fact that schools beyond some city limits have cash they could probably spare, while the schools inside the "vacation zone" of the city are hurting for money (as we pointed out here and here).

Most of the WB staff travel frequently to Chicago and are guilty of equating it, and several other big cities, with the idea of entertainment, not with the concept of those places being home to several million people, most of them living outside of downtown. We love the select parts of the cities that are there to make us enjoy them as getaway destinations—and yes, tourist-dollar magnets too—and while we can enjoy thinking about what it'd be like to live there, we actually have no idea.

- Pinkmingo and 78rpm

1 comment:

Some Guy said...

Thoughtful and interesting. We have pals who live in the city, but for me Chi-town is a once-per-year conference destination. I like it 'cause I can drive there and get home in a few hours. The conf. usually wallpapers over my wife's birthday--once I drove home for her party and turned around to go back. What's 8 hours on the road between soulmates, eh?

Missed you at the Double Door, dude! Reich was texting you just as we were thinkin' you'd like the band.

Headed down to Deee-troit to see The Kills this FRI.