Chicago – Bright Lights, Big City

What can I say. It is my hometown. It’s where I grew up and have returned to every year. So it’s a bit hard to take a step back and not see it from an objective viewpoint. So this is my viewpoint as someone from this place.

Ever since I was a kid, I was interested in going downtown. We did it on limited occasions as a kid. Likely because there was not much going on there during the weekends at that time. There are the museums nearby and there was Chicagofest at Navy Pier. But downtown was reserved for weekday business. Really that has only changed recently over the past decade.

My impressions as a kid were of a city of working people. People who were straight with you. We were the “Second City” behind New York. The little brother who was jealous of all the attention given to the older (bigger) brother. The third coast complete with what appears to be a fresh water ocean. A diverse city even though my world seemed to be primarily of Roman Catholics. My knowledge of the outside world was still limited to the US and the other largest city I had visited was Boston.

It was during high school that I started to explore downtown. My friends and I would go there to study at the library and afterward, we would wander around North Michigan Avenue. Then around the age of 16, my interest in architecture (skyscrapers in particular) grew. At about the same time, my father allowed me access to one of the family used car collection and I spent late nights cruising the downtown streets checking out the buildings going up and the nooks and crannys of the city. (And people wonder why I do quite well at “Guess Where in Chicago”.)

During these years, my understanding of the city expanded. Although I was still primarily surrounded by Catholics, I now went to school with more ethnic groups and races. I saw more of it’s diversity. The history of the city began to intrigue me and I read the book Chicago:growth of a metropolis cover to cover. Learning about it’s prairie beginnings, it’s place as the railroad hub of the nation, the Columbian Exposition, and the following prosperity and skyscraper boom. I also began collecting books on Chicago skyscapers and self-educating myself on all their aspects. I had also visited Los Angeles during these years, but LA seemed quite a different animal than the dense downtown of Chitown.

Even when I went away to college, I returned every summer in order to enjoy the city. Bluesfest, Taste of Chicago, Cubs games at Wrigley Field, the Air and Water show. So much to do that I couldn’t stay downstate in a sleepy college town. But during my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Europe. It highlighted the French origins of the city and gave me a better understanding of the German influence as well. It was also the first time I really got a perspective on America and Chicago. America (under the first Bush’s leadership) did not come across favorable, but Chicago was still that city of hardworking straight shooting people. And Europeans either knew Chicago for Al Capone or Michael Jordan. (People in Canada seem to think that it’s incredibly windy.)

After I returned from college, I was finally of drinking age and earning an income. So new doors were opening. Bars and restaurants I could afford. Softball games, beach volleyball, indoor volleyball, marathons, and running or biking along the lake. Taking the el train to work was something I always wanted to do. Meeting up for drinks on Tuesday nights and going into work on Wednesday slightly or majorly hungover. Living in the city as a young adult was a blast. Plus to be part of the construction of major buildings in the city was a dream come true. It’s quite a source of pride to say I’ve worked on so many buildings downtown.

The city truly came alive during this time. We moved into a bustling neighborhood with our favorite bar only steps away. Doors that were previously closed were now open. Be it for underage reasons or financial reasons. We were blocks from the lake with the parks and the beaches. I biked to work. There were all the summer festivals to explore from art fairs to music festivals. That is not to say there was not a growing frustration that comes with living with others in such close quarters. Traffic and incivility increasingly put a damper on city life. Not enough to make it unfavorable, but to bring it back to reality.

Then with the birth of our first child, there was one reality that would be difficult to overcome. Living in a neighborhood to our liking within our means and conducive to raising kids without long commutes to our jobs. That along with some other reasons (the kids learning each of our mother tongues) brought us to the conclusion to move away to Montréal. A different phase of our lives.

So now I do see the place I grew up in with the eyes of living permanently in another city and another country. Much of the differences I have seen are largely the cultural differences between America and the rest of the world. But my impression of the city has stayed largely unchanged since high school (unlike others that will follow in this series). It is still the city of hard working people who get less recognition than their two (now with LA) bigger brothers. But it is a city that holds it’s own. A city where my heart will always be.


~ by Frank on April 16, 2007.

4 Responses to “Chicago – Bright Lights, Big City”

  1. I’ve never been to Chicago, but its history is fascinating to me. This all started when I read William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, a stunning book about Chicago and a great history of the U.S. besides…To me Cronon’s take is everything a history should be…So incredibly rooted in the idea of place (in Montréal one might say milieu).

    Of course, architecturally, Chicago draws me too…

  2. I haven’t lived in Chicago for nearly 7 years, and I do miss it quite a bit. Spent 6 years in LA, which, as you say is a completely different animal. (Actually, it’s completely different from the rest of the country.) In the past 10 to 15 years Chicago has changed quite a bit for the better. Spending my 20’s in Chicago was some of the most fun I’ve ever had, between the music scene, the many theater groups, the museums, and the living architecture laboratory that the city is. I also happen to find the politics rather entertaining. But if the city gets the Olympics, Chicago will get the world-class attention it deserves.

  3. […] Those Eyes Montreal – Bright Lights, Big City May 12th, 2007 As I mentioned in the previous installment, many cities outside the US were largely unknown to me when I was a kid. What I knew about them […]

  4. […] that many people from rural areas have of the big city. Dirty, loud, congested, frantic, and rude. As I stated before, we were the second city and I grew up with a bit of a chip on my shoulder that my city was not […]

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