October 3, 2017

The Windy City

by Steve and Rosemary

A friend told us that Illinois is even flatter than Iowa. Rosemary's comment was, "If that's true, it must look like a pool table."

Driving from Wisconsin to Illinois, we couldn't assess the flatness right away. The landscape was enveloped in an ugly haze that smelled faintly of smoke, blown in from Canadian wildfires. We were greeted almost immediately by a toll booth, the first of many along a very unattractive stretch of I-90. In the past, we had paid a couple of tolls to cross bridges, but we hadn't encountered this kind of toll road. By the time we got to our exit, the haze had cleared, and we had paid $7.90 in tolls. A few days later, we paid even more to get out of Illinois and enter Indiana. Coming from California, where tolls are rare, we perceived this as highway robbery.

We stayed in the suburb of Niles, where there is a half-scale replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa called the Leaning Tower of Niles. Constructed between 1931 and 1934, the tower sits in a small park. Over time, freezing and thawing every winter and spring caused the concrete structure to deteriorate. In 1995, the citizens of Niles authorized a $1.2 million renovation project. It is astonishing to drive the streets of the US and see a familiar landmark from another country.

No, we're not it Italy. At least, not yet.
We also saw an unusual warning sign near a senior living center.

Warning! Old people walk among us!
On our first day, we went downtown to the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world's finest museums. It was impossible to see everything in a single day but we did our best. The featured exhibit was an in-depth look at Gauguin, which we enjoyed very much.

Outside, the Institute is protected by two stone sculptures, known as the north and south lions.

The next day, we walked the North Branch Trail in the Forest Preserve, a narrow stretch of woods surrounded by major city streets. It is pretty, but not peaceful, as cars roar by, airplanes pass overhead, and bicyclists and joggers race along the paths. We saw a couple of deer, but who knows how many deer saw us?

If the deer can read this, we're in more trouble than we thought.
Nearby are the Skokie Lagoons, where people go kayaking or just hang out on the shores.

We spent the following day with friends Mary and Gary Elfring. One of our first stops was to see the Cloud Gate, or the "Bean", a mirrored sculpture in Millenium Park. Its funhouse mirror effect makes it a prime photo op for everyone who sees it.

Where the heck are we? Oh, here we are.

Nearby, there is a video wall with a picture of a woman who smiles, then purses her lips, at which point water shoots out from her "mouth".

Chicago is the location of the famous Chess Records, home of artists like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry. All of these artists influenced The Rolling Stones, who cut a track called "2120 South Michigan Avenue", the address of the studios. With that info, we trekked down the street to the famed location.

Back at Grant Park, we encountered a sculpture garden called "Agora", which is comprised of many sets of headless and armless iron sculptures pointing in different directions. We have no idea what this is supposed to symbolize, but its a bit weird to view and to walk among the sculptures.

Later, we took a water taxi from the park to Navy Pier, which is full of shops, restaurants and a huge Ferris wheel. From the water, you can get a great look at the Chicago skyline.

We we had dinner with Gary and Mary and went back to our hotel exhausted after a full day's activities.

On our last day, we decided to go back downtown using public transportation, a concept foreign to those in Los Angeles. The elevated train (the "L") took us downtown in minutes and we didn't have to spend over $20 to park. We walked the "Magnificent Mile", down Michigan Avenue, where many of the higher priced stores are located as well as many of the city's most interesting buildings.

One that we found was the Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station, one of the few buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Seeing it next to modern buildings put it into historical context.

A walk along this street is a real architectural tour. Some of the first modern skyscrapers were designed here in the late 1800s, in a style that came to be known as Chicago Style. There are also examples of Neoclassical, Art Deco, Beaux Arts, and many others. One building we found particularly interesting was the Tribune Tower, which has 149 stones from around the world embedded in its facade.

Among other huge and modern buildings was the structure in the picture below. The lettering says it all. Happy to report that many of the retail spaces in the lower levels were empty.

In many cities, we have seen sculptures of animals (cows, buffalo, etc.) painted in various ways. In Chicago, there were many versions of police dogs painted in a variety of styles, adding a bit of color to some of the stark building facades. These sculptures were part of a fundraising campaign called K9s For Cops.

Two of man's best friends
My best friend with man's best friend
We had dinner in town and took the train back to get our car, an end to an interesting day in an interesting city. There's lots to see in Chicago that we didn't get to, but maybe next time.


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