Obama’s Kind of Town

Obama’s Kind of Town

Chicago is the essential American city, powerful, awe-inspiring and rich.

“Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood… Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work.” Architect Daniel H. Burnham, one of Chicago’s many original movers and shakers, wrote this in 1909 when he penned his famous Chicago Plan.

To read Burnham’s words one hundred years later is to echo President Barack Obama’s own hortatory words. That both of these men owe so much of their fame and success to Chicago’s inspirational combination of energy and true grit is testament to its hard earned position as one of the world’s great cities.

Like other global centres of wealth and ingenuity, Chicago has suffered its share of failures and extreme challenges. The Great Fire of October 1871 nearly destroyed the entire city in a day. The 1920s saw an era of crime sprees orchestrated by thugs like Al Capone. They did the city’s reputation great damage. Even today, corruption is a facet of local politics that amuses some wags who don’t live there but frustrates most that do. Witness the latest episode: Illinois ex-Governor Blagojevich was indicted while I was visiting Chicago, the third of five recent governors to have faced charges while in office. Chicago’s politics are constantly entertaining. Why else would Obama have chosen to launch his political career here? It’s the quintessential American political school of hard knocks to be sure. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Chicago is often called Second City. LA’s population count passed Chicago’s more than twenty years ago but the tagline has stuck. The moniker is still embraced. Is it mistaken hubris? A chip on a city famed for its broad shoulders? Or is it a phrase psychologically twisted to its favour? Certainly there’s compelling merit in maintaining an underdog status but this colossus on Lake Michigan never was second rate.

Once again it’s the city poised at the tip of everyone’s lips; cool, sexy and contemporary. Internationally acclaimed green credentials are surprisingly noteworthy, an odd fact that belies its industrial roots. It’s a boomtown despite rising unemployment and the American financial meltdown. Construction cranes crowd its stupendous skyline like stalks in a corn field. I’m told by tourism authorities that builders simply raise the roofs on skyscrapers to suit the number of flashy condominiums sold. It’s easier to increase heights later when the economy picks up. Instead of eighty stories, they cap the building at sixty and add more floors later. I don’t know what the residents think of the ensuing noise problems but this is the ‘Can Do’ city and nothing stops growth. For instance, the Santiago Calatrava designed Chicago Spire, at 150 stories and nearly 610 metres, has been put on hold, its foundation covered, until the economy improves, but I’m told that it will be built soon enough. The recently finished 92 story 360 metres tall Trump Tower, a gleaming glass super-skyscraper whose top floor apartments sell for merely USD$15 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. I lose count of the skyscrapers that jut into view. Chicago is undergoing a building boom not seen in over fifty years.

Famous for being the ‘hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat, the player with railways,’ to quote Carl Sandburg, Chicago is equally renowned for its contribution to culture and the arts. The newest addition to the Chicago Art Institute, the Renzo Piano wing that adjoins Millenium Park with its stunning Jay Pritzker Pavillion designed by Frank Gehry, opened in 2011. It increased the museum’s total gallery space by 35%, solidifying its position as the nation’s second largest after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Second place again? Yes, but the city is apparently pleased nonetheless. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera Company, The Steppenwolf, (the best repertory theatre company in the country), The Second City Comedy Club, the Field Museum of Natural History, the John G. Shedd Aquarium, (the world’s largest indoor aquarium), the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Science and Industry, among many other fine places of edification is a salve to sensitive urban egos. To solidify its claim as an arbiter of sophisticated taste, the former public library has become the Chicago Cultural Center. It operates as the central tourism headquarters and is essential to a visit here, if only to see the world’s largest Tiffany dome. Incidentally, its replacement, the Harold Washington Public Library, is the largest public library in the world.

This is a city of superlatives to be sure. It’s also a metropolis where big egos, great talents and industrious entrepreneurs thrive concurrently. While I find New York brash and occasionally overbearing in its relentless thrum of activity, I admire Chicago for its mid-west down home friendly attitude. Ask a stranger where to find a shopping bargain and you’re likely to be told, if not shown, where to go. Ask a stranger in New York and you’re likely to be intentionally misguided in order to keep a location selfishly secret. Hard earned local knowledge is shared rather than hoarded in Chicago.

I find this laissez-faire approach pleasantly evident in Hyde Park, the south side neighbourhood where Barack and Michelle used to live until they moved to the White House. During my days in Hyde Park I chatted with so many acquaintances of the Obama family that I was beginning to believe that the President really did meet everyone when he worked here as a community organiser. My walking companion, a long time resident of Hyde Park tells me that, “Barack Obama sure knows how to work a room.” I walk into the Hyde Park Hair Salon (53rd St near the corner of Harper St.) and find myself talking to Zariff, the President’s barber. When I ask the man who cuts the President’s hair if Obama still drops in for a short back and sides, he tells me that, “No, I go to him.” Later I ask Zariff what the White House private residence is like and he tells me that it’s nice inside. He enjoys getting out of his little shop from time to time to catch up with the President. It’s the kind of surreal conversation one has in Hyde Park when the name Obama is mentioned. I can get a regular haircut or an Obama haircut here. They each cost USD$21.00. I ask Zariff what the difference is and he tells me that I’ll look like Obama if I get an Obama haircut. Customers listening intently to our conversation laugh uproariously. It’s a fun place to hang out, just like barber shops used to be. But this isn’t a regular barber shop anymore. The chair where Obama used to sit for his haircut resides in a specially constructed bullet-proof glass case. The President signed the seat shortly after being elected. A local shrine is born.

I wander over to where the Obama family used to live at 5046 S. Greenwood Avenue before moving to the White House. The quiet, leafy street is closed off at each end but I ask a uniformed member of Chicago’s finest, one of a squad maintained by the city permanently on surveillance duty, if I am allowed to photograph it from the other side of the barriers. I’m sure that our conversation is being secretly recorded by the FBI but I persist. The policeman, seated comfortably inside his squad car looks a bit bored. He extends his hand outside the window to flick the ash from his cigar and tells me that I can photograph the house from across the narrow street but can’t stay for long. I stand opposite on the steps of one of the oldest synagogues in Chicago for a few moments and take pictures of the President’s house. This neighbourhood is not only famous for its Presidential connection. Mohammed Ali owns a house around the corner and Louis Farrakhan owns six, one for him, the others for his sons in the nearby cross street.

Later I have lunch at the Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop (5225 S. Harper St., Harper Court Complex off 53rd St.) where Obama often had lunch or a take-away. An episode of Check! Please, with Obama acting as guest host, was filmed here in August 2001 and has since become a hit on YouTube. I have an appetizer of fried green tomatoes, a Cajun combination plate and pink lemonade. The kitschy decoration is fun and the atmosphere is surprisingly low key and friendly. To finish off the tour of Obama’s favoured local eating spots, I step into the Valois Restaurant (1518 E. 53rd St) where Obama held court with other community organisers when he first moved to Chicago. It’s a Greek owned diner where cash-strapped students and cashed-up professors alike hang out over plates of very basic fare. Pancakes are a specialty. By the way, it’s pronounced ‘Val-Oyce’, not ‘Val-Wah’, if you want street cred.

Without the esteemed University of Chicago, which claims to have more Nobel Prize laureates among its faculty than any other Ivy League university in America, Hyde Park would be just another picturesque integrated community. The enormous Columbian Exhibition of 1893 caused a monumental shebang and put Hyde Park on the international map. The city needed a boost to remind the world that it survived the big fire of two decade’s past and a world’s fair was deemed necessary to promote the city’s reputation. The term ‘Windy City’ was coined then by international journalists either to describe Chicago’s windily loquacious and boastful news reporters or politicians or both, no one is certain now. It had nothing to do with the city’s notoriously fickle weather.

27 million visitors attended the exhibition during its six month’s run, more than half the total population of the USA at the time. Unusually for a world’s fair, it was also a resounding financial success. The Columbian Exhibition was unique. It inspired L. Frank Baum to create his Emerald City for the Wizard of Oz, Antonin Dvorak composed his The New World symphony in its honour and Scott Joplin created ragtime music to celebrate its ambient mood. An extraordinary magical city was created in Hyde Park, albeit a temporary one. All of the buildings, (save for one, the Palace of Fine Arts building was constructed of bricks overlaid with stucco in order to protect the valuable paintings inside as fire was still on people’s minds), were built of simple wood frames and plaster of Paris painted gleaming white. It stood out on the lakeshore like a modern day Rome and Athens conjoined. The White City’s fame was universal. The Palace of Fine Arts building was demolished in the 1920s and a permanent structure, a replica of the original built from local limestone with a view towards permanence, was erected in the same position on a lagoon. It’s now the Museum of Science and Industry. The only building remaining from the Columbian Exhibition is the Center for World Religions located downtown in Michigan Avenue. It became the basis for the Art Institute of Chicago, a fact little known to the thousands of visitors who wander its galleries today.

Frank Lloyd Wright was apprenticed to Louis Sullivan’s architectural firm during the construction of the Columbian Exhibition. Wright was disappointed in the Beaux Arts style of its buildings and felt that it was a tribute to old world style, a missed opportunity to show the world what American architecture would become, largely due to his influence. Subsequently, Wright established his Prairie Style, many examples of which are seen in Hyde Park. His famous Robie House (5757 S. Woodlawn St.) is open to the public but a fascinating transitional house, where Wright’s metamorphoses from Victorian to Prairie style can be seen is the privately owned Blossom House (4858 S. Kenwood Ave.) located in the northern fringes of Hyde Park.

The University of Chicago got its kick-start from the Columbian Exhibition. The fair’s Midway Plaisance, its green thoroughfare where P.T. Barnum set up his tent, Little Egypt performed her ‘hoochie-coochie’ dance for thousands of entranced men and Buffalo Bill raked in a small fortune with his Wild West Show, was designated to become the grounds for the campus. What is a great city without a commensurate university? In 1892 John D. Rockefeller contributed USD$35 million but stipulated that it not go towards its construction. His endowment placed the University of Chicago in the enviably secure financial position it enjoys today. With Rockefeller leading the way, the University’s future was secured. It was also one of the first private universities to allow women. Unsurprisingly, many of its early donors were wealthy women. The grounds are sumptuous, the atmosphere heady with lofty thoughts. Here the world’s first sustained nuclear reaction was conducted under controlled circumstances. The laboratory was located under Stagg Field, the university’s former football ground, now built over with student dormitories. An impressive Henry Moore sculpture entitled Nuclear Energy occupies the small plaza which marks the site of the event that altered our world forever.

The University of Chicago has also sponsored archaeological excavations in the Middle East and Egypt for decades. Its Oriental Institute Museum (1155 E. 58th St.) rivals those in London and Berlin. I’m impressed again by this city’s ability to surprise me with its cornucopia of museums. I walk to another hidden gem. The Du Sable Museum of African American History (740 E. 56th Pl.) overlooks a sweep of lawns in Washington Park, where the main stadium will be built if Chicago wins the bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games. It’s named after Chicago’s founder, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, a black French-American who migrated in the 1780s from Haiti. He founded a trading post at the point where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan. This small museum offers a sobering and typically illuminating Chicago experience. My enlightening moment comes while I see an exhibit devoted to Lerone Bennett Junior, the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company which published seminal black powered magazines such as Ebony and Jet and who wrote the 2002 American Book Award prize winner, Forced into Glory. His handsome face is captured in a moving snapshot with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. I can’t help but wonder if Hyde Park’s most famous native son would be where he is today without the sacrifices made by those two men.

Naked Facts:

Must Do:

Take a tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Book at CAF ArchiCenter Shop 224 S. Michigan Ave. at Jackson Blvd.
Information about tours: www.architecture.org

Remember Abe Lincoln’s 200th birthday was recently celebrated. The Chicago History Museum has a fascinating exhibition devoted to Obama’s favourite, the 16th President.
1601 N. Clark St.

Chicago is the home of the Blues. Catch a show at Buddy Guy’s Legends
754 S. Wabash Ave. PH: 312 427 1190

Pick a park. Chicago’s official motto is ‘Urbs in Horto’ which means City in a Garden. 7,500 acres of parklands, 26 miles (approximately 40 kilometres) of lakefront and 600 acres of official nature areas. Garfield Park’s (300 N. Central Park Ave.) Conservatory is the world’s largest public horticultural collection under glass. Lincoln Park’s Notebaert Nature Museum (2430 N. Cannon Dr.) is rich with information for nature lovers.

Attend a game. Sports, they’re ubiquitous. The Bulls, the Bears, the Cubs, the White Sox and the Blackhawks represent basketball, gridiron football, baseball and ice hockey. All four seasons are covered.

Dance: The Joffrey Ballet Company’s home town is Chicago. This is contemporary dance at its best.
8 E. Randolph St.

Laughs: The Second City is a Chicago institution. It’s where John Belushi, Mike Meyers, Bill Murray, Steve Carell, Tina Fey and countless other comic geniuses launched careers and/or continue to perform.
1616 N. Wells St. PH: 312 337 3992

Classical Shine: Chicago’s symphony orchestra has been one of the finest in the world for decades. Attend a performance and find out why.

Chicago Neighborhood Tours: Funded by the city’s municipal government and staffed mostly by enthusiastic volunteers, the tours offer insights into this huge city that most visitors rarely gain.

Getting there:

United Airlines’ home base is in Chicago and many global airlines serve Chicago’s busy O’Hare International Airport. See www.united.com for details.

See www.choosechicago.com for general tourism information.

Staying there:

Chicago best hotels are in the CBD. I recommend The Affinia (166 E. Superior St.) and The James (55 E. Ontario St.) for two small boutique hotels with personality and cheerful, adept service. Each hotel offers truly excellent dining experiences: C-House at The Affinia and David Burke’s Primehouse at The James, provide quite a delicious change of pace for big city hotel restaurants. The Park Hyatt (800 N. Michigan Ave.) has swish rooms in a superb location. The Sofitel Water Tower (20 E. Chestnut St.) occupies a stunning building in a great central location with a restaurant that produces well crafted French influenced food with innovative flair that is very popular with local crowds. Its Sunday brunch is a must do.

Eating there:

For another Obama connection, Table 52 (52 E. Elm St) near the Sofitel Water Tower is a wonderfully intimate establishment operated by Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s former personal chef. The First Couple celebrated their Valentine’s Day dinner here.
The Aja Steak House (Dana Hotel and Spa Cnr. of Erie and State Sts.) does winning wonders with its Japanese inspired menu. Sushi, sashimi, Kobe beef and killer cocktails make this a hotspot with the in crowd.
Bin 36 (Marina City, 339 N. Dearborn St.) is a huge wine bar restaurant owned by one of Chicago’s most informed wine makers/wholesalers, Brian Duncan. Delightful food, good service and interesting wine flights with matching American artisan cheeses make this both educational and fun.
Chicago is an American gourmet centre. Famed chefs such as Charlie Trotter at his eponymous restaurant, Rick Bayless’ stunning Mexican food at both Topolobambo and the Frontera Grill and Grant Achatz’ cutting edge cuisine at Alinea take Chicago to ever greater heights. Check out the latest entertainment and dining scenes in Wicker Park and Logan Square neighbourhoods too. It’s where gastronomic barriers are being broken.

Where we’ve been

Aboriginal Culture Australia Australian Wildlife Bali Bangkok Business Travel California Chicago coral reef crocodiles Cultural History eco-tourism Elephants Endangered Species Endangered Wildlife Fraser Island Gourmet dining Great Barrier Reef Hawaii Humpback Whales Indonesia Islamic Culture Italy Myanmar New Zealand Northern Territory Organic food Oslo Polynesia Queensland Rutherglen Scuba diving Shopping SouthEast Asia South Island sustainable tourism Sustainable Travel Thailand Tigers Turkey USA Victoria Vietnam Volcanoes Wine Tourism

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