Chicago’s new sparkle

“The time has come to bring order out of chaos incident to rapid growth,” wrote the architect Daniel H. Burnham. The year was 1909. The place, Chicago. The occasion, the unveiling of Burnham’s sweeping, visionary plan to change the face of the city on the southwestern edge of Lake Michigan, which we all still think of as Carl Sandburg’s “stormy, husky, brawling City of Big Shoulders.” To staunch the stockyard stink, put an ordered, graceful face on the grimy, immigrant-swollen city--and, above all, to attract wealth--the scheme called for parks along the lakefront, broad landscaped boulevards, new bridges spanning the Chicago River and expressways to the suburbs.

At the time, Chicago was the second-most populous city in America after New York (it’s now third, after Los Angeles), and was at Manhattan’s elbow culturally and politically. But Burnham didn’t envision a race with New York. He saw Chicago as a sort of Paris on the Prairie, with the Chicago River as the Seine.

Amazingly, some of the Burnham plan, which grew out of a national urban beautification movement known as City Beautiful, was soon realized. Other parts have taken time, as a good deal of American history intervened. Shortly before the turn of the century, the Great Migration brought thousands of Southern blacks to the Windy City, followed by the gruesome race riots of 1919, the Prohibition Era mayhem of Al Capone and the brutal police crackdown on Vietnam War protesters at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, the event that so crystallized Chicago under the 21-year leadership of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.

History really does repeat itself, but happily for Chicago, never in the same way. Two years ago, the city hosted another Democratic National Convention, but this time without Abbie Hoffmann and any doubt about the presidential nominee (Bill Clinton). The city’s steward is now Richard J. Daley’s son. He’s a Democrat, of course, but also a detail-minded manager who’s done everything he can to attract business and visitors to the city. What’s more, Chicago has lost the chip on its shoulder so apparent in the brassy self-justification of Sandburg’s poem. Along the line, while the great metropolises on this country’s coasts weren’t paying attention, Chicago decided to quit the big-city race and simply be itself.

Unlike Los Angeles, it is a real, dense, old-fashioned city with a bold skyline, where residents walk from place to place or take the train. Unlike New York, Chicago has a healthy heart rate, spaciousness, few pretensions and people willing to make eye contact on the street.

In comparison to anyone, Chicagoans are nice--as cashiers and telephone operators all over the city make clear to the millions of tourists and convention-goers who visit every year.

Locals will tell you that it’s best to come here in the fall, the season that so becomes America’s great northern cities. Growing up in St. Louis, I knew people who’d make annual fall pilgrimages to New York to shop and attend the theater. Now I’d be just as inclined to get my autumn city fix in Chicago, when the trees along Lake Shore Drive turn gold, mannequins in storefront windows on the Magnificent Mile show off winter coats and the city’s cultural calendar explodes.

After a summer hiatus, Oprah Winfrey is taping again in a slowly rejuvenating area just west of the river. Brian Dennehy is about to launch the season at the Goodman Theatre as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” In October, an eagerly awaited Mary Cassatt painting exhibition opens at the Art Institute, and the renowned Chicago Symphony will be tuning up in an acoustically renovated Symphony Center (designed by Burnham in 1902). And no one will be thinking of Al Capone, of the 1968 convention, or even of Sandburg’s hog-butchering, tool-making, wheat-stacking city, I’d venture to guess. Because Chicago’s changed.


Soon after Richard M. Daley was elected mayor in 1989, he vowed to plant 500,000 trees and, in a gesture rich with meaning, moved his family from the old Irish, bungalow-belt bastion of Bridgeport to Central Station, a gentrified new housing development on the city’s once-rough Near South Side. Young professionals who grew up in the suburbs, graduated from Big Ten universities and have landed jobs downtown are following Daley back to the “urban village” that lines the looping Chicago River, settling into condos and lofts in historic districts like Printer’s Row, or in leafy neighborhoods right next door to desperately violent and dilapidated housing projects such as Cabrini Green (which is being dismantled, blighted building by blighted building).

The demand for luxury pied-a-terres in Near North Side residential hotels has sharpened, while just a few El stops outside the Loop, old ethnic neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Bucktown are being colonized by yuppies. Little Italy on Taylor Street is shrinking, squeezed by housing projects, hospitals (such as Cook County General, the model for television’s “ER”) and the sprawling University of Illinois. And at Sak’s Restaurant in the area known as Ukrainian Village, where you can still hear Ukrainian and Russian spoken on the street, the bartender complains about developers driving out longtime residents.

It isn’t just the yuppies who have changed the face of ethnic Chicago, but new immigrant groups from Mexico and Asia--resulting in a tonic mix on restaurant menus. Arun’s, one of Chicago’s top eateries, is Thai. But inside the Loop, Daley has gentrified the streets with beaux-arts lamps and hanging planters. He turned Navy Pier, which reaches into Lake Michigan, into a Disney-style amusement park with a 150-foot Ferris wheel. Daley also spearheaded efforts to renovate grande-dame playhouses, giving the city its own little downtown theater district. And then came the masterstroke: the rerouting of northbound Lake Shore Drive, bringing 36 acres of lush greensward to waterfront Burnham Park and easy pedestrian access to a trio of world-class museums--the Field Museum of Natural History, the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum. So Chicago turns back to the future, and the Burnhamesque City Beautiful.


What you see below when you straighten your seat back for landing at O’Hare International Airport is a Lego city on a blue puddle, with ramrod-straight highways radiating off across the Great Plains. As visitors approach, in a cab on the congested Kennedy Expressway or, as I did, on a Blue Line train to the Loop from O’Hare (fare: $1.50), Chicago’s foremost attraction comes into view. “Look up! Look up!” says the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City. But in Chicago you don’t need to lift your head to see the architectural beauty pageant on display, thanks to Midwestern space and light . . . and urban canyons opened up by Burnham.

Stand at the pedestrian walkway on the graceful Art Deco double-decker drawbridge that carries Michigan Avenue over the Chicago River, circle the Loop on the El, ride the Navy Pier Ferris wheel, or take a cruise on the river with the Chicago Architecture Foundation and you will see what I mean: a stunning skyline, from the Sears to the Amoco to the John Hancock Center--at 110, 82 and 100 stories respectively. More important is the fact that almost every building in the lineup is worth thinking about individually. They document the course of late 19th and 20th century urban American architectural history.

Start at the Monadnock Building at 53 W. Jackson Blvd. or the Rookery at 209 S. LaSalle St., both built about 20 years after the fire that started in Mrs. O’Leary’s cowshed in 1871. They strain their load-bearing walls because they were built before the development of lightweight metal frames upon which architects hang the glass and marble that sheath modern skyscrapers.

Note almost everywhere the Chicago-style windows, composed of a triptych of panes, and the Reliance Building by Burnham and Wellborn Root at 32 N. State St., one of the city’s first steel-frame skyscrapers. And do not fail to walk by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler’s brilliant Auditorium Theatre (an early home of the Chicago Symphony) at 430 S. Michigan Ave., with a modernity solidly based on Romanesque arches and plans drafted by Frank Lloyd Wright, just arrived from rural Wisconsin and only 20 years old.

Soon after Sullivan and Adler’s auditorium, skyscrapers shot up all over the city. The Tribune and Wrigley buildings led the way, their Neo-Gothic and Classic whirligigs doing battle across the Magnificent Mile in the middle of the Jazz Age. Then, in the ‘30s, a German architect named Ludwig Mies van der Rohe came to Chicago with Bauhaus-inspired, International School plans in his bag. Should you think his plain, boxy, flat-topped skyscrapers boring, look at the perfectly poised and articulated Chicago Federal Center on Dearborn Street, brought into harmony with the sky by Alexander Calder’s “Flamingo,” the mammoth vermilion sculpture installed on the plaza in 1974.

To see how postmodern architects like Helmut Jahn have reacted against the uniformity of Mies van der Rohe’s boxes, do look up. There, the contemporary architectural summits of Chicago erupt in pyramids, pinnacles and a whole geometry book of shapes. Then, just before teatime at the Drake Hotel or oysters at Shaw’s Crab House, visit one of Chicago’s true modernistic gems at 30 W. Monroe St.: the Inland Steel Building of 1957, all get-up-and-go stainless steel and reposed turquoise-tinted glass.


My recent weeklong stay in Chicago was in some ways a personal journey back in time to when I got to know the city as a college student. Chicago has changed dramatically since then, with less sense of threat from crime downtown (though tourists are still warned not to venture south of Congress Parkway or much west of the river), many new amenities and that big burnished skyline.

But what was wonderful about it then is wonderful still, beginning with the great Art Institute on South Michigan Avenue, built for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The collection embraces 225,000 art objects, ranging from 4,000-year-old jades to key American paintings such as Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

But at the information desk underneath the beaux-arts dome, it’s the institute’s Impressionist and Postimpressionist masterpieces that visitors ask for, even if, like the couple ahead of me, they happen to be French. This is because, as far as I’m concerned, nowhere else in the United States is there such a striking assemblage of early French modernists: Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Renoir, Seurat. Boston may have as many Monets, for instance, but not six of his haystack paintings. The Impressionist and Postimpressionist collection took shape around 24 masterpieces, considered daringly avant-garde in 1926 when they were donated to the Art Institute by the Chicago painter Frederic Clay Bartlett in memory of his wife, Helen Birch Bartlett. Today, to stand in the Bartlett room, with Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” on one wall, Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” on another and Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” on a third is a mood-elevating experience, better than antidepressants and almost as good as falling in love.

There are other places to see art in Chicago, of course, like the galleries of River North and the Museum of Contemporary Art, just off North Michigan Avenue near the Water Tower, housed in a building completed in 1996 by the German architect Josef Paul Kleihues. In a room on the fourth floor, mobiles by Alexander Calder hang in front of a window that looks east, echoing the white sails of boats out on the lake. Farther afield (though reachable by train), the suburb of Oak Park holds scores of further treasures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1889, while still employed by Louis Sullivan, he built a home beneath a spreading gingko tree at Chicago and Forest avenues that has an exquisite barrel-vaulted playroom. He added an octagonal studio in 1898 and built signature Wright homes all over the neighborhood, such as the Arthur B. Heurtley and Frank W. Thomas residences, which both demonstrate the genesis of the Prairie Style.


A perfect Chicago day could start with a tour of wright’s home and studio in Oak Park or, better still, a jog, with fall’s early nip in the air, along the path that runs all the way from the beach at Oak Street to the Museum Campus. Here you’re met with a thorny dilemma: Will it be the natural history museum, planetarium or aquarium? I chose the first, the Field, built like a Greek temple in 1909 and rather more a feast than a museum. It contains an uncomfortable-looking gold breastplate made in Colombia between 300 and 1,500, a 4-pound meteor that fell on a garage in Benld, Ill., in 1938, and a glass-enclosed lab where paleontologists are working to assemble the dirty bones of 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Sue.

Then it only seemed right to lunch at Michael Jordan’s Restaurant on North LaSalle Street (he also owns the trendier 160-Blue on the West Side), teeming with tourists who come for a burger and a chance to pay homage to the hero who led the Bulls to six NBA’s World Championships.

Later, from my hotel, the small, elegant Whitehall across the street from Bloomingdale’s on East Delaware Place, I shopped at Bendel’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Marshall Field’s, and wandered into the lovely, leafy residential precincts of the Gold Coast before dressing for dinner and the theater. Dinner was a martini and a plate of tagliatelle with veal at Vinci on Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, just up from the heralded Steppenwolf Theatre. The play was “Pot Mom” by Justin Tanner, brought to Chicago from Los Angeles by longtime company member Laurie Metcalf, who plays the pot-smoking mom in a dysfunctional but fundamentally loving family.

Founded in 1974 and known for its tough, edgy productions, Steppenwolf is one of the most established companies in a city that thrives on theater, nurtured in church basements and school auditoriums all over town. This is why on almost any given night there are scores of productions to choose from, be it a big New York tour at a theater in the Loop or “SCARRIE!: The Musical” at the little Sweetcorn Theatre. There are scores of restaurants, too, because Chicago is one big, well-stocked refrigerator: from deep-dish pizza (a hometown invention) at Edwardo’s on Printer’s Row to gourmet Mexican at pretty Topolobampo on North Clark Street.

On my last night in town, I went with a friend who was born and raised in Chicago to a Near South Side club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, to hear Otis Rush sing the blues, and then dined at Red Light on the city’s newest restaurant row, Randolph Street. Between the chicken satay appetizer and seared shrimp main course, we talked about cities, their variety and allure. Mike still lives in Chicago, though he knows New York and L.A. well. And I’m a city maven, hopelessly enraptured by bright lights, tall buildings and crowds. And the more we talked, the more I envied his rootedness and his luck in hometowns--Chicago, livable, bright, busy and getting more beautiful by the day.