The Nation's Pulse

Still My Kind of Town

Chicago is friendly, energetic, loyal, and Midwestern to the core.

By 5.30.07

Flying into Chicago's O'Hare Airport, I always experience a sense of excitement, a feeling of great expectations, as I land in the City of the Big Shoulders.

Many travelers dread the prospect of getting in and out of this great airport, but I say, "What's the worst thing that can happen?" You get to stay overnight in the greatest big city in America perched on the world's largest body of freshwater, the Great Lakes.

Where else can you see an authentic U-boat from WWII; gaze at Beluga whales, up close and personal, cavorting in a gigantic aquarium behind monstrous glass walls; meet a girl named Sue, "the largest, most complete, and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil yet discovered"; and view a collection of French Impressionist paintings to rival anything outside Paris's Musee d'Orsay?

Chicago is to the Great Lakes what Denver is to the intermountain West with a commanding position in a hydrologic system that connects the interior of the continent to the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence. Due to the artifice of man, it also connects to the Gulf of Mexico.

Its stature as the premier city of the "sweetwater sea" (a term used by French explorers to describe the Great Lakes) is reflected in a towering, slightly out-of-the-way sculpture outside the south wing of the Art Institute of Chicago: Lorado Taft's Fountain of the Great Lakes (1913).

Fountain of the Great Lakes is composed of five female figures holding shells from which flows water statue to statue. Starting with the highest figures representing Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, the water streams into another shell held by Lake Huron, and then onto to Lakes Erie and Ontario. The lovely lady representing Ontario is looking off toward the ocean, her eyes following the on-rushing flowage.

The Windy City is also the town in which its namesake river runs backward since the late 19th century. As a state-of-the-art sanitation measure to curb terrible cholera epidemics and typhoid outbreaks caused by the municipal waste, the City reversed the flow of the Chicago River, causing it to run away from Lake Michigan and back out the Des Plaines River, then to the Illinois River and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Rather than treating the wastewater, Chicago just moved it downstream.

This ingenious piece of engineering led to two big Supreme Court decisions, one for and one against Illinois, brought by Missouri and Wisconsin respectively. The Missouri suit over water quality and health concerns, did not wash, so to speak, because St. Louis's sewage at the time was as uncontrolled as Chicago's. The second, challenging the quantity of water diverted from the Lake Michigan, was a bit more successful. To this day the Illinois diversion of water at Chicago is limited by court decree to 3,500 cubic feet per second so as to avoid any further drop in water levels.

The visitor to the Hog Butcher for the World can catch the CTA's Blue Line in the airport, for a straight shot downtown. Once you get into the City, say, around the Damen stop, you are impressed with the endless blocks of restored homes, loft apartments, and other signs of gentrification. Depending on the time of day, you can see that the rush-hour traffic is as heavy outbound as it is inbound, a testimony to the urban renaissance underway.

North of the Damen stop rises the massive dome of the magnificently restored Saint Mary of the Angels Church, a house of worship in the "Polish Cathedral Style." The 17-story structure is also visible from the Kennedy Expressway, and symbolizes the rebirth of Chicago as a vital urban center. Pope John Paul II visited the parish in 1979 and blessed the Holy Icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.

Mary Queen of the Angels opened in 1920. It came upon hard times, was shuttered, and scheduled for destruction. Viewers of Steven Seagal movies (you know who you are) may recall that Saint Mary of the Angels was the scene of a big, ugly gunfight in Above the Law (1988).

Providentially, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, persuaded the Prelature of Opus Dei to take over the parish and sink an archbishop's ransom into restoring it, including its remarkable rooftop statuary and beautiful interior. The parish is a diverse and polyglot mix of Poles, African-Americans, Hispanics, and young hipsters among others. Confessions are heard in many languages.

Jumping off the Blue Line and coming out of the ground into the Loop, you are greeted by a forest of skyscrapers old and new. The older are much finer architectural specimens than the newer. Volumes have been written on Chicago's architectural heritage, and each visitor will have his or her favorites.

The Marquette Building at 140 S. Dearborn, is a particular favorite of mine. Built in 1895, it was designed by Holabird & Roche. A fine example of the Chicago School of Architecture, it is named after Jacques Marquette, the French Jesuit Missionary who explored territory all the way from the Straits of Mackinac down the Mississippi River, and past St. Louis to the Arkansas River. Pere Marquette wintered in what is now Chicago in 1674-75.

This building exemplifies the steel-framed skyscraper which was a very new thing at the time of its construction. Horizontally banded terra cotta and waves of molding, constitute the facade. The open and well-lit lobby atrium is encircled by a hexagonal railing decorated with a delightful mosaic frieze by the Tiffany studio depicting the life of Marquette. It also contains bronze figures of Native Americans, European explorers and animals. On the revolving door panels are carvings of panthers' heads. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

As befitting Chicago's role as a transportation hub ("Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler") the Marquette Building was the headquarters for over 30 railroad companies in the 1930s.

The truly fortunate traveler with a few dollars in hand will find his way to the Magnificent Mile, the northern part of Michigan Avenue, extending from the Chicago River on the south to Lake Shore Drive to the north. Besides indulging in many opportunities for power shopping, a visitor can also take in the John Hancock Center, the Tribune Tower and the Old Water Tower.

At Christmas the whole stretch is festooned with white lights which, especially when it snows, create an aura that is truly otherworldly.

But for this writer, the poles of requited and unrequited love are to be found at the far ends of this great city avenue. My wife and I honeymooned at the Drake Hotel on Chicago's Gold Coast at the north end of the Magnificent Mile. It is a magnificent hotel in the grand tradition.

At the south end, right at the Chicago River, one can visit the Joel Oppenheimer Natural Art Gallery and contemplate purchasing a print of the pink flamingo from the Bien Edition folios of Audubon's Birds of America 1858-1860 for, oh, tens of thousands of dollars. This is, of course, the unrequited pole of the Magnificent Mile. Oppenheimer, at both its Chicago and Charleston, S.C. locations has bin after bin of authentic Audubon and antique botanical prints. Note to Santa: think "loon" this Christmas.

"Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laugher of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation." Carl Sandburg got it right. Yes, Chicago is my kind of town. Its people are friendly, energetic, loyal (what else can a Cubs fan be?), Midwestern to the core, rooted in their unique history and geography. My daughter must agree with me since she married a guy from there. So I cannot possibly be wrong about this.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.