"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.
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.
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