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2004-11-15 "Windy City" wins uphill battle

I opened the curtains of my bedroom in the Congress Plaza Hotel. Within the last century, this hotel had served as the once-glamorous overnight residence of the Great Caruso, Nellie Melba, the Vanderbilts, the Rockerfellers, Thomas Eddison, George Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Buffalo Bill, as well as a wide selection of US presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon.

 

My view across Grant Park and the Versailles-ian Buckingham Fountain down to the lakeshore was nothing short of awesome.

 

However, this City of Big Shoulders, this wonderful Windy City has had to fight a bit of an uphill battle. Chicago is a city made famous by the eponymously-titled musical (and later film) set in a womens prison in the Prohibition/Gangster era.

But Chicago has been badly misrepresented on stage and screen. Even to this day, this is known as the home of Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones  "Whatever, ho! Talk to the hand, the face aint listenin".


 

There are of course areas in this vast metropolis where it is unsafe to stray, and there are still many violent drug-related crimes committed outside of downtown.

And yet this is one of the most beautiful, impressive and very clean cities on our planet. Heavy littering fines keep Chicagos city centre streets spotless. The astounding high-rise downtown skyline, including the record-breaking Sears Tower, is surrounded by less organised suburbs.


 

Within Chicagos logical, mathematically worked-out street numbering system, lies a treasure trove of art, architecture, museums, jazz and blues clubs, comedy clubs, opera houses, theatres, concert halls, and innumerable shops, malls and eateries.


 

The state of Illinois is littered with prehistoric sites, and the citys name comes from the Native Indian Checaugou. In the early 17th Century Europeans began to move in, first some French missionaries, and later the British, of course. Illinois officially became a state in 1818. Pioneer farming settlements began to spring up, canals were constructed, and the controversial building of roads and railways led to the famous clashes with Native Americans. The Black Hawk War of 1832 led to the forced removal of the areas indigenous people westwards.


 

Chicago fast became the countrys railroad hub and an industrial revolution ensued. Chicago became a centre for heavy industry, as well as the meat and distilling industry. In 1871, a huge fire destroyed the city centre  rumoured to have been started by an Irish ladys cow knocking over a lighted lantern.

I am not fully convinced by that one myself, but there is no doubting the high percentage of the citys Irish population and countless Irish pubs  they even dye the river green on St.Patricks Day!


 

In the early 20th century, illegal alcohol trading and corruption, followed by the Prohibition and Depression years seem to be what gave Chicago its unjust and ugly label.


 

But now Chicago is one of the worlds capitals of trade, commerce and industry, as well being on the A-list for art, music and culture, as the extremely popular Mayor Richard Daley leads this fabulous city into the new Millennium.


 

On my second stay, we were put up at the rather extravagant "Intercontinental", located for all serial-shoppers on the citys Magnificent Mile  Michigan Avenues upscale shopping strip.

Coming from a coastal town myself, normally I dont like to be too far away from the sea, and Chicago could hardly be further, but somehow the vast aquatic expanse of Lake Michigan (bigger than Ireland) gives a coastal, if freshwater, feel.


 

Thankfully the lakeshore has been spared from over-development, and so, the 1200-acre Lincoln Park, the miles of endless beaches and lakefront promenades are a gift for the many health-conscious Chicagoans.


 

The colossal Art Institute of Chicago commands a hefty entrance fee, but it is worth every cent, and is a must. Impossible to see it all on one visit, the gallery houses Indian, African, Ancient American, Egyptian, Greek and Oriental artefacts, as well as countless masterpieces from every era  in particular Impressionist, my favourite.


 

Nearby, Millennium Park boasts impressive sculptures , live picture-shows, open-air concerts and the new "Bean" which mirrors Chicagos stunning skyline. Navy Piers amusements, arcades and Ferris Wheel are also worth a visit.


 

As with the east coast and mid-west, Chicagos seasons are fairly extreme. Winters are cold with an icy wind. Summers are warm with a wafting breeze, in this truly magnificent "Windy City".