Last week, a one-day layover coming back from a Denver conference gave me a chance to play tourist in my hometown of Chicago. To get an idea of how the city has changed in the three decades since I went east, I went where no native ever goes: to the observatory on the top of the John Hancock Center.
“Big John,” which looks like an oil derrick on steroids, is a monument to Sinclair Lewis’ Midwestern boosterism: everything is The Tallest, The Oldest, or The First. As we rode the elevators (“the fastest elevators in North America”) 1,000 feet up to the 94th floor observatory, we were informed that Big John is “the most recognized building in the world.” (Really? If you disagree, I invite nominations for the building you think is more worthy of that title.)
The skyscraper, born in Chicago, is just one of the Windy City’s achievements. A display up top proclaims that it is also the birthplace of Twinkies, Cracker Jacks, Baby Ruth, and the Dove Bar. With a diet like that, it’s a wonder that anybody from Chicago can fly coach.
The views from the top of Big John are spectacular (even more so if the day isn’t hazy and you have something better than the disposable camera I was using).
To the north, you see Lake Shore Drive, the beaches along Lake Michigan, and, off in the distance, Evanston and Northwestern University.
To the east, not so much.Â There’s 22,400 square miles of lake.Â There’s the water filtration plant and, on clear days, there’s a dot on the horizon that purports to be the state of Michigan.Â At a loss for landmarks, the observatory brochure highlights the sites of numerous shipwrecks: The Lady Elgin (1860);Â Â The Evening Star (1894); The Jenny Lind (1883); and so on.Â They could be making it up for all I know.
To the west is the Chicago beyond downtown — block after block of neighborhoods that resemble East European or Central American towns as much as they do a corner of The City of the Big Shoulders.Â Ethnic tensions have been a fact of Chicago’s political and social life for most of the past century.
To the south is the central business district which used to be bounded by the Loop (the elevated transit line that brings commuters in from the north, west, and south) but that has burst out in all directions.Â
Off to the right is theÂ Sears Tower, the Tallest Office Building in the United States, with the Most Total Floor Space of Any Commercial Building in the U.S. (the Pentagon has more square footage).Â
To the left is the site of the former Meigs Field, which used to be a general aviation (private plane) airport right on the lakefront.Â A few years ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley (son of the legendary Richard J.) wanted to convert the area to a public park.Â The forces backing the private plane owners, who understandably were reluctant to give up such a convenient facility,Â dragged their feet. One Sunday night the Mayor sent City bulldozers out to Meigs Field and carved X’s in the runways.Â Chicago is my kind of town.
More onÂ the great tourist adventure later.