ould I be accused of embellishment if I claim that Chicago is one city in the USA whose soul reflects the American heritage in toto?
It sits in the farming and industrial heartland. It once boasted the world’s tallest skyscraper and busiest airport. The architecture is renowned for its modern lines and iconic designs. Politically, it was at the core of civil rights movements that defined American society in the second half of the 20th Century. It hosts the best restaurants in the country and is home to one of the most famous sports franchises in the world.
Chicago would not figure in most people’s list of top places to visit in the USA. I could safely be counted as amongst such people. With over forty years of galavanting across stateside, I never needed to detour and check out the city.
One reason could be the weather. Chicago is known for its bone-chilling winters as it sits on the banks of Lake Michigan. Winters can be long and dreary, with freezing winds earning it the moniker of the Windy City (though the source for the nickname is disputed, some say it relates to the local politicians and their empty slogans).
That said, the city surprised me, and I would argue that it is underrated as a tourist destination.
I didn’t plan the trip as a tourist; rather, I aimed to settle my son, who had chosen to pursue his education at a local university. I landed at O’Hare Airport on a warm day in August. Covid restrictions were still applicable back then, but the handling at the O’Hare was relaxed.
I had booked an apartment in the southside, the university area.
A walk around this neighbourhood is a lesson in the civil rights history of the USA. This lovely leafy suburb stands out from surrounding neighbourhoods that feel decidedly unsafe. Crime is a problem in Chicago, exacerbated by racial undertones and income inequality.
The founder of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Mohammad, lived in South Chicago. Its current leader, Louis Farrakhan, lives in one of Elijah’s homes. Nearby is accommodation for the members of the party. They have small windows and a fortress-like feel. They were designed to thwart intelligence services’ surveillance of the group’s activities.
Boxer Muhammad Ali, the most famous follower of Elijah, also moved into this neighbourhood. He founded the Al Faatar Mosque, which is still popular with Muslim worshippers in the area. Later, Dr Martin Luther King based himself here to pursue his mission.
Would I be accused of embellishment if I claim that Chicago is one city in the USA whose soul reflects the American heritage in toto?
The income inequality between various city areas became bare when I moved downtown for the last week of my stay. My hotel was on the river’s edge and close to the Magnificent Mile. Affluence and luxury surrounded me, including enhanced police presence to ensure safety. It is no wonder that a racially driven incident in the USA often results in riots and protests in Chicago. This problem, if not addressed, will continue to haunt the fabric of American society.
Chicago is a living museum of modern metropolis architecture. A boat ride along the Chicago Area Waterway System is a showcase of modern design often referred to as the Chicago School. This framework later served as the blueprint for modern urban planning worldwide.
The Willis Tower, the most famous building in the Chicago skyline, was designed by a Pakistani, Fazl-ur Rahman. He belonged to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
Late afternoon I rented a bike and cycled along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. On a beautiful summer’s day with the bright blue lake before me, I could not be blamed for thinking I was somewhere on the French Riviera.
Later the same evening, I hailed a cab to Pilsen, a Mexican neighbourhood. Initially, I felt a little unsafe, wary of the dilapidated but trendy main street. Soon I was taken in by the colourful graffiti and fantastic dinner at Cantina Regio. This, I was to learn, is the strength of Chicago. The wonderful ethnic enclaves serve the widest variety of cuisines in the USA. Chicago is the home of the famous deep-pan pizza. I strongly recommend burgers and chips at the iconic House of Blues with live music. Before I forget, the trip to the largest Starbucks in the world was memorable for coffee and fresh pastries.
The fire of 1870 destroyed much of Chicago. Later, the city was chosen to host the World’s Fair in 1890. It was then that the leading families of the city, including the Rockefellers, decided to redesign the city. The skyline was reimagined, the lakefront was developed, and iconic museums were built along the new wide boulevards. Truly, it was Chicago that announced the arrival of the American economy at the turn of the 19th Century.
Every once in a while, you visit a place that really surprises you. For me, Chicago certainly falls in that category. I would never have ventured in its direction if it weren’t for my son’s schooling. That would have been a shame, as I would have missed out on an iconic landmark in the making of modern America.
The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai. He tweetstravelutionary1