Chicago Without Vertigo

12th April 2013

Claire Finney looks the city of skyscrapers up and down

Situated on a likely spot of flat land amidst two rivers and a freshwater lake, the Chicago area was occupied by Native Americans for centuries before settlers not from America realized they were on to a good thing. They forcibly removed the original inhabitants, called it ‘westernisation’ and fought bitterly when the tribes understandably took exception to it all. It’s why the city stays close to its Native American name (shikaakwa, literally translated as ‘wild onion’), but, from a tourist’s stance, it is also why ‘The City of Big Shoulders’ is best explored feet first.

Unlike so much of the United States, Chicago has history, and when it comes to stuff like mass slaughter, prohibition and the country’s first comprehensive sewer system there’s a limit to what you can gather 1,400 feet above sea level. Having seen the city in the company of someone with fairly chronic vertigo, I can safely say this is as much a city for those without a head for heights as it is for those well endowed. Start at Point de Sable, the settlement named after Chicago’s first permanent non-native resident (‘the Founder of Chicago’), and proceed from there. It’s thoroughly appropriate, and when you do come to crane your neck at the town’s more intimidating buildings, you’ll be reassured to remember that there was a time when the only big things round here were a lake, some flat land, and someone’s dreams…
Bronze Plaques

It may not be blessed with the iconic signs of London buildings, but what Chicago lacks in blue plaques it more than compensates for with bronze. They are everywhere. Leave the guidebook behind – this is a city obsessed with telling you where you’re standing and what happened there, be it the battle of Fort Dearbourne or the Obamas’ first kiss.

One interesting recent addition is the Legacy Walk, a series of plaques dedicated to the lives and achievements of LGBT pioneers. There’s Harvey Milk, who was among the first openly gay elected officials in the US; Jane Addams, a Nobel Prize-winning social justice pioneer; Barbara Jordan, the first African-American woman elected to Congress from a Southern state and many others. It’s a welcome, albeit shaming, reminder of the glaring omissions of ‘history’ when it comes to the LGBT community. Yet there are also other, less edifying tributes to Chicago’s diverse and imperfectly recorded past.

Statues & Plaques

Different people see different things in the statues that populate Chicago, not least when it comes to the mirror monument in Grant Park. Known to the world as Grant Gate and to my family and me as The Shiny Bean, it basks in the sunshine in the Millennium area like a kitten’s belly, reflecting back grossly distorted versions of anyone who dares to approach. Most do, of course – it’s the lure of the circus mirror, and people are more impressed by its queer beauty than offended by their funny reflections. Yet not every statue in Grant Park is so amusing in its capacity to offend. Over in the Congress Plaza, for example, two bronze equestrian statues stand as ‘gatekeepers’: The Bowman and The Spearman. Designed by sculptor Ivan Meštrović to ‘commemorate the Native American and symbolize the struggle to settle this country’ they are impressive only if you can overlook the fact that, unlike every statue, plaque and tablet commemorating Chicago’s non-native American inhabitants, these figures are not named… “The world’s people, from what they have so far seen of us on the Midway, will regard us as savages” a leading Potowami figure remarked of these representations. Nevertheless, they are technically works of genius, and the way Meštrović forces you to focus on the tense, intent bodies of the figures in order to imagine the missing weapons is particularly effective.

Other features which demand essential viewing before you leave Grant Park are the Buckingham Fountain – an immense, rococo effusion of carved rock and sparkling water, complete with water shows, designed in the fashion of Bassin de Latone' at the Versailles Palace by Edward H. Bennett and curiously reminiscent of an enormous wedding cake – and the Agora, a collection of 106 headless, armless iron sculptures to the south of the park, which are equally impressive – if not more so for being inspired by something other than classical Europe. Abakanowicz, the architect, claimed that her art draws on her fear of crowds, which she once described as "brainless organisms… worshiping on command and hating on command"; not everyone who sees them comes away with such a dire impression, but an hour lost wandering around their eerie torsos is an hour well worth losing.

Posh Hotel Lobbies

Yes, this really does warrant its own subtitle, and no, you don’t have to stay in Posh Hotels to enjoy them. Posh Hotel lobbies are an essential part of every city experience, and Chicago has enough to satisfy even the most ardent of champagne lifestyle aspirants – including myself. Swan into any one of these 5 gold-star-plated lobbies and you’ll be welcomed by plush antique furniture, dazzling chandeliers and bouquets of such painstakingly beautiful arrangement you’ll be tempted to touch them. Resist the urge – nothing says lemonade-living quite like checking if the flowers are fake – and relax as if you own the place on one of their many velvet sofas instead. The Drake, The Congress Plaza and Palmer House are richly endowed with such seats, some of which have even graced the posteriors of such celebrated guests as the Queen, Ghandi and Roosevelt. Sink yourself gracefully down there and you will be, if not walking their footsteps, at least sitting in their seats.

Meanwhile, at the Hard Rock Hotel on Michigan Avenue, you’ll find the historic Carbide & Carbon Building doing a remarkably good job of hiding music-inspired furnishings, signed musician photos, and a host of classic tracks within its black granite and green terracotta walls – a tribute to Art Deco on the outside, and a tribute to the art of making music within.

Architectural Boat Tour

There’s nothing like a boat tour through tall buildings to offer you a bottom’s up view of architecture and Chicago, endowed with both a sinuous river network and the world’s finest array of skyscrapers, as we know, has one of the best. We went with Chicago Line, and were thrilled by both the time-honoured expertise of the guide (she’d been doing this for 30 years) and the delicious refreshments – cloudy lemonade, freshly baked cookies and cafetière coffee – provided onboard. Of course, we heard the usual tourist details (the famous sewer system, the fire of 1871, the Fort Dearbourne massacre), but we also learned the technical stuff: the bascule spans, grillage foundations and other techniques that have made the Chicago School a groundbreaking force in architecture even to this day.


“Come on,” I hear you mutter. “We’re not stupid. We don’t need a journalist to tell us to shop in America”. Well, perhaps not when it comes to the usual suspects – Tiffany’s, Macy’s and so on –but there are some retailers, not necessarily on that list, that are worth visiting. They are as follows: the Lego store, where an enormous Lego dragon spans a shop of models to rival or even surpass those at Legoland; Fox and Obel, the beautiful, bountiful food market where the average portion size would feed a family of ten (ten bison) and American Girl, the doll shop of Orwellian extremes. Here, young and privileged girls wheel their pushchairs with abandon, scouring the shelves for the accessories that will help her and her plastic offspring to complete the look. Some opt for the baking set; others, the bath tub and shower. Still more find themselves yearning for an outfit matching what their doll is wearing (oh yes, they have those too). Whatever it is, little princesses will find it in this dolly department store, where the powers of imagination have been supplanted with consumerism to such an extent there’s even an allergy-free lunch set complete with medical bracelet and allergy shot for your doll, ‘just in case’. If you want to see capitalism at its most insidious, it’s worth a visit; if, however, you want your faith in the future of humanity to remain intact, I suggest you bypass American Girl and head straight to the Harold Washington Library downtown.

The Library

You can tell a lot about a city by the state of its central Library and Chicago is no exception. Designed to incorporate various ancient scholastic symbols – owls, ears of corn, seed pods and so on – together with elements of nearby historic buildings, the Harold Washington Library is a beautifully post-modern tribute to the city’s cultural and academic pursuits. Inside its red-brick walls, the atmosphere is almost holy. Quotations coined by the great and the good of humanity are etched into its marble walls. ‘A Library implies an act of faith / Which generations still in darkness hid / Sign in their night in witness of the dawn’ quoth Victor Hugo – and, if the great, content-rich and open-minded public exhibitions we saw here are anything to go by, the act of faith implied by this library was great indeed.


In the 1920s the city rested on two rivers: the Chicago itself, and the potent stream of alcohol running in a network of backrooms alongside it. Needless to say, when it came to the draconian prohibition laws of that era, both continued to flow unchecked.

Today, while the idea of alcohol bans are history, the legacy of Chicago’s defiance remains in the quirky bars you find in unlikely – and likely – places around the city. Our favourite was Simon’s Tavern, which started in a grocery store selling coffee with whiskey until it made enough money to open a full-blown speakeasy in the basement (top marks for effort) and is marked only by a neon sign of a fish holding a martini; for a speakeasy feel without the hassle, though, try 1914: a bar that’s easily-found, easily entered, and is replete with twenties décor (there’s even an old fashioned cash register) and retro attire.

There’s more – much more – but I trust this Brit’s-eye view goes some way to demonstrate that Chicago is a city that demands you keep your feet on the ground. At least for most of it…

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