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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | Chicago

The Second City's New Sparkle

Chicago Has Always Had a Gorgeous Skyline, as Well as Great Theater, Shopping, Restaurants and Museums. But With a Rejuvenated Downtown, This City Has Remade Itself.

September 13, 1998|SUSAN SPANO | Susan Spano is a Times travel writer

"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.

Amazingly, some of the Burnham plan, which grew out of a national urban beautification movement known as City Beautiful, was soon realized. Other parts have taken time, as a good deal of American history intervened. Shortly before the turn of the century, the Great Migration brought thousands of Southern blacks to the Windy City, followed by the gruesome race riots of 1919, the Prohibition Era mayhem of 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).

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