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Tom Finneran: Chicago, Chicago, You’re My Kind of Town

Friday, July 18, 2014

 

I’m just back from a business trip to Chicago, one of America’s great cities. I’ve been there several times and I’m sure that I’ll be there again. I know that Chicago has its troubles, some big troubles, but what American city does not?

My bias is, of course, for Boston, a beautiful, walkable, historic city with great neighborhoods and an active waterfront. I guess I’m just a hometown boy, sort of like LeBron. Home is home and there’s no need to say more.

Chicago is real, unlike the plastic tinsel of L.A. I hate Los Angeles. It’s filled with traffic and the glitter of Hollywood phonies and wannabes. And its “waterfront” is almost thirty miles from its hotels. Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, the city of big shoulders, builds and moves and sweats like a heaving, breathing stevedore at the crossroads of the nation’s commerce.

Waterways and rail yards are Chicago’s vital organs and they have been since the start. The Great Lakes and the mighty Mississippi were nature’s first roads, and then the “iron horse” of locomotives and rail cars added to the city’s natural blessings.

Speaking of waterways, Lake Michigan is awesome. It’s like looking at the ocean. It’s only a lake, but what a lake. It’s more than twice as big as Massachusetts! Long, wide, and deep, the lake hosts three legendary towns: Chicago, Milwaukee, and Green Bay.

And Chicago itself has twenty plus miles of Lake Michigan waterfront. If you’re ever there, get yourself out to that waterfront. It has beaches, running and biking paths, and a welcoming air. There’s no need to be a millionaire to enjoy a millionaire’s view and child’s play.

The city was wise enough to keep that shoreline easily accessible and undeveloped. I got in a day early and I rented a bike, playing happy tourist for a couple of hours of good, clean, simple fun.

Speaking of fun, my wife and I had taken a “waterfront architecture cruise” about the city’s history several years ago. My memory was that even as unschooled civilians we had really enjoyed it.  On last week’s trip I found myself asking whether I was painting my memory of it in overly wistful nostalgic hues. So I signed up for a lunch hour cruise along the river and the waterfront. In a word, it was awesome. If you find yourself in Chicago, just do it- take the cruise and drink in the history of this city at the heart of America. What a fabulous way to spend ninety minutes of any free time you might have.

No doubt you’ve heard of “The Great Chicago Fire” as a part of the nation’s lore. The fire occurred in 1871 and it burned for three days. It leaped rivers and canals, fueled by those materials which any big growing nineteenth century American city stored everywhere: lumber, coal, kerosene, and chemicals.

The fire killed three hundred people, left many thousands homeless, and utterly destroyed more than three square miles of the city. In an interesting twist of fate, the fire, but for those three hundred deaths, was probably a blessing to the town, giving it a second chance to do its redevelopment in a coherent way.

And Chicago came back, stronger than ever, as great cities do. This city of broad shoulders has impressively wide sidewalks and a constant stream of people moving to and fro.  Having been a runner, I am now a walker. I loved the waterfront, but if you are a shopper you’ll love the “Magnificent Mile” stretch of Michigan Avenue. Keep the credit card handy for it’s a long stretch of stores catering to every need, whim, and fancy.

It’s a city of three million people- Ernie Banks, Bobby Hull, Gale Sayers, Richard Daley, Michael Jordan, Al Capone- and more than a million stories. I loved my stay there and, as usual, I loved coming home. Both Boston and Chicago- they’re my kind of town

Tom Finneran is the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, served as the head the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and was a longstanding radio voice in Boston radio.

 

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