"Stop. Wait. Shhh... can you hear that?"
I motioned for my friend to stop, and we stood in the heart of Millennium Park, the summer evening soft and cool around us. The steady chirp of crickets rose into the air, loud enough to nearly drown the sound of traffic less than a block away. For a moment, I was transported back to the porches of my suburban youth, listening to the sound of cicadas on the New England night.
"Can you believe we're hearing that sound, in the absolute heart of downtown Chicago?"
Grinning, we continued towards the Crown Fountain.
Millennium Park encompasses some of the best of what Chicago is about: fulfilling one of the missing links in Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago, celebrating the city and the state, bringing art to all, and turning what was once an eyesore of the city into one of the city's most celebrated achievements.
When I first moved to Chicago in 1999, the area now known as Millennium Park was still open railroad tracks, an unsightly scar between the landmark "buildingscape" of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago skyline and the well-planned beauty of Grant Park. Five years later, the park opened in July 2004 - four years and more than $200 million over budget. (Millennium Park covers 24.5 acres at a cost of over $19 million per acre). But as Burnham himself said, "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood," and even the most jaded of critics cannot help but be impressed what the city has created here.
Millennium Park is bordered by Columbus Drive, Randolph Street, Michigan Avenue, and Monroe Street, situated at the northwest corner of Grant Park in the heart of downtown Chicago. Although you can gain access to the park at many different locations, it's worth entering via the BP Bridge, which connects the Daley Bicentennial Plaza in northeastern Grant Park to the Great Lawn. The bridge is Frank Gehry's first bridge design, a 925-foot serpentine piece of sculpture that not only complements the neighboring pavilion, but helps act as a sound buffer against the passing traffic on Columbus Drive.
The park's most striking feature, the Frank Gehry-designed, award-winning Jay Pritzker Pavilion takes up most of the eastern half of the park.. This revolutionary outdoor venue features an overhead latticework of steel pipes, which is designed to help mimic the acoustics of a typical concern hall. The Great Lawn, which can seat 7,000 people (in addition to the 4,000 fixed seats), is specifically designed for maximum drainage after bad weather. The pavilion resembles giant silver metal ribbons and is particularly striking at night, when the metal is lit with constantly changing colors. The Great Lawn and Pavilion are remarkably well insulated from city traffic noises, so it is a wonderful place to take in a performance or just relax, with the magnificent city skyline rising behind the striking sculpted face of the pavilion.
The south end of the Great Lawn borders the Lurie Garden, which plays upon the city's motto, "Urbs in Horto" (City in a Garden). This public garden is rife with symbolism, but it is also rich with native Illinois fauna, showing off beds of prairie flowers and local varietals of trees. Over the next 10 years, the frames that current visitors see will become covered with foliage, much as you would see in European ornamental gardens.
Continuing counterclockwise around the park, you come to the Crown Fountain, located at the corner of Monroe and Michigan Avenue. The Fountain, designed by Jaume Plensa, consists of two 50-foot glass block towers that have LED displays on the inner-facing surfaces. Water constantly cascades over the top of the towers into a shallow basin. The 1,000 faces of local residents that are shown in a constant display (they change once every 5 minutes in random order) were photographed in 2003 by students of the Art Institute of Chicago. This unusual piece of public art quickly became a city favorite, because instead of simply being a place for reflection, such as the Reflective Pool on Washington, D.C.'s Mall is, it is a living artwork - and not simply because of the ever-changing faces. The plaza-level water basin is designed to hold an inch or two of water, and excess water is drained away through a narrow crack around the perimeter. There is no barrier of any kind, so people of all ages can frolic freely in the water - and they do, in droves, at all times of the day. In fact, the Paralyzed Veterans of America awarded the Fountain the 2005 Barrier-Free America Award.
Just north of the Crown Fountain, facing Michigan Avenue, is the Park Grill Restaurant and the neighboring Chicago Shop, and the McCormick Tribune Plaza and Ice Rink. During the winter, visitors enjoy ice skating here, but in the warmer months, the rink becomes a spacious and popular outdoor seating area. The food at the Grill is pretty good, and if the weather permits, you’ll definitely enjoy sitting outside.
Rising above the roof of the plaza is the 110-ton sculpture called Cloud Gate, or, as it has been affectionately dubbed, "the Bean." Cloud Gate is British artist Anish Kapoor’s first public American artwork and consists of a stainless-steel plates that have been polished to create a seamless reflective surface. As of writing this (August ’05), Cloud Gate is still undergoing final polishing of its undersurface, so visitors will not actually be able to walk under the sculpture until this winter. Despite the delay in revealing the sculpture, it has quickly become one of the favorite symbols of the city, and one that you should expect to see show up often in photographs and films!
The Chase Promenade bisects the park from north to south, providing a tree-lined walkway designed to host festivals and exhibitions. Parallel to the Promenade, and running north and south of Cloud Gate, are the Boeing Galleries, which are designed to host public art exhibitions. Currently (through Oct 23, 2005), the Galleries and the Promenade are showcasing Terry Evans photographic essay, Revealing Chicago: An Aerial Portrait, a striking exhibit of 100 aerial photographs of the city and its environs. This is one of the best photography shows I’ve seen in Chicago, providing a fascinating perspective and beautifully vibrant photos.
There are two somewhat lesser-known features in the northeastern section of the park. The first is the bike station, which fits in with the city vision of making Chicago much more bike-friendly. Facilities here include heated indoor space for 300 bikes, as well as providing lockers, showers, a snack bar, bike repairs, and yes, bike rentals.
The other is the Joan and Irving Harris Theater for Music and Dance, which is situated on Randolph Street, on the north side of the Jay Pritzker Pavillion. This 1,525-seat theater provides a venue for a wide variety of the city’s music and dance groups.
Millennium Park is a milestone, not just for the city of Chicago, but for city planning everywhere. Whether you are a visitor or resident, it is well worth a visit to this spectacular urban park.
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Millennium Park’s operating hours are 6am to 11pm daily year-round; the parking garages below the park (access from Columbus Drive between Randolph and Monroe) are open 24 hours and offer one of the best deals for parking in the city: $12 for 12 hours or $16 for 24 hours. The park is easily accessed by numerous bus lines and is 1 block east of the Madison Street "L" line stop (orange, green, purple, blue lines) and 2 blocks east of the red line Washington "L" line stop, 3 blocks east of the blue line "L" Washington stop.
The welcome center is located at 201 E. Randolph St., in the Northwest Exelon Pavilion, adjacent to the Harris Theater and the Randolph Street Metra train station. Free informal 45-minute walking tours of the park are available through the welcome center 10am to 4pm on Wednesday, Thursday, and Fridays during the summer. Additionally, you can rent a self-guided audio tour for the park through the Chicago shop or download it for your own MP3 player.