Chicago Stories and Tips

Stormy Weather

The Art Institute of Chicago Photo, Chicago, Illinois

"Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it."
~ Charles Dudley Warner

Checking the Chicago weather before leaving for a four days in the Windy City, I was heartened to see sunshine and mild temperatures forecast. No sooner had our plane landed, however, than I knew Chicago was up to its old tricks. The sunny skies had turned cloudy, the mercury in the thermometer had plummeted, and wave after wave of white-caps were lashing the lakefront as a steady wind roared across Lake Michigan from the north.

Our first stop after dropping off our luggage at hotel was a Walgreen’s on Michigan Avenue, where we bought cheap umbrellas, gloves, and warm knit hats. We had an ambitious agenda for the next few days and were determined that the weather wouldn’t deter us. Jack and I regarded ourselves as "veterans," having spent five years in the city back in the 80’s. Nevertheless, we were grateful our teenage son declared his first priority was to visit the Art Institute of Chicago.

Several hours later, having seen more masterpieces than we could possibly mentally process, we emerged back onto Michigan Avenue. Nearby, Millennium Park beckoned, the beds of bright tulips making a brave show in the freezing rain. If we’d brought winter coats, no doubt, we could have taken a long, contemplative stroll in the drizzle, but in thin windbreakers the best we could manage was to hustle by some notable landmarks, such as Crown Fountain, which was displaying the face of one of a thousand Chicago citizens.

Our next stop was the Chicago Cultural Center, ostensibly to get some information, but we were easily sidetracked by the warm café inside. Perusing the Reader and sipping lattes seemed infinitely more appealing than continuing our trek along rain-slick streets, but after a while we felt a pang: we weren’t showing Greg very much of Chicago. Mind you, he would probably have been perfectly happy curled up in the hotel room watching HBO, but we pressed onward.

Our objective was Daley Plaza, home to some great outdoor art, most notably the enormous Picasso sculpture that I’ve always assumed represented a horse. Just across the street, Miró’s sculpture "Chicago" stands in another prominent spot. Chicago’s outstanding collection of outdoor sculpture has an almost totemic quality, I think, but especially these two pieces.

Although we were fairly soaked and thoroughly chilled by that point, we weren’t calling it quits until taking in Marc Chagall’s kaleidoscopic mural, "Four Seasons," Alexander Calder’s monolithic "Flamingo, " and Jean Dubbufet’s "Monument with Standing Beast," all within a few blocks of each other. It’s one thing to contemplate art in the confines of a museum and quite another to see it out in a public space. These sculptures occupy strategic spots downtown, breaking up the linearity of streets flanked by vertical buildings.

Retreating to our hotel for a change of dry clothes, we didn’t venture out again until evening, when we drove by another Chicago icon, Wrigley Field, on our way to dinner. We’d spent several summer afternoons there years back, seated among the "bleacher bums" and other colorful characters that were, to me, more interesting than the baseball game on the field. Although neither of us was a sports fans, we still felt compelled to root for the Cubs; that is, whenever it occurred to us to root for anyone.

Half the reason we drove north, however, was so we could indulge in our favorite drive south, along Lakeshore Drive. This is a glorious stretch of road, even in nasty weather in heavy traffic. In fact, I think I prefer it in heavy traffic, at least when I’m a passenger, as the slow bumper-to-bumper gridlock gives me more time to watch the skyline unfold around each bend.

We parked near the Navy Pier, chancing upon a free space on the lower level. When we left Chicago in 1986, this area had not yet been developed into the showcase that it is today, complete with giant Ferris wheel and gleaming glass entertainment complex. Throngs of people bundled up in scarves and heavy jackets were strolling along the pier. It was a young crowd, drawn to the bright lights and festive atmosphere, but our light windbreakers were no match for the chill, so we soon scurried back to our car.

The following day, we headed south once again on Lakeshore Drive, to Hyde Park (see separate entry) and then Chinatown, stopping en route to walk along the lakefront south of McCormick Place. If we thought it had been windy down in the Loop, we found on the lake front, without benefit of windbreaks, it wasn't merely windy, it was a howling gale.

There are good reasons for such an apparently masochistic excursion, however. First, it brings you uncompromisingly face-to-face with the defining factor in Chicago weather: Lake Michigan. It’s hundreds of miles to Canada, but when the wind blows from the north, Canada seems right on Chicago’s doorstep. Secondly, the lakefront just south of McCormick Place provides a striking vista of Chicago’s skyline. It has always fascinated me how different buildings seem to predominate when strolling in the Loop, depending on vantage point, but from the southside, everything falls more or less into proper perspective.

The area south of McCormick Place, in comparison to the Loop, seems comprised of squat, sprawling buildings. No doubt the concentration of skyscrapers a just short distance away creates this impression. When we stopped in Chinatown, I once again noted how stunted the area seemed in comparison to downtown, even though were evident signs of urban renewal. It was reassuring to find all our favorite dim sum places were still there, though, not to mention my favorite bakery. The coconut buns – well, they were still as good as the memory I’d been carrying all those years.

Chinatown is a wonderful place to shop, or window shop, as the case may be. Colorful knick-knacks crowd the windows of inexpensive emporiums. I bought a sushi mat and a few other items at a grocer’s, while Greg latched onto Chinese "worry" balls in a souvenir shop. Jack gravitated to an herbalist specializing in ginseng. I stood outside, munching coconut buns, contemplating the window display of "Healthy Brain Pills" (surely we all could use those) and herbal teas for all manner of ailments.

The weather had gradually been clearing throughout the day, so that by the time we’d polished off most of the coconut buns and Jack had decided which ginseng tea he wanted, a decidedly benign cast had crept over the sky. After two days of perfectly miserable weather, we were almost afraid to hope our luck would change.

But change it did, and more dramatically than we could have dreamed. The next day was picture perfect, with deep blue skies and temperatures in the sixties. We made a beeline for the lakefront, delighted with our good fortune. This time we took our time strolling through Millennium Park, then meandered over to the Navy Pier, where we unanimously decided to take a ride on the Ferris wheel.

The view of downtown Chicago from the top of the wheel was stunning, but even more glorious vistas awaited when we hopped aboard a boat docked near the pier for an architectural tour along the Chicago River (see separate review). Afterward, as Jack had an appointment with a colleague, Greg and I trekked once more up Michigan Avenue, but now, rather than rain-lashed streets, the Magnificent Mile seemed to sparkle. Islands of massed tulips brightened the sidewalks, vying with the stylish window displays of designer clothing. Springtime had really come to Chicago.

Conditions were perfect for views from up high, so we went into the Hancock Building, where we ascended to the observatory on the 100th floor. I’ve always preferred the view from the Hancock to the view from the taller Sears Tower, and that day it was particularly fine. Looking left as we faced the lake, Lake Shore Drive curved sinuously northward, flanked by a series of decreasingly tall buildings. Straight ahead lay the Navy Pier, its immense Ferris wheel looking like a mere tinker toy from the Hancock building's heights. And there near the base of the pier was the distinctive black silhouette of Lake Point Tower, a building I'd always inhabited in my fantasies.

But at that moment, I wouldn’t have traded places with those ultra-wealthy tower residents as I stood watching my son take in the panoply of Chicago spread before him. It was clear that what I’d hope for above all things on this trip had taken place. That abstract place, "Chicago," that he'd heard us talk about all those years had finally become real for him.

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