Lenten Roadtrip Part 3: A Tale of Three Chicagos
A Proud and Loud City Gradually Gets Its Wind Back
The last time I was in Chicago for any length of time, with the family in June 2011, the summer swelter had set in, the Magnificent Mile was chockablock with packed jewelry and clothing stores, the museums were filled with tourists like us, the sand on Oak Street Beach teemed with still-pale bodies, and former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka was holding court at a big center table in his namesake restaurant.
Nearly a decade later and a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, the great Midwestern city’s shoulders are still slumping a bit as a brutal winter gives way to the first halting signs of spring. Traffic has returned to Lakeshore Drive and the I-90 and I-55 corridors, but nothing like it was. Ditka’s has moved to the ’burbs of Oakbrook Terrace. The museums have reopened but are sparsely patronized, partly since it is still winter (dirty snow remaining from February’s subzero stretch is piled in parking lots and wherever else the plows could push it), partly because school tours are still on hold – and all of it mostly because of…we know the answer.
The friendly smiles I remember from previous Chicago visits are there, behind masks, indoors and out (these folks remain committed to covering up). we could see them in the eyes. And the boisterous attitude is back, undaunted by the chill – a marked and welcome contrast to the mostly unmasked faces we saw in rural Nebraska and Iowa, where some locals looked at our own covered mugs with well-rehearsed disdain.
Still, much of the downtown core, including the West Loop where mom and dad stayed in an eerily quiet hotel while our daughter set up shop in her tiny apartment bedroom on the edge of Little Village a few miles to the southwest, feels hollowed out, as if it’s holding its breath behind missing and broken teeth – the darkened windows and doors where bustling enterprise used to be.
“Help us save our business!” read the sign on a been-there-forever hot dog and sandwich joint around the corner from our hotel. “Open for takeout and delivery!” A block the other direction, on Clinton Street, the Chicago French Market was just a month into its return from Covid shutdown. Opened in 2009, it riffs off the busy indoor marketplaces of Paris and Lyon, which I’m sure took a beating, too. One friendly shopkeeper, who had previously sold his jewelry and trinkets on the street outside but was able to secure a space inside where a patisserie once stood, said things were looking up; either previous businesses were set to return, or new ones had signed on. “And the architecture boat tours started up again as soon as the ice melted on the Chicago River,” he said. “It’s a little cold, but you should do it. The city has changed a lot in ten years.
Indeed: As with all American metropolises, Chicago continues to straddle the character line between rich history and necessary progress. Closer to Lake Michigan, within view of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a handsome, multi-angled new skyscraper was just getting topped off. Crews were deep into off- and on-ramp work at the I-90/I-294 interchange, and while the new Soldier Field – which occupies the old building’s space on the South Loop – was mostly silent as the Bears’ playoff run played out, it’s seemingly huddled against the lake, ready to pounce into action. It’s a magnificent mix of centuries, with the architects smartly retaining part of the old building’s columned, classic Roman edifice.
Let’s call downtown “bullseye” Chicago, with the skyline and can-do energy that most people identify with. Meanwhile, on the outer bands, the other two Chicagos – North Side and South Side – find their way back from the Covid-19 wilderness in very different, well-established ways.
Take their restaurants, for instance. Of course deep dish pizza places abound in both, as do sandwich and dog stands, but they show off their ethnic food chops in different ways. In the tonier, far more upscale north, where potholes on the main drags and leafy, well-coiffed residential streets are actually filled, you’ll pay $15 for (excellent) chicken and sweet potato waffles at a wildly popular, New Orleans-tinted but owned-by-locals breakfast and brunch joint on Lincoln Avenue called Batter & Berries, or a big bowl of traditional Japanese noodles, veggies and pork belly at Ramen & Wasabi on Milwaukee Avenue. Meanwhile, at Taqueria Tayahua several miles south on Western Avenue, just a couple blocks from our daughter’s new place, the best lengua street taco on the planet will set you back two bucks.
You’re much more liable to see an upscale department store front, high-priced law firm or stock broker’s office on the North Side; the South Side is home to Wal-Mart grocery outlets, second-hand shops, recycling centers, rail yards – and two of Cook County’s largest detention facilities, including its maximum security building, across California Avenue from each other. The white, stroller-pushing au pairs and joggers up Wrigley Field way sport sleek workout togs as late-model luxury cards pass by, while the folks closer to Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox play – a much more multicultural crowd, with the formerly Eastern European enclave of Little Village now dominated by Latino communities – are far more likely to get around via bus or Metro train, or dodge huge street cracks and chunks of crumbled asphalt on main thoroughfares and side streets alike. And you’ll find few houseless folks up north; there’s a quite large underpass encampment just steps from our daughter’s front door.
Still, as with all cities and towns across America, no part of Chicago has escaped the economic or social ravages of the virus. Not surprisingly, the haves have fared better than the have-nots, and their road back to relative normalcy is far smoother. That doesn’t mean places like Little Village aren’t attracting a lot of newly minted Chicagoans, especially young people like our daughter – not long out of college, needing affordable rent, looking to find their way in the big, welcoming city, striving for independence yet pooling their resources, community spirit and open-mindedness – to make it happen.
So, a decade since my first foray into the heart of this city, I come away feeling more hopeful for it, and America in general, than I thought I would. After all, Lent is about moving back toward the light, too, and I see lighter days ahead.