By: Grainne Rhuad
“Chicago is a city of contradictions, of private visions haphazardly overlaid and linked together. If the city was unhappy with itself yesterday-and invariably it was-it will reinvent itself today.” –Pat Colander “A Metropolis of No Little Plans” NY Times 5 May 85
Chicago. It has been described by so many people, couched in so many different terms. Some people truly love the city with its mish-mash of architectural design and healthy business district. It is clearly a defining American city being everything that one pictures when they think of a city in America. Buildings reaching for the sky, industry, even ethnic neighborhoods. Italians, Germans and Poles are well represented here, as are newer immigrants from all over Asia and the Middle East.
“When you feel like tellin a feller to go to the devil — tell him to go to Chicago — it’ll anser every purpose, and is perhaps, a leetle more expensive.” –Mark Twain
Other people take an instant dislike to the city. A city that was founded on slaughter houses and still reeks of one. There are so many downtrodden neighborhoods and back alleys. The poor amongst the residents are not invisible to visitors as they are in some cities. One homeless man had staked a claim outside of our hotel in the doorway of what looked like an un-used first floor. It was clear this was his home and in the case that is wasn’t he let you know every time you walked past.
My very first impression of Chicago came to me when I opened the door of our vehicle at our hotel. The stench of this city on a hot July night was not something I had expected. I have only ever been to west coast cities, which mostly sprung up along the waterfront. This inland city had no sea breeze to carry away the smells of so many humans and animals living stacked on one another. The perfume of Chicago was of hot human waste, with an undertone of asphalt and oil. It was something that I never got used to during the week that I stayed there and in fact, the bellmen I spoke to who lived there stated they still smell the ripe pungency.
We pulled in late at night and very tired and were given what is likely the smallest room in the entire hotel. It seemed as if this room was merely a staging room for upgrading. I say this because as we talked to others they related that they too had been given this room and had asked to be upgraded as well. For the small price of $10.00 a day you could leave a room where your knees literally touched the wall when sitting on the bed’s edge to a nice sized room with all the normal amenities like a desk, fridge and microwave. It’s a good thing too because I sat in that room debating if we would make it a week without some knock down –dragged out fights. It seems we had been inducted into the Chicago way. Everything can be had if you know who to ask and offer cash. We saw this time and again from people sleeping in the lobby for $20 until a room became available the next morning to scoring tickets to a “sold out” performance of Beauty and The Beast. What it took was cash in hand and a steady gaze.
The next morning we remembered we hadn’t thought of food. Luckily for us we were two city blocks away from Northwestern Hospital, which as it turns out had a really very good cafeteria. I don’t normally go on about cafeteria food or hospitals but it is worth noting that this one was excellent. The courses rivaled some of the restaurants we ate at and it was cheap. This is by no means any secret to the people who live and work in the area; it was the doorman who gave us the tip. In fact we had several meals at the cafeteria surrounded by doctors, patients, college students, business people, you name it. Someone from every walk of life was there.
Being situated where we were was a huge perk. Our hotel which was part of the Red Roof Inn chain was just about in the middle of the “Miracle Mile” stretch. This made it perfect for meeting all of our needs. We were 2 blocks away from shopping for those so inclined, but also we were only 4 blocks away from the beach front at Lake Michigan.
As an aside, I do not like shopping, I find it tedious. I also find all the touristy restaurants like Cheesecake Factory and Bubba Gump’s insulting. What I did find I liked about the shopping district is nobody hassled the street performers. There was music and statues and magic tricks and those things I am religiously devoted to. I will give offering to all of them until I run out of ready cash because to me, this sort of art is good for everyone’s soul.
Taking advantage of the lakefront was one of the main things we enjoyed. In the morning the ones amongst us who were runners ran along an excellent path that was lined on one side with old trees and the other side with lake. One of my companions is training for a half marathon so every morning she took off, coming back to gush about how lovely it was to see the water and the early morning boaters.
Three blocks further down from the beach is Navy Pier. Admittedly a touristy monstrosity, there are a few things that make this site worth visiting. The biggest plus is the view. You can walk to the end of the pier and look back at the city and just marvel at all the different architecture the city encompasses. This is especially lovely at dusk. Even better if you’re not afraid of heights, you can get on the Ferris wheel and see the city from way up.
“There was no need to inform us of the protocol involved. We were from Chicago and knew all about cement.”- Groucho Marx, pressing his hands into the cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood
This is also where Chicago’s Shakespeare Theatre is. The theatre itself has won several awards including a Tony and is one of the loveliest modernized theatre- in- the- rounds I have been to, full of old world set design but modern machinery. You wouldn’t guess that right in the middle of clanging boardwalk games and stale corndog smells there would be such a gem, but there it stands all the same. It’s also where we took time to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast©. A lesson in how effective standing about can be. So the show is sold out? Okay we’ll just be standing here with cash let us know when you find seats. And find them they did. Third row, center.
Another outing took us to Lincoln park, a relatively newly designed park and zoo which is striving to bring natural habitat back into the center of the city. It also hosts a zoo free to the public designed to enhance education and awareness.
My favorite place however was quite small and not very well advertised. In a building across from Millennium Park (you know, the place with the giant mirrored jelly bean) is what was once Chicago’s first public library. It’s now the Chicago Cultural Center. It’s a place for art, architecture, music, theatre and just hanging out. There were quite a few retired and elderly people in the foyer just playing checkers and enjoying the paper.
A month or so ago my sister in law sent me some olde time pictures of the weird. Amongst these were pictures of children, but to hold them up their parents were seated behind them, covered and draped. It was creepy and interesting. I bring this up because my favorite display took this idea to a whole different level. One artist had done a whole show in which the subject was covered and disappeared into the background. It was wonderful.
Also wonderful was an art exhibit by developmentally and mentally disabled adults. All of the proceeds went towards programs for their benefit. There was some amazing art in there, a lot of which we weren’t allowed to take pictures of, but I did get a snapshot of a comic strip that was very entertaining.
“Chicago has a strange metaphysical elegance of death about it.” –Claes Oldenburg
Another thing I like to do just for fun whenever in a new city is take a ghost tour. I don’t do this because I expect to see anything supernatural. And to this day I have never seen anything unexplainable on a ghost tour. But, ghost tours are one of the easiest and entertaining ways to get acquainted with the nefarious side of a city. After all, a supposed haunting almost always has something to do with tragedies, murders and mistakes.
This being Chicago, our Ghost Tour took us to the site of not one, but two mob hits. The famous St. Valentine’s Day massacre location and a church with a bullet hole that supposedly refuses to stay covered up. We also got to see a haunted portion of the river where a steam ship sank drowning most of the women and children aboard “and they are still down there to this day…” (queue spooky music) Not to mention the river walk along the spot is lovely, relaxing and romantic.
We were told of the curse of the John Hancock Tower. Apparently people (like Chris Farley) get depressed there and die a lot. Also there is an infestation of Brown Recluse spiders nobody can get rid of.
All the way across town we visited the Hull House. A home originally established by Jane Addams Hull to meet the needs of poor immigrants in the Chicago area. It was one of the first centers for social work in the nation; however it gained a reputation for being haunted due to a deformed baby that was delivered to the doorstep. The superstitious neighborhood believed that the deformities were caused by the wages of sin. More likely they were genetic anomalies, but the legend remains still. The museum itself is well worth checking out for non-supernatural reasons.
Almost as entertaining as the scenery and certainly more entertaining than the ghost stories was our guide who fired off descriptions in between making comical asides about his ex-wife who was the psychic that founded the tour. The obvious veiled animosity was at least to me, entertaining. Then there was also the side-kick bus driver who answered every single “Isn’t that right Bob?” question with “Aaa-yup.” All this while chatting away about later plans with what sounded like a lady friend on his cell phone. It was, like dinner theatre.
And speaking of Theatres one of the stops was a haunted Theatre where apparently a fire had consumed the building and people had resorted to throwing themselves out windows. The wide alleyway behind the building was supposedly the most active spot and in actuality, it was a bit creepy. But then most old dark alleys are creepy being full of shadows and a likely spot for a crime to happen anyway.
All of this walking about and swimming, viewing and thinking had us pretty hungry. That night we ate a fondue joint which was set up almost like a speak-easy. Entering at street level you had to call up a host. You were then led through a maze of dark booths wherein you could see nobody and really amazingly you couldn’t hear them either. The fondue was great though, we went for a spinoff of rare-bit. A cheddary-ale concoction originally poured over your bread. Rare-bit gets its name because back in the day, it was what you ate when you didn’t bag a rabbit. Here we dipped our bread instead.
So how else did we eat on a tight budget? Well, at the cafeteria for one, but also we hit an amazing sandwich shop up more than once as it was on our way to and from everything. Potbelly’s. And yes the name was more than fitting as you could in fact develop one from eating there. The service was fast, but the sandwiches had just the right amount of toastiness combined with chewy. They also offered a full range of sandwiches to satisfy both meat eaters and vegetarians. My favorite was the Italian. Potbelly’s is a chain now, but it started in Chicago and it was the original location that we found ourselves at time and again.
The other stand-out restaurant we went to was another Chicago legend, Giordano’s. Coming from the west coast I never knew what Chicago deep dish pizza could be until we went there. Yes, of course we have pizzerias with “Chicago style” on the menu; but this was nothing like what I have had served to me in California. This, was pizza heaven. Not too heavy in the belly and just the right amount of everything. I could have actually eaten this pizza every night and I’m sure it will now haunt my dreams.
I have struck a city – a real city – and they call it Chicago… I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.-Rudyard Kipling
A week was a good amount of time to be in the city. By the time we were leaving Lollapalooza was in full swing and the hallway of our hotel floor was a party until 4am. Being mostly country mice, we had had enough of the fast pace of the city, the smells, the walking the people who don’t meet your eyes…or are shocked when you smile at them.
One last stop had to be made on the way out of town and that was to a cemetery. Bachelor’s Grove has been featured on all sorts of paranormal shows and in books but it wasn’t entirely because of its supposed paranormal activity that I wanted to see it.
It, like much of the area is an old Polish and German cemetery. With much of my family being Polish and German, I was intrigued to see it. Also, I just like to be in old cemeteries. They feel peaceful and calm. I like to relax and reflect in them.
We found the cemetery outside a suburb down an unmarked path, across from a park. The path leading to it was lined with blue bells and Queen Anne’s lace. It was incredibly overgrown and it seemed purposefully neglected.
The reason why is simple. The township wanted people to forget it was there. I could see their point, the graveyard had been ravaged. It looked like once upon a time an attempt had been made to fence it in and keep people out; however the chain link fence had long since been cut through and peeled back in not just one or two places but too many to count. Perplexingly it had been cut right at a spot that led into a rather deep algae ridden drainage swamp. I couldn’t imagine anyone coming through on that side, never mind wanting to get down to that water.
The poor headstones had all been toppled over and many of them had candle wax dripped on them in reds and blacks and whites. Clearly people had been trying to do more than just party in a cemetery, they had been trying their hand at working with the metaphysical. Hopefully they had scared themselves so the souls here could rest in peace as was the original intention.
Despite the offhanded desecration, the cemetery itself was incredibly welcoming. I had the urge to just sit and sketch or pull weeds. I even wished I knew where each headstone belonged; I would have put them right if I knew…and had the physical strength to lift marble.
In any case we all of us left the grove and walked the trail back to our car with a bounce in our step and smiles all around. It had been a worthwhile stop and maybe we were graced because of our good attitude.
The one and only strange thing that happened on this visit to a haunted cemetery occurred when we returned to our car. There was a man there completely non-descript in any way hanging about our car, his being parked next to ours with the doors all open, but nothing running. He immediately walked up to meet us as he saw us cross the highway to the parking lot.
“What were you doing over there?” he asked.
We were a bit taken aback but told him forthrightly we were visiting the cemetery.
“Oh,” he replied, “I never knew what was back there.”
Curiouser and Curiouser! How did he know what car we were in? He wasn’t there when we left and there were many other cars in the parking lot. What on earth possessed him to hang about and ask what we were doing? I guess we’ll never know because he didn’t vibe right and we really didn’t want to hang about questioning him.
But, our Chicago experience finished, we left, getting on the interstate highway feeling complete.
In the next installment, Grainne travels across three and a half states to get to South Park