Chicago: Like a Distant Relative


I have lived most of my life within a day’s drive of Chicago—Northwest, West, Southwest, and Northeast. I’ve come to see the city as a distant relative that you visit very occasionally. You recall visiting as a child, then as a young adult, and then you finally visit as an adult, perhaps taking your own children along to be introduced.

My earliest memories of Chicago were in early grade school. We lived within an hour and visited the museums. I can still picture the large pendulum that swung with the earth rotating underneath it, and the coal mine and submarine. I believe that the travel to one of these museums might have involved my father stopping the car on the side of the road to intervene in a fight between my brother and myself. It was always my brother’s fault.

IMG_20150424_130028704By upper grade school I was living further away but tied to Chicago through media. I listened to Larry Lujack on WLS Chicago ALL of the time. The Chicago Sun Times was our daily newspaper. I heard daily about the Dan Ryan expressway traffic, and Richard Daley was always the mayor… In fact, in Hong Kong there is the Dan Ryan Restaurant where speeches by Daley are piped into the men’s bathroom. I get the joke entirely.






My middle school years brought images of riots through media and personal encounters by members of our church when they went to Chicago to a specialized hospital for their daughter. I had become politicized by 1968 when the protests against the Vietnam War broke out in Grant Park during the Democratic Party convention. Chicago as a site with museums had been replaced with Chicago as a place of social conflict.


By early high school, I would occasionally have a chance to go to Chicago. My youth group took a trip to the Windy City and visited the John Hancock building, one of the highest in the world at that time. We, of course, visited WLS where I was highly disappointed when I saw Larry Lujack in person. Another time I went with a school group to take a Russian exam at the University of Illinois, Circle Campus. By then I was less interested in museums and more interested in seeing the place where Jane Addams started Hull House, and in reading the materials that the members of the Black Panthers handed out on the street corners.


In high school we read the poetry of Carl Sandburg and his description of the city became indelibly linked to my images of Chicago:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them…
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true…
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city…
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning…
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding…
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

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As an adult and geographer I encountered Chicago in a new way. I began to associate it with the history of skyscrapers, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and ethnic neighborhoods. It became more differentiated. And it became more historically situated as I tied the museums and the layout of Chicago with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and with names of Frederick Law Olmstead and Daniel Burnham, who have both left their imprint on this city, as well as others, initiating modern city planning.


From Millennium Park to the site of the World’s Fair


But then again, I encountered Chicago through the eyes of my daughters as I introduced them to this distant relative of mine. We went there several times with family and friends when they were growing up. On one trip, given the choice among the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, or Art Institute of Chicago (with a Van Gogh exhibit), they chose the Art Institute. We looked for a Picasso and a Georgia O’Keefe to see what they looked like up close and personal. And we went to the top of the John Hancock building even though the Sears Tower was now the taller building. This was a Thanksgiving weekend so on Black Friday we found ourselves on Michigan Avenue among the horde of wall to wall shoppers. To my daughter’s embarrassment, my father, who was with us, quietly joined a PITA march that was protesting the purchase of furs.

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We shared Chicago with our New Zealand friends one December. The Christmas lights lit up Michigan Avenue and the skating rink was busy in Millennium Park. I couldn’t wait to see their reaction to the faces of Chicago in the glass towers in Millennium Park, as the figures came alive and winked at the viewers.


Most recently I went to Chicago for a geography meeting.  I was joined by a childhood friend and our mothers.  We recalled our visits with Chicago over time.


Self portrait of author and childhood friend.