24 hours around Chicago

So, I’ve come to my last 24 hours in Chicago. Rather than writing any lengthy commentary I thought I’d just share this collection of images taken with my camera or on my phone to show you what random activities these hours contained.

The 24 hours starts at lunchtime on Saturday with a trip out of town and a double cheeseburger at Superdawgs Drive In. The order is placed at the terminal from the window and delivered to your car. You don’t have to move from your seat.

Then a visit to the five-plus sheds of classic cars, vans, mobile homes, scooters, bicycles, tractors, juke boxes, pinball machines, motorboats & outboard engines in the Volo Auto Museum.

As the sky darkens I arrive in the town of St Charles and its 33rd Scarecrow Fest. No kidding.

Dinner is in the Arcada Theatre. In the Speakeasy on the third floor, the Flapper girls take us through a jumbled history of US popular music.

This morning, breakfast was corned beef hash n eggs, with a side order of crispy bacon, at Louis Mitchell’s place, a traditional diner frequented by presidents and every visitor to Chicago of any worth.

Every item any self-respecting cow-person wishes to purchase can be found at Alcala’s.

The Garfield Conservatory is a connection of huge glass-houses containing collections of flourishingly opulent hot-house plants.

The penultimate stop is at SereniTEA (speak it through slowly to get the real impact of the name), an English tearooms down by the tracks.

I will add on a few hours to the 24 so I can include dinner at the very classy North Pond. No photo. Sorry, that is still a few hours away.

What a fantastic 24 hours. Tomorrow, with great sadness, it is home. Thank you so much, Kate & Tony. A fantastic trip.

Chicago in its best light

Certain aspects of the city are best appreciated in the special light that dusk brings at the end of the day. Cloud Gate, or The Bean, as it is affectionately known by locals, is a sculpture by Indian-born Brit, Sir Anish Kapoor, and situated in Millennium Park. Three quarters of its external surface reflects the sky. In the sculptor’s mind, its intention is to bridge the space between the sky and the viewer.


I never thought of Chicago having a beach. Well it does. A long, long expanse of soft sand running north along each of Lake Michigan. It is not only a summer playground for Chicago locals but a holiday destination for the whole Midwest. At dusk the joggers, the roller skaters, the skateboarders, come out and run their circuits up and down the flat promenade. Lines off empty, netless volleyball courts stand idle, with only a few fortunate enough to feel useful and be in use. But what a backdrop, with the city behind.

The toilet, changing and refreshment block is closed. It feels like a set from Grease in the fading day which colours it with a warm, 1950s hue when everything was golden laughter and happy and fun.

Oh Happy Days!

Marooned in Chinatown

Today it is on the river on the water taxi. $9 for a day rover.

So it is out of town on the south branch of the Chicago River. Soon the glitzy high-risers give way to the Amtrack rail yards on the right

and open bank in varying stages of redevelopment on the left.

The water taxi lets me off at Ping Tom Memorial Park. There are a few other clues that Chinatown is close by. Other than the name, the stop is marked with a pagoda in manicured gardens.

These guys carry out their daily Tai Chi routine with foil-covered wooden swords.

These locals are crossing the tracks to catch the next boat.

The centre of Chinatown is a 15 minute walk. It has a similar feel to every other Chinatown in every other city everywhere else in the world.

My eturn to the water taxi stop is hampered by a slow moving goods train. Lonnie Donegon’s Rock Island Line. It was not a good sign that several locals sat in the road as the pig-iron and coal wagons, the open cars and the flat-bed trucks trundled endlessly by. I exaggerate not, it could well have been over a mile in length. They had been here before.

10 minutes later it was still passing.

With relief the last wagon passed. We all cheered and went about our business. The water taxi dropped me back in the centre of town.

Enjoying Chicago’s night life

The best thing about knowing people in Chicago is that they know the hotspots and how to give you a really good time. Here are a few exceptionally warm, and some really hot, spots.

Firstly, Tuesday evening. It’s dinner at a Cuban restaurant with some work mates. Dark, low ceiling, nets, images of Cadillacs and bowls of fruit on the walls. Pulled pork with rice for me, washed down with copious amounts of BYO red from Aldi. The band started to set up – flamenco; a wonderful guy on Spanish guitar, a youthful singer and husband and wife dancers. It was all very intense with lots of clapping and stamping and pouting and yelling and posturing and waving, but so passionate.

From there it’s an Uber to The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge to listen to The Fat Babies performing classic Chicago jazz of the 1920/30s.

The room warmed up and so did I, helped by numerous rather large rums until my jiving feet got the better off me and I swung the night away. This is me outside the club at the end of the evening about 1am. I think I look fully in control and quite stable. That is Kate, my daughter, looking after me.

Thursday saw us at Buddy Guy’s Club watching a wonderful blues band called The Cash Box Kings with Joel Pattison. Fantastic.

I fully engaged in traditional US bar games which I’d never heard of before. Shuffleboard can be played on a lovely wooden table or on a ship’s deck. I chose the former in the very superior surroundings of the Chicago Athletic Association. It’s a bit like the English game of Shove Ha’ppeny.

Skeeball is played in bars and involves rolling balls up a ramp into holes with different values. A bit like a cross between bar billiards and crazy golf without the cues or the clubs. It also involves lots of yelling and screaming from other team members.

Oh. On my first night I went to see the ice hockey – Chicago Blackhawks against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Chicago won.

So, there is no shortage of night life in this buzzing city. I’m exhausted!!

The subterranean world of Chicago’s bridges

So. These bridges. Chicago is not just home to some of the world’s earliest skyscrapers, it is also a city of bridges. There are five different types of movable bridges and 43 are still operable. The first was timber-built in 1834, similar in design to a medieval drawbridge. The first swing bridge was built in 1856. It was too narrow and eventually collapsed under the weight of a herd of cattle being driven over it. In the mid-1890s vertical lift bridges were developed, pulled up and down from huge counter weights held in towers on one or both sides of it.

Down the main drag of the Chicago River, through the middle of the city, there are 10 bridges, mostly trunnion bascule bridges, the first of which opened in 1907. The leaves of the bridge which span the river are suspended on axles, trunnions, with massive concrete counterweights located below in the river bed. Single leaf bascule bridges were built when the river was narrower and mostly carry subway tracks. Double-leaf bridges stretch from each bank where the river was wider and meet in the middle. All these bridges are opened together at specific times in the spring and autumn to allow high-masted vessels to move up and down the river, to and from winter moorings.

Bridge-tender houses stand sentinel alongside each and reflect different architectural styles.

Some of the bridges in downtown Chicago are double-decker with vehicular traffic using the bottom level and subway trains using the upper level to link up with the overhead gantries at either end. Life down here is pretty medieval. Dark, dimly-lit corridors bore out over the water, protected by huge, riveted balustrades, all covered in anti-rust paint, like an earthy sunset. As the lights change a snarling collection of fiery vehicles charge across, headlights blazing in anger and engines roaring in the echoing darkness.

On the upper layer, silver silk-worms creep out from their holes in the concrete and glassy jungle and over, always exposed to the elements and reflecting the weather on their matted surfaces.

From the bridges raised pillars support the subway gantry above, creating more corridors of flickering sunlight and shadow on the streets below.

The noise is tremendous. There is nothing peaceful about Chicago’s streets. Not only do you get the normal city noise of vehicles – horns, engines, tyres. But as trains approach above, the tracks vibrate, metal hums, the timbers shudder on the metal framework. The clatter and clack of wheels, the squeal of brakes, the complaining of carriage metal on bumpers, the whirl of engines, all intensify as the train passes overhea. It recedes as it disappears into the distance, leaving the pedestrian with more normal street noises until another approaches.

The old Union Stock Yards and the meatpacking district

Something that has always intrigued me about the US is the ‘meatpackers’ and Chicago is the capital of their industry. So today it is a visit to the old Union Stock Yards and the meatpacking district. On the way is a coffee in Johny’s Diner.

The railway companies bought this swampland in 1865 and turned it into a central processing area for cattle and pigs, making Chicago ‘the hog capital of the world’. At its peak in 1924 more meat was processed here than anywhere else in the world. Before the stockyards were built, cattle was driven up here and pastured on land owned by numerous taverns before they were sold. The railroads transformed the industry with properly built pens constructed along the converging tracks. The Civil War created a huge demand, with the US Government requiring 1.5 million hogs and 140,000 head of cattle to feed the troups over the butchering season of 1864/5. Eventually the stockyards had 2,300 separate pens with enough room to hold 75,000 hogs, 21,000 cattle and 22,000 sheep at any one time. Saloons, offices, restaurants and hotels grew up around them. In 1921, the area employed 40,000 workers including meatpackers who had yards in amongst the tracks and the holdings.

At one time 500,000 US gallons of water from the Chicago River was pumped into the stockyards each day, to clear out the waste from the animals. This drained back into a creek of the river, named Bubbly Creek due to the gaseous products of decomposition. The river was so badly polluted that the city authorities undertook a major engineering project to change the flow of the river away from the centre of town and the lake and through a man-made channel that led to the Mississippi. The Yards eventually closed in 1971 after years of decline.

Today the area is changing. It still feels seedy and run down with its boarded warehouses and crusty, chains strangling bored doors, its broken windows and faded, painted brickwork advertising forgotten products and innovations.

Continue reading

An English Sunday in Chicago

I know it’s midweek but let me tell you about our Sunday. We decided, as Kate had been away for over 6 months, that we would do a typical English Sunday. So first of all it was a full fry up with waffles instead of fried bread (neither are very good for you). This was followed by a visit to the supermarket to get all the ingredients for a Sunday roast. Had a bit of a problem with the chicken as they don’t sell whole birds – packs of quarters or rotisseried birds. We decided on the latter.

It was then time to get out. A walk in the park was what we had in mind. However an Oktoberfest street party intrigued us. 5 bucks (do you like the Americanisation I used there?) to get in. Two streets, a community centre car park and a small play area were cordoned off with a stage in a huge marquee and a smaller one out in the street. It was a bit like a village fete with beer – lots of food stalls, two beer stalls and fun activities like Hit the Bell and Design a T-shirt. It was slightly confusing as there were many folk dressed in traditional German lederhosen. It was a district with many descendants of German immigrants.

Beer was the order of the day, just like being down the pub at lunchtime without the bowels of peanuts. We didn’t want to spoil our appetites so we limited our food consumption to a large plate of Funnel Cake consisting of light, doughy, chocccos-type swirls covered in chocolate sauce and a few strawberries and a blizzard of icing sugar. We managed half.

The afternoon took a turn when the first band finished and another started to set up. The first chord heralded these guys:

There followed two sets of Beatles’ classics and two sets of Singalong with John, Paul, George and Ringo. America’s best cover band, we were told, and all for 5 bucks. Value!!! They even spoke English with an Liverpool accent. I was very croaky the next day.

So back home to put on the dinner. The chicken was already cooked, so it was just the roast pots and the veg. US pals were roast virgins, if you see what I mean, parsnips were unknown as was gravy. It all went down very well. The day ended slobbed in front of the TV with an episode of Peaky Blinders on   i-player. A perfect English Sunday in Chicago.

Chicago’s masterclass in the construction of skyscrapers

Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper. 1,315 high rise buildings crowd into downtown Chicago, 44 standing higher than 183 metres. You’ll get neck ache looking up at the sheer number straining to be the first up to the heavens. Different materials are used in their construction and this in turn has implications for the construction methods used. Carved limestone swirls neighbours steel-frame functionality neighbours concrete stability.

I particularly love the older, Art Deco buildings. The Wrigley Building is my favourite (the one in the middle next to Trump’s modernist, Dr Who’s screwdriver)

The first skyscraper was built in Chicago in 1885 using the steel-frame method. Originally 10 stories high, it stood 44 metres tall and was the tallest building in the world at the time. It was demolished in 1931In the 1920s eleven of the city’s tallest buildings were built. Another boom has lasted from the 1960s and continues today.

The tallest are in downtown districts on either side of the Chicago River and stretching along the waterfront into North Side towards Lake Michigan and into South Side. As they build up architect’s have to take into account the strength of the wind with higher stories actually swaying in certain conditions.

The fascinating thing about Chicago is that criss-crossing this glitzy, flashy, overpowering menagerie of high-risers is an infrastructure of century-old, flaking, steel bridges which carry vehicles over the river and around the city. If it’s not bridges, it’s the paint-pealed framework of pillars and girders that carries the overhead sections of the subway, its silver sardine cans trundling tight against the buildings that have been constructed so close to the track that one could almost drop in coffee to the passing carriages.

So some facts:
The tallest building, at 442 metres is the 110-storey Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, built in 1974. Trump International Hotel and Tower is the second tallest at 423 metres when it was built in 2009. The view from the bar at the top of the fourth highest, the John Hancock Centre, is really impressive, particularly at night.

The entire city has over 100 buildings over 500 foot, 152 metres.

Chicago – the Windy City

Hello, everyone. I am here in Chicago visiting my daughter, Kate. She lives on the edge of downtown Chicago, high up on floor 26 which is an ideal place from which to get my bearings.

Stretching away from me to the far horizon, I can see through the gaps in neighbouring apartment towers, a toy town of miniature streets separating blocks of flat roofed commercial units, renovated warehouses, offices, multi-floors of dwellings and apartments. From up here there is nothing private, everything is out there and on show – the turquoise waters and lined-up sun beds of swimming pools, the balconies of apartments with their dolls house furniture all still praying to the sun and ignoring the fact that winter snows are around the corner. I can follow trucks and cars and Little People, fidgeting about the streets with purposeful intent going…..goodness knows where – work?

From up here I can watch the endless traffic on the tracks of the marshalling yards, six in one direction, three in another, bending and wriggling over and under each other. Two-storied, silver wagons are pushed and pulled about into convoys of shining transport worms before disappointing around the bend, sometimes four at a time are ringing the curves. This is all accompanied by the clanging of bells, the roar of diesel engines and the horn. Oh, the train horn. The sound of so many American movies. I can only be in the US.

Down at street level the neighbourhood becomes real, the tracks curving around the streets, embedded in the tarmac with only the flimsiest of barriers cutting the progress of pedestrians and cars at the approach of a locomotive. Evidence of the railways is everywhere.

Let’s get out there. First of all a doughnut and coffee at the Doughnut Vault, open until they run out of doughnuts. Here’s Josai with his wares.

The Blommer Chocolate Factory is just that. Boy, does it smell good as you walk past. Pictures of Mr Wonka’s factory come right to the front of the mind. Imagine deliveries of liquid chocolate in wagons like this.

The Loop is Chicago’s subway system. Some of it runs underground, some of it runs on the ground and some of it runs above the ground, supported on a gantry of steel girders. It can be seen throughout the city. These images are within a few metres of the apartment.

So that gives you a flavour of the local community. I am off now to go further afield. Will catch up soon.