My first visit to the amazing city of Chicago.

Considering that for most of my life I have lived relatively close to Chicago, it is a bit embarrassing that not only had I never been, but I knew virtually nothing about one of the largest cities in North America. In fact, I think I knew about 3 things:

– Al Capone and the Prohibition;

– Milton Friedman and “Chicago School Economics”; and

– Deep dish pizza.

That was pretty much it, and I think my ignorance made my few superficial discoveries of this amazing city even more enjoyable.

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A cool element of the core downtown area is that some streets are multilevelled. It is not always apparent, but here, because of the vacant lot, you can see it very clearly. On a few occasions I wanted to, say, go straight and turn left, but realizedI couldn’t, because I was on the wrong level. I also found that while aimlessly walking downtown, one tends to stumble on the unexpected in Chicago.

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I was looking at my phone to find a grocery store when I saw this park, Lake Shore East Park, three levels down from the street I was on. Beautiful, almost without automobiles, lined with street level businesses and surrounded by condo towers. For me, ideal high density city living.

The enormous Millennium Park is a recently developed 99,000 m2 park built over old railways in disuse. It was decided in 1997 to spend $150M to redevelop it for the upcoming millenium. After spending $475M, it was ready just in time to ring in the New Year… 2004. While the project was an abomination of mismanagement, the result is magnificent.

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In the Crown Fountain (named after the Crown Family, not the Queen!) stand two LED walls on which faces are displayed in alternance. Founding Fathers of the city? Local celebrities? Nope, just the faces of the workers who built the park, according to a local guide (Wikipedia says random Chicagoans).

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The Cloud Gate, an enormous highly polished stainless steel sculpture. Much to the frustration of the artist, Anish Kapoor, the name never caught on and everybody calls it The Bean. It is a major local attraction and the crowds you see on this picture are those of a morning weekday. I went back on the week-end and it was packed.

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Michelle and I, taking a rather unusual Bean Selfie. As you can see, Michelle is really into bodybuilding, but only for her right leg and right forearm, like Popeye. And I wear size 4 shoes on the left and size 26 on the right.

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Some people were much more creative than we were, but in the end our hair was probably cleaner.

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Proud Chicago hockey fans waiting in line to see the Stanley Cup in the Jay Pritzker Pavillion, the worst managed part of the project, coming in 558% over budget!

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But the biggest touristic attraction in town is the Navy Pier. Although it may seem lively on this picture, it was actually totally dead. While the Children’s Museum and the food court were open, the amusement park and much of the attractions were closed for the winter.

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The crowd control measures were certainly not required.

In the 1950’s wealthy Chicagoans were trying hard to get the world’s most famous living artist at the time, Pablo Picasso, to produce a large outdoors statue for the city. They harassed him for a while and in 1967, the statue was unveiled.

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Picasso sent this massive 160 ton statue to be assembled, but never actually visited the city. From the front it looks like a monkey drawn by a 5 year old, but from this angle you see the silhouette of a woman, an effect typical of cubism I believe. At the time, the Chicago Tribune wrote: ““The statue represents the power of city hall, stark, ugly, overpowering, and frightening.” The unsurprising problem, of course, is that many people in Chicago found it ugly as sin. As the saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. However, it’s only a saying and this statue is officially ugly. The only people who find it beautiful teach cubism for a living, are also named Picasso or have a severe neurological condition. Personally, it made me want to touch myself. In the eye. With a fork. But kids like to climb on it.

The building behind it, the Chicago Temple Building, has the particularity of having a small chapel on top of it (last level before the conical roof). The interior is a nice little chapel, unremarkable beyond the fact that it sits on top of a skyscraper. You and 30 of your friends can attend the occasional mass in the tiny Sky Chapel, but we were able to visit because we happened to be in town during Open House Chicago, an annual event where 200 buildings not normally open to the public can be visited. We particularly enjoyed the theatres, but I will write about them next time.

Early in its history, Chicago had a serious problem of river pollution. All industrial waste was dumped into it, as well as raw sewage. The waste flowed into Lake Michigan and, after very strong rains in 1885, it reached the city’s remote water intake pipes. Some believe up to 12% of the population died of the ensuing cholera, typhoid and dysentery epidemics. Since water treatment was not feasible with the day’s technology, the city embarked on a pharaonic project involving the digging of tens of kilometres of large canals. In a manner I don’t quite understand, they managed to make the river flow backwards, away from Lake Michigan and into the Mississippi bassin. The city’s water supply became the cleanest in the country and by the day’s standards, the canals allowed the pollution to dilute as it flowed away. However, in the city the river remained dirty until the 1990’s, and that is why it is only recently that the city began creating a continuous riverfront walkway. The project is still underway, and on the completed sections you can see people walking, running and enjoying the small riverside cafes.

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On a wider section of the riverside, the Vietnam War Memorial.

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Michelle admiring the floral arrangements on Michigan Avenue. This area is one of the prime high-end shopping spots in the city, and is nicknamed The Magnificent Mile.

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From what I understood, various civil society organizations sponsor the flowerbeds. This one won the Halloween prize – I think.

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The Federal Reserve Bank maintains a small but fun Money Museum in Chicago. This is one million dollars in one dollar bills!

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The iconic deep dish pizza, or Chicago-style pizza. We waited at least an hour to get into the restaurant where it was developed in 1943, Pizzeria Uno. On the plus side, you order while waiting and it is served just after you get a table. Opinion in a nutshell: I am very glad I tried it, it was not bad, I will always choose thin crust pizza over it.

Here are some bad quality nerd videos I filmed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The first part is really cool: ferrofluids. The liquid becomes strongly magnetized in the presence of an electric field, so as I increase the current (dial out of view), it partially takes the shape of the invisible field. The second is a very useful M&M picking robot and the last one is a large revolving sand bucket, which can be used to amazed people high on LSD or to study the dynamics of avalanches.

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“Sue”, the biggest, most complete T-Rex skeleton in the world. The gender of the beast is unknown, but it was named Sue after the American palaeontologist who discovered it in South Dakota’s Black Hills, Susan Hendrickson. It is permanently on display at the Field Museum of Natural History.

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Chicago has some great museums and the Field now has a new permanent exhibit called the Cyrus Tang Hall of China. I think this is the first time I saw original Imperial Robes (Qing Dynasty, this particular one from the late 18th century).

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Yellow was a color exclusively reserved for the Emperor in China for centuries, perhaps even millennia. So was the dragon symbol.

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Other animals represented various levels of authority. This is called a Mandarin Square and was worn on the chest. There were two separate hierarchies, military (land animals) and scholars (birds), of nine ranks each. This one represents a heron, the highest scholar rank. In today’s equivalent, the men wearing this would have been government ministers, high court judges, etc. On the military side, the most senior generals wore a lion until the late 17th century, and then the mythical qilin beast.

In only a week, I saw little of Chicago and I am sure I have much more to discover, but the thing that struck me the most was the incredible architecture. So much so that my next story will be strictly on Chicago architecture.

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