A century ago, poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago "stormy, husky, brawling/city of the Big Shoulders" in an eponymous poem that still echoes city life today. Indeed, Chicago is stormier and huskier than ever, with political scandals breaking more frequently than the El train circles the Loop. But it's also cleaner, greener, and more urbane than expected—with bold new architecture, abundant green space, and a vibrant dining scene. So what will you find when you visit: a rough-and-tumble Midwestern town or a sophisticated metropolis? The answer is both, and much, much more.
Building and Rebuilding
The iconic skyline dominates postcards and tourist snapshots—and for good reason. Architecture fans are excited to see the city that Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright built, but modern development has also brought new energy. Recent years have seen the birth of the Millennium Park lakefront, the 92-story Trump Tower Chicago, and the innovative Aqua, an 82-story tower with balconies designed to look like waves. Development doesn't come without controversy, however. Some older buildings have been torn down to make way for the new, and preservationists decry each loss of a historic building to the wrecking ball.
Politics as Usual
Speaking of controversy, Chicago's political scene has witnessed the highest highs and the lowest lows in recent years. The high point: when about a quarter-million Chicagoans of every age, shape, and ethnicity gathered downtown to celebrate Illinois Senator Barack Obama's historic presidential election in 2008. The low point: pick one. Governor (and Chicago resident) Rod Blagojevich's 2011 conviction for trying to sell Obama's vacated Senate seat? Illinois Representative Jesse Jackson Jr.'s 2013 guilty plea to criminal charges of diverting campaign funds for personal use? Cook County Commissioner William Beavers's 2013 conviction for tax evasion? The Associated Press reported that there were 1,531 convictions for public corruption here between 1976 and 2010, the most of any district in the country.
Visitors expecting deep-dish pizza and Italian beef sandwiches won't be disappointed, but they will have to elevate their expectations a hundredfold. Chicago is—dare we say it?—the most exciting city in the country for dining right now. It seems like there's a Food & Wine Best New Chef or Top Chef winner on every block. Sample cutting-edge cuisine from chef Grant Achatz at Next and Alinea, Homaro Cantu at Moto, and Stephanie Izard at Girl & the Goat. Or just spend your entire visit in Logan Square, where you'll have your pick of Lula Café, Longman & Eagle, and Belly Shack. Satisfied yet? We didn't even mention the hundreds of neighborhood ethnic eateries that let you dine across the globe without ever leaving the city.
Mayor Richard M. Daley's 22-year reign was a period of incredible resurgence for the city, complete with environmental development, sustainable building, and a failed Olympics bid. But it wasn't always diplomatic or even democratic, and the jury's still out on his replacement, another tough-talking Democrat—this time Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. His administration's hard-line tactics led to a highly contentious teachers’ union strike in 2012, and kicked off 2013 with an unpopular decision to close 54 schools, the most in the city's history. The economy is still flailing, and devastating gun violence plagues the city's South and West sides.
Full of Pride
Sure, Chicagoans like to complain—about the weather, about our sports teams, and especially about our politicians. But if an out-of-towner dares to diss our beloved city, you can bet there will be fireworks bigger than the ones over Navy Pier in summer. Sandburg was right again about Chicago when he wrote, "come and show me another city with lifted head singing/ so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning."
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