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The Good Life in Downtown Chicago

(Photo: My neighborhood, your destination–how do we meet in the middle? The Nichols Bridgeway from the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing.)

During their windy City visit last week, Seattle’s coolest couple, Kasey and John, waxed giddily about the fun and frolic of my downtown Chicago neighborhood. Their reaction stands in stark contrast to the one I normally get from native Chicagoans when I tell them I live downtown. It’s almost like telling a New Yorker you never ride the subway. The response is always the same: no one’s stopping you from doing it, but why would you want the hassle?

Outer-neighborhood Chicagoans tend to think downtowners suffer through our central-city lives. How on earth do we live without backyard barbecues, front-door parking, and a cricket on every window ledge? It’s hard to describe the devotion some of us feel for our high-rise Chicago ‘hood.

It just widens the rift to try and explain the dreadful boredom their pastoral images of suburban Lincoln Square life bring up for us. And woe to us if we do express an iota of dissatisfaction with life at address numbers below 1200. (“If you don’t like it, then leave,” is a common Windy City answer for all sorts of questions when the Chicagoan doing the answering can’t think of anything else to say.)

So just why do I live in downtown Chicago? Last fall, before warm weather headed towards 17 below, I took a walk to ponder an appropriate answer. I came down to earth from the 38th floor and found the couch ladies sunning themselves in the late afternoon on the Marina City plaza overlooking the Chicago River.

“I never get tired of sitting out here,” said Proud Mary, gazing across the river at the Loop. Beyond 70 now, she’d lived in the towers since she was just beyond 60. “To be able to see skyscrapers like this from your front yard never ceases to amaze me.”

“Living in Marina City is pretty interesting, in and of itself,” said Great Kate, of similar age but far longer longevity in the towers. “What with Gary Kimmel, House of Blues craziness, and Vincent Falk, there’s never a dull moment.”

I left the ladies to their reverie and headed through the blooming former IBM Plaza to cross the river on the wooden planks of the Wabash Avenue Bridge, hearing the drone of tour guides from the architecture cruises passing below. Since I hadn’t eaten dinner yet, I thought about dropping into Emerald Loop, the Vaughan-family pub tucker under the Jeweler’s Building at the south end of the bridge.

When I moved downtown, I never expected a hoodie two blocks from my house. Servers who recognize me, a mean rare burger (as long as it isn’t the weekend), and a good head on a pint of Smithwicks in a downtown pub that isn’t overrun by tourists is hard to turn down. But I was on a mission, so I passed by and walked over to Michigan Avenue.

As I crossed Randolph, I ran into a film crew outside the Cultural Center. Coming from New York City, I’ve always found filming in my neighborhood bothersome. (Whether in Park Slope, Brooklyn, or downtown Chicago, who wants to delay their emergency pharmacy run for allergy meds so yet another Batman film crew can line up a shot?) I dodged the crew hand trying to stop me from crossing the street and proceeded through their shot and on my way.

Music led me across the street into Millennium Park. A free evening of open-air ballroom dancing had taken over the lawn at the Pritzker Pavilion. I found the rhythmic movement of the crowd mesmerizing–and a bit more calming then the rock fest that wafted through the flowers of the adjacent Lurie Garden during my (attempted) sunset meditation the day before.

I continued across Monroe into Grant Park. It was seven o’clock by now. In the distance, I could see Buckingham Fountain begin its hourly geysering. Ever since moving to Chicago, I’ve headed to the fountain whenever I’ve felt the need to ponder my life. That evening was no different. As usual, I sat on the benches in the southeast corner of the plaza and watched the fountain erupt across the backdrop of the Loop skyline to the delight of tourists from parts elsewhere. Most likely all of whom–like me, to this day–unable to watch the spectacle without hearing the theme from Married with Children in their heads.

But even my trusty fountain offered no way to explain to others why I live in downtown Chicago. So I headed back towards Michigan Avenue, past the ball fields along Balbo. They gay softball leagues were playing, so I paused to happily gape for awhile, then continued south on Michigan towards Roosevelt. The border flower gardens were still blooming along the way (thanks to Chicago’s favorite gardening lesbian, Christy Webber, and her Far South Side urban-landscaping empire). Tourists always seem to keep to the sidewalks at the edge of Grant Park. Instead, I made like local stroller pushers and dogwalkers and wended my way along the grass between the rows of plantings.

Hunger finally won out at 11th Street. I turned back into the street grid, knowing exactly where to head. Corned beef with a schmear of chopped chicken liver and an egg cream (taken away early by the waiter, meaning–score!–second egg cream on the house) hit my ex-New Yorker spot at Eleven City Diner. I noshed until after eight.

It was well past dark as I exited the eatery. Ordinarily I’d have walked home. I find the mid-evening hours in the Loop after the theater crowd has headed in off the sidewalks a time of quiet potential. But that night I was too pooped–and stuffed–to continue pedding.

Instead, I headed to the Roosevelt CTA station and plopped down on a cloth-covered Orange Line seat for my 10-minute ride home to State and Lake, without an answer, thinking maybe I had it all wrong.

What was the big deal about downtown Chicago, anyway? I could just picture my suburban friends marveling–and rolling their eyes–at walking two miles (“Why bother?”) through a city park (“Was it safe?”) to go to a diner (“Don’t they deliver?”) and come home on an ‘L’ train (for suburbanites, that speaks for itself).

As the train hurtled north through the South Loop ‘L’ canyon, I was brought back to my senses by a glimpse of a State Street billboard sporting a single sentence, laid out in large letters over a big bullseye:

“Living in Berwyn Makes Life Easier.”

And I’m sure it could. But for the life of me, I just can’t figure out how.

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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12 replies

  1. Fortunately I face East and hear nary a peep from HOB. It’s just when they roll out the damn spotlight truck, it flashes into my apartment. But I’ll take that over any noise!

  2. Lisa, you’re welcome! At least you don’t live above the House of Blues…do you? Oh, and for the record, if it’s been nine years, you’re allowed to say Chicagoan now without qualifying it–no matter what some small-minded old-timers might say 😉

  3. I’m a neighbor in Marina City and was getting all pissed off at the jackhammering this AM, then read your piece and remembered why I never want to leave my perch in the East tower. Recently laid off, I have started taking 5-6 mile walks in all directions, and the # of cool things I can see and do in that space makes me feel so lucky to be a Chicagoan (well, a transplant of 9 years anyway). Thank you for the reminder!

  4. Jim & Mitch, got it. So when I tell you that when I was 18, I and two friends walked from Reseda to the Beverly Center via the non-existent pedestrian shoulder of Laurel Canyon Boulevard up and over Mulholland–during the afternoon rush–you will understand the madness inherent in the statement.

  5. We won’t be able to tour downtown by just walking out our apartment door. But, as you pointed out in our comments to one another the other day, we’ll have the 145 express outside our door at Montrose and Clarendon.

    In answer to your question about our LA neighborhood. We live at the foot of the Hollywood Hills in Hollywood. We have a view of the LA basin from our balcony and to the east, the tops of Grauman’s Chinese and Disney’s El Capitan Theatre.

    We’re ready to trade them in for our view of Lake Michigan.

    Jim & Mitch

  6. As a suburbanite of another city (with really no downtown) I came to your blog a year or two ago because my partner and I were considering a move to somewhere where we wouldn’t need to rely on driving to get anywhere. Not knowing anyone that lives in any ACTUAL downtowns of major cities, we were looking for a personal perspective. I think we got a bit more than we bargained for :), nonetheless I believe you continue to give the perspective we continue to look for as apparent by this post.

    We still have fantasies of moving to a lovely downtown highrise in Chicago, Philadelphia, or San Fran but luckily the housing market and our jobs keep us grounded in reality. (Though, a subtropical reality isn’t all that bad!)

    What we do enjoy is visiting all of these cities without ever needing a car and taking in the energy of a downtown. In fact, we’re heading to Chicago this weekend for some fun! From reading your blog we’ve got a few ideas of out of the way spots to hit, but any other places that you haven’t mentioned or any Memorial Day Weekend specific happenings you (or anyone else) have insight on would be appreciated.

    Thanks again!

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