An Outsider’s View of Chicago, Pt. 1: Oh, the Humanity (-ies)!

Posted: July 30, 2012 in Uncategorized
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I wanted to share some of the good stuff rendered by my maiden journey to “the hog butcher for the world” (thanks, Mr. Sandburg).  I found that even when I boiled down my experience to my favorites, there was too much for one post.  Add in the peripherals, and I decided I’d have to do a series.  Welcome to An Outsider’s View of Chicago.

We should begin, I suppose, with Chicago en masse.  My first reaction to the city was something like shock and awe.  The skyscrapers were amazing.  The variety of activities was overwhelming.  The human element is still a matter of cogitation for me–such variety of individuals and groups, and such a vast spectrum of interplay amongst them.  I was surrounded by a feeling of density, solidity, weight, and at the same time a breathlessness and motion.  The spirit of the city was the expiration of its substance: the constant flow of traffic, the El, the river, and the people around and between immovable stone and steel.  Often there was darkness even at noon, a sense of always being in shadow, again an effect of the surrounding tall buildings.  It raised feelings of uncertainty, of aloneness amid the crowds.  It made me wonder about what I could not see, what waited in the alleys and in the hearts of the people I passed.  It bred distrust and caution.  The atmosphere was tense, even dangerous.   And the people.  The masses dissolved into individuals and each individual became a mystery, a blend of experience, of action and reaction, of pain and joy, of past, present, future, only a moment of which I had any relation to.  It was like watching fractals develop all around me, and there was no escape.  It was overwhelming.  I had to exercise emotional self-containment just to venture out into the street.  I can understand so much better now some of the description I’ve read of the city over the years.  And yet, it is a place too complex for a casual visitor to fully comprehend.  It is disconcerting, challenging, fascinating, powerful, ugly, beautiful.  During the planning stages of the trip, I told my husband there was too much to see and do.  We needed to move there for at least a year, I said, to fit it all in.  Now that I’ve been, I don’t think I could live there.  But I definitely want to visit again.

[For a general overview of the Windy City check out Wikipedia, or go to the city’s website for a version straight from the hog butcher’s mouth.]

At the top of my to do list was the Art Institute of Chicago, chiefly because of its Impressionist collection.  Needless to say, the originals hanging in the museum made those posters on my wall at home seem like faded copies.  Which, um, they are.  And they look even worse now.  Two things I discovered at the museum were the Asian Collection and the Thorne Miniature Rooms.  I have a thing for India, and the centuries-old artifacts spoke to me of a culture I will never completely understand but still find intriguing, much like the city I was visiting.  I also have a long-held fascination with miniatures, especially dollhouses.  The Thorne collection did not disappoint.  Each little scene allowed a glimpse into someone’s life.  People had actually lived in homes like these, on a slightly larger in scale.  I like to project myself into the spaces, sit at the tables, play the pianos, wander through the gardens.  I wonder who I would have been had I lived then and there.  My one piece of advice about the Art Institute is to check the website ahead of time.  I am only now realizing that I missed several exhibits I know I would have enjoyed because I was not aware of them.  Planning ahead will allow you to see the collections that most interest you because there is simply not enough time to see everything in one visit, much like Chicago itself.

On a more dramatic note, we were able to see a matinée of Crowns at the Goodman.  Just as I had noticed elsewhere in Chi-town, the people who surrounded me were tightly woven with the occasion.  It was a moving and enthusiastic play, visually and musically stimulating, and the audience response illuminated and elevated the experience.  I thought it was ironic that I travelled from the South to Chicago to watch a play about a girl who travels from Chicago to the South.  Her journey led her to closure and to revelation, from emptiness and fear and anger to peace and hope and love.  I don’t know that mine was as productive a journey, but it did challenge my openness and expand my vision in unexpected ways.  The play itself?  It did what I seek to do in my writing—challenge perception and increase love, understanding, and appreciation.  At the center of it beat the heart of my own philosophy: the sanctity of the individual and the power of the collective.  I left feeling indebted to the artists, to the writers, to the characters and their stories, even to the audience, many of whose personal stories seemed to connect them intimately to what was happening onstage.

The Architecture River Tour was another highlight of the trip.  The architecture, in general, was fabulous.  We spent most of our time in The Loop, as I imagine most tourists do on their first visit.  Even within this circumscribed area we were unable to give more than cursory attention to the storied offerings of the skyscraper’s birthplace.  Studying these astounding constructions merits a trip of its own.  Along with limiting our Loop explorations, the time demon also prevented us from venturing outside the area to see the work of another architectural giant.  One of the catch-you-next-timers is definitely Frank Lloyd Wright’s Chicago.

The spirit of the Windy City is whispering to me that I should wrap it up.  This return to the insistent theme of architecture seems a good place to end, for now

If you’ve been to Chicago, what were your first impressions?  If you haven’t visited yet, what are your expectations?  If you are a resident, what would you most like us to know about your city?

And does anyone have a good synonym for “experience”?

  1. Enjoyed looking at this, very good stuff, regards . “It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.” by John Andrew Holmes.

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