The number of international tourists to Chicago has been climbing visibly in the last decade or so. Sure, this is more noticeable to me because I live in Oak Park, where the devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright are as likely to be German or Japanese as they are to be North American, but the shift is visible. It is clearly visible in Millenium Park, at age six the new symbol (s) of the city and a guaranteed attraction for visitors (the Bean) and locals (Crown Fountain) alike.
But in the last couple of months there have been more significant clues. In May, we learned that Chicago has the seventh best restaurant in the WORLD (Alinea), beating out New York City, and a couple of weeks ago Michelin announced it will finally do a Chicago red guide (that means restaurants – as many of you know, I used to write the green guides for Michelin, which are the cultural and historical ones) this fall. The number of five-star hotels has grown significantly, and despite low polling numbers in the city, Mayor Daley has lots of suburban and out-of-town fans thanks to his street plantings, graffiti abatement and thing for wrought iron. The city looks good.
We also have somehow become the center of summer music festivals, with both the established alternative (oxymoron check) festival Lollapalooza and the newer alternative alternative Pitchfork festival in Union Park, which is a part of the West Side that was not frequented by out-of-towners in the 1980s. They are filming Transformers 3 downtown right now and Batman took advantage of some of the cities iconic landmarks and streetscapes a couple of years ago.
We also have (again, despite recent poll dives) the President’s house, something every tour bus I have taken around in the last year has demanded. And we will have it for at least another two and a half years, if not longer. I think the city’s time is coming. We’re over 500 feet above sea level next to the fifth largest fresh water lake in the world, so we are in decent shape for global warming. We have a reasonably diversified economy and remain a vital transhipment point for every kind of good on every kind of vehicle. Our airports fly directly to China, India, Russia and most other places daily, and today Virgin America announced it will start hipster service to London (fixie planes?)
We have the longest and greenest lakefront of any world city (I didn’t fact check that but you would need a hell of an estuary to beat it) and a slew of cultural attractions and you don’t need a car to enjoy any of it. Plus, we have all of this famous architecture, which is what green guides (and iPhone guides, etc.) are made of.
the recently restored ironwork at Louis Sullivan’s famed Carson Pirie Scott store.
Robie House – restored and more interiors visible than ever!
Speaking of Chicago architecture, you MUST dash right over to the Chicago Cultural Center to see Tim Samuelson’s fantastic Louis Sullivan show – comprised of artifacts, drawings, photographs, big chunks of stone and iron and terra cotta, and a brilliant design by one of Chicago’s greatest artists, Chris Ware. Not only does the show offer a wonderful overview of a magnificent artist, but it offers new and intriguing perspectives from a man who has spent a lifetime studying Sullivan. Do. not. miss. it.
Chicago is coming. It is becoming the destination it always could be, and it is getting the recognition. And it isn’t just downtown. The transformation of the near south and west sides over the last decade is pretty stunning.
Yes, you could complain about political corruption and government budget crises, especially if you live in one of those cities known for clean government and bountiful budgets.
August 17 UPDATE: Chicago just rose to 6th in the global cities ranking. Read about it here.