Posted by: TomA | 31 May 2007

Day 32: Chicago

What’s the first thing to do in a new city? Head to the shitty touristy bit and see just how gruesome it can be. It’s what we did [mistakenly] in San Francisco; it’s what we did in Chicago too. Navy Pier is as gross as Fisherman’s Wharf was, full of obese, smelly and obnoxious folk dripping ketchup down into their fanny packs. We only headed down for the Ferris wheel, which according to our guide book was “dangerous”. Sadly, the wheel seems to have been fixed up a bit, with Plexiglas and barriers to stop you falling out. Still, it was enjoyable and gave us a good view of Lake Michigan (which is bloody huge and may as well be the sea – you can’t see across it) and the downtown skyscrapers, easily the most impressive we’ve yet seen on our travels.

Our next stop was Millennium Park, full of Gehry designed architecture, including a huge and rather impressive outdoor concert stage and an awesome bridge across the freeway, designed to keep the traffic noise out of the park as well as twist its way from the park. There’s also an intriguing sculpture, referred to as “The Bean” (Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor), which is basically a big lump of very shiny mirrored metal, allowing all sorts of distorting effects of the surrounding skyscrapers and tourists milling around the park.

The Sears tower is the tallest building in Chicago and I think has the tallest floor, ceiling etc of any building in the world (110 stories), beaten only by the pathetic poles stuck on top of the two Petronas towers in Malaysia. We avoided going up (expensive, crowded and apparently as well as being thoroughly frisked, you’re forced to sit through an awful ‘infotainment’ film before you’re allowed up); instead choosing to go up Chicago’s third tallest building, the John Hancock Centre. The observatory on the 94th floor sounded tempting, though the admission to ride the lift seemed a touch steep, so instead we took the free elevator to the bar on the 96th floor for a vastly expensive (but lift-priced) glass of wine for stunning views of downtown Chicago. Late at night, the skyscrapers take on this almost toy-like feel, amplified by watching the El trains weave their way through the city streets below. Chicago is huge: the city lights seem to stretch on forever on one side; the other penned in by the darkness of the lake. The light pollution is crazy too – no chance of seeing the stars or even a bright, twinkling satellite in the sky; the city actually seems to glow slightly orange.

Chicago wasn’t somewhere on our initial plan of places to go, but now we’re here, I really do like it. The Art Institute we visited earlier was impressive for it’s sheer size, though the majority of the art there I found uninteresting (the huge collection of European Impressionists were all things I’d seen in galleries in the UK, Amsterdam etc), and several other pieces we wanted to see (namely Ed Hopper’s stuff) were on loan to other galleries. Food seems high on people’s priorities here, in two nights we’ve had two great and not too pricey meals, which may explain why Chicago is the 5th fattest city in the world.

Talking of statistics, I learnt on CNN last night that 10% of the population of Baltimore is physically addicted to heroin.. And talking of CNN, last night we came across the most infuriating news presenter ever, Nancy Grace, who guffawed, ranted and raved throughout a 30 minute news story on a mother who snorted heroin in a Wal-Mart store while her son was in the car. Every time she spoke to an “expert”, be it a doctor, lawyer or the police, she’d interrupt their calm and considered response with a frenzied rant or snide remark, before launching into her own personal tirade against this woman. They then cut to footage of their news team banging and shouting at her door and peering through windows, all after she’d admitted guilt, paid her bail and had her son removed by social services. Nancy, in her infinite wisdom, came to the conclusion that because the woman refused to come out and defend herself she was not just guilty, but irresponsible, evil and due the most severe penalty possible [the chair?]. Having finally called it quits on this story they show 60 seconds of footage of an elderly man being violently beaten by a black youth, repeat the horrible footage over and over and over with ever more frantic and irrational voice over commentary, all coming to a hideously hysterical climax. It’s one thing knowing the news in the US is awful, another coming to term with just how bad….

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