St. Paul, MN July 31, 2017
For this short trip to Chicago we traveled light; no iPad so no blog while traveling. This is our fourth trip to Chicago in the last ten years or so and for the second time in a row, we rode the Amtrak Empire Builder from St. Paul’s Union Depot. Overnight parking ranges from $49 to $64 per night and our plans for the visit did not require a car. The Amtrak round trip fare for two was $234; it seemed like an easy decision to train it. Amtrak seats are roomy and comfortable, you can walk around, there is scenery to observe, and plenty of people-watching and listening. Amtrak is always an adventure though; you can not plan on it being fully on time. I have a habit of checking to see how the Empire Builder is doing, time-wise. Often it is 15-30 minutes early (it waits in St. Paul to depart on time if it arrives early). It can also be late. When it is late, it can be hours late. Of course, our train was one of those. The engine for our train broke down in the mountains out west and the train had to wait for a BNSF freight engine to arrive and pull it the rest of the journey to Chicago. We knew it was going to be late, so we had breakfast at the Buttered Tin in downtown St Paul while we waited.
The Empire Builder arrived in St. Paul three hours late. The freight engine goes slower than the Amtrak engine and we arrived in Chicago four hours late, 8 PM instead of 4 PM. The Empire Builder usually stops on the northern side of the depot, ours went further into the southern portion of the station, providing a shorter walk for passengers trying to connect with other trains. The ride was smooth, the views scenic. Many moons ago Mark Twain described the view along the Mississippi River in grandiose words. His words may have been a little over the top but the view does make for a relaxing and enjoyable trip. Chris and I split our time between our coach seat and riding in the observation car.
Readers of this blog may recall that I have been a volunteer docent on the Amtrak Empire Builder as part of the Trails and Rails program jointly sponsored by Amtrak and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), a unit of the National Park Service. Unfortunately, this year the program is in on hold. MNRRA lost two rangers, one was the supervisor for this program, and with the federal freeze on hiring they did not have enough staff to oversee our program. Hopefully it will return in 2018. I felt a little weird riding the train, particularly when in the observation car where we did our presentations, and not speaking or being able to listen to any speaker. Most passengers did not know the difference. On this train, I did not recognize any of the conductors or car attendants. On our return trip on Friday I recognized a conductor and he did indicate some people had asked why the Trails and Rails program was not being presented.
In Chicago, we stayed at a Hampton Inn at Wacker and Michigan, one half block from the Chicago River. It was a very convenient location. The hotel building originally was the home for the Chicago Motor Association (AAA) but had been vacant for many years. The renovation retained the Art Deco feel of the original building. Like many hotels in large cities, the rooms were small. Of our four stays in Chicago, three have been Hamptons and all have been a good choice. We walked the mile to the hotel from Union Station, once again enjoying the architecture of the buildings along the way. Dinner was across the street at a Jamaican bar/restaurant.
Wednesday, our major activity was a bus tour of Chicago Historical Neighborhoods run by the Architectural Association of Chicago. This group organizes numerous architectural tours; we have been on three others before this one. All are well done and reasonably priced. The tour did not begin until 11 so we wandered around Millennium Park beforehand. Millennium Park was a project of the second Mayor Daley to take the northern section of Grant Park, cover over numerous unused railroad yards and make it into a spectacular park to celebrate the year 2000. Well, typical of many projects it came in over budget, past its scheduled completion date but wildly successful. It is full of notable scenes; the “Bean”, a cascading waterfall, a new garden, a kids play area which is spectacular, and another outdoor amphitheater.
We have been to Millennium Park before but Lurie Garden and the Maggie Daley kids play area were new to us. Millennium Park cost almost 500 million dollars and was a combination of city and private funds. It is always a pleasure to stroll around, particularly in pleasant summer weather. People gather at the Bean (technically titled Cloud’s Gate), a shiny structure shaped like a bean, that reflects the views of the spectators as well as the background of the Chicago skyscrapers. Others splash in the reflecting pool of the Crown Fountain, situated between two fifty foot towers with changing faces of people on them. Periodically the mouth of the person opens up and directs a spray of water onto the people, usually children, waiting underneath.
Grant Park as a whole is over 300 acres, over 1.5 miles long, provides scenes of the lakefront, is home to several museums, fountains, sculptures, etc. It is the site of large gatherings, such as an outdoor Mass by Pope John Paul II, Barack Obama’s 2008 Election Day victory speech, the celebration for the Bulls and Cubs national championships, and a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
But back to the tour. We were on a double-decker bus, with probably about 20 others. Many of the “Hop-on, Hop-off’ double decker buses that circulate around the downtown area were full. Our tour guide was a volunteer for the Architectural Association who was quite knowledgeable. We drove through Greektown, Little Italy, Pilsen, Chinatown, and Bronzeville. Most of these neighborhoods have changed from their original ethnic roots, although the architectural style may still survive. The 1960s and 1970s were particularly destructive as freeways were constructed and universities and hospitals expanded. This “modernization” destroyed neighborhood cohesiveness and scattered residents to new neighborhoods or suburbs as large, new buildings were erected. For instance, Bronzeville was once home to a major African-American community, located here as informal segregation limited where they could live. When the Illinois Institute of Technology came in with its brutalist, concrete style of buildings, many residents had to move and much of the original housing stock destroyed. We were able to view remnants of the homes from that era.
Pilsen was originally a Czech neighborhood. Now it is central to Chicago’s Mexican-American heritage, with numerous wall murals decorating the community. Chinatown is actually expanding, unlike many other “Chinatowns” around the country. Chicago’s Chinatown originally developed when the Chinese who immigrated to the U.S. faced discrimination and violence on the West Coast. Several neighborhoods had homes where the first floor was below street level. Evidently much of Chicago was built on swamp land which has settled. Unlike downtown Chicago where fill was added and building were physically raised, these residences settled without any city intervention. When we visited the Pullman National Monument in Chicago last year, we learned that George Pullman was one of the contractors hired to raise downtown buildings.
We were only able to view these buildings due to the skill of our bus driver. The downtown “Hop-on, Hop-off” buses drive down wide streets with few trees. Our bus traversed narrow streets with tree branches and wires frequently threatening the people on the upper deck of the bus-us. He did a fantastic job; I escaped without any scrapes or bruises and we did not hit any pedestrians or cars. On the tour we saw the outside of the National Mexican-American Art Museum and the National Hellenic Museum; we will have to put them on our list for the next trip.
Wednesday evening we went back to Millennium Park. This time my cousin Sue picked us up with picnic food. We met two friends of hers at the Jay Pritzker amphitheater. The Grant Park orchestra was playing to a crowd of several thousand. Actually, I have no idea of the number of people. The crowd was not announced but it is a large area and people were spread out everywhere. It was a pleasant evening, the music was enjoyable, and we had several hours to chat. Honestly, our talking very quietly during the orchestra did not interrupt or bother other people. It is a setting where you can talk quietly and still enjoy the music as a standard part of the audience participation.
Thursday was projected to be a rainy day but the rain prediction disappeared and we changed our plans. We took a bus north to Lincoln Park. Lincoln Park is 1200 acres and includes the Zoo, Conservatory, History Museum, beaches, playing fields, numerous statues, and nature museum. In the morning, we visited the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum including its butterfly house, the Conservatory, and the lily ponds. At the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, we joined a throng of summer campers as the Nature Museum is free to residents of the state of Illinois on Thursday. Despite the kids, we were able to enjoy the exhibits and displays. Climate change is still alive there; displays showcased climate change, solar panels, green homes, purification of drinking water and the cleaning of waste water.
Walking south, we encountered the conservatory with its glass domes and floral displays. The conservatory was not huge, probably no larger than the Como Park Conservatory here in St. Paul. We continued walking through the park, watching the maintenance crew repair the fountain, then we could observe the dogs and children play in the fountain. The flowers along the fountain area south of the conservatory were brilliant and well done. We even sat for a while and just enjoyed the view. Lunch was at a restaurant just 1/2 block west of the park.
Our journey continued for several more blocks as we reached the Chicago History Museum. This was an excellently done. We spent several hours here until our bodies were tired of standing and reading and observing. One of their main exhibits is titled “Crossroads of America”. The displays highlight the role of Chicago in the development of the United States, touching on such topics as the stockyards, railroads, breweries, lumbering, medical advancements, etc. We spent probably two hours going through this one exhibit. The other exhibits we treated as more of a walk through for us since our energy was dwindling.
We decided to walk back to our hotel, choosing the quieter side street of State Street and Rush street. The first half of the walk was on quiet, tree-lined, flower-filled streets with probably expensive walk up residences intermingled among high-rise buildings. The final, more downtown section was still comparatively quiet as compared to Michigan Avenue just to our east. We congratulated the fact that we walked over 11 miles on Thursday with a stop at Ghiradelli Chocolate for some ice cream and sorbet refreshment.
Thursday evening we spent some more time at Maggie Daley park at Millennium Park. We were amazed at the variety, complexity, and beauty of the children’s play structures. There was even a climbing rock area, surrounded by a track where parents and children could rollerblade and ride on scooters. Even at 8 PM, there were a sizable crowd of parents and children utilizing the grounds and facilities.
As we returned towards the Pritzker amphitheater, we encountered the crowd for the live recording of the public radio show called “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. The crowd was even bigger than the group present Wednesday night for the Grant Park Orchestra. We managed to wend our way through the park before the crowd left the performance.
On Friday, our train was not scheduled to depart until 2:15 PM. We took a docent led tour of the Driehaus Mansion, a suggestion made to us by the friends of my cousin Sue who were with us at the Pritzker Wednesday evening. The mansion is one of the few remaining examples of the palatial homes erected by the wealthy of America’s Gilded Age. At its time, it was the largest private residence in Chicago. In the early 2000’s, it was purchased by a very wealthy investment manager (Richard Driehaus) in Chicago, renovated, and made available for tours. “The lavish interiors are complemented by stunning examples of furniture, decorative arts, stained glass, and period pieces selected from the Driehaus Collection.”
After the tour, it was time to walk over to Union Station to catch the Empire Builder home. The train left on time, but arrived ten minutes late due to slower speeds in areas of track construction work. We had an excellent dinner on the train. Our dinner companions were a couple spending several weeks touring the country, using the train to go from point to point. During our discussions we discovered we had been to many of the same places around the country, including lodging at the Duff Green B & B in Vicksburg. All in all, a pleasant journey.
Ed and Chris, Saint Paul Minnesota July 31