One of Chicago’s many nicknames is ‘The City With Clout’, and the the reason it is so big is because of the transport connections afforded by it’s strategic position central to the United States. It was first picked as a portage site to drag boats between the upper reaches of the Mississippi River (which provides a navigable route across the continent to the southern states and the Caribbean and on to the worlds oceans), and the Great Lakes (which provide access to the vast interior of the north and access the Atlantic via St Lawrence river through Quebec).
In the age of steam it was the natural intermodal transit hub for the continent, particularly for a staging point to open up the vast plains and deserts of West from the riverine and maritime East. Today we can still see this connectivity in the rail network, a quick glance at the Amtrak route map shows that nearly every major railroad in the nation converges in the Windy City. All roads may lead to Rome, but all railroads lead to Chicago.
So the city itself. It is a fantastic place, very much a big city but the people seem happier and friendlier. Not so much the gritty city, and their millennium park waterfront development is an excellent mix of parks, galleries, public spaces and private homes and offices. This one brilliantly executed scheme has reinvigorated the whole city.
For architecture lovers it provides a smorgasbord of building types and styles. Central Chicago is something of an island between the lake, river and rail yards, and this pressure on space combined with copious wealth and connectivity led it to develop the first true skyscrapers, steel framed buildings designed to maximize floor area on limited plots of land. It is also the nursery, if not birthplace, of modernist buildings, and has examples of just about every style of the last 150 years. It is also home to three former “worlds tallest building” titleholders. Outside of the city there are some excellent examples of brick terraces and three to four story walk ups sitting in rows on leafy streets.
The transit system has three main components. The first are the buses, these are high capacity, frequent, and run on every main road. Don’t let anyone tell you buses have no place in a civilized city, the most civilized cities have more buses than anything else. There is also a relatively modern underground metro in Chicago that bisects the city and runs out on a few corridors. It seems they built this fairly cheaply as the stations are small and a little claustrophobic, although they did put in the effort with the street level entrances to deliver well designed and grand access ways.
The third element is the famous elevated rail, or ‘L’, which runs on embankments and viaducts in the suburbs and in a loop above city streets, enclosing several blocks of downtown known as the Loop precinct.
To be perfectly honest I don’t like the L. Riding elevated does give a nice view of the surrounding area, but the infrastructure itself is very old and dilapidated. The trains run very slowly for a metro, make a lot of noise and bang around a lot. I can only attribute this to the century old stations and bridge structures, which have a cute dereliction to them that rapidly wears thin. At street level the noise is very intrusive as is the structure. The supports take up footpath spaces, the tracks block out the sky, and the stations especially are massive structures spanning intersections.
Now Chicago does have a fond attachment to the L, and this isn’t to say that all elevated rail need be that way, but personally I find the Victorian era elevated railway to be very invasive and not very good to use.
So anyway, most of Chicago is reclaimed from a swamp. In many cases the street level is well above actual ground level and this has allowed a veritable basement to downtown through which all the main computer and intercity rail tracks run, plus a system of expressway roads that are more or less underground. It’s a great outcome, there is relatively little traffic and severance at street level, although I imagine such an approach would be incredibly expensive where you didn’t have the natural topography to work with. Nonetheless, it seems Auckland is heading that way with most future rail and motorway links proposed to run in tunnels.
All up Chicago was a surprisingly fun and exciting place to visit. I’d strongly recommend anyone visiting the USA try to work it in as a stopover.