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Postcard from Chicago

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

17 comments to Postcard from Chicago

  • Anthony McBride

    I’m thinking of doing a big world trip soon. Which involves going Christchurch -> Singapore -> London -> Chicago -> Honolulu -> Auckland.
    I’m hoping to completely avoid LAX, hence why I’m doing a stop in Chicago and Honolulu.

    • Dan

      LAX is fine — I go through there every year or two and have never had any problems (though it is a stupid design and has poor land transport links). Chicago, on the other hand, regularly has disruptive weather and I’ve been delayed there 2 out of the 2 times I’ve been through the airport there.

  • Downtown Chicago is a delight for walking; there’s so much to see and do. The main shopping street, Michigan Ave, has generous footpath areas and there are numerous public plazas and other spaces like Millenium/Grant Parks throughout the city with really interesting (and interactive) public art, water features, etc. There’s also the fantastic lakefront pathway, which allows you to walk/bike/scoot/whatever for over 30km along Lake Michigan; a very generous path width (take note, NZ!) and lots of activities along the way. And as mentioned, it’s hard to go past the brilliant building architecture every which way you look. I’d recommend going in their summer though; I hear it can get rather cold in the winter…

  • nick1234

    Actually I don’t mind LAX. Yes it’s been pretty bad in the past, and it’s not great if you’re on a through flight, e.g. carrying onto London. But if you fly Air NZ and break your journey there, its actually a really quick and easy airport to arrive and depart from. Other airlines may be different as they use larger terminals, but overall its much improved from what it used to be. Also LA and its surrounds is a great place to spend a few days.

  • tuktuk

    Nice to see Cloud Gate in your snaps NickR! By all accounts a challenge to build but I think quite an impressive object in all seasons.

  • So Nick did you arrive in Chicago by Amtrack?

  • Arrived and left by Amtrak. We’ve now gone cost to coast by train. A somewhat arduous way to spend three nights and five days. Stay tuned for Washington and New York postcards.

    • MFD

      Did you take the Capitol between Chicago and DC, Nick? I used to really enjoy the Superliner sleeper service. Amtrak gets a lot of criticism but a trip on a double-deck Superliner Amtrak train with sleeper cabin, restaurant service, cafe car and observation car is a great way to travel.

      When I lived in the US I managed to convince some of my work colleagues that taking Amtrak overnight from MD to Chicago for visits to UL was better than getting up early and flying. I would either Amtrak up from SE Virginia or drive to Harpers Ferry WV. The scenery from Point-of-Rocks through to Connellesville PA is magnificent but only traversed in daylight on the westbound run.

      As well as the great architecture and lakeside location for those who are rail enthusiasts Chicago is wonderful and the Illinois Railroad Museum (Union IL, NW of Chicago) is the best I have visited anywhere. Also fascinating are all the old lifting bridges in and around Chicago.

      • I did yes. Super liners are hands down the best sleepers in the world. Massive luxurious things, restaurant, cafe, observation lounge, hot showers etc. Americans don’t realize that of course.

        Unfortunately they are plagued by un reliability by coming second fiddle to freight.

  • Northshoreguynz

    Check out the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, inspiring!

  • Inter city passenger rail looks like it is in for a revival in the US. How’s this; the first real high speed route may be Texan! Connecting the 240miles between Dallas and Houston: The global headquarters of Big Oil no less. http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/06/the-big-texas-plan-to-copy-japans-high-speed-rail-success/372984/

    A new private service is under construction in Florida too: http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/06/the-triumphant-return-of-private-us-passenger-rail/372808/

  • Brendon

    Chicago sounds amazing. The NZ historian James Belich -Replenishing the Earth describes the massive booms and busts the city went through in the 1800’s. Definitely worth a read in a long train journey…..

  • Stevenz

    I’ll put my two cents in here. Yes, LAX is OK if you are ending your trip there. However, my many experiences with transferring from overseas to domestic have been routinely terrible. The people are nasty, the security lines long, dirty, and there are people asking for handouts everywhere (and depending on your airline, the club is claustrophobic). I consider it the seventh circle of hell along with Heathrow and Gatwick. ORD, on the other hand – I have used it literally hundreds of times – works quite well in comparison. It’s far better managed. Yes, when weather is bad it can be a mess. One drop of rain seems enough to create havoc. (Airspace is basically over capacity.) I’d avoid it in winter. When I do NZ to US, I used to always go through LAX on Qantas. Now I do Cathay Pacific ORD, change in Hong Kong. The improvement is startling since HKG runs like clockwork.

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