Rhodes Traveled: Chicago
Sweet home Chicago: Second (to none) City offers trip with memorable sites, stories
January 5, 2019
After a superb trip to New York City last spring break, three members of McCallum journalism headed up to the mighty Chicago early this November. Chicago may have less than half the population of New York, but that by no means detracted from our experience.
We landed in Chicago around 1:15 on Thursday afternoon. It was about 50 degrees and cloudy, which is pretty typical weather for that time of year. As we rode toward the city in our taxi, we could see the skyline in the distance, and what an impressive skyline it was. To the north was the 875 North Michigan Avenue, better known as the John Hancock Center, and to the south was the Willis Tower, formerly called the Sears tower. These buildings are about two miles apart, and that distance was filled with a wall of other buildings so dense that we couldn’t see the lake just behind them. The place we were staying was called the Swissotel, which was only a few blocks away from the hotel complex where the journalism conference and award ceremony we would be attending was held. The Swissotel was right on the river and just off of the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue, so we could see some famous Chicago buildings, like the Wrigley building, Tribune tower, and the DuSable bridge.
Cheese and beans
After we got settled into the hotel, we took to the streets for lunch. Anissa Ryland, our chaperone for the trip, found a sandwich restaurant a few blocks away. It was about 50 degrees outside, but the biting wind made it feel much colder. Chicago’s infamous nickname “The Windy City” actually had nothing to do with the weather when it was assigned in the 1870s, but the mixture of the wind coming off the lake and tall buildings create a wind tunnel so strong you’ll lose your hat, or even your balance. Needless to say, the warm restaurant was a nice break from the weather. I got a turkey sandwich, which was pretty good, but our journalism advisor David Winter was unhappy with the lack of cheese on his sub.
We took a slight detour to walk down Michigan Avenue on the way back. This street reminded me of New York, all the shops, cars, busses and people walking had a very similar vibe. We walked down to Millennium Park, which is home of the Cloud Gate sculpture, or as it’s more commonly called, The Bean. It’s a interesting sculpture because it looks like mercury, as a tour guide we overheard put it, and reflects the city skyline and the red leaved trees. Unlike Austin, it looked like fall in Chicago with the trees and ground covered in red and yellow leaves. Even with the grey sky, the park was very lively and colorful.
Also in the park is the slightly unsettling Crown Fountain. The fountain consists of two 20 foot tall structures with faces projected on them, which will shift their gaze and occasionally blink. In the summer, the faces will spit a jet of water at random times, but that feature is shut off during the winter.
For dinner that night we walked over to The Berghoff, a 120 year old German bar and restaurant. I got the bratwurst sandwich, which was served on a pretzel bun and with a heaping mound of sauerkraut. Overall it was very good, although the sauerkraut was a bit intense for me.
Back at the hotel, I took a look at the schedule for the conference the next day. There were several sessions available each hour, with subjects on just about anything journalism-related. The sessions were mostly taught by teachers from around the country, but a few were locals talking about their jobs.
The next day Mrs. Ryland suggested we have breakfast at a donut place a few blocks down called Stan’s Donuts, which is a local chain around the city. The place was packed, but the line moved pretty quickly. New York was very expensive, and Chicago may be a little cheaper but I still ended up paying $10 for two donuts and a water. There was no place to sit, so we ate our donuts on the street in the chilly Chicago morning.
My first session was about how to find good stories to cover around your school, taught by a UT professor. Navigating the building afterwards was a little like a maze, with multiple levels and tunnels, and the maps were very confusing, so I had to get some help from a friendly doorman. Next, I walked over to see Brian Cassella, a photographer for the Chicago Tribune. This was probably my favorite session of the day. He showed us some of his pictures of Wrigley Field and the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. He also had some “day in the life” photos, capturing people, buildings, and other events happening on the streets of Chicago.
My next sessions were about caption writing, which was aimed more toward yearbook students than newspaper, but interesting nonetheless, and about how to make a career as a journalist. Afterwards I had some downtime before the write off competition I would be participating in that afternoon. I had never done a write off before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. When I entered the room, it was absolutely packed with what had to be 150 people. I sat next to a girl from northern Alabama and a guy from Brazil living in Virginia. We had two hours to write a commentary on the NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem, with a maximum of 350 words. I wasn’t expecting to win, but I figured it was a good experience.
Gangsters, ghosts and giant corn cobs
After the write off we all met up and decided the game plan for the evening. Mrs. Ryland had booked us a walking tour that night, so we set off to find dinner before it started. We were planning to go for some Chicago style pizza, but the line at the nearest restaurant was halfway down the block, so we settled for some shawarma at the middle eastern place just down the street. After dinner we headed over to the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker drive for our event of the evening, the Chicago Gangster and Ghost tour. Our tour was lead by a man in a beanie named Davy, “Like Davy Crockett,” he explained “or Davy Jones.” He started off by giving us a little background on Chicago in the 1920s, and about the gangsters, most notably Al Capone . We went down to the riverwalk, where Davy told us about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The combination of many wooden buildings and fat in the river from the meat packing industry caused the fire to spread very quickly. Nearly the entire city was burned to the ground.
A little way down the river we saw the Marina City towers, which were built in the 1960s and look a little like giant corn cobs. They were originally designed to function as a mini city, with apartments, offices, retail, as well as a movie theater and ice skating rink. We took the stairs back up to street level, and walked over to the alley behind the Oriental Theatre, supposedly called “Death Alley.” It earned its name after a terrible fire in 1903 at the theatre killed over 600 people. Later on, and much to Davys dismay, the city installed lights and murals to make the alley feel less “death like.”
Our next stop on the tour was the Palmer House, a historic hotel located in the heart of downtown. The hotel was originally built in 1871, but burned down 20 days later in the Chicago fire, so the owner, Potter Palmer, rebuilt it bigger and better than before. It was the first hotel in the city with elevators, electric lights, and the birthplace of the brownie. It was an amazing building, with gold lined doors, elaborate chandeliers and a renaissance style painted ceiling.
Our last stop was the Congress Plaza Hotel. Along the way we saw the start of the historic Route 66, which stretches 2,450 miles to the outside of Los Angeles. Davy said that when he moved to Chicago from L.A, he took the road the entire distance. “It wasn’t very interesting” he said. In the lobby of the hotel we learned about the fall of Al Capone. After many years of being the most powerful man in Chicago, he was finally brought to justice. Not for the murders he planned, or the alcohol he smuggled, but for tax evasion. He was just over 30 years old.
We all thanked Davy for his excellent tour, and asked him how he got permission to go into all of these nice hotels. “Oh, I didn’t,” he replied “I just show up and they assume I’ve talked with the manager.” We made our way back to the hotel, and I took another look at the sessions for Saturday. The award ceremony was tomorrow, and Mr. Winter was getting a little anxious about how McCallum journalism would do up against the rest of the country.
You can’t win them all but you can try
The next morning we went for breakfast at the Wildberry Cafe, which was just a few blocks from the hotel and right on the edge of Millenium Park. It was about 38 degrees that morning, but the wait to eat inside was too long so we got a table on the street. I got a hot apple cider and the Belgian waffle, both of which were very good. Unlike the previous day, this morning it was very sunny, so as long as you were in the sun, and out of the wind, it wasn’t that cold. After breakfast we walked back over to the hotel complex for day two of the conference. I learned the benefits of a degree in communication, and the making of a documentary about Joseph Pulitzer.
For lunch that day Mrs. Ryland ordered from the pizza place we tried to eat for dinner last night but got deterred by the line. We had a half hour break between sessions, so she called in an order, and brought it to us in the convention. We sat on the floor to eat our feast, and got some longing looks from the passer by. You can get some good pizza in Austin, but Chicago style pizza in Chicago is hard to beat. It was deep dish stuffed crust pepperoni pizza, and was easily one of the best things we ate on the trip. One slice was a sufficient meal.
I had one more session that afternoon before the award ceremony, which was called “50 photos your publication needs.” Teaching the class were two women and the man who taught me about caption writing the previous day, Mr. Simons. They showed us some award winning photos from various high schools around the country. It was a pleasant surprise to see photos taken by McCallum students used as examples, I was glad we got the approval of Mr. Simons.
At 3:30 it was time for the award ceremony. We all met up again, and headed for the Grand Ballroom. McCallum was up for several individual awards, as well as a best of show, and the pacemaker. The ceremony began, and I realized just how many branches of journalism there is. They had awards for podcasts, radio, photography, page design, reporting, and news stories. We won first place in both social media reporting and promotion, which were both new categories this year. The big question was whether or not we won a pacemaker. The tension grew as the names of the publications were read in a random order. Finally, the list was over, and our name wasn’t called. It was a little sad, but we still had 15 award plaques to bring home, plus an 8th place in best of show.
Hungry to solve a mystery or two
We hurried back to the hotel to store our plaques and rushed back down stairs for dinner that night. All I knew about this place we were eating for dinner was that it was spy themed, which definitely sounded interesting. We hopped in the Uber and got let out at an unassuming door, with a man with a beard and clipboard in front. He checked our reservations and let us in. Inside was a stereotypical secrete agent office, with shelves with various objects and a desk with statue head and some computers. Sitting at the desk was another man with a beard, this time wearing a vest. He said that in order to get into the restaurant we needed “approval from headquarters” or something like that, and that we had to follow his every move. He made us to some little dance, typed some numbers on a keypad on the desk and said we were good to go. He pushed the head back the statue to reveal a red button, and when he pressed it the wall to my left opened up to a stairwell going down. We bid him farewell and descended the concrete staircase.
At the bottom of the stairs there was a door, so naturally, I went to open it. Right before I grabbed the handle, the wall next to me opened upward to reveal the front desk of the restaurant. I stood a bit dumbfounded in the doorway that I thought was a was a wall a second ago, then we all entered. We saw that they had a camera on the guy upstairs and everyone in the bar could see whatever silly dances he made people do. We met our waiter, and he said something along the lines of “Ok agents, let me take you to your table.” Once we sat down, I got a good look at the place. It was pretty dimly lit, with most of the lights being either red or blue. There were all sorts of tubes and pipes running across the ceiling and walls. It was a pretty small place, with lots of people, and felt a little like being inside a submarine. The menus were small booklets, and all the food had fancy code names, such as “goldfingers” for chicken tenders. Our waiter came back and said something to the effect of “Finished decoding? Or do you need a little more time?” I got the “Spy Burger,” which was really just a regular hamburger. After we ordered, we explored the restaurant a bit, and saw what other weird things were in there. We saw a was a map of Vietnam, a periscope type contraption that let you spy on the people in the bar, and all sorts of strange screens showing what looked like security camera footage. Also there was a door with a restroom sign that just opened to a brick wall. We got our food, and our waiter probably said another slightly cheesy spy related comment. The food itself was really nothing special, it was definitely the bizarre atmosphere this place had to offer that appealed to people. After another spy themed dictum from our waiter, we paid for the meal and tried to find the exit. There was an elevator in the back which took us back to the street level. When the doors opened up, we were in some shopping center, and a sign pointed down the white hallway, which we followed and ended up back on the dark street. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant like that before, but it sure made for an interesting experience.
A blanket of city lights as far as the eye can see
Our next event for that evening, and one I was particularly excited about, was the observation deck at the John Hancock Center. It was only a few block away, so we started off through the chilly streets. Along the way, we met an old lady holding a microphone telling the whole block about Jesus Christ, and a woman wearing Mickey Mouse slippers because her high heels were too uncomfortable. You know, typical big city things. Just down the street was the mighty Hancock Center, towering at 1,127 feet tall.
We made our way into the building, got our tickets, and headed for the elevator. It climbed over 1,000 feet in 40 seconds and claimed to be the fastest elevator in North America, I could feel my ears pop from the change in altitude. Our stop was at the 360 observation deck 1,030 feet off the ground on the 94th floor, and from that vantage point, you could see the entire city. Facing south we could see the heart of downtown, with the Sears Tower, Trump Tower and Aon Center standing above the rest. Behind downtown the lights from neighborhoods stretched to the dark sky on the horizon, all the way to the curve of Lake Michigan in Indiana. From that vantage point, we could see the roofs of nearby 700 foot tall buildings. Looking out west there were no big buildings, just the blanket of city lights that covered everything as far as the eye could see.
I sat down to watch a documentary on the construction of the building. It has a unique shape, the bottom starts out big and gets skinner as it goes up, and is supported by huge diamond shaped cross beams. It doesn’t have an internal frame, instead all the weight is on the walls. The building was built in 1969, and is currently the fourth tallest in the city.
After about 45 minutes, we decided to return to the ground. The elevator probably came close to terminal velocity as it brought us 1,000 feet down in under 45 seconds. On the ground floor, we looked around the gift shop, which had pretty much anything you could ever want with the word Chicago on it, and for just a little more than you wanted to spend. I purchased a small snow globe for $20, “great way to remember Chicago,” the lady at the counter said sarcastically.
Outside of the tower some guy was putting lights on a big tree, it may have only been the 3rd of November, but it was already Christmas time in Chicago. It was beginning to drizzle a bit, so we started back to the hotel. On the walk back, we looked at all the shops along Michigan Avenue, mostly huge department stores and clothing places. We crossed the DuSable bridge over the river, and were greeted by the strong wind coming off the lake, accompanied by the cold rain. Our flight for Austin left the next day around 1:00, so we had plenty of time for one last event, the river architecture tour.
First a poncho, then an apology
We wanted to start our final day in Chicago with donuts, so we headed for another donut place a few blocks away, called Do-Rite. The rain was holding off, for now, but the wind was even stronger than the previous days and it was very cold. We made it to Do-Rite, grabbed our donuts, and rushed back toward the hotel. Our boat tour started at 9:45, and it was already 9:30. As we hurried through the windy streets, the first few drops of rain began to fall. We made it to the hotel, jumped into the uber, and took of for the dock. “Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney was playing on the radio as the rain outside picked up.
We jumped out of the car as soon as it arrived, luckley the boat was still there, but so was the rain. It was steadily coming down by that time, and they handed out emergency ponchos as we boarded. Putting these on was a bit of a challenge, especially with the crazy wind. The weather didn’t stop our tour guide though. Amongst the wind and rain, he began to tell us about the three story brick apartment buildings across the harbor. He looked like a friendly guy, and very knowledgeable on the subject, but it was a little difficult to focus on what he was saying on account of the 40 mph wind, rain and other people’s plastic ponchos flying in my face. The guide was just planning to go right on with his spiel, but another employee had to stop him, to which he seemed confused. Apparently the wind was too strong, and they had to cancel the tour, which was a little disappointing, but at that point I think everyone was OK with it. They gave us some cookies as an apology, and we walked back to the ticket office. That’s when the storm really got going. I ran down the sidewalk right into the rain which was almost sideways from the wind.
We all survived the downpour and regrouped in the ticket office. Not only did they refund our tickets, but they gave us another set for free. I made a note to remember that the next time I plan a trip to Chicago. We dried off as much as we could and waited for the rain to slow down, and after about 15 minutes we could return to the street. Since we couldn’t see all of the real buildings, we decided to go to the Chicago Architectural Center to see some models of them.
Inside the Center, there was a gift shop with just about any slightly overpriced architecture related thing you could ever want, like books, models, posters, and even socks. We looked around for a bit, then got our tickets and headed to the second floor, where the scale models of some buildings were. The first thing we were greeted by was a huge mural on the wall that predicted the future of the city, like self driving cars and super tall apartment buildings. In the next room were the models, which were were bigger than I expected, with some over 8 feet tall. They had the Sears Tower, Hancock Center and Marina towers, and the Chrysler Building from New York, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia and the planned Jeddah tower in Saudi Arabia, which is currently under construction but when completed will be the tallest building in the world. It is so massive, that to make to scale with the others, it had to be started on the first floor, go through the second floor and almost reach the ceiling of the second story.
All along the north side of the center were huge windows, which looked upon some of Chicago’s most famous buildings, with information on all of them. We could see the Wrigley building, Tribune tower, and NBC tower. We spent a good amount of time looking at the models, and moved into the next room. In this room was a scale model of the entire downtown, with all the famous buildings, lake shore, river, and even The Bean. We located our hotel, of course, and then played around with the interactive screens that would show you subway lines, neighborhoods, and population density. We watched a short film about the history of the city, and looked around at some of the other exhibits. They had examples of the most common houses from each decade, as well as old maps and photographs. On the way out we stopped by the gift shop, where I got a poster with some famous buildings on it. The cashier, who was a little more friendly toward my purchases than the one at the Hancock, asked me if I wanted to get a backpack for $10 off. I saw that my total was $73 and replied “no thanks, I’d like to have enough money to eat today.”
We went back to the hotel for the last time, and packed up our suitcases before heading back to the lobby for the Uber. We all climbed in and bid Chicago farewell, and as we drove further and further away, the buildings got shorter and smaller. Our four days in Chicago were packed full, from the sessions and award ceremony, to the Bean, gangsters, Hancock Center, failed boat ride and the model buildings. I really did enjoy New York, But I think I enjoyed Chicago a little more.