Flying into Chicago is always a favorite part of every trip for me. I’m almost home, that’s part of it, for sure. But more: I just love that city, that’s all.
Thanks to our little fire back in 1871, Chicago is a modern city. The Loop is a neat, deliberate downtown center. Our heart, pumping cars and commerce to rest of the city. Expressways, radiating like spokes, traced with red tail lights, stretch to neighborhoods. Laid out on a tidy grid, each neighborhood has green space, and its own identity, and usually its own ethnic make up.
To the north and the south and the west, Chicago sprawls to suburbs and then factories, then farms. To the east, Chicago halts at the lake. An expanse of gray-blue. No high-rises, no lights. Just a huge blue stretch with its softly jagged shoreline.
As far as lakes go, I always felt like Lake Michigan has an attitude, only choosing to warm up around Labor Day. Or about when the kids head back to school.
I like to ask people where they’re from. I think it’s so interesting to hear the straight facts of someone’s life, and then to see how these things form a person (or don’t affect them at all!). When people return the question, I answer the same way every time: I chirp, head cocked to one side, “Park Ridge? It’s in between Chicago and O’hare?” (To really get the full experience of this little exchange, you should hear it in my horrid accent, where the A in “Chicago” is flat as a mat.)
And that may be why I like flying into O’hare so much. If the wind is right, we’ll follow the Kennedy as a guide. From the heart of downtown into my neck of the woods. As we descend I start to pick out familiar streets, parks and playgrounds, my favorite corner deli.
Then we touch down. And I’m home.
On this last flight home I got really excited by the beauty of Chicago’s city grid. It reminded me of a fingerprint: created, decided long ago as the city emerged. And now: recognizable. Unforgable.
From above the city looks like a spiky design. The expressways form the spokes of a spiderweb while tiny streets and intersections connect together as a fine graph-paper grid.
But at night, it’s light pollution that reveals the city’s secrets. The Loop and the power plants of the South Side show as dense clusters of light (true power, both) while Wrigleyville and Rush Street’s bars are lit like a carnival, where people play at night. And then there are eerie voids. Like the “red zones” where businesses won’t even set up shop.
When I got home, I hugged my kids, unpacked my bags and painted a navy blue swath of a background on a sheet of watercolor paper. Then with a thousand little dots, I painted my favorite city.