Yes. You can go home again. I just did it.
After spending many (too many?) decades of my life in the Chicago area, I departed for San Francisco in 2005. Forgive the cliché, but I’ve never looked back.
I had lots of good reasons to leave Chicago, and lots of good reasons to head for the West Coast. At one time or another, I’d spent some of the happiest years of my life in California, and I looked forward to many more happy years in the Bay Area.
Thankfully, those happy years have become a reality, and returning to Chicago was never on my agenda.
Yes, I’d left behind some great friends and some family, too, and I did miss seeing them. But I didn’t miss anything else in Chicago.
So why did I turn up there for a weekend in May?
Easy answer: My older daughter (I’ll call her Mary) decided to celebrate her May birthday by taking her kids to Chicago to show them where she’d grown up. She wanted to escort them to all of the places that had been important to her: where we lived; where she went to school (from nursery school and elementary school to junior high and high school); where she spent countless hours at our lakefront park, our beach, our library, and all the rest.
And she asked me to tag along.
Of course I said “yes”!
After telling the kids story after story about these places since they were toddlers, we finally had a chance to show them what they’re really like.
So here’s how we spent the two full days we were there:
First day: We explored the sites near our former home in a leafy suburb on the North Shore. We first drove to the block where we lived; then to the elementary school two blocks away; to the even closer nursery school (like the one where I set a murder in my fictional mystery, Jealous Mistress); and the small suburban downtown. We frequently emerged from our rental car to get a close-up look. Some things had changed; many had not.
We proceeded up the North Shore to look at New Trier High School, Mary’s alma mater. Then we spent the afternoon at the Chicago Botanic Garden (actually located in Glencoe), a fabulous garden filled with astounding plants, a charming waterfall, three islands featuring Japanese gardens, and a remarkable sculpture of Carl Linnaeus. Mary and I fondly recalled how much she, her father, her sister, and I had relished our countless visits there.
The first day included mouth-watering meals at favorite spots like Walker Brothers pancake house (it’s called Palmer Brothers in Jealous Mistress), where we devoured its revered apple pancakes, and Lou Malnati’s, where we eagerly consumed some of the deep-dish pizza Chicago has made famous.
Second day: We drove into the city and parked at Navy Pier, planning to hit some of the city’s highlights. Navy Pier, renovated in the ‘90s as a playground for Chicagoans, was a great place to start. We braved the hot sun and waited in line to board the Centennial Wheel, a recently redesigned Ferris wheel that now sports large enclosed gondola cars with huge windows providing magnificent city views. We even bought copies of the corny tourist-rooking photo taken of us just before we boarded. After lunch at a casual spot on the pier, we hopped on a shuttle bus to Michigan Avenue. It dropped us off close to our destination: the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River, where we’d take the renowned 90-minute architectural boat tour.
We indulged in treats at the Ghirardelli Square outpost in the Wrigley Building as we gazed at the historic Tribune Tower. Then we boarded the “First Lady” cruise to see the notable architecture along the Chicago River. We were lucky to have a remarkably knowledgeable tour guide associated with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
We marveled at the great architecture and the many stories about the tall buildings sited along the riverfront. But there was one enormous blot on the riverscape: a sleek 92-story building, so shiny it reflects the Chicago skyline on its stunning glass façade. Unfortunately, the outward appearance of this otherwise beautiful building is sullied by the enormous name erected at the very top in enormous capital letters: T—-P.
This building looms so large, and in such a prominent location along the river (on the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times plaza, where my high school choir once sang Christmas carols), that the name at the top infuriated me. Weren’t the residents of Chicago, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (she won over 83% of the votes in Chicago, while her opponent squeaked out 12%), appalled that they must confront this name on a regular basis? Although a few mild protests have been mounted, the name remains. But take heart. The Chicago Tribune reported on May 30 that the real-estate firm advertising space in the building has chosen to downplay the name: Its brand-new brochure doesn’t even mention it. Others avoiding any connection with the name include the building’s architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who refer to it by its address, not its name, on the firm’s website.
Still, if I lived in Chicago, I’d go further than that. I’d organize an effort to remove that name from everyone’s sight. I really would.
When we left the boat, we speedily walked south on Michigan Avenue, headed for Millennium Park and our dinner reservation at Gage, a gastropub directly across from the park. After a great meal celebrating Mary’s birthday, complete with cake and candles, we made a bee-line for the park and its now-famous “Bean.” After a good look around the park, we made our way back to Navy Pier to collect our car and drive back to our hotel.
Before heading to O’Hare for our return home, we managed to squeeze in encounters with several wonderful old friends and a few family members, along with a sentimental return to a favorite Evanston restaurant, Olive Mountain.
Did I forget to mention that we hit extraordinarily beautiful weather? Sunshine and temperatures in the 70s reminded us of Bay Area weather, not the kind of weather we’d managed to survive in Chicago year after year. We made sure to let the kids know that this weather was not typical for Chicago!
In short, you can go home again. Not to make it your home again. But to spend a delightful weekend visiting old haunts and new attractions. Sharing the experience with good friends and loved ones makes it even better.