First impressions of the Windy City

I was less ignorant of Chicago than I might have been. A friend had advised me to read Michelle Obama’s autobiography before I got to Chicago. I did. The book, especially the first third, describes Michelle Obama’s childhood in Chicago.

When you arrive at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, you’re greeted by flags from all over the world. That was a good sign.

In Los Angeles, a waitress, who was from Chicago, gave me many tips. One of them was not to waste money (and time) getting a taxi to central Chicago. There was a fast and relatively cheap subway ride to the city centre. I found the subway, bought a ticket, and arrived at the HI Chicago Hostel reasonably quickly. For a change, I had booked a single room in the hostel.

After checking in and the usual formalities, it was about 8pm. I asked the receptionists what they would recommend at this time that was close to the hostel. One said that the light show at the nearby Buckingham Fountain was one of his favourite places. It was next to Lake Michigan and five minutes’ walk from us.

I went there and, unsurprisingly, joined many tourists who had had the same idea. Apart from the fountain and lights, you got a good view of the skyscrapers lighting up the night skyline.

The following morning, breakfast was on the first floor of the hostel. It was better than normal for me: porridge, bread, peanut butter and fruit.

From the dining area, you had a wonderful view of the ‘L’ – an eLevated railway line that went around the city. The subway is often called the ‘L’. Whilst eating, you could see subway trains regularly passing by. The elevated railway line constantly delighted me, whether I was in the hostel or walking under it. Imagine having a railway line looping above you in central London!

After breakfast, I joined a guided walk – one of the many free activities provided by the hostel every day. The guide pointed out many of the striking buildings Chicago is famous for.

Afterwards, some of us returned to the hostel to share a lemonade with the guide. He was a kind, knowledgeable, elderly man who used to work in the railways. He gave me many ideas on how to spend my week in Chicago.

We finished our drink and I went to take a closer look at some of the buildings that were on our walk. I gravitated naturally towards Chicago’s Central Public Library – the Harold Washington Library. It was named after the first African American to be elected as the city’s mayor. According to Michelle Obama, he broke the mould of cronyism but, alas, unexpectedly died in office. It was a sad day for many shocked black Chicagoans who thought he was the only one who understood, and would be able to address, their concerns.

The library building itself, from the outside, resembles different architectural styles used in Chicago over the years. At the bottom, for instance, are large granite blocks of earlier times and, at the top, are contemporary glass and steel.

Inside, the building is more like a museum than a library. It’s grand – and another example (after Austin Central Library) of huge public spaces for the community in the US.

Strangely, there was a sign at the library’s entrance forbidding you from taking guns into the library. I thought what is the world coming to when you can’t even take your own gun into a library?

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