Walking around Chicago

Chicago is easy to get around. A lot of it is walkable and safe. If you don’t feel like walking, there is the subway (underground/tube) and plenty of buses. Like London, you can use contactless cards/phones/watches to pay for your fare.

The Chicago Cultural Center is a building that has art galleries and free events. It’s a good place to hang out and cool down from the Chicago heat! I went to a lunch time (classical music) concert there. Most notable were two tourists who started talking during the concert, not knowing that it’s customary to be quiet whilst the music is playing. My neighbour gave them a sharp look and, when that didn’t work, told them to be quiet. The talking couple left at the first opportunity, with a backward glance at my neighbour to let her know that they weren’t happy with her rudeness! Different place, different conventions.

A modern development, which seems quite common, is the conversion of old, disused railway lines into recreational trails and parks for walkers, runners and cyclists. In Chicago, there is the elevated 606. It’s about 3 km long and a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours above the streets of Chicago. As you walk, you have scenic overhead views of some of the beautiful streets. I spent quite a bit of time looking at the flowers and photographing elusive monarch butterflies.

I happened to be in the area when the West Fest was going on between Damen Avenue and Wood Street. It’s an annual festival with music, food and stuff. It was a relaxing afternoon with the locals and listening to live music. I was impressed with one band, whose members looked about 10 years old.

In most of the places I visited, the towns have a grid system for the streets. On one of my hostel’s walking trips, the guide explained the grid system for Chicago, which is similar to other places in the US. If you’re going somewhere, you can’t just ask for “Damen Avenue”. You have to say what it intersects with. This is because streets can go from one end of town to the other. Generally they go east/west or north/south. A street could be several kilometres long. In San Francisco, house numbers go into the thousands! It’s not like the UK where streets are rarely longer than a kilometre.

Generally, there are two designated intersecting streets in the centre of town from which all the others are north/south or east/west. In the case of Chicago, the convention is to say whether a street is east/west of Michigan Avenue or north/south of Madison St.

For example, if the system were in place in London, Oxford St runs east/west. So the parts of streets above it (looking at a map) would be referred to as north of Oxford Street and those below, south of Oxford Street. Similarly, Regent Street, which intersects Oxford Street, runs north/south. Therefore parts of streets to the left would be west and those to the right east.

In Chicago, when someone says “N Wabash Avenue” they’re referring to the part of Wabash Avenue that is north of Madison Street; and when they say “E Grand Avenue”, they’re mean the part east of Michigan Avenue. But you wouldn’t know any of this unless you knew the convention!

The convention may sound confusing – and it is to the foreigner. But Americans I met have internalised it so that they can spot an error without thinking. For example, if I said a street was west/east of Oxford Street, it would make no sense since streets running parallel to Oxford Street (in this convention) are north or south of it. I made the mistake in Chicago by referring to a street as west of something instead of north. The person (who was normal and not a navigator!) looked confused. I could see the cogs turning as he gave me the benefit of the doubt by trying to make sense of my nonsensical question until I realised my mistake and put him out of his misery.

This explains why in Hollywood films, the police (and others) constantly refer to the north/south/east/west when, for example, they’re directing a chasing police car. I thought it was confined just to those who needed to understand navigation. But it seems the points of the compass are common knowledge in the US. I say this having met people in the UK who don’t know what a compass is never mind what the bearings mean. It’s just not something you need to know to get around towns in the UK.

Finally, in Chicago it’s obligatory to experience blues music. I went to Kingston Mines, founded in 1968. I chose this because my hostel gave me a free ticket! However, it turned out to be the “largest and oldest continuously operating blues club in Chicago”. I assume, therefore, that there are older clubs that have had to close down at least once before being revived!

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