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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Destinations :: Chicago (1998)

by Proloy Bagchi (writer), Idgah Hills, Bhopal, November 14, 2017

A write-up on the Windy city of Chicago visited in 1998

Approximately 500 miles away was the next place on our itinerary. This happened to be Chicago about which we had read in our Geography lessons in higher secondary level. I still can remember the numerous sets of railway tracks that were shown in a photograph only to display its importance in movement of commodities from east to west and vice versa.

Chicago was also known for its Hoods, the members of the Mafia, also known as The Mob or the Chicago Outfit. Al Capone was its head for around seven years working his way up from a lowly brothel bouncer. An American mobster, he was also known as Scarface, He became the crime boss during the era of Prohibition in the United States. The Mob was well portrayed in a fictionalized manner in the film Godfather with name changed of the main character as Don Corleone.

It takes around 5 hours to get to Chicago from Edwardsville. I do not remember whether it was a state highway or a national highway but one could do 100 miles an hour on it with ease. My sister who was driving her car did just that. Around couple of hours later we reached a place which was a pit stop for travellers to relax and refresh themselves. The sandwiches and flasked tea came out. It was a nice place with a large number of trees providing shade to the rough wooden benches and tables. Rest rooms were also available – in short an ideal stop on a highway which Nitin Gadkari would do well to emulate. We sorely lack such facilities on our highways or even at bus stops.

The highway was not like ours which plough through the urban streets. Being elevated, branches of it descend down to various areas that are considered important for access to and from a highway. We were to go to Michigan Avenue and as the signage for it appeared down we went towards it off the high way. I found it very interesting and wondered whether these works were taken up during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. I recall having read that the US built roads and highways during the Depression to boost the sagging economy.

We had been booked into Best Western Hotel on the Michigan Avenue. I do not know whether the street was named after the Michigan State where it could be heading or the Michigan Lake along which it ran. The Hotel was right in front of the Lake Michigan. One would imagine that situated as it was on the Lake-front it would offer great views. There was nothing of this kind as the Lake was mostly shrouded in mist. We hardly could see its waters unless we went close to its shores.

The city is full of high rises, in fact, most of them are skyscrapers. After all it was in Chicago and New York that the first skyscrapers came in. The term “skyscraper” came into common parlance around 1880s. I remember to have read a humourous book “How to Scrape Skies” long ago by the European humourist George Mikes making fun of Americans and their way of life and love for big things like their skyscrapers and long and stretched out limousines.

Now that we were in Chicago we had to visit the tallest sky-scraper in the US. It was the Sears Tower that was built around 1970s by Sears Roebuck, world’s largest retailer. I remember to have seen its very fat catalogue in Mumbai once. There was hardly anything in the world that was not displayed in the catalogue. Sears built the Tower expecting a high growth rate to accommodate at one place all its rising numbers of employees dispersed all over the town. The growth didn’t materialize and competition from various sources in fact cut into the growth. Around the time we visited the Tower, Sears was occupying only about half of it and many of its modules were vacant. Progressively Sears vacated various floors it occupied, eventually vacating it altogether and yet it continued to have the legal rights to its name being attached to the Tower. Only when a British Insurance Company leased a portion of the building and obtained the building’s naming rights it came to be known as the Willis Tower in 2009

The Skydeck is located on the 103rd floor where visitors are swooshed up in 60 seconds or so in high speed elevators. At 1300-odd ft. it is the highest observation deck in the US and one can see below some pigmy high rises as also view the plains sprawling in front for miles. I could spot Chicago’s busy O’Hare Airport. However, nothing much could be seen through the haze of Lake Michigan. Yes. One does feel the wind up there and Chicago is known for its high winds and is also called “the windy city”. On days of very high winds people visiting the Tower have felt it swaying.

As it happens whenever we are abroad we are fascinated to see the “desis” in foreign environment. So off we went to the Devon Avenue (curiously pronounced “Devaan”) where a critical mass of South Asians live, work, do business and thrive. A major east-west street, Devon avenue takes off from near Lake Michigan and ends up a few kilometers away near the O’Hare Airport literally cutting across the town. It is so long that portions of it have been re-named after, inter alia, the leaders of South Asia like Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammed Ali Jinnah and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. One can find on this avenue Assyrian Americans, Russian Americans, Indian Americans, Pakistani Americans, Bangladeshi Americans and numerous other varieties of Americans. The Native Americans, the Injuns, however, remain elusive.

As we got off the vehicle we trotted towards a shop that had even Bengali characters on its signboard. It was a Bangladeshi outfit indeed and the kind of fish they had imported from Bangladesh was remarkable. They had every kind looking bright and fresh for which a Bengali would walk miles to get. Apart from the fish they had the spices that go with the different kinds of fishes. Besides, a young marriageable Bong wouldn’t need to go to India or Bangladesh as he could very well shop here for his elaborate and interminable wedding.

Another outstanding feature of the City is the multilevel Wacker Drive. Most of it is double decked with the upper level is meant for the local traffic and the lower one for the through traffic and heavy vehicles. A part of it has a third level which is known as the Lower Lower Wacker Drive. For some distance Wacker Drive runs along the Chicago River which too has a rather illustrious history. Its flow was reversed to prevent it from carrying our civilisational bye product to the Lake Michigan in the shape of sewage. It was a complicated civil engineering project of the 19th Century which involved in creating several canals and deepening some others. We went along this remarkable River and saw its clear shimmering waters in the lights of the surrounding sky-scrapers.

On our way back around 200 miles down the Highway is Springfield, the capital of Illinois State and also the repository of the heritage of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the US, a favourite American of mine despite his many flaws. We visited his house in the National Heritage Centre that has been created for its protection. He lived few years of his life in this house where he fathered a few children and lost one. The house has been kept as it was in Lincoln’s time with the same furniture and other fixtures. A double-storied affair was imposing enough for a President-to-be considering the several other restored structures in the neighbourhood that seem puny in comparison. Nonetheless, these too have been restored and thrown open to visitors to enable them to get a feel of the life and times of Lincoln.



About the Writer

Pushing 80 I was born in Gwalior in Central India to parents who were educated in Calcutta, now Kolkata. My father did his master's in English in 1916. He was a professor of English in the then only college in Gwalior. After qualifying in the exams for entry in to central civil services I served the government of India for 34 years reaching the very top of the professional cadres of the Indian Postal Service. I also acted as consultant ion behalf of the Universal Postal Union in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Swaziland.
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