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Memo to NATO diplomats: Ignore the Chicago hype

Hey, NATO diplomats!

I’m know you’re being flooded with lots of official and commercial stuff about Chicago: Where views of the city are most beautiful. Where dinners are most tasty. Where to find the “real Chicago.”

Ignore them.

These attempts at indoctrinating you about the city, when not just out and out wrong, are as superficial as a picture postcard. Like Paris or Brussels or London, Chicago can’t be “discovered” in the course of a quick — or long — visit. People who have lived here their entire lives and love the city passionately are always learning something new.

Let me offer something else. Let me offer you glimpses of Chicago that hint at its character and texture. If you can pull yourself away from all those world-shaping discussions of trade relations and military forecasts, you’ll get a richer sense of our city by experiencing one or more of these.

Take a look, for instance, at “Childhood Is Without Prejudice,” the mural that, in 1977, William Walker created on the southern wall of an underpass beneath the Metra tracks at 56th Street, near Stony Island Avenue.

Walker was the central figure in a collective of African-American artists who, in 1967, painted the “Wall of Respect” on the side of a tavern at the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue. That artwork, lost four years later when the building was razed by the city, launched the community-based outdoor mural movement, now international in scope.

What’s particularly nice about this mural is that it’s in a place where you can see Chicagoans of widely varied backgrounds and life journeys crossing paths — University of Chicago students and low-income residents of the Woodlawn community, commuters heading to and from Hyde Park and children from the nearby Harte Elementary School.

Want another artwork that says Chicago? Get yourself over to the West Side and start driving west on Lake Street from Ashland Avenue.

The looming elevated structure with its parallel supporting lines of thick, regularly spaced pillars creates a tunnel-like corridor which, on bright days, is dappled with sunlight.

Nowhere in the world is there a sight quite like this. It’s brawny and beautiful at the same time. And, because Lake Street is lined with small factories and little traveled, hardly anyone sees it.

That’s not the case with Western Avenue, Chicago’s Main Street.

It’s the longest street in the city and one of the longest city streets in the world. And, if you want to get a peek into the heart and soul of Chicago, drive the 23.9-mile road from Evanston in the north to Blue Island in the south.

Here, you’ll find the antithesis of postcard Chicago. Here is the blue-collar city, the middle-class city, the city of working stiffs whether they’re truck drivers or waitresses, used car salesmen or warehouse laborers.

Or, for another insight, plop yourself down at the corner of Lawrence and Kedzie Avenues in the Albany Park neighborhood, the cultural crossroads of a city that is a cultural crossroads.

I know, that’s what NATO is. But life in Albany Park is nitty-gritty, day-in day-out diversity. It’s eat-in-each-other’s-restaurants and shop-at-each-other’s-stores diversity.

There is a Lebanese bakery and a Guatemalan bakery. There is Baghdad Kabab restaurant and Lindo Michoacan. Jerusalem Liquors and Peking Mandarin. Nazareth Sweets and Ur Cafe. There are store signs in Arabic and Korean. Others in Chinese characters and in Japanese script.

True, not every Chicago neighborhood is like Albany Park. Many are still heavily white or heavily African-American or heavily Mexican. But this is a city in which a NATO’s worth of cultural variety can be found riding on scores of Chicago Transit Authority buses and trains each day.

So what do all these glimpses of Chicago say about the city?

Well, you’ve got a work of art that’s open to the weather and free for anyone who wants to look at it. You’ve got a miles-long steel structure that’s a work of brawn and beauty. You’ve got a working-class, working-person’s roadway. You’ve got the peaceful co-existence of dozens of peoples in the same tiny corner of the Universe.

Do all of those things add up to Chicago? No.

But they’re a start.

Patrick T. Reardon, Chicago born and bred, wrote about the city and its region for more than 30 years for the Tribune.

This essay was published in the Chicago Tribune on May 11, 2012 —,0,4678312.story

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