Being a resident tourist in Chicago

Because I live in Chicago, I take a lot of the city’s landmarks, destinations, and sights for granted. On my way to work, I pass some of the most amazing architecture in the country, but because I see it everyday, to me it’s just, “meh.” It’s an unfortunate thing that happens to folks living in great cities – we don’t realize just how great our cities are. On Christmas week, my partner’s stepdad visited from Arizona – a break from our usual tradition of flying to Phoenix. And being good hosts, we took him on a few field trips to some of the most popular spots in Chicago. Each of these places were things “Stan” wanted to see. Interestingly enough, before last week, it was more than a decade since I visited a lot of the places we saw.

Navy Pier

Unfortunately, Navy Pier is in the news because of a nasty brawl that erupted last week. It’s a great touristy spot with lots to do. Though it was cold, we still walked the length of the pier to see the water. At night the view isn’t so hot because it’s dark, but during the day it can be pretty impressive. Inside the Crystal Garden Gardens was closed because of a private party, so we wandered through the galleria, looking at all the shops and kiosks. I stopped at the Chicago Sports store which sells sports memorabilia and bought my dad a Chicago Fires scarf for Christmas. We walked by the McDonald’s with the Roman arches and past the Build-a-Bear Workshop which was christened Santa’s Workshop during the holidays. My partner and Stan then went on the Ferris Wheel, which I opted out of because I’m not great with heights and don’t like being in an open bucket 150 feet in the air (no thank you!).

Shedd Aquarium

The Shedd Aquarium is a real blast from the past because I haven’t visited it in over 15 years. The price is a little steep for casual visits – my partner rightly pointed out that many of our landmarks and attractions are prohibitively expensive and leave out a lot of people who could otherwise take advantage of them. We came a bit late, so we opted for the basic entrance (about $30) which got us into the aquarium, but wouldn’t give us access to any of the special exhibits. Instead we got to see the permanent collection – which is still very impressive. I always find sea creatures to be creepy and weird because they look so different from what I’m used to, so seeing fish with bizarre fins or ones that glow in the dark was especially strange.

The Amazon Rising exhibit was neat because we were able to see all kinds of monstrous water life, including an anaconda so big that it looked like someone draped a firehouse in a tank. We saw tanks with tiny, little frogs that looked like charms one would attach to a bracelet purchased from Claire’s. There were also monkeys, which is interesting because the aquarium isn’t known for its out-of-water creatures.

The Caribbean Reef exhibit was cool, too – a large, round tank with 90,000 gallons of water – this exhibit had lots of different fish that live in the Caribbean (hence the clever name). While looking at the exhibit we saw a sea turtle that swam with its lower half floating up. A few of us were interested in why it swam that way. To explain, a diver appeared in the tank with food and was quickly surrounded by friendly sting rays, while a docent started circling the tank and explaining that the poor turtle was injured when in the wild by a motorboat. As if it wasn’t enough that she had to float upside down, she also swallowed a nickel, which is where her name – Nickel – came from. The other interesting experience was having this poor docent run around the tank and trying to get folks to stop using flash photography.

In the Waters of the World exhibit, we saw all kinds of lake fish – and there was an opportunity to pet a sturgeon, which we didn’t take because petting a giant fish is disgusting. I’m glad that there was a sink, but the idea of touching the sturgeon with my bare hands was off-putting – as was the docent who was like a carnival barker calling visitors to pet this thing. “It’s free,” he cajoled, “just the right price!”

Because everything that isn’t part of the permanent exhibit cost a lot of money we didn’t get to see the oceanarium or the jellyfish exhibit – though there was a tiny wall installation that had a few jellyfish floating around peacefully as they changed colors with the lights. I like the look of jellyfish but still bear the scar from when I was stung by one in the Mediterranean on an Umbrian holiday.

Field Museum

We got to the Field Museum pretty late, and we had plans to meet my best friend for dinner, so we only had about an hour and a half to visit. The Field Museum has an exhibit right now about voodoo and its impact in the Caribbean. Because it cost extra and because we were pressed for time, we didn’t get to see that. In fact, we didn’t get to see anything but the exhibit on the indigenous people of North and Central America. Though it was a limited experience, it was still very interesting and very informative. It was a beautiful exhibit with lots of gorgeous antiquities, but I always feel funny looking at them, wondering how much of it is a result of grave robbery.

Speaking of which, interestingly enough, I learned about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). We were walking through a room and a large display case was covered with wood and the museum posted a letter explaining the act, which meant that human remains as well as articles of spiritual nature that were part of burials were considered sacred and therefore, not allowed to be displayed for the public. I never heard of the act, and was glad that a small step was being taken to address some of the cultural thievery and piracy that went on. I thought it good on the Field Museum’s part to openly display the letter informing it of the act, along with a sign explaining what that means for the collection.

I also learned about an awesome artist – Bunky Echo-Hawk, who lives in Pawnee, Oklahoma. He co-curated a gallery at the Field and his art work hung with the antiquities the museum collected. I loved looking at his work because it was contemporary, funny, sad, and thought-provoking. There was a video installation that documented his process in painting a piece with the input of an audience.

As great as the exhibition was, I wanted to see more, but we were pressed for time. The lobby itself was impressive, though, and because I got there early, I loitered around the lobby, looking at the taxidermied elephants as well as Sue – the t-rex skeleton. Because I wanted to get my best friend a great present, I stopped by the gift shop and bought her a Virgin Mary tapestry (quick note – the gift didn’t go over all that well – she looked at it with confusion and mild distaste).

Adler Planetarium

Because the Field, the Shedd, and the Planetarium are located closely together on the Museum Campus, they were easy to get to. The planetarium was great because I got in for free because I’m a teacher. As with the other attractions, the cool, neat exhibits cost extra so we didn’t get to see any of the short films, which was pretty disappointing. Instead we got to look at ancient telescopes.

I have to admit that I’m not all that interested in astronomy, so this was the most difficult museum to visit. A lot of what we were looking at went over my head. And parts of the planetarium looked like abandoned sets of 80s music videos (lots of neon and brightly colored light panels).

My partner and I live close to Lincoln Park, so we often go to the conservatory and the zoo. It’s a bit depressing to see the animals trapped in tiny cages with those dumb paintings of the Serengeti that fool no one, but I love looking at the Victorian architecture. And because I had to work throughout some of the Christmas season, I missed some of the field trips my partner and Stan took – for instance, I didn’t get to go to Willis Tower (aka Sears Tower), though I didn’t feel it was a big loss because I went about 10 years ago with my stepsister (and though the view was impressive, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be – I was assured that I could see a few states, but unlike on classroom maps, the states in real life aren’t conveniently colored in bright colors so I couldn’t tell which states I was looking at.

And though this week did make me a little tired, I was glad to look at some of Chicago’s bright spots. One thing has to be said – and this is something my partner pointed out: a lot of the city is out of reach for most of the working poor in Chicago. The aquarium for example costs about $30 a person, so a group of four would run over $100. It’s unfortunate that poor folks can’t get to see these great sights, because things like the planetarium and the Field Museum could inspire some awesome kid from the inner-city to become an astronomer or a paleontologist. My partner made a good point – he mentioned how often we grouse that poor people don’t go to museums or the theater, but how can we expect them to, when everything costs so much?

So, all in all, a great week – I got to see a lot of cool stuff, and spent my Christmas week being very busy.


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Filed under commentary, Nonfiction, Travel, Uncategorized

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