On my recent fourth visit to the Windy City, I spent most of my time catching up with an old friend whose first time in the city brought us on many introductory tours. Chicago has always been, to me, a ‘second city’ to New York. But I have to admit that this recent visit has warmed me up to this partnership city of Toronto.
With the formal relationship formed since 1991, the cities of Chicago and Toronto are partner cities within the International Alliance Program which features activities driven by city staff and focusing heavily on economic development goals such as building business links, increasing each other’s profile, cultural exchanges and promoting trade. Our other partner cities are Chongqing, China; Frankfurt, Germany; and Milan, Italy.
Most Torontonians love Chicago because there are a lot of similarities between the two. Toronto has Lake Ontario while Chicago has Lake Michigan. Our city is renowned for the contrast between the old and contemporary architecture, whereas Chicago, also renowned for its architecture, features prominent buildings noted for their originality rather than their antiquity. Chicago has long been connected with some of architecture’s most important names: Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe and Holabird & Root. On our architectural cruise around the city, our tour guide from the Architecture Foundation pointed out that Mies van der Rohe was responsible for the design of the TD Centre in Toronto’s financial district and the 52-storey AMA Plaza (formerly known as the IBM Building), housing The Langham Hotel (where we stayed), in Chicago’s business district.
I don’t know whether Toronto has an architectural tour for visitors. But, if we do, we certainly have many wonders to brag about too, including Frank Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario; Daniel Libeskind’s Royal Ontario Museum; Santiago Calatrava’s Allen Lambert Galleria of Brookfield Place; Viljo Revell’s Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square; and Jack Diamond’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Toronto is famous for its International Film Festival and Jazz Festival whereas Chicago is renowned for its blues and soul music as well as The Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The list of similarities just goes on and on.
But three unique features of Chicago pale Toronto by comparison – the bridges and the 24-hour-operating elevated L (EL) train; the Chicago Riverwalk; and the Ohio Street and Oak Street Beaches right in the middle of the city. Chicago, apparently, has the most movable bridges of any city in the world – 37 in total – including 18 along the river’s main branch downtown. Most are drawbridges that lift up instead of swinging to the side. This collection, together with the elevated train on top of highrises, give an extra charming character to the Windy City. I would never forget the scene in the movie The Fugitive, when Tommy Lee Jones, playing the clever detective, deciphered where the fugitive, played by Harrison Ford, was calling from during his escape just by the sound of the EL train in the background.
Toronto’s Beaches area (actually now renamed The Beach) is never an attractive beach in any sense of the word because there are no high mountains like Rio’s or Hong Kong’s that bring out the contrast of the landscape. Furthermore, it is located in the suburbs and is, therefore, no comparison to at least two beaches in the centre of the City of Chicago. I’m no beach fan at all, but I have to admit it’s pretty cool to see people playing beach volleyball right in the middle of the city amongst skyscrapers, busy traffic and parks.
But the most attractive feature of Chicago is, by far, the Chicago Riverwalk along the main branch of the Chicago River. One of the first things my hotel concierge told me during my introductory tour was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans to complete the expansion of the continuous walkway and recreational amenity connecting the lakefront with the heart of downtown. “Our mayor wants to recreate the riverwalk experience to that of The Seine in Paris,” our concierge said. If he were successful, the City of Toronto should definitely learn a lesson!
That brings me to the mayoral comparisons of the two cities. While our crack-cocaine-smoking Mayor Rob Ford has been a joke around the world for too long, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is also a mayor in the love-him-or-hate-him category. Now in his third year as mayor of Chicago, the city’s first baby-boomer mayor is not a popular guy. In fact, when I mentioned his name to cab drivers and tour operators, most of them gave negative reviews, including the “senseless” bicycle lanes, the high murder rate and the traffic gridlock.
This was kind of surprising to me as I’ve always quite liked the mayor who’s not only a ballet dancer when he was a teenager (he was offered a scholarship to join the renowned Joffrey Ballet), but also Obama’s former Chief of Staff. I watched his interview on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon where he talked about his February Chicago Polar Plunge into Lake Michigan with Fallon. The mayor has long been described as a control freak who works 24/7 non-stop, swears and curses with no hesitations even to a nun, and is a fitness freak who exercises seven days a week. But perhaps the City of Chicago does need a tough mayor like Emanuel to take on the many challenges – the massive budget deficit, the high crime rate and the worst school system in the U.S. In fact, Bill Clinton wrote in his memoirs that Rahm Emanuel was so aggressive most of the time that he made the former President look like he’s too laid-back! With such a personality, he’s bound to make a lot of enemies if he wants to get his job done.
But Chicago’s crime rate is, perhaps, the one area that its mayor really needs to get a handle on. According to esquire.com, in 2012, Emanuel’s first full year in office, murder rate soared 16 percent and Chicago was dubbed the country’s murder capital – its homicides far surpassing New York City’s and Los Angeles’s. Over just one weekend, 49 people were shot in Chicago, including a six-year-old who was killed as she sat on her family’s front porch. Although the crime rate has gone down since his mayoralty, he still has a long way to go. As the third largest city in the U.S., and now the fifth largest city in North America (Toronto has taken over as the fourth largest), Chicago should, for once, learn from Toronto where our crime rate is the lowest among big cities.
I, for one, have changed my mind about my lack of preference for the Windy City after this recent visit; not because it resembles Toronto, but because I’ve discovered more of its strengths on its own merits.