Nice to Meet You, Chicago

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004

Neighbors are often strangers in our modern world, and strangers are to be feared. Yet an unidentified person with whom I have no ties is standing by to spend up to four hours showing me around his or her home town, a major U.S. city, for free.

What's more, there are 180 volunteers who do this for the Chicago Greeter program. It's an idea copied more than two years ago from, of all places, New York City. Now two Australian cities -- Melbourne and Adelaide -- have started matching homegrown volunteers with visitors from around the world. The volunteers, I hear, are filled with civic pride and just want to help outsiders enjoy the places they love. It's enough to restore a cynic's faith in humanity.

I happen to be in need of a little faith restoration, so I go to the Chicago Greeter Web site and fill out a request form.

Ha! I knew there'd be a catch. Turns out I must choose from 68 options. Twenty-seven neighborhoods are listed as well as 41 themed tours. There are tours that focus on African American heritage. There is Latin Chicago, Jewish Chicago and Polish, Irish, German, and Gay and Lesbian Chicago. Alternately, you can request a free tour on art, architecture, antiques, food, shopping, museums, literary sites, sports or children's activities, to name a few. The choices pose quite a quandary. For example, what's a gay Jewish architect from Brazil to do?

Ah! An easy out: I check "Greeters Choice." A day later, I get an e-mail confirming a match. I am to meet my greeter in the downtown Chicago Cultural Center. From there, we will explore the Lincoln Park neighborhood, including the zoo and the Lincoln Park Conservatory.

The center, I soon discover, should be the first stop for every visitor. Greeter Nancy McDaniel helps me gather brochures and says we have to see the building before heading out.

Finished in 1897, it originally served as Chicago's first public library, she tells me. Clearly, people in those days respected books. Fine marble and carved wood in a room called the Preston Bradley Hall reflect light filtering through a 38-foot stained-glass dome thought to be the largest Tiffany dome in the world. The dome is worth an estimated $35 million, McDaniel says. The building hosts numerous free concerts throughout the year in its elegant rooms, including a cafe with walls of windows overlooking the city skyline.

A window in the hall looks straight out to Millennium Park, which had its grand opening in July. McDaniel says we have to stop there on the way to Lincoln Park.

"To me, it's Chicago's most spectacular new attraction, and one of its very best," she says. "I and most others are most terribly proud of it. Very gifted people created from scratch something magnificent."

That's a hard billing to live up to, but it would be impossible for even the city's greatest boosters to exaggerate the appeal of Millennium Park. If there is a better public space in the world, I've never seen it. City planners in New York who are stumbling around wondering what to do at the World Trade Center disaster site should come by for inspiration.

Nearly half a billion dollars was spent on the 24.5-acre park along Michigan Avenue. In winter, visitors can ice skate there. In the other three seasons, they can hear concerts in a Frank Gehry-designed band shell that is more like a sculpture that happens to include great acoustics, 4,000 seats and lawn space for 7,000 people. One end of the park is a garden whose lead landscape architect, Kathryn Gustafson, designed the Princess Diana memorial in London.

It's worth a trip to Chicago just to see two of the massive sculptures in the park. One, by Anish Kapoor, is a 110-ton piece of polished steel that is basically a 33-foot-high 3-D mirror that reflects the skyline and funhouse images of all who come to take a close-up look.

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