Correction to This Article
A photograph was incorrectly credited. The photo of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion was from Scott McDonald of Hedrich Blessing.
To Chicago, on the Double and on the Cheap
Making Short Work Of a Long Weekend

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

First there was the weekend of kudzu-yanking in the back yard, then two days of bailing out the flooded basement. Then Wednesday morning, I found deer tracks in my lettuce patch.

I needed an escape, preferably somewhere far from the hassles of my dilapidated rental house and garden. Chicago -- with the Art Institute's new Modern Wing, loads of free and inexpensive entertainment, great food and a pair of friends with a new greyhound -- sounded perfect.

So on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I scoured such Web sites as Orbitz and Priceline for flights for that weekend. Although I was able to scare up airfare for a mere $155, the early-morning Saturday departure and post-midnight return on Monday seemed harrowing. Instead, I found a Hotwire flight that left Friday after work, returning Monday evening, for $100 more. Two days later, my getaway began.

Arriving at O'Hare close to midnight Friday, I boarded a shuttle to one of the two airport hotels I'd booked. On such short notice, I hadn't been able to find a room in the city for less than $150, so I'd decided to make a concession on location. Bidding on Priceline, I'd snagged a room at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare (in Rosemont, a short ride from the airport) for $55 for Friday night. For Saturday and Sunday nights, when easy access to the subway seemed more important, I'd found a room at the Hilton Chicago O'Hare (located literally on top of the O'Hare station) for $78 a night. Chicago's trains run 24-7, so I figured I could get in and out of the city whenever I wanted on the Blue Line. Eventually, anyway.

The next morning, getting downtown took a good 45 minutes. Getting off at the Clark and Lake stop, I walked in the chilly drizzle toward Grant Park, where the marble-fronted, bronze-lion-guarded Art Institute sits facing busy Michigan Avenue.

The addition of the airy, glass-and-steel Modern Wing, which opened in May, was the impetus for the museum to reorganize all its collections into something more user-friendly, with works from similar periods and places grouped together: Asian art in renovated galleries on the first floor, impressionist and post-impressionist works in revamped rooms on Level Two. The European modern art collection on the third floor of the new wing gets the spotlight -- or rather, it bathes in natural light under architect Renzo Piano's "flying carpet" roof, a steel frame floating over skylights along the length of the new wing.

Photography, video and temporary exhibits are on the wing's first floor, with contemporary works on the second. But what took my breath away, and what other visitors were snapping photos of, wasn't the impressive collection -- it was the view. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, you can see Millennium Park: the Frank Gehry-designed amphitheater with its graceful crosshatch canopy, the blooming Pritzker garden, the shiny, bean-shaped "Cloud Gate" sculpture, the twin boxes of Crown Fountain, the iconic skyscrapers in the background.

It seemed, at that moment, only fitting to have that view from what is now the country's second-largest art museum. (Only New York's Met is bigger.) Chicago is bursting with civic pride, with well-tended parks, a clean lake, a stunning skyline. It has made heroes of its famous architects: Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the man President Obama quoted in a recent speech, planner and architect Daniel Burnham, who said, "Make no little plans."

There's nothing little about the Art Institute's new wing.

I tore myself away from all that grandeur to hustle over to the Goodman Theater, one of several playhouses in the Loop's revitalized theater district. I wanted to catch the Saturday matinee of Rebecca Gilman's ensemble drama "The Crowd You're in With," the kind of leisurely indulgence -- a whole afternoon at the theater! -- that seems impossible unless you're far, far from home.

Following a play with dinner and the symphony seems even more indulgent, even when the concert (the Grant Park Orchestra playing Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition") is free. With Mussorgsky in mind, I stopped for a bite at Russian Tea Time, a throwback of a restaurant right off Michigan Avenue. Would the Russian-born composer have recognized my Moldovan chicken meatballs with beets? He certainly was well versed in vodka, but even he might have been impressed by the restaurant's 50 varieties, served as one-ounce shots with a side of pumpernickel bread and pickles.

An hour before the concert started, I was among the first dozen people in line outside the Harris Theater, which is tucked away at the north end of Millennium Park. The Grant Park Orchestra rehearses and plays in the park every summer for 10 weeks, with open rehearsals, special guests and full concerts in the Harris Theater and at the outdoor Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Seated in the first balcony, I let the music wash over me, thrilled with my art-packed day.

But it wasn't over yet. I hoofed it up to Navy Pier to catch the 10:15 fireworks from the marina on the pier's south side. The recession-be-damned pyrotechnics get shot off every Wednesday and Saturday night, and they didn't disappoint.

My feet were aching, but I made one last stop: Miller's Pub, where old photos of famous and once-famous clientele lined every wall and booth, and I happily tucked into a hamburger amid the hubbub before catching the train back to O'Hare.

The next morning, I headed back into the city to visit my friends in Uptown, a neighborhood on the North Side. The day unspooled as a luxuriously unscheduled one. We walked to Andersonville, the city's one-time Swedish enclave, which was having its annual Midsommarfest block party. Music blared from several stages and the sidewalks were packed with taco-eating pedestrians. We ducked into Erickson's Delicatessen, an old-fashioned deli selling pickled herring, tubes of caviar and Danish candies, an exotic refuge from the heat and crowds.

Later, we took the greyhound to the local dog park, Puptown ("not Pooptown," say the signs encouraging poop-scooping). It's at the north tip of Lincoln Park, the lovely swath of green stretching more than five miles along Lake Michigan's shore. Homemade dinner, ice cream and good conversation followed; then my friends drove me back to my hotel.

On my last day in town, I visited Wicker Park, whose bars, clubs and restaurants are full of bustle and youth and energy at night. During the day, the sun's blaze flattered the carved-stone architecture, tidy houses, boutiques and bakeries. A sign by one restaurant's patio showed no-nonsense sass: "Please see a host to be seated, even if you don't see the point." At the neighborhood's eponymous park, a quartet of women in matching black leggings practiced yoga on the grass, and local workers lunched in the sun.

In "The Crowd You're in With" on Saturday, a character had mentioned that she worked at the Polish Museum of America, and it had piqued my interest. A few blocks from Wicker Park's gentrified quarters, near a highway overpass, is a red brick building that the museum shares with the Polish Roman Catholic Union. Inside, there's a collection of Pope John Paul II memorabilia, mannequins modeling traditional Polish outfits, cases of military uniforms and weapons. Several displays center on notable Polish immigrants, including the Polish glass blowers who sailed to Jamestown and sent glassworks back to England: the Virginia colony's first industry.

Some display cases bear plaques with names of local groups and individuals who supported the museum. In their low-key way, those plaques reminded me that Chicago -- like all cities -- isn't just about buildings, parks and vistas, no matter how stunning. It's the people, stupid: the immigrant waves that shape neighborhoods, the residents making use of all the city offers, my friends who are making a home there.

That thought, after my last-minute three-day getaway, made it a little less frustrating to discover that while I was gone, the deer had eaten all my lettuce plants.

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