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Chicago: A tour of two cities

[Photo by Jeff Burdick]
Passengers aboard Chicago’s First Lady cruise by the city’s skyline on a river tour staged by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

To really see Chicago, there are many historical, themed and neighborhood tours that let you experience - and not just visit - the city.

CHICAGO -- This city is known for many things: Its soaring skyline and its sometimes gutter politics; its windy weather and its oft-stagnant sports teams. But less noted is Chicago's place as one of the world's great touring cities.

Not the kind of tour where one is cemented behind bus windows, but rather some novel tours that get the viewer close to the city's many attractive aspects.

Among these offerings are Loop tours by elevated (or "L") train, interpretive lakefront bike rides, strolls through the Chicago Park District's bird sanctuaries, canoes through the heart of downtown via river, architecture- and ecology-themed cruises, and walking tours to municipal buildings, churches, cemeteries and neighborhoods.

You can also venture beyond the city limits to tour suburbs such as the Oak Park of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway and the expensive homes along the North Shore of Lake Michigan.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation, or CAF, provides an excellent entry point into this gumbo of guided adventures via its Architecture River Cruise. The tour is the most popular tour in Chicago, attracting more than 100,000 passengers during its sailing season from mid May to the end of October.

The tour honors Chicago as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper, and like no other tour, the river cruise details the multitextured range of glass, steel, stone and brick towers.

The last time I took this trip, on a sunny October morning, the double-decked boat traversed the main trunk of the Chicago River and the downtown portions of its north and south branches, for 90 minutes. Our impressively informative guide barely had time to draw deep breaths between building commentaries.

Among these beauties were the corn-cob spires of Marina Towers, the arcing aqua-blue glass face of 333 W Wacker Drive building, the quaint postmodern River Cottages, the 110-story Sears Tower, the castle-topped tower at 311 S Wacker Drive, the curvilinear masterpiece Lake Point Tower, and the carnival attractions of Navy Pier.

But you do not have to continually crane your neck skyward to marvel at superb architecture. In ways subtler than the glittering skyline, dozens of diverse neighborhoods also boast pleasing and significant designs.

So after the cruise I left for the South Side to join a two-hour CAF walking tour of the Kenwood neighborhood, located a little north of the Gothic campus of the University of Chicago.

(This was one of eight different CAF walking tours offered that day. The CAF offers more than 70 different tours throughout the year, via foot, bike, "L" train, cruise and tour bus. Most have multiple departure dates, and the most popular downtown tours are offered daily.)

I chose Kenwood as I had yet to visit the neighborhood on foot and I was looking forward to enjoying the beautiful fall colors along its leafy avenues. In the early 20th century, the neighborhood was the preferred address for many of the city's leaders, and today it remains notable for its large lots, diverse citizenry and architectural innovation.

Thus, among the 26 points of interest into our 2-mile walk were some of Frank Lloyd Wright's earliest expressions of his Prairie School approach to home design, the headquarters of Jessie Jackson's Operation PUSH located in a former synagogue, the posh home of Louis Farrakhan, and the former mansion of Sears co-founder and Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.

While architecture is always the star of CAF tours, there is also a lot of history and interesting anecdotes. I have been on tours joined by long-transplanted former residents who shared their own memories, and occasionally current owners invite groups in for personal house tours.

The Kenwood tour featured a minor such moment when we happened into the current owners of a 1904 mansion built by local clothier Joseph Schaffner. Among the home's more interesting features they pointed out was a heavy oak door on the second-floor balcony that they said the Schaffners installed as a potential barricade after the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping in 1932.

Beyond the CAF tour offerings are those of Chicago Neighborhood Tours. The group offers more than 40 weekend departures focusing on 18 multiethnic subjects. These include tours of neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Wicker Park and the former African-American mecca of Bronzeville, as well as themed tours exploring topics such as the Great Chicago Fire, Irish-American heritage, and Hanukkah.

These tours are convenient, as they all depart from the downtown Chicago Cultural Center on Michigan Avenue. CAF walking tours begin and end in their various neighborhoods.

Although the tours utilize buses, participants frequently get off to better explore neighborhood points of interest and to talk to artists, historians and residents. Filling the time between these points, guides and experts step on the bus to share their knowledge.

[Photo by Jeff Burdick]
At the old South Side Maxwell Street Market, participants on one tour get an unplanned morning concert by Dancing Perkins & the Blues Busters.

My favorite tour was the "Roots of Chicago Blues, Gospel & Jazz." This six-hour tour crisscrossed the South Side and investigated the various sounds brought to Chicago during the great migration of African-Americans in the 1920s and '30s.

This tour featured a running monologue and guitar playing by a blues musician, an unplanned stop for a Saturday morning jam at an outdoor stage on Maxwell Street, and a performance at Gerri's Palm Tavern (unfortunately now closed) in Bronzeville.

The tour also went inside gospel composer Thomas Dorsey's Pilgrim Baptist Church, drove past the former Chicago homes of Muddy Waters, Martin Luther King Jr. and Chess Records, and a stop for a soul food at a luncheonette.

Of all Chicago tour organizations, the Friends of the River offers perhaps the most exotic explorations: the ecology and wildlife of the urban jungle. This nonprofit group focuses on the Chicago River as both the city's spiritual and ecological wellspring.

Through cruises, walks, canoe trips and conservation outtings, the group works to educate the public about the river's history and importance to Chicago, as well as to lobby to improve the cleanliness and accessibility of the river.
[Photo by Jeff Burdick]
On a cemetery tour, an expert explains some of the art gracing tombs at Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, resting place of Olympic hero Jesse Owens and atomic scientist Enrico Fermi, among others.

Last October around Halloween, I joined the group's downtown "Spooky River Tour." The two-hour night-time walk followed various paths along the river and even below office buildings while our guide related more than a dozen tragedies, disasters and macabre tales associated with the river.

There were stories about corpses from unsolved murders found in and near the river, the Fort Dearborn massacre, a river-bourn plague, an exploding blimp, ship disasters, theater fires, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the Great Chicago Flood of 1991.

Be it a focus on nature, neighborhoods, architecture or even morbid history, each tour I've taken offered an active and educational exploration of the city.

-- Jeff Burdick is a freelance writer living in Elmwood Park, Ill.

If you go

WHEN TO GO: Tour numbers peak between May and October; January and February are the quietest months. Note that the spring months before trees fill with leaves are best for viewing neighborhood architecture.

TOUR ORGANIZATIONS: Contact these groups:

Chicago Architectural Foundation offers a slate of daily options. Walking and biking tours range from 50 minutes to three hours ($5 to $10 per person). Bus trips range from three to six hours ($25 to $45). The 90-minute river cruise is $21, and the 40-minute Saturday Loop El Tours are free. For calendar and tour descriptions, see or call (312) 922-3432.

Chicago Historical Society annually organizes more than 20 bus and walking tours, including a literary tour expected again in October. Walks range from 11/2 to two hours ($5-$12), and bus tours from two to six hours ($30-$50). Quarterly offerings listed at or call (312) 642-4600.

Chicago Neighborhood Tours vary from four ($25) to six hours ($50 including lunch). See or call (312) 742-1190.

Friends of the River boasts a strong weekend slate of outings from May to October. Walking tours cost $5, biking trips $10, and daylong canoe trips $40. See or call (312) 939-0490.

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