Photo by Daniel Marten (He/him)
A couple weekends ago, without making prior plans at all, a close friend convinced me to go sledding with him in Grant Park. We were taking an easy walk after catching dinner by Roosevelt, and we decided to walk north along Michigan for a little while to let the food digest and to take in some scenes. I stopped at the 9th Street Statue, up on its little hill, to off one of my favorite spots in the city. After clamoring up the hill, we found a sled somebody had left behind. With the city dead quiet, not a soul in sight, and icy snow on the ground tempting us, we decided to go sledding in our jeans and coats. While just an anecdote on the surface, moments like this are why Grant Park is easily the best part of downtown Chicago, bar none.
Grant Park’s statues and green spaces line the eastern side of Michigan Avenue from the Art Institute on Jackson all the way south to the Museum Campus on Roosevelt. It’s relatively unimposing, choosing pleasant trees and open spaces over grand displays or halls. Further, it accents the old architecture on South Michigan perfectly. Its rare marble features and white stone bridges look amazing and fitting alongside the aged architecture of buildings like the Congress Hotel, with its iconic sign, or the Fine Arts Building. Everything comes together to give Grant Park a genuinely felt atmosphere and age. It doesn’t feel synthetic or contrived but fits right where it is.
No other spot in the city illustrates how perfect Chicago’s size is, because if you time everything just right, it’s an amazing spot to take the sleeping city by surprise, to catch a glimpse of the Windy City absolutely silent. In between little bouts of nighttime traffic along South Michigan, save for the rare footsteps of pedestrians on the sidewalk, you can gaze north at the city’s bright lights in total peace. In those rare cities that never sleep — like New York — good luck catching a quiet, genuine moment in a park right downtown. And, for smaller cities, of course you can catch quiet moments, but would the skyline you stare up at even begin to match Chicago’s? Cities that are too quiet aren’t even novel when you catch them in a late-night moment of silence, while cities that are too big are never going to have those moments to begin with. Even in the city, good luck catching moments of silence right by Wacker Drive or in the Magnificent Mile or River North.
Further: Imagine visiting “The Bean” unironically.
I jest, but there’s a very real sentiment that undermines the joke, being that Millennium Park is starting to resemble more a tourist attraction than it does a genuinely nice, calm park. Of course, that’s not what it has to be, and on its own Millennium Park is amazing! I have more than enough pictures of myself at the park’s yearly Christmas Tree, I’ve taken more than enough pictures there looking down Washington and Madison streets at the L, and I’ve taken out-of-town relatives through there numerous times. It’s a fantastic feature, no questions asked.
This given, I prefer the subtlety and everyday charms of Grant Park over the somewhat gaudy splendor of “The Bean” and Millennium Park. Discovering those calm, rarely found spots in the city gives you a little piece of ownership, like you’ve found something unique or special in this gigantic city. You call it your spot, something to be proud of, something that you stumbled upon all by yourself. And of course you’re not the very first person to find it, but if it means feeling like a part of Chicago, if just for a moment, it’s always nice to pretend.