Why you should care
There’s a hell of a lot more to getting a taste of the Chi than “Willis Tower” and the Giant Bean.
First rule of the Windy City: Don’t talk about the Windy City … or Chiraq. Call it Chi-Town or the Chi if need be. We locals know the wind is a metaphor for the hot wind of elites and politicians — the “raq” a comparison of ’hood violence to Iraq. The jokes just earmarks you as a tourist.
Second rule: It’s not the Willis Tower. It’s the Sears Tower.
Third rule: There’s a hell of a lot more to the city than its wind, the Sears Tower and its annual food festival, with enough museums, art and lascivious holes-in-the-wall to keep everyone from nerds to hedonists occupied. Here are a few ways you grab a real taste of the Chi.
“The rich history of Chicago’s art and theater scene was built on vaudeville and burlesque,” notes Jenn Kincaid, owner of Uptown Underground. The cozy, literally underground ’20s speakeasy–meets–local stage-bar theater on North Broadway in Uptown honors Chicago’s rich burlesque heritage with acclaimed performances. Pass on the house wine but spring for a second ticket. From the theater’s male shows to its talented Kiss Kiss Cabaret performers — featuring acts with feather-footed acrobats like Slightly Spitfire and Hall of Famer dancer Gaea Lady — there’s allure aplenty for everyone.
Back of the Yards is more well-known for the stains left on it by violence and disenfranchisement. But in recent years, the South Side neighborhood has undergone a revitalization — the crown jewel being The Plant. Once an abandoned meatpacking plant, the nonprofit Plant Chicago converted it into a collaborative, closed-circle farming market that houses several indoor farms, an aquaponics operation, an apiary, a bakery, a kombucha maker, Whiner Brewery (known for its sour beers), a recycling operation and more. As a community center, it’s “recently partnered with three local elementary schools to provide educational programs” and begun accepting food stamps, according to Plant Chicago director Jonathan Pereira. Tours are held every Saturday.
Trainer Samantha Martin’s circus wasn’t always so full o’ felines. Originally, hers was an all-rat act. She’s since revamped her animal circus to include a stunt-performing groundhog, a hen and the eponymous rescue cats, several of whom perform music as the only known commercial cat band. You can catch the show in mid-October for $23. For 10 months of the year, the show is on the road. The tour bus, where the cats occupy the master bedroom, also carries a few rescue kittens and training tools for those interested in adopting and training their own acro-cat.
For a few days every month, for about three hours, hundreds of patrons and dozens of fire dancers race to Chicago’s lakefront, prompted by an alert from Full Moon Jams. There, spectators eat and make merry while watching notable Chicago fire dancers like the Pyrotechniq troupe mambo by the ethereal light of twirling flames and the full moon.
Chicago has recently come to embrace its graffiti art: South Side neighborhoods like Back of the Yards have adorned businesses in scenes that evoke community. The ongoing Mile of Murals initiative beat most other places to the punch when it began commissioning artists from all backgrounds to paint a mile-long mural of individual graffiti pieces in Rogers Park in 2007. Twelve pieces have been completed so far. When finished, it’ll be the walkable jewel of Chicago’s paradigm shift toward embracing urban art.
Go There: More Windy City Wildness
- La Internacional Supermercado: Bar none, one of Chicago’s best taco joints. This Back of the Yards hangout fronts as a supermarket, but the city’s taco aficionados know to go to the back and order a few.
- Pops for Champagne: It’s a sleek, modern bar/champagne lounge up top, but that staircase in the corner leads to one of the best underground jazz clubs in the Chi — a lecherous 1920s Parisian-style den.
- Beauty Bar: At Timbuck2uesdays (no cover), you can hear the latest and greatest (like Jay-Z’s new 4:44 album) while watching an array of dancers compete with improv performances.
- Baton Show Lounge: The place to go to when you want to see a first-rate drag show or catch the annual drag Miss Continental pageant on Labor Day weekend. Three shows per night, Wednesday to Sunday.
- Galos Caves: If you want a dose of some truly odd, ethereal snake oil, visit this giant cave of salt from the Black Sea, constructed in the heart of the city. Treatments start at $15.
- Hustle Up the Hancock: Every year in February, thousands race up the John Hancock Center’s 94 flights of stairs, raising money for lung research … and then drink at the rooftop bar or pig out at the Cheesecake Factory below.