As soon as my wife and I boarded the L train from Chicago Midway airport to downtown a weekend ago, I knew Chicago was (to paraphrase singing legend Frank Sinatra) going to be my kind of town.
We took the orange line that got us into downtown on The Loop, an elevated rail route that gave us an up-close introduction to the city’s spectacular architecture.
Over the 4 1/2 days we spent there, we were blown away by the well-planned skyscrapers and bike lanes, the unimpeded waterfront, the restaurants, the city’s walkability, the street performers and the multitude of things to see and do.
Simply put, Chicago shows far better than Toronto, has a joyful vibe and from our vantage point, appears to eagerly embrace tourists.
Sun and pouring rain notwithstanding, we spent our four days soaking it all in — starting with an architecture tour of the Chicago River aboard an open-air river boat.
Our well-informed docent traced the development of Chicago following the great fire of 1871.
Unlike in Toronto — where planning appears to consist of throwing tall-ish buildings up as fast as developers can — we heard that the 1909 Chicago Plan led to the creation of wide streets as well as a combination of thoughtfully designed art deco and mirrored glass skyscrapers.
The public realm is so important to Chicago’s planners that in 2004 the 24.5-acre (99,000-square-metre) Millennium Park was built over a railyard in the centre of the city.
We also explored the 3.4-mile (5.5 km) spanking clean Riverwalk on the banks of the Chicago River, with its many places to sit and relax, boat slips and fishing piers.
Chicago has 26 miles of public lakefront — on Lake Michigan and on the Chicago River — that has remained “open, clear and free” as mandated under the 1909 Chicago Plan.
One evening after dinner at a 70th floor restaurant overlooking Lake Michigan, we walked to nearby Navy Pier to see the giant ferris wheel, surprisingly all done up in Pride colours.
Even Chicago’s downtown streets are far more walkable and sport planter boxes everywhere. Many downtown bike lanes — Chicago has 200 miles of buffered or protected on-street bike lanes — were on one-way streets and did not impede the traffic flow.
We also enjoyed a plethora of street performers — a young violinist who was performing to raise money for college and a very talented group of drummers called Drumline.
Of course Chicago is not without its problems.
On the city’s famous Magnificent Mile of tony shops, we saw entire families parked under blankets in the doorways of vacant buildings.
Panhandlers also ply their trade, many elderly war veterans.
Chicago’s murder rate to the end of June is nearly 10 times that of Toronto.
Nevertheless, in recent years, I have come to wonder why tourists from south of the border would spend their holidays in Toronto — other than because of the low Canadian dollar.
Mayor John Tory, when asked about the differences last week, said Toronto’s officials have done fairly well at planning a city and at establishing the way of life ensures people respect each other in Toronto.
“People come here because of opportunity and respect,” he said, taking a page from the Justin Trudeau playbook.
He added that Toronto has “lots to learn” from Chicago — about such projects as Millennium Park — but that other cities could learn from Toronto too.
I hope he doesn’t mean one of our premier tourist destinations — Yonge-Dundas Square, now taken over by the drug-addicted, after they’ve had their “safe” fix across the street in the Toronto public health safe injection site.
Construction and its debris is everywhere, poorly planned as ever, despite Tory’s repeated promises to get a better handle on it. Even our beautiful Don Valley trail system for walkers, joggers and cyclists — the Pan Am path for example — is rife with graffiti and the signage often confusing.
Our 56 km (35-mile) Martin Goodman trail by the Waterfront is chopped up and deteriorated in spots (much like our roads.)
Sadly, in the downtown section, the view is of a solid wall of condos and hotels, despite years of costly studies by Waterfront Toronto (the latest bright idea coming from Sidewalk Labs.)
I know Toronto can’t reclaim the land bordering Lake Ontario that has been claimed for condos but I came home from our weekend in Chicago wondering if Toronto can reclaim the same sense of place and pride we showed with the Raptors NBA win.
The potential is there.
But as I have remarked many times about King St., throwing a few Muskoka chairs along a street that was once thriving won’t solve our problems.
Chicago vs. Toronto, the facts
Chicago: Lori Lightfoot — a lawyer and first black female/openly gay mayor of Chicago
Toronto: John Tory — a former lawyer, political strategist and businessman.
Transit (subway/L train)
Chicago: 8 routes comprising 102 miles (165.4 km)
Toronto: 4 routes comprising 47.8 miles (76.9 km)
Chicago: Willis tower at 1,451 feet (442 metres) followed by the Trump tower at 1,362 feet (415 metres); Toronto: First Canadian Place at 978 feet (298 metres)
Murders to end of June 2019
Chicago: 200 miles (321 km) of on-street buffered and shared bike lanes; 18.5-mile (29 km) Lakefront trail
Toronto: 384 miles (617 km) of cycle tracks, white bike lanes, yellow contra flow lanes and signed routes.