Neighbors are often strangers in our modern world, and strangers are to be feared. Yet an unidentified person with whom I have no ties is standing by to spend up to four hours showing me around his or her home town, a major U.S. city, for free.
What's more, there are 180 volunteers who do this for the Chicago Greeter program. It's an idea copied more than two years ago from, of all places, New York City. Now two Australian cities -- Melbourne and Adelaide -- have started matching homegrown volunteers with visitors from around the world. The volunteers, I hear, are filled with civic pride and just want to help outsiders enjoy the places they love. It's enough to restore a cynic's faith in humanity.
I happen to be in need of a little faith restoration, so I go to the Chicago Greeter Web site and fill out a request form.
Ha! I knew there'd be a catch. Turns out I must choose from 68 options. Twenty-seven neighborhoods are listed, as well as 41 themed tours. There are tours that focus on African-American heritage. There is Latin Chicago, Jewish Chicago and Polish, Irish, German, and Gay and Lesbian Chicago. You can request a free tour on art, architecture, antiques, food, shopping, museums, literary sites, sports or children's activities, to name a few. The choices pose a quandary. For example, what's a gay Jewish architect from Brazil to do?
Ah! An easy out: I check "Greeters Choice." A day later, I get an e-mail confirming a match. I am to meet my greeter in the downtown Chicago Cultural Center. From there, we'll explore the Lincoln Park neighborhood, including the zoo and the Lincoln Park Conservatory.
The center, I soon discover, should be the first stop for every visitor. Greeter Nancy McDaniel helps me gather brochures and says we have to see the building before heading out.
Finished in 1897, it originally served as Chicago's first public library, she tells me. Clearly, people in those days respected books. Fine marble and carved wood in a room called the Preston Bradley Hall reflect light filtering through a 38-foot stained-glass dome thought to be the largest Tiffany dome in the world. The dome is worth an estimated $35 million, McDaniel says. The building hosts numerous free concerts throughout the year in its elegant rooms, including a cafe with walls of windows overlooking the city skyline.
A window in the hall looks straight out to Millennium Park, which had its grand opening in July. McDaniel says we have to stop there on the way to Lincoln Park.
"To me, it's Chicago's most spectacular new attraction, and one of its very best," she says. "I and most others are most terribly proud of it. Very gifted people created from scratch something magnificent."
That's a hard billing to live up to, but it would be impossible for even the city's greatest boosters to exaggerate the appeal of Millennium Park. If there is a better public space in the world, I've never seen it.
Nearly half a billion dollars was spent on the 24.5-acre park along Michigan Avenue. In winter, visitors can ice skate there. In the other three seasons, they can hear concerts in a Frank Gehry-designed band shell that is more like a sculpture that happens to include great acoustics, 4,000 seats and lawn space for 7,000 people. One end of the park is a garden whose lead landscape architect, Kathryn Gustafson, designed the Princess Diana memorial in London.
It's worth a trip to Chicago just to see two of the massive sculptures in the park. One, by Anish Kapoor, is a 110-ton piece of polished steel that is basically a 33-foot-high 3-D mirror that reflects the skyline and funhouse images of all who come to take a close-up look.
The other is a fountain area that includes two 50-foot glass and brick towers. The sides of the towers are covered with giant LED screens that periodically display the face of one of 1,000 Chicago residents. Before freezing weather sets in, water cascades down the sides of the towers. At regular intervals, water shoots from the pursed lips of the faces shown on the towers, to the delight of kids who play around them.
On the two-block walk to the elevated train that will take us to Lincoln Park, I discover the tourism bureau is even paying for my round-trip fare. During the ride, McDaniel points out the neighborhoods and attractions worth a later stop on my own. Suggestions include a gallery district called River North.
"They tried to get people to call the area SuHu, because it's around Superior Street, but happily the name didn't stick," McDaniel says.
The greeter program will take a single person and groups of up to six. If you fail to plan ahead, you can try for a spot in the InstaGreeter program, which offers free one-hour walking tours of downtown. The city's tourism office also provides, for a $25 or $50 fee, neighborhood and special interest tours by motorcoach.
On my tour, I'm quickly beginning to feel like I have a new friend. McDaniel, I learn, grew up in the Chicago suburbs and has been living downtown since finishing college. After recently retiring early, at the age of 50, she started a part-time business selling African art that she collects on trips to Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She also volunteers at the zoo and as an usher at Chicago theater productions, is president of the board of directors of the city's Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, and takes at least one yearly trip as a volunteer with Earthwatch, a scientific research group. Why does she volunteer to take strangers around town?
"Because I'm just mad for Chicago. I love this city, and am terribly proud of it," she says. "It gets better and better and more beautiful each year, and I like to show it off to people." Even before the greeter program existed, she says, she had "this thing" that would happen when she would see people on Chicago streets holding a map and looking confused.
"I invariably go up to them, because I have almost an obsession: I want people visiting here to go home and say, 'Chicago is such a beautiful city and the people are so friendly. Who knew?'" Sure, Chicago gets a lot of visitors, she says. Still, she thinks it's underrated and should be higher on people's must-see list of world-class cities.
I haven't even yet reached Lincoln Park, which is McDaniel's favorite neighborhood in her favorite city. Yet already, I'm sold. Chicago really is a beautiful city, and the people are so friendly. Who knew?
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