Great cities aren't best seen through car windows

September 18, 2011 

Columbus and Chicago don’t have a lot in common. Most of the things they do have in common are to the credit of both.

My family recently spent four days in Chicago, a place I’d never been. The trip came partly as a result of my wife’s job, which paid for the first two nights’ hotel stay and thus made the whole thing affordable. Or so we rationalized. We’d worry about the bills later. (OK, now “later” is … well, now.)

It was fantastic, partly because the weather was near perfect even when it rained, which it did a little the first two days. My whole perception of Chicago might be different if I had gone there in January, with a daytime high of minus 3 and a 40-knot wind howling off Lake Michigan. But for this mid-September long weekend, it was one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen, and that includes San Francisco.

Like Columbus, it has a river and a riverwalk. And although my idea of “river” is more Chatt than Chi, the city’s riverfront is definitely cool. Chicago and Columbus both get it: A river is a precious asset -- promote it to the max.

We were also struck by how much green and color there is, even in the middle of town. Of course there are grungy and scary parts of this city, like any other city. But when your first impression is Lincoln Park or Grant Park or the Museum Campus, your sense is not so much of a city with greenspace in it, but of greenspace with a city rising out of it. Lincoln Park Zoo is a botanical garden that just happens to have exotic animals strolling around.

Speaking of strolling around, Chicago is a very pedestrian-friendly city (again, when the climate is on the survivable side of arctic) and the parts of downtown we saw seemed made for walking. This is a quality that good cities of all sizes should have, and that too many have ignored, abandoned or ruined. Columbus is still a mostly walkable city. Atlanta, sadly, is not -- and it ought to be.

Atlanta also isn’t a city where public transit is usually a matter of choice. Neither is Columbus, although we might not be big enough. Neither, for that matter, is any Southern city I’m aware of, and that’s a shame. Our Yankee counterparts don’t have many advantages over us, but I’ll give them this one: Many Northern cities have a commuter mindset, and public transit that is user-friendly, affordable and incredibly convenient. When $14 gets you three days worth of air-conditioned rides to everywhere in greater Chicago you might want to go, it’s hard not to think of those bumper-to-bumper Atlanta logjams involving 300,000 overheating cars, each with one person inside. If I ever drive to Chicago, I’ll find the first CTA station, park in a long-term lot, hop the El into town and not even think about the car again until I head for home.

Finally, every great city should have enthusiastic ambassadors. Yeah, there was the inevitable handful of rude jerks you find everywhere, including here. (A gang of aggressive sidewalk skateboard showoffs gave us the unexpected pleasure of seeing one of them do a butt-busting wipeout on the asphalt; a cluster of running, stomping, pounding, screaming, utterly incorrigible brats and oblivious parents at the Shedd Aquarium would have made the Pope seriously reconsider birth control.)

But in almost every other instance, we encountered Chicagoans who love Chicago, and want everybody else to love it as well. We mentioned to our server at a restaurant that it was our first time there, and a few minutes later the manager showed up bearing dessert -- on the house. During our walk through town the next night we ducked out of the rain into a hotel and asked the first person we saw where a good nearby restaurant was. She graciously gave us explicit directions to a place a couple of blocks away where we were served one of the best Italian dinners we’d ever had, and where the maitre d’ engaged us in spirited conversation. His accent was so thick none of us could understand a word he said, but the friendliness seemed sincere.

Columbus isn’t Chicago. It never will be and should never want to be. But it has a river, and a university, and good food (not enough, but we’re getting there), and a lively downtown, and greenspace, and places where you not only can walk but want to. This is a place that is doing some of what Chicago has done right and avoiding some of what Atlanta has done wrong. We could do worse.

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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