I spent the first weekend of 2019 in Chicago, attending the American Historical Association annual conference. Chicago is, relatively speaking, not that far from Ann Arbor—about four and a half hours by train or bus, somewhat less if you can bear the drive, which I can’t—but I have not been there once since moving to Michigan. Going to the major conference of my discipline seemed as good a reason as any to finally trek down to the Windy City. Although I wasn’t on a panel at the AHA, I volunteered to speak at the Career Fair and made my travel arrangements.
Planning a conference for Chicago in January is a risk: people who live in warmer states don’t get excited about heading to the frozen Midwest, and weather can derail travel plans, leaving session rooms deserted. All in all, the AHA got incredibly lucky this year, as Chicago was cold—and, yes, sometimes very windy—but mostly featured blue skies and sunshine for the four days of the meeting. “Cold but clear” is my idea of perfect winter weather, and I spent Sunday morning on an invigorating walk through Grant Park and alongside Lake Michigan (where I saw people running in shorts and t-shirts—it wasn’t freezing, but it wasn’t that warm).
Although I didn’t get a Chicago hot dog or popcorn this time (gross oversight on my part), I ate some really excellent meals at restaurants suggested by locals. Author Susan Blumberg-Kason took me to Fat Rice, which serves Macanese food—sort of Chinese, sort of Portuguese, all delicious (especially the egg tarts sold by the bakery). I met physicist-writer Yangyang Cheng for brunch at Little Goat Diner, the first diner I’ve ever seen where reservations are required—understandably, as the food is incredibly good. And before my wind-whipped walk on Sunday morning, I took myself out to breakfast at Yolk, a local breakfast chain that I’ve now been to on all three of my Chicago trips. I did have deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s, but that made me decide once and for all that I’m never going to favor Chicago-style pizza over a pie with super-thin crust, lots of sauce, and a relatively scant amount of cheese. Sorry, Lou.
This was only my third trip to the city, and none of those visits has been long enough. Yet as I walked around I felt that Chicago seemed strangely familiar—and then I realized that’s because it’s the setting of a seemingly disproportionate number of movies and television shows I’ve seen in my life. I started trying to make a list and have so far come up with: Perfect Strangers and Family Matters, ER, Chicago Hope, The Good Wife, While You Were Sleeping, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Chicago, Never Been Kissed, The Untouchables, My Best Friend’s Wedding, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Wayne’s World, parts of Boardwalk Empire and Suits, and, of course—first, last, and always—The Blues Brothers.
I’m sure this is a combination of Chicago being the right setting for a story (The Untouchables and Boardwalk Empire, for example, both need the backdrop of Chicago during Prohibition) and the efforts of the Chicago Film Office to attract productions to the city. Still, it was a striking realization as I came to understand why a city that I’ve spent so little time in felt so recognizable.