The Chicago Experience
By Dana Carman
Once a year, visitors from all over the world get the chance to not just see Chicago but experience it like never before. Over the 26.2 miles covered by the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, people of all ages and ethnicities traverse the city’s streets, passing through 29 unique neighborhoods that together create a tapestry of Chicago’s rich culture, history and beauty.
While some of these neighborhoods are anchored by widely-recognizable landmarks, others showcase their charm and character in the distinct shops, restaurants, businesses and residences that comprise them. From the architecture of the Loop to the murals on the walls of Pilsen, each neighborhood is its own chapter in Chicago’s story and the Marathon, its narrator.
The Marathon starts in one of Chicago’s most prominent parks, Grant Park, located just south of the New Eastside neighborhood. Grant Park is often referred to as Chicago’s “front yard,” and is home to the Art Institute and Millennium Park. Grant Park and the New Eastside factor prominently in the city’s history as most of it sits on landfill that was the Chicago Harbor as recently as 170 years ago. The New Eastside extends eastward from Michigan Avenue to Lake Michigan, and north of Grant Park to the Chicago River. The New Eastside features a unique three-level roadway system and is home to several residential and commercial high rises, such as the Aon Center and Prudential Building.
Moving north, the course runs into Streeterville, an energetic neighborhood that blends together luxury hotels, fabulous shopping, arts and fine dining. From the top of the famous John Hancock Center to the end of Navy Pier, Streeterville is a tourist’s paradise. Visitors can take in a show at the Lookingglass Theater in the gothic Old Water Tower or enjoy afternoon tea at the Drake Hotel. More, they can shop their hearts out along the shopper’s Mecca: the Magnificent Mile—eight blocks of more than 460 shops and boutiques. Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Burberry, Niketown, Apple, Crate & Barrel—the list of shops gracing North Michigan Avenue goes on and on.
Spectators watching in the Loop quickly understand why Chicago is considered a world-class architectural city. Well-known for its achievements, Chicago has deep roots in the history of the modern building and the marvels are on display for the first three miles of the race. The Loop has also long been known as the center of the business district, but over the years it has become a cultural center as well. With a thriving theater district alongside mainstay retail stores, restaurants, luxury residences, and several educational institutions as well as easy public transportation, the Loop is a dynamic, multi-functional district.
Continuing north, the course proceeds into what is known as Chicago’s Near North Side neighborhood. The term “Near North” also refers to the community of several neighborhoods that are located just north of the Loop. Spectators love this section of the course because of the ease with which they can see their runners, as miles four and 11 are in the Near North Side neighborhood and located just a block apart. Runners are treated to tree-lined streets filled with a mix of residences, shops, restaurants, parks, and educational institutions, such as the Loyola University downtown campus and The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago.
Next up is Lincoln Park, a mix of urban experience with residential flair according to Kim Schilf, president and CEO of the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce. In addition to a variety of retail and restaurant options, several cultural institutions are located in Lincoln Park, including the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Lincoln Park Conservatory, which are easily accessible from the sidelines of the Marathon course. Lincoln Park derives its name from the park it surrounds, once called Lake Park because of its close proximity to Lake Michigan. Following President Lincoln’s assassination it was renamed Lincoln Park.
It’s a hop, skip and a jump via the CTA (Chicago’s public transportation system, featuring the “L” or elevated train system) up to Wrigleyville, home of Wrigley Field, the second-oldest ballpark in the country and home field of the Chicago Cubs. The iconic stadium marks the northernmost point of the course in its eighth mile. Neighboring buildings offer a unique way to see Cubs games—from a rooftop. Surrounding the ballpark, the neighborhood offers a variety of sports-themed establishments to take a rest from cheering and enjoy a cold brew among the many Cubbies fans that live nearby.
From Wrigleyville, it’s a short walk to Lakeview East, a highly diverse and vibrant neighborhood with an “artistic gritty feel,” according to one resident. The area welcomes runners with the fifth course Aid Station on race day. Filled with families, singles, artists, and the location of Northhalsted, a locally recognized LGBTQ+ community, Lakeview East also features one of the biggest parties on the block on race day complete with music, dancing and costumes. The Aid Station at mile 9 brings out many members of the community, including parents and students from nearby Nettelhorst School, a public elementary school, which in partnership with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon hosts several of the elite runners in the days leading up to the event as they give presentations and answer questions from the children. But, the big draw to this mile marker is the cheerleaders—male members of the Frontrunners/Frontwalkers club who don matching skirts, shake pom poms and dance to the beat of a DJ.
Runners will loop back through Lincoln Park and visit one of its sub-neighborhoods, Park West. Stroll the streets of this lovely area and you’ll find historic homes neighboring boutiques and eateries along Clark Street. Located just west of Lake View Avenue, Park West is within steps of the many amenities of Lincoln Park, including North Pond, which shows off a magnificent view of Chicago’s skyline visible from the adjacent upscale restaurant of the same name.
Continuing south on the Marathon course, runners will find themselves at the gates of Old Town, which blends together cute boutiques, restaurants, theater and history in the form of many charming Victorian-era houses and buildings. Harboring St. Michael’s Church, one of the only buildings not completely destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Old Town hosts visitors through the 10th mile. Each June, the historic district, also known as the Old Town Triangle, as the streets that border it form the geometrical shape, hosts the country’s oldest juried outdoor art fair. The Old Town Merchants and Residents Association gathers a huge number of people together to welcome the runners at its cheering station in front of O’Brien’s restaurant on Wells Street in the heart of the community.
With no shortage of enthusiasm so far, runners cruise by a musical cheering station in the 12th mile hosted by residents, the Moody Bible Institute and the affiliated WMBI radio station. This lively spot is located in the River North neighborhood. Anchored by the Merchandise Mart, a giant showcase of commercial and residential design showrooms that sits along the Chicago River, River North is known as Chicago’s gallery district. Formerly an industrial neighborhood, River North now boasts the largest collection of art galleries in the United States outside of Manhattan. This eclectic neighborhood blends together new residential construction with warehouse loft-style condos, businesses, restaurants and entertainment.
Heading west, the runners pass through several neighborhoods comprising the Near West Side community. It’s here that the Daniel Burnham-designed Union Station featuring the majestic Great Hall can be found. Not far away is the United Center, home stadium of the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks. The first stop just west of the Loop is the aptly named West Loop, also known as West Loop Gate, a former manufacturing corridor turned residential and restaurant haven. Filled with stylish boutiques, fashionable restaurants, lofts, a meat-packing district and art galleries, the area has been compared to New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, says West Loop Community Organization executive director Martha Goldstein. The area is widely known for annually hosting the “World’s Largest Block Party,” a fundraising event for Old St. Patrick’s Church, the oldest public building in Chicago.
Greek culture and heritage is on proud display in Greektown, where Greek delicacies can be sampled and found at any number of restaurants and shops. Traditional Greek pavilions dot the area and the buildings reflect classic Greek characteristics. The Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center, located here, honors the Greek immigrant experience in America and examines the influence of Hellenic culture and people.
Marathoners might be tempted to stop for an extra carb fix in Little Italy, also known as University Village because of the large number of educational institutions nearby, including the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Marathon runs straight through the heart of this best-of-both-worlds neighborhood on Taylor Street, which is home to many of the city’s Italian dining options. A well-known sculpture of Joe DiMaggio stands in the piazza, which on race day also houses a DJ playing a variety of Italian-themed music, such as Sinatra or Italian disco—a perpetual favorite is the theme from the movie, Rocky. The University Village Association adorns the 126 ornamental street lamps with Italian flags and if all that cheering makes you hungry, there are plenty of places to relax and enjoy some of the local cuisine with a glass of vino.
Nearby is the Illinois Medical District, the nation’s largest urban medical district, which houses The University of Illinois Medical Center, The John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, Rush University Medical Center, and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center among other healthcare, research and technology facilities on its 560 acres.
As the field makes its way back east in mile 20, they pass through Pilsen, Chicago’s largest Latino community, by way of 18th Street, a lively street made up of shops, restaurants and Mexican bakeries. Local residents and businesses come out in force to welcome the Marathon to the neighborhood with festivity, Latin music, dress and dancing. Pilsen is well-known for its vibrant and socially relevant wall murals and has been central in the muralist movement through the years. The course continues through the center of East Pilsen, also known as the Chicago Arts District, which comprises artists, galleries and other creative businesses. Each fall, visitors flock to this area for the annual PilsenEast Artists’ Open House, featuring more than 150 artists and 65 venues open to the public. The neighborhood’s unique alleyway gardens are also well worth a visit.
The dancing doesn’t stop in Pilsen. Further east, another festive and bright environment awaits runners and spectators as they enter Chinatown through the Chinatown Gate situated in the pivotal 22nd mile. Visitors are greeted by the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce’s cheering extravaganza, which includes traditional Chinese music and dragon-costumed dancers, signs, cowbells and a huge crowd. Chicago’s Chinatown is the largest in the Midwest with 8,000 residents and 58 restaurants co-existing in a 10-block radius. Runners should take note of the symbolic red painted on the gate and elsewhere as they run through Chinatown—in Chinese culture, red symbolizes good luck.
One of Chicago’s biggest rivalries, Cubs fans versus White Sox fans, can rest on Marathon Sunday as the course runs by both teams’ stadiums. Sox residence, U.S. Cellular Field, located just past mile 23, is located in the Bridgeport neighborhood. Bridgeport is also known as the birthplace of Richard M. Daley and his father Richard J. Daley. It is a close-knit, older community with a small-town feel evident in its churches, pubs and proud residents.
Runners make the turn to “head home” toward the finish at 35th and State Street, which is also the site of Park Boulevard, a planned residential development encompassing 37 acres of homes, shops, parks and a neighborhood school.
Running north on Michigan Avenue, marathoners pass the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), adjacent to Bronzeville, a neighborhood steeped in African-American history and culture. It is often called “Birthplace of the Blues.” Bronzeville’s Children’s Museum is the first and only African-American children’s museum in the country. Runners will also catch a glimpse of the Gap, a section of Bronzeville deriving its name from its placement in the “gap” between two high-rise developments. This historic section merges old and new, such as a set of Frank Lloyd Wright row houses adjacent to modern construction. Similarly, South Commons, located just north of the Gap, is a revitalized community of aged high-rise buildings gone condo.
A little over a mile from the finish is the Prairie District. Just east of Michigan Avenue between 16th and 22nd Streets, certain sections of Prairie Avenue became fashionable neighborhoods marked by grand homes after the Great Fire of 1871. Many of the mansions have been torn down, but several of the original buildings remain.
When runners and spectators enter the South Loop, they know they’re close to the finish. The South Loop was one of Chicago’s first residential districts as well as a bookmaking hub, which is the neighborhood now known as Printer’s Row. Development abounds here, most notably Central Station, an 80-acre residential community named for a train station once located here. The South Loop offers several cultural attractions nearby, such as the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and Field Museum.
Over the course of 26.2 miles, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon weaves these dynamic, individual neighborhoods into the tale of one city. It is a story about spirit, about achievement and about the importance of community. This is the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. This is Chicago.