The Magnificent Mile

a dolar a day on michigan avenue

Loyola Towers by Water Tower in ChicagoWhen I first left St. Mary’s college after four years of work and study, I hadn’t quite yet earned a bachelor’s degree, but once Jay and I became engaged, I was determined to move to Chicago to be closer to him. As I had no job and no savings, I needed a truly cheap place to live. Jay found just the thing for me – one block of the corner of Chicago and Michigan Avenues. The rent was seven dollars a week, an unbeatable bargain even half a century ago. My room, which I shared with three young women I had never met before, was on the sixteenth floor of Loyola Towers. It housed the downtown campus of Loyola University and Catholic Women’s Club; a residence where Catholic single women could live “safe” men – whatever that meant.

The lobby, lounge and dining room of the club occupied the twelfth floor above which were three stories of one-bedroom apartments. These inhabitants of those apartments tended to be older, silver-haired maiden ladies.  But the large dormitory space which took up the entire sixteenth floor housed sixteen young twenty-somethings in four miniscule four bedrooms. We all shared a huge, old-fashioned bathroom with four shower stalls, Corner of Michigan and Chicagoeight sinks, and enclosed toilets. It also served as our social center since the space had no living room. Another perk of this unique living space was that for an additional eight dollars a week, you could eat two meals a day in the dining room.  But that was too rich for my blood and I depended on Jay to keep me fed.

penniless millionaires

From the day I moved in, Jay and I discovered the lure of Michigan Avenue. That was a year before the John Hancock Tower would soar 100 stories into the sky at a cost of $100 million (1965) dollars. So, the avenue we first fell in love with was a dowager duchess, down at the heels and living on the memories of past glories.

The street that Jay and I strolled in the early days of our marriage was quiet and uncrowded. We considered it our own private city paradise.  We loved it just as it was. Our favorite restaurant was

Diner booths
Photo by Lee Carledge

the Charmet’s Diner, where the two of us could get a complete meal for under five dollars.  That was when we drink milk with our meals instead of wine. And amazingly Jay had eyes only for me because the diner was a favorite of the students from the modeling school upstairs. We had no desire to see the “Boule Mich” become popular.

Jay had begun and ended his work day at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Michigan Avenue every summer since he graduated high school. He worked in the Chicago Avenue pumping station across the street from the Chicago Water Tower. Because it was one of the only buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1871, the Water Tower has become synonymous with Chicago’s momentous rebirth after the fire.

a grand plan that went awry

In 1909, city businessmen developed a long-term plan that envisioned the section of Michigan Avenue that ran from the Chicago River to Lake Michigan as the equivalent of Paris’

Paris avenues
Photo by Ashwathy M

Champs-Elysees. First, they had to lobby successfully for a bridge to connect the north and south ends of the street. When that was complete in 1920, the Wrigley Building, patterned on the Seville Cathedral’s Giralda Tower, opened, housing 21 stories of commercial and retail establishments. Next rose the gothic Tribune Tower, followed rapidly by several other equally ornate white stone edifices, including the beautiful Fourth Presbyterian Church near the top of the avenue. This building would be right at home in the English countryside. The ground floors of these buildings filled with sophisticated shops and the sidewalks were crowded with elegant shoppers in the daring new styles of the Roaring Twenties.

Wrighley Building and Tribune Tower
Photo by Gerson Repreza

Then the stock market crashed and so did Michigan Avenue. No new buildings appeared. Stores were shuttered. Shoppers disappeared.

never give up

In 1947, real estate developer Arthur Rubloff coined the term, “The Magnificent Mile” and set about its rejuvenation. Over the next twenty years, stores sporadically renovated and re-opened. Some new ones were constructed. A few restaurants appeared, but the avenue couldn’t compete either with the flagship stores of Chicago’s Loop or the new bustling suburban malls.

In December, Jay and I married and moved north to Rogers Park, but since it was absolutely free entertainment strolling Michigan Avenue ranked near the top of our weekend pastimes. Three years later, when we had both finished school and both had full time jobs. We moved and once again the famed boulevard was but a short walk from our own front door. Our loft on Wabash 7474 WabashAvenue had been built in the 1920s as part of a building designed to house artists. We loved not just the soaring ceilings and high windows, but the genuine cork floors and the tiny wood-burning fireplace. As a bonus we could crawl out our window onto a rooftop and sunbathe. Best of all, “our street” was just a block away.

always there, always waiting

Life as parents pulled us away from the loft but not from Michigan Avenue. Like many Chicagoans, including the majority of our friends, we often decided that fair-weather days in the Windy City held so much allure that it would be foolish to leave our hometown during late spring, summer or early autumn.  Better, we agreed, to escape during a dreary November or a blizzardy January than to leave during a brilliant day in July.  There were the parks. Even watching the Cubs lose was fun in Wrigley Field’s $1-bleacher seats. Grant Park outdoor concerts offered

Cub cap at Wrigley Field
Photo by Blake Guidry

free music that cost a fortune during the season. And, for Jay and me, a stroll down Michigan Avenue was still the best possible way to spend a day off.  If we could have had our way, it would have remained as quiet and uncrowded as it had been in the early days of our marriage.

People with far more influence than we, however, saw things quite differently. In the mid-1970s, Michigan Avenue found its answer to the suburban malls. Water Tower Place, the country’s first urban vertical mall, introduced a multi-purpose use of space containing retail, dining, entertainment, hotel and residential units. “In an attempt to avoid a canyon-like effect, this monumental structure was built with graduated setbacks that allow light to peek over the building tops and preserve the flowers and trees on the Avenue.” (

into the 21st century with a new generation

Water Tower Place ChicagoThis initiated a building boom that continues today, but Jay and I were not jaded enough to let the evolution of the grand dame end our love affair with her. We may have preferred that the crowds were smaller, but we couldn’t stay away any more than all those other folks could. It is possible to pass a glorious day on Michigan Avenue and run through a thousand dollars. One can also enjoy a delightful day, spending practically nothing.

Over the last half-century, we’ve done both. We loved the shopping sprees and treasure those days that were just for dreaming, like the one we spent entirely in art galleries absorbed in beautiful pieces priced far beyond our means. Or the times, our splurge has been to share a hot fudge sundae at Ghirardelli’s even though we consider the ice cream parlor a foreign intruder. One of best moments was toasting my sixtieth birthday while our grandson Bryce, just learning to walk, wobbly balanced around the elegant furnishings of the Drake Hotel lobby.  I was so happy to be sharing my favorite place with the next generation.

In some magical manner that can’t quite be put in words, Michigan Avenue triggers our best feelings of “this is us.” I picture the Water Tower and a thousand other joyful, funny, mysterious images crowd into my imagination. If I could “turn, turn, turn,” I’d wish myself right back there, right now.

Chicago Skyline and Beach
Photo by Meguel Angel Sanz

If you could be anywhere you wanted to be at this very moment, where would it be?

Some Like It Hot

Palm trees at sunset
irreconciable differences

Coming in not quite sweating, but pretty warm from my morning

Cat in red blanket
Photo by Francesco Ungaro

walk on a recent morning I opened our front door to a blast of heat.  My beloved sat on the living room couch, cuddled under a blanket with a space heater going full blast.  It was July 8. I just shook my head.  I knew better than to be flabbergasted. Our incompatibility about what constitutes a comfortable, livable temperature is well over fifty years in the making.

This discordance is drastic enough to almost fall into the Person typing on computercategory of irresoluble differences, but not quite. One lesson love has taught us is that in truly committed relationships “for better, for worse” sometimes means “for hotter, for colder.”  This irreconcilability rears its menacing head both at home and abroad. During this time of enforced seclusion, Jay  keeps warm in the overheated (my definition) living room while I work at my desk in our frigid (his definition) bedroom. I leave the windows wide open. We have discovered this is a difference shared by many couples. Most, like Jay and I, have found ways to live with it.

which way to go?

The topic, however, always gets laid on the table whenever we

Beach Resort
Photo by Claudia Altamimi

plan a trip. It is no exaggeration to say that for Jay, any place without palm trees isn’t worth the money and effort it  takes to get there. I have a much broader range of dream destinations. Hot beaches falls to the bottom of the list. Various compromises over the years have led to three ways of solving this vacation conundrum.

every sunset a celebration

The first of these is the time-honored “separate vacation.” For us, that took a very special form. For over a decade, every February, Jay would head to Florida to help his retired mother celebrate her birthday, which coincided closely with the President’s Day holiday. (Her actual birthday was February 12.  All through her childhood, it coincided with Lincoln’s Birthday, a national holiday and a day off school.  She did not take well to that date being clumped together with Washington’s birthday.) Having shaken off the wintry blasts and slushy snow of Chicago, Jay reveled in Florida’s balmy winter.  He and his mother packed their suitcases in his car, headed out the driveway of her condo building, flipped a coin and headed in the direction indicated by the toss.

Street in Key West
Photo by Brian Urso

Often, they ended up in Key West,  at the very tip of the chain of islands off the southern tip of Florida. There they could enjoy not just pleasantly warm weather, but fantastic sunsets and an amazing night life – a passion his mom didn’t have many other opportunities to indulge. Among Key West’s many bars, they had favorite haunts they returned to year after year. There, they drank a lot of margaritas. While sharing stories with friends they’d never see again, they listened to the Jazz Age music they both adored. In other years, they visited the west coast of Florida or went to Disney World.  One year they even ended up in New Orleans – a story I’ll have to let him tell you sometime.

some like it cold

Where was I? In Minnesota.  I took advantage of his escape to the south to visit my sister, Mary Beth Welter. She lived in a rambling Craftsman-style home in old St. Paul, just a few blocks away from the elegant Summit Avenue. Many years it was as cold as twelve below zero.  I loved it.  Minnesotans know how to deal with cold, snow and ice.  They revel in it. In fact, if I got lucky, I landed in the Elephant ice sculptureTwin Cities in time for Winter Carnival, the northern version of Mardi Gras. That meant more fun than we could possibly take advantage of.  There were bar-stool ski races, a giant snow slide, the Minnesota State snow sculpting competition, polar plunges, a snow maze and snow mountain play area.  Best of all was the fabulous King Boreas Grand Day Parade that we could walk to from her home.

bread and chocolate

But it didn’t have to be winter carnival time for me to enjoy being in a city that embraced the cold. Just fitting myself into the rhythms of a family other than my own was a respite.  I woke before everyone and bundled myself in layers of warm clothes. I slipped out the front and hiked the half mile past Coffee cake and coffeedozens of Craftsman Style bungalows, each one unique.  My destination was the steamy bakery, Bread and Chocolate. There I settled into my favorite corner chair to enjoy dark, strong coffee and pastries so mouth-watering I get hungry just writing about them.

I remained at the bakery, alternating between watching the morning crowd and reading a novel for an hour or so. Once I felt certain my nieces and nephew were off to school, I ordered fresh pastries – chocolate croissants for me and pecan rolls for her.  On the way back I walked down Grand Avenue, strolling past shops specializing in everything from kites to jewelry.

Store fronts
Photo by Becca Dilley

My visits signaled a break of sorts for my sister as well.  She ran a daycare center in her home. By the time, I arrived back at her home, the four children she cared for had arrived. Their parent had taken off for work and the kids were settled into morning activities.  Beth and I could enjoy a long chat over coffee, a change from her usual day-long toddler conversations. Then, weather permitting – and in

Plowing snow in St. Paul
Photo by Caroline Yang

Minnesota that is a very broad range – we took the toddlers to the park. After lunch, they settled down for nap time, giving us time for another cozy sister-to sister chat.

families are forever

Around three-thirty, Beth’s four children streamed in from school, shedding boots, mittens, scarves, and jackets in a stream across the living and dining room. Chaos reigned until the daycare kids were picked up by their parents after work. During that time, I escaped to the snug upstairs enclosed porch that served as a guest bedroom to read, nap or call Jay. When the front door closed after the last daycare family, I returned to the kitchen to help prepare dinner, a lively affair at which the Welter children vied with one Green Mill pizzeriaanother to grab their parents’ attention.  On my last night there, we would all go out to the Green Mill for pizza.  A Chicagoan never admits that anywhere else in the world has better pizza than the Windy City. But I really enjoyed every bite of every Green Mill Il Primo, I was privileged to share with my sister and her family.

absence makes the heart grow fonder

The next day I boarded the Empire Builder at the train station for the seven-hour journey back to Chicago.  Traveling by train was one of the top perks of the trip for me. I loved having breakfast along the Mississippi River and often shared that meal with people from outside the States. I arrived home, relaxed and refueled. At home I was the engine and the energy that kept that engine going.  Having an opportunity to spend a week where I had simply been a passenger was, for me, as refreshing as a trip to a luxury resort.

Jay and I were always thrilled to see each other on Sunday.  A week apart was more than enough.  He had had his palm tree fever somewhat relieved.  I had been energized by my foray into the frozen tundra.  Time to get back to “normal,” whatever that was.

That’s one way we dealt with our differences over what constituted an ideal getaway.  Other blogs will let you in on some more solutions we discovered.

Christ Taylor explores interesting ways that other couples have solved this problem in his article, “See You in Two Weeks.”

Winter Carnival
Photo by Ethan Hu

“People are learning that it’s OK to rewrite the rules of marriage for their own needs, and not just do what their grandparents did. It’s a gift my husband gives me, to be able to fly solo once in a while.” Iris Krasnow, The Secret Lives of Wives.

When have you and a dear one clashed on where to go for a getaway?  How did you solve the conundrum? I’d really like to know.

To Ukraine with Love

American flag in field
For better, for worse, but not for a pandemic

Love means being enough for one another – at least, some of the time. That is the most potent lesson, Jay and I are taking away from the pandemic. From the moment we first became a committed partnership, we have instinctively known that we could not fulfill each other’s every need for companionship. As a “sheltered-at-home” older couple, we have been thrust into a place where the principle won’t hold. Jule and jay

The Fourth of July celebration weekend that just passed really brought that home to us. The holiday found us in our own backyard, no fireworks, no BBQ, no gathered family and friends – just raising a glass to each other and toasting the freedom of being alive. The day contrasted sharply with every other Independence Day tribute I can remember. Some have been fairly laid back and others have been spectacularly festive. None has been as staid as this one.

lots of way to celebrate
Fireworks over Chicago
Photo by Antonio Gabola

Being quarantined has spurred me to write these past weeks about escape through travel.  In the past, whenever we remained at home in Chicago for July 4, it was a grand affair.  We joined Jay’s sailing buddies on the deck of the Columbia Yacht Club for the traditional feast and an upfront seat of the spectacular fireworks display the city set off at the end of Navy Pier. And behind us in Grant Park music by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra resounded across the harbor synchronizing John Phillips Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” with the grand finale of the fireworks.

Fairly often, however, we were traveling during the first week of July, which means we shared other people’s traditional festivities. In the summer of 1991, we left behind our whole way of life to explore another world.

an alien place

During our childhood and into our college years, the Russian nation and the other Soviet Republics, were as remote to us as though they had been on another planet. They lay behind the “Iron

Iron curtain
Photo by Artem Sapegin

Curtain,” the frightful barrier between what we understood to be the “free world” and the world of Communist oppression.

Yet, Jay had fallen in love with Russian literature in college and studied Russian so that he might be able to read it in its original language.  Even so, he never believed he might have the opportunity to visit Russia itself. That is how forbidden it felt to us.  And then suddenly it seemed, the curtain fell. (The whole socio-political history behind the dissolution of the iron curtain is far beyond a mere blog. If you are curious about it, I would recommend  the clear, concise The Dissolution of the Soviet Union by Myra M. Immell (Editor) )

for love of tolstoy
Palace in St. Petersburg
Photo by Dusan Smetana

In January, 1991, I slugged through dirty snow in the face of freezing west winds and into the overly warm interior of De Paul University’s Schmidt Hall.  Being almost anywhere but in the middle of a dreary Chicago winter would have sounded appealing at that moment.  So, it’s not at all surprising that the notice on the bulletin board at the foot of the escalator stopped me in my tracks. “28 Days in Russia. Experience the Land of the Midnight Sun. See St. Petersburg. Moscow. Kiev. $2850.”

Here was my chance to gift Jay with the dream of a lifetime. At the bottom of the poster the name of the sponsoring professor and his phone extension were printed in bold black letters.  My hands were too full to write anything down. So, I just kept repeating the numbers to myself until I reached my fourth-floor office. I tossed my backpack and other paraphernalia on a chair, shrugged out of my coat and, still standing, punched his extension into my phone.

mystique of the unknown

Every detail of the journey Dr. Richard Farkas laid out for me was a further enticement. The trip began in St. Petersburg (which had only that year regained its ancient name) during the time of year when the sun never set. From there we’d fly to Moscow. After three days in Moscow, where we would witness the U.S.S.R.’s first democratic election, the group would fly to Kiev and

Phot by Serge Kutuzov

board a river boat for a cruise of the Dnieper River all the way to the Black Sea. Dr. Farkas’ excitement crackled across the line. I listened as a child does to a fairy tale, but this was a story I could actually enter into.

Our journey turned out to be even more magical than I could have imagined. Were I to include all the wondrous moments we experienced, this would turn into a travel blog – and that is not its purpose. Rather my focus is to examine the past in the light of the present to see what they teach me when they sit side by side.

a ukrainian fourth of july

Whenever our American Independence Day celebration rolls around, one particular day of that trip captures my imagination again with the vitality of a stage play.  I still see the colors, hear the sounds, and taste the foods of Fourth of July in the Ukraine.

Our travel companions, who all had some connection to De Paul University, were a motley and delightful crew, ranging from a school janitor to an Illinois Supreme Court judge. And we all loved partying as much as we loved traveling. Every night after a day’s excursion, we gathered to swap tales over vodka, which we had discovered was cheaper than water. When the Fourth of July was imminent, we wondered if we would have to skip the usual celebrations since we were 5,000 miles from “America.”  But Dick, as Professor Farkas had come to be called, had a much better plan. Our river boat was moored for three days in Kiev to allow us to see everything that lovely city had to offer. The final day was July 4.

Dnieper River, Kiev
Photo by Robert Anasch

On that day, the American Consulate in Kiev threw an Independence Day celebration to which we had all been invited.  The picnic took place along the banks of the Dnieper River. To all intents and purposes, it was a true old-fashioned American BBQ. Red-and-white checked table clothes covered long picnic tables. Blazing grills cooked hamburgers and sausages – although they tasted quite different than anything we’d had at home. Cold beers stuck out from deep stashes of ice in giant buckets. And, of course, there was a small bar where a guy in jeans (not easily come by in Russia in those days) was willing to concoct any beverage you could suggest. A small band played patriotic favorites.  Plus, we received red, white and blue baseball caps, embroidered with July 4, 1991, Kiev.

they were beautiful dreams

The counsel gave a touching speech about the growing accord between the United States and the U.S.S.R. and waxed eloquently about the growing freedom for the Russian peoples.  I wish I could remember what he said because my throat constricts when I remember what high hopes, we had for the future of democracy at the beginning of the 1990s.  Yet, as I write this their president has just acquired the right to preside until 2036, and my own country’s president wields his powers like a despot rather than the people’s representative.

picnic -large gathering
Photo by David Tod McCarty

At that time, I was not alone in my optimism. As we partied along the banks of the river, the people of Kiev sat along the hillside on either side.  Some groups of families had picnics with them.  Others simply viewed the American celebration as though it were a spectacle put on to entertain them.  Maybe it was to some extent.  In less than two months, on August 24, 1991, the Ukraine would declare her freedom from the U.S.S.R., an act that would encourage several other former Soviet Republics to revolt as well.

Was all that optimism misplaced? What the world has since witnessed is not a resounding evolution of democracy across the globe. Certainly not. Things are considerably messier than that. Scary much of the time.  Encouraging every once in a while. Still, I smile as I recall that wonderful day almost thirty years ago.  This year I feast on memories rather than barbecue.

What Fourth of July celebrations do you remember with special fondness?

low angle of statue of liberty
Photo by Burgess Milner

”It is necessary to fully revive in the party the atmosphere of principled attitude, openness, discussion, criticism and self-criticism, conscious discipline, party comradeship and unconditional personal responsibility and business-like approach.” Mikhail Gorbahev, June 18, 1988