Chicago Relocation

Take me down….to Chinatown

October 7, 2013

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Chicago neighborhoods
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John D’Ambrogio

A neighborhood that embraces its culture – Chinatown

My early morning runs often take me down past the South Loop to CHINATOWN. I really dig Chinatown. It’s a very urban, very cool area. Many of Chicago’s ethnic communities have in large part dispersed (Little Italy, Ukrainian Village, etc.).  But Chicago’s Chinatown still has largely maintained its culture and heritage and still has a vibrant residential community.

According to hearsay, our Chinatown is the second oldest in America.  Originally it was settled by Chinese fleeing from persecution in sunny CA. Wikipedia says that in 1869 the Chinese originally settled in Printer’s Row – on MY BLOCK actually. In 1912 things migrated a bit further south to Chinatown’s current location.  Oh these neighborhood overviews are so intertwined.  Of course now my block just has a hair salon and the Fed Building.  Obviously things have changed.

As usual Chinatown lives in multiple Chicago communities – i.e. it’s a part of the greater Armour Square community area.  The main drag starts at Wentworth and Cermak (22nd) and goes on about 4 blocks south. Wentworth and Cermak is the big corner for the New Year’s Parade – always a blast.  That’s the touristy piece (not to say it’s not cool and authentic).  There is also “Chinatown Square” which is really a space (32 acre community) anchored by a very 80s looking two story mall.  The mall is filled with every type of Chinese cuisine you can imagine plus some other little shops, beauty parlors, etc. Something tells me it’s more like what you’d find in….well in a town in China.  I cannot, however, say for sure.

On Cermak there is a GREAT piece of artwork you’ve just gotta see – the Nine Dragon Wall.  It’s a shortened version of a glazed tile wall in the Forbidden in City and one of only three replicas around the world. The original wall was created to highlight Chinese imperial power since nine is a prestigious number in Chinese culture and the dragon is a revered figure.

What to eat, where to eat? Well, everywhere and anywhere. You’ve got Chicago institutions like  Three Happiness, and Phoenix.  But don’t forget to go a block or two in and just wander Chinatown Square.  You can always walk in somewhere where no one speaks English and just point to stuff on the menu. That’s what Chinatown (and Chicago) is all about – exploring and embracing the culture.

There are also a number of “gift shops” – which are just what you might think. Touristy gift shops. But hey, they’re fun. The few little grocery stores  are great. Play it safe with an affordable bag of fortune cookies (or better yet, almond cookies) or live it up by asking what the heck those crazy green vegetables are over there – and buying some!

Now, a cool place where I hang with my kids is Ping Tom Park, over on 18th Street. It’s NOT touristy. It’s a huge park that runs along the river. There is this guy there who is a PRO with kites. Kind of scared the kids (and me) the first time since he talks a lot, but not in English. But he gently took our kites and brought them to new heights, with the addition of an official Chinatown Walgreens bag as a tail! It made for a great spring afternoon.

And in addition, Chinatown is the southernmost stop on the Chicago Water Taxi.  If you’re um..frugal…like me (and you’ve already taken the fantastic Chicago architectural boat tours) $7 will get you an all day pass on the water taxi. Start at Chinatown and ride all the way to Michigan Ave. and the bridge (and back….and forth….and back). Kids love it.  Of course I give free lectures on all the buildings so my kids kind of hate it now….  Regardless, chugging up and down the river is a great way to see the city, and this is the hands down most affordable way to go.

So come by boat, by train, or by car.  Check out Chinatown.