The sprawl isn't as bad as in the urban areas of California or Texas. By the time you reach the inner suburbs, Brookfield, Cicero, the neighborhoods very much take on the look of any midtown. Somewhere in Chicago proper is a massive junkyard, slightly to the northwest of where Jurgis Rudkis's Packingtown was. The line comes into Union Station along a large stack of tracks with chunks of industrial brickabrack lying all about the ground. Not an impressive enterence to the Loop by any means. But still, there was the Sears Tower.
It was the afternoon rush hour when I got off the train; 5:30 P.M. but damned if this place isn't well-designed, it's easy to move about quickly even when it's crowded.
The Art-Deco architectural touches are very nice, but beyond that the place has the same generic anywhere look you could find in any major metro train station, airport, or shopping mall for that matter. The corned newsstands with Cigar Aficionado and The New York Times on display, the food courts with the mix of national and somewhat less than culturally defining local chains, a little bar whose "Irishness" was denoted by green neon lighting and servers wearing green vests under their jackets.
But the cultural sterility has a strange sort of appropriateness here. Union Station is the pituitary gland of the Midwest. It is because of the railroad that Chicago was able to beat out St. Louis to become the great interior metropolis. The wars between competing lines are the reason why the California Zephyr meanders so; competing railroads drawing random lines from Chicago to Des Moines, St. Louis, Omaha, Kansas City, Twin Cities, Denver. If one line took the most direct route than simply make one up of your own, create towns out of thin air (Crete, Dorchester, Exeter, Friend) and send out flyers telling immigrants that the land is filled with milk and honey. So you end up with the ultimate all roads lead to Rome scenario; the highways follow the railroads after all. before the interstate was built there were about half a doezen driving routes from Denver to Omaha and no choice was more than half an hour shorter than any other. Drive east on O Street, down hwy 34, across the Plattesmouth bridge, and through Iowa, you'll eventually role into Chicago on Ogdon avenue.
I bought egg rolls and a soda for supper from a group of Salvadorians who spoke Spanish to each other and the customer in front of me before switching to English with me. I could tell they were Salvadorians by the baseball hats.
I stepped out onto Jackson Street knowing only that I could never dream of affording a room in the Loop, beyond that I didn't know where I was going to stay, plus it was St. Patrick's Day, and though I had arrived too late for the parades the fact is that I was a fractionally Irish man in one of America's great immigrant cities, and this would have to be celebrated. But first the library.