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Architecture Mon Jun 29 2009

24 Great Walks in Chicago: Interview with Author Max Grinnell

Max Grinnell knows if there's one thing that makes a city great, it's its walkability. An urbanologist and Chicago historian (he literally wrote the book on Hyde Park), his latest book chronicles 24 of Chicago's greatest walking tours -- and it's not just for tourists. I asked him recently about how he chose the walks in his guide, how walkability can be measured, and what Chicago's greatest neighborhood is.

24greatwalkscover.jpgHow did you go about selecting the routes that appear in these walking tours? What makes a "great walk"?

I knew I wanted to take people into some of the city's less well-known neighborhoods, and I wanted people to have a sense of the historical and architectural milieu in each place. More than a few travel books consist of the well-worn troika of "Buy This," "Eat Here," and "Go to Hackneyed Attraction That Everyone Else Has Already Seen And Buy The Same 'Made in China' Schwag I Could Find Back Home." Pretty formulaic stuff for the most part, and I can imagine that 100 gibbons punching away on laptops could come up with the same stuff, provided they had access to the Internet and strong coffee to stave off utter boredom. This I knew I could not do.

To answer your second question, a great walk is pedestrian-friendly, first and foremost. Two of America's greatest walkers, John Muir and Henry Thoreau, didn't have to contend with these details, as neither of them were big fans of cities. These days, a good sidewalk with relatively few concessions to strip malls (which don't belong in cities in the first place) and high-end condo owners who must have their cars close by at all times, is a must. Jane Jacobs, chronicler of the urban condition and contrarian spirit, always championed this in her books, and she liked to talk about the "ballet of the sidewalk."

Cities' two greatest assets (and challenges) are density and diversity. I have to say that any walk in a city must put these things together in equal measure. For example, I love places like River North (which I believe is now referred to "RiNo," which makes me laugh), where you might have an old-school single-residential occupancy hotel like the Tokyo Hotel on Ohio Street within a Big Mac toss to the oddly compelling Rock n' Roll McDonalds, a slew of big-box chain restaurants (which shall remain nameless), art galleries, and so on. Density and diversity come together in River North, and in all kinds of funky ways.

What's a great walk you had to leave out of this book?

I had wanted to do a walking tour of Chicago's former synagogues and old blues haunts that have since been "shuttered" (this phrase is not mine, but I'm borrowing it from the Sun-Times. They like to talk things being "shuttered," rather than just closed, out of business, etc.). But if people are interested, they should drop me a line, and maybe we can all meet up and make it happen.

Tell me -- some of these walks are geared toward out-of-towners. But is there a great walk in a typically tourist location you think makes a great walk for locals, too?

I'm going to throw my hat in the ring with either my "Lions, Miro, Chagall: Sculpture in the Loop" tour or the "Transit Architecture in the Loop" walk from the book. Both of them point out some interesting gems that most of us with a harried lifestyle might never get to check out. I mean, there's a fantastic Louise Nevelson sculpture at Madison and Wells and I imagine thousands of people walk by everyday without giving it a second (or first) glance. And the Quincy Station in the Loop is a tremendous structure, and they even have period advertisements for hoop skirts on the platform!

Can you recommend a great walk -- with food and culture and booze included -- where Chicagoans can take their out-of-town friends, something a little off the beaten path?

Whew, a tall order. Let me get something going here. Take the Red Line up to Bryn Mawr Avenue before the sun sets so you can walk a few blocks to the east to see the fabulous Living 2007 mural underneath Lake Shore Drive. After the mural, you'll be hungry, so wander back west on Bryn Mawr to That Little Mexican Café at Bryn Mawr and Kenmore. Start things off with some table-side guacamole, and move on from there. After this, walk back west to Broadway and make a turn south. You'll walk south about eight blocks, passing some funky strip malls with various Asian goods, and you'll find yourself at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway. Cross the street over to the Green Mill and sit around to hear some jazz. I'll put my money on Patricia Barber (Monday nights) or Alan Gresik's Swing Shift Orchestra (Thursday nights).

Anything you learned while writing this book -- a fact, a place, etc. -- that astounded you? Or, at least, surprised you?

In two words: Albany Park. I've taken my students from the University of Chicago there for years, but this neighborhood is truly a microcosm of the future of cities in the United States. There's no majority ethnic group in the community, and it's such an interesting blend of Central American, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Korean culture. I didn't really know it well enough until I started working on this book, and it is a place that all Chicagoans and visitors should visit.

Any new places you found while preparing this book that you now frequent?

Jerry's Sandwiches is a place that I wish I had known about before. Great beer list and fantastic eats.

What do you think is the most walkable single street in Chicago?

In terms of aesthetic appeal, I'm going to put my hat in the ring for two streets that are close to my heart: Fullerton Parkway between Clark Street and Halsted Avenue, and Hyde Park Boulevard between 53rd Street and 56th Street. During the spring and summer they have amazing trees on either side and homes that telegraph the high-toned residential architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The least walkable?

The least walkable street in my opinion is Western Avenue. Too many businesses dedicated to cars and car maintenance, and it always feels dreary to me. Not a good walking street in the least!

What part of the city do you think most Chicagoans take for granted? What's just above our heads, or under our noses, that we don't notice -- maybe something that's profiled in this book, maybe not?

The Loop, the Loop, the Loop. The Loop is always surprising me, and in terms of sumptuous and provocative architecture, it's a brilliant spot. It could be the punch-card like façade of the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Facility or the mosaics inside the Marquette Building. Every year, the Loop seems to get a bit more of a 24-7 feel, which is a most positive development.

More information about Max's writings and latest book, 24 Walks in Chicago, can be found at

About the Author

Katherine Raz is a freelance writer and the Community Manager for a non-profit arts organization. She's trekked all over Chicago in search of thrift store and estate sale bargains, and writes BackGarage, a blog about stylish apartment living on a garage sale budget. A two fisted-drinker and Chicago resident for over a decade, she lives in Ravenswood with her fiancee, Jem, and loves the Chicago Bears.

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Carfree Chicago / June 29, 2009 10:00 PM

Thanks for sharing! I'll have to check out this book. Chicago really is a great city for walking. I'm a big fan of long walks to brunch on weekends. Nothing completes a walk like a great meal at the end. I love walking from Lakeview down the paths through Lincoln Park to the Gold Coast, or west on School St. to Roscoe Village.

whoskiddinwho / June 30, 2009 2:43 PM

I unfortunately live in Miami,{the worst city for walking}and miss how you can spend hours walking in Chicago.

Eric / March 18, 2014 7:27 AM

The walks are very well designed. Grinnell doesn't mention it, but obvious to anyone familiar with Chicago is that the author keeps the walker well clear of any dangerous.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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