John Spevak: Chicago's high life is worth experiencing

July 13, 2012 

In my last column I wrote about returning to favorite places on a visit to Chicago last month. Today I'll describe experiences on the trip that were new to me.

For the first time I took an elevator 103 stories to the top of the Sears Tower. That may surprise some of my readers, because the Sears Tower has been around for a while. When it was completed in 1973, it was the tallest building in the world. (Now that distinction goes to a building in Dubai.)

Since I've traveled to Chicago often during the last 39 years, some readers might wonder why I hadn't been the Sears Tower before. After all, it's a Chicago landmark that attracts many tourists each year. (I should mention the building is now referred to as the Willis Tower, after a British insurance firm that bought the naming rights; but for me and many other Chicagoans, it will always be the Sears Tower.)

It's not because of a fear of heights that I've avoided the Sears Tower. I've been to the top of the Prudential Building, when it was the tallest in Chicago. I've been to the top of the John Hancock Building, when it was the tallest. For some reason, the Sears Tower never grabbed my attention.

But on this trip, I was with three boys, ages 10, 8 and 5. I (and their parents) knew that riding 103 stories in an elevator and then looking out at Chicago from that height would be a kick for them.

In addition, their Aunt Megan and Uncle Eric had gone to the Sears Tower last year, and Eric made it a point to show his fearlessness by going out onto the newest attraction on the Tower's observation floor: a clear glass balcony about 8 feet wide that extends 4 feet out from the building.

Walking out onto this transparent platform (with glass walls in three directions) gives people the feeling that they are suspended in mid-air 1,353 feet above the ground. And, since the floor is glass (three layers of 1/2-inch glass laminated together), there is also the sense that it might collapse under your feet.

So the boys, their parents, their grandmother, their Uncle Jay and Aunt Julie and I all decided we would accept the challenge and go to the top of Sears, and once there see if we had the guts to go out on the ledge.

The elevator ride to the top was quick, and we were soon looking out from 103 stories in four directions at the city below. The view was stunning: the lake to the east stretching for miles north and south, the city extending to the west and the dozens of other tall Chicago skyscrapers, all, by comparison, relatively short.

Then we saw the ledge -- actually three ledges -- constructed on the west side of the building. We had to wait for a while because other people were on or near the ledges. Finally, our turn came. Diego and Giovanni, the two older boys, were the first two to step out -- quickly, without hesitation, without fear.

Soon the rest of us took our turns. Surprisingly, I found myself walking right out and then looking down and around, surrounded by clear glass. Surprisingly, I wasn't afraid. Even though the cars below looked minuscule, I didn't feel panic; I felt delight.

That turned out be one of the highlights of the family trip, although a close second would be the 29th annual Chicago Blues Festival in Millennium Park by the lakefront.

The free festival -- which I had never attended before -- featured four stages, continuous music from live blues bands, many food and beverage booths, and spectators of all ages and backgrounds relaxing, smiling and enjoying the blues.

There was plenty of space and green grass, and everyone listening to the music, whether standing in the sunshine or sitting under the shade of large trees, was cooled by a breeze off the lake.

So, dear readers, I encourage you to visit or re-visit Chicago. As I found out on my last trip, there's always something new and enjoyable to experience there.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 28 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to

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