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Bullets were as common as fireworks on the weekend of July 4th, 2016 in Chicago. More than 60 people were shot over the course of the weekend, and all anyone could talk about on my social media was the unfortunate decline of this once great city. I was asked to weigh in because of my recent trip there almost two months before, but I struggled to reconcile their image of Chicago with my own.
Born and raised more than halfway across the country, I don’t know many people who have been to Chicago. Everything I knew about it before my trip came from the death count, which wasn’t exactly positive, and history class, which provided a very impersonal and very brief look at the place. Needless to say, when I found out it was the site of the 2016 Book Expo America (BEA), I was afraid of what I would discover there. On the plane, my mind traveled down the blood red streets of a real-life Gotham, where crime ran rampant and all things beautiful were rare phenomena.
This wasn’t the city I found when I hopped off the plane nearly four hours later.
Instead, I was surrounded by glorious architecture and a bustling hub whose culture reminded me of cities I loved and admired. It was like San Francisco, Portland, and NYC had gotten together and this was the result of sleepless nights and entire days spent masterfully planning.
On the shuttle bus from my hotel to the convention center where BEA was held, I passed the vibrant span of Millennium Park opposite from the ocean that is Lake Michigan. I spent most of my time attending BEA from nine to four at Chicago’s sprawling McCormick place, and when the conference was over each day, my family roamed the sights of the city.
I was transported back to Qin Shi Huang’s historical China when I visited the Field Museum’s Terracotta Warriors and other renowned exhibits. While getting lost on the way to the infamous icon of Chicago that is the Bean, better known as Cloud Gate, we ran into kind locals that each gave us their must-eat lists. In between monuments of every size and splendor, we sampled everything from savory hot dogs and mouthwatering donuts. In the middle of the night, tired from soaking in all we could, we ordered deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria and picked up spicy Mexican soups from Rick Bayless’ Xoco.
At every stop, the food was an occasion that people gathered around and celebrated. Yes, Chicago is violent, but it’s so much more than that. The image of Chicago that had been so burned into my imagination was joined by a new one that said the deep, nuanced, and wondrous tale I had initially come seeking wasn’t the one I found just at Book Expo America. The fiction I believed was rewritten, and the story that is this city became one that enthralled me and left me craving more.