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  • An Article by Jeff Epps

Chicago, Illinois

America in Two Weeks

After my Indonesia Christmas trip, I began to quickly fall in love with travel and I wanted to do more of it. Since I still had a job in China, I couldn't just travel anytime I wanted. But the Chinese Spring Festival was shortly after Christmas, so I decided that I wanted to see more of my own country in the two weeks that I had off work. So, I planned a seven city trip that would include California, the Midwest, the South, New York, Florida, and Texas. Boy, was it an exciting trip and a memorable one that further confirmed my God-given "calling" on this Earth to be a traveler, explorer, and career vagabond.

Chicago Skyline via the John Hancock Center

Personal Perspective & Prior Experience of Chicago

Growing up in southern Illinois, I learned that Chicago was a bad place, with bad people and dirty politicians who like to siphon tax revenue from the rest of the state to support the city's infrastructure, businesses, salaries, and general welfare. I will not turn my blog into a political forum, but this is necessary to mention for the sake of understanding the cultural differences in the state of Illinois, which I will discuss in more depth throughout my blog.

Chicago is the third largest city in the United States with over 2.7 million people in it. Illinois, itself, is about 75% rural and the further south you go the more the people, the lifestyles, and the overall culture tends to shift. This includes political beliefs, incomes, occupations, race, accents, sports preferences, food tastes, tolerance, and overall way of life. Of course, Chicago is not a bad place and the people are not bad people, but yes, many of the politicians are shady, as they are in many cities. I have a lot of great friends in Chicago. Frankly, Chicago has a LOT to offer and I'm gonna talk about that.

Anyone who has traveled on I-57 or via Amtrak from Carbondale to Chicago or vise versa will vouch just how rural Illinois really is. There is almost nothing but farms and small towns on both sides of the highway or track for about 5 or 6 hours. I could write a book about the differences between Chicago and southern Illinois, alone, but I'm not going to do that (at least right now). This article will focus mostly on my most recent trip to Chicago, along with some of my previous trips. Altogether, I have been to Chicago four times (not including airport transfers).

I had never really met anyone from Chicago until I joined the Army in 1997. When I enrolled at SIUC in 2001, then just about every other person that I lived around, attended classes with, and drank at the bars with was from the Chicagoland area. This is what makes Carbondale so unique. It is a part of southern Illinois, but it's not like the rest of southern Illinois. It's like an alternative southern Illinois. When you get around the University you come across people from all over the world. And it was my time at SIUC that really changed my thoughts about Chicago (and the rest of the world) and made me want to learn more and explore more of the city.

The very first time I visited Chicago was in 2003 with a friend and fellow SIUC student who was from an area called, Niles, on the North Side, and it was a wonderful trip and a great cultural experience for me and my limited "country-fied" way of thinking. As we approached the city skyline on the Dan Ryan Expressway I could see the Sears Tower in the distance and then my curiosity began to really take off. We also spent time in Des Plaines and Edison Park. I learned all about what it meant to be a Cubs fan and how Chicago is still somewhat of a segregated city. I learned how the Sears Tower (Willis Tower) had been sold to another company in 1994, but retained the name due to a special clause in the contract. I learned all about Wrigleyville and how the the first McDonald's in Des Plaines was now a museum (actually the 9th restaurant). Sadly, it will be demolished soon. I learned about the "Daleys" and their political reign, and I learned how to party like a person from Chicago's North Side. We went to "Teasers" and "ESPN Zone" and we were living it up and having a good ole time. We also hit up a couple of great house parties with some of his buddies from high school. The whole experience made me want to live in Chicago.

McDonald's #1 Store Museum (soon to be demolished)

ESPN Zone (location closed now)

It was nice being able to experience a part of Illinois that I wasn't familiar with and meet with his friends and family. It was actually during Spring Break, so we were having fun like "Spring Breakers." It certainly opened my mind up about a city that I knew very little about and I made some new friends during the trip. I was gonna come back, for sure. I just didn't know when and to which part of the city. If anything, I'd come back for the girls. I could marry a girl from Chicago's North Side, especially the ones who talk with a Canadian-like accent, have uppity big-city attitudes, and that have a Cosmopolitan fashion sense. They drives me nuts!!

The second time I visited Chicago, in 2006, was a different story but just as beneficial and memorable. This time, I went with another friend and fellow SIUC student, but to the South Side. I won't lie, I was nervous but I was also curious, similar to my first trip. I was really at ease most the trip, though, because I knew that my friend was not going to put me in harms way.

So, why would I be nervous about visiting the South Side of Chicago for the first time? I mean, I knew people from the South Side in college and they seemed like nice enough folks. It's because the South Side gets a bad rap from people everywhere, because it is predominantly African-American and it is crime-riddled. The media and politicians do a wonderful job at making the South Side look like a "war zone." Of course, it's not all like that and I personally do know a lot of people who still reside there today. Many of them I went to school with. I really was looking forward to it, but I just didn't know what to expect.

Barack Obama was an unknown outside of Illinois at the time. He was a state senator and regular member of Trinity United Church of Christ, which at the time had Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was the head pastor. The church has about 8,500 members and is located in the Washington Heights neighborhood, near 95th Street. It dates back to the early 1900's and became a serious social-political force during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

The church is known for it's social activism and political rhetoric and has been the butt of controversy in the past, notably during the 2008 Presidential Election campaign involving President Barack Obama. This is when the entire world learned who Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger were.

Trinity United Church of Christ (

Well, it was Easter weekend and my friend had invited me to an Easter service at Trinity United Church of Christ. I had never heard of the church or any of the people who were a part of it, except Barack Obama. So, being the open minded person that I am, I said, "Okay." I had no other Easter plans. I was also looking forward to Harold's Chicken, a famous chicken restaurant chain located in the South Side. I knew even before we arrived that it was not going to be the same experience that I had during my first trip on the North Side. But I knew that it would be just as surprising and just a good.

I will admit, I was nervous about going because, hey, I am a white guy from southern Illinois and I had only been to Chicago once before and that was on the North Side. I had unwanted preconceived notions about the South Side.

Trinity United Church of Christ

When we arrived in the Washington Heights neighborhood and parked the car and got out, I asked my friend, "what kind of neighborhood is this?" He seemed to take offense and responded, "it's a typical middle class neighborhood, Jeff." I guess I did ask in a concerned, cautious kind of way. We walked a couple of blocks down the street toward the church, along with many other members who were attending the Easter Service. We got inside and sat about three pews back from the stage. It was a big church with a couple of levels that seemed to make a horseshoe around the stage area.

I didn't know that there were going to be seven different speakers who would speak for a duration of three hours, altogether. I feel it's worth noting that I didn't see any other white people there, other than Father Michael Pfleger. We were sitting near the left edge of the pew. Reverend Wright walked right past me to the left down the aisle toward the stage, about two people away.

Trinity United Church of Christ, Easter Service, 2006

Again, I didn't know who this guy was at the time, nor did most people outside of Chicago. My friend had played a couple of his sermons for me back in Carbondale and the guy sounded intense. Reverend Wright didn't give a full sermon, but did the introduction speech and intermittent comments during transition when one speaker would finish and another would come up. Otis Moss III was also there and he spoke. They saved the best for last when Father Pfleger took the stage and the first words that came out of his mouth were, "I want you to look to your left and then look to your right and say, ''pray for this white boy" (referring to himself). I did just that and the person on each side of me started laughing, along with myself.

We had a good time.

Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Pastor Emeritus, Trinity United Church of Christ

I won't get into the politics of the church, or what was said by the speakers that day as I sat in the pews for three hours and listened attentively, but I will say that I've never had an experience like that in my entire life and that experience will be hard to beat. The people were friendly as they shook my hand and smiled and asked me questions about my life and where I was from. My preconceived notions about the South Side and the Church had been shattered as I felt welcome there and was greeted by people whom I had never met before, who seemed to have little in common with myself, and who treated me just like everyone else. It was an Easter like none other.

Harold's Chicken Shack (

After church, we went to Harold's Chicken and enjoyed some of the best chicken I had ever had in my life. It wasn't just a bunch of hype, it was the real deal. Harold's Chicken is famous. It was actually very affordable, too. I remember this elderly woman who was sitting down who started arguing with this elderly man who was on his way out the door. He said something snide to her and was talking shit and she stood up and said, "c'mon, mother fucker." The old man shut up and just walked out. Everyone seemed to kind of chuckle about it, so I did, too.

These initial first two trips to Chicago inspired me in so many ways and made me want to learn more about the city. The truth is, I just haven't seen enough of it because it is so big and there is so much to see and do. I wish that I could have been there when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 when the team made history and everyone celebrated hours and days on end. St. Patrick's Day is another great time to go, when everyone is drunk and happy and having fun. There are a lot of great times to visit the city. My most recent trip was during the coldest time of winter, and believe me, it gets cold in Chicago.

2014 Trip, Chicago Chinese Consulate & Wrigleyville (Third Visit)

In May of 2014, I left Dalian, China after two consecutive years of being there with only one brief 3 day trip outside the country to the Philippines. I was anxious to come home after being gone for so long. I was in transition and I was about to start my new teaching job in Wuhan, China, but first I needed to take care of all the legalities involved and one of those involved getting a new Chinese work visa. The first time I got one was in 2012 and I sent all my documents to a visa service in Chicago, as did my employer from Dalian. So, when everything was processed at the visa service office, it was sent to my mother's place in Mississippi. The visa service folks make things easier because they do all the legal processing leg work for you. Once my visa-stamped passport arrived in June of 2012 from Chicago, I immediately bought a one-way ticket to China and from New Orleans I flew to Los Angeles and then to Taipai and then to Dalian. It would be a different story in 2014.

This time around it wasn't so convenient. I was having trouble getting a hold of the same visa service. So, after spending a couple of months in transition in Mississippi at mom's place, I flew from Mobile to Atlanta and then to Chicago, to deal with the Chinese Consulate directly. When I told my mother goodbye after she dropped me off at the Mobile airport, I remember kissing her on the forehead and looking into her eyes and telling her, "I hope I've made you proud." This would be the last time that I would see my mother alive, as she passed away three months later.

I really didn't know what to expect in Chicago with the Chinese Consulate and I was hoping that it wouldn't be a hassle. I was trying to figure out where to stay. I know Chicago can be expensive. Then I realized that a friend of mine whom I went to school in Miami with was living and working in Chicago for a tech company. So, I contacted him and he told me I could stay at his place. This made things much easier for me. I spent about 6 days in Chicago. While we were there, I was able to take care of my Consulate business and also see more of Chi-Town. We went to Wrigleyville to meet up with some of his friends from work and I was able to see Wrigley Field up close, along with many of the venues in the area. I had never seen this part of Chicago before.

Wrigleyville (Gallery)

We had a great time while I was there and the Consulate business was relatively painless. In fact, it only took me about 3 days to get my visa for China. I enjoyed going to the Starbucks down the street everyday while Dan went to work and left me with the keys to his place. It was nice to relax and enjoy my brief stint in Chicago and to soak up my surroundings while I could. I had never been to Wuhan and I was doing a lot of research on the city to learn as much as I could about it. There were a couple of girls from Beijing living next door that we met one morning as we were walking out. I had the pleasure of walking about a block down the street with them toward the Starbucks and trying to impress them with my awful Mandarin.

We also walked through Millennium Park one day while cruising around.

Millennium Park (Gallery)

We played some badminton while I was there and enjoyed some great food, including an excellent Indian cuisine nearby. We drove near Northwestern University and on our way to play badminton and Dan wanted to play "Count the Cop Cars." I even met with a couple of people whom I'd met in Harbin, China the previous Christmas. They are American. We did some cruising around the city throughout my duration there and I even became more familiar with "L" train routes. Getting around Chicago really isn't all that hard. At least not as difficult as one may think, who isn't familiar with the city. We also check out the beach while I was there, which was a first for me. Not to sound snobby, but it really is hard to top a South Florida beach and Chicago fails to do it, miserably.

After 6 short and sweet days in Northeast Chicago, I flew back to China.

February 2017 Trip, Arrival into Chicago

(America in Two Weeks)

The flight from San Francisco to Chicago was a smooth one and a very visual one. We flew about 30,000 feet in the air and the view of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains was totally awesome. I had never seen an aerial view like this, live. I tried to get some pictures but it was difficult because I was sitting next to the wing. There was very little turbulence and the time went by pretty quick.

Seeing the snow-capped mountains while it was still daylight, and the speckled lights of the little towns at nighttime was really something. I was able to catch a glimpse at some wind turbines and these circular shaped formations that appeared on the ground, that looked like some kind of underground bunkers or something. When the captain announced that we were beginning our final descent into Chicago, I began to look forward to seeing more of a city that I had only seen about three or four times.

Like San Francisco, I only had a couple of days to spare so I needed to see the best of the best and not waste too much time. I had been to Chicago before, but I wanted to see some new sights during this trip. I checked into the HI Chicago hostel, which I had already booked online. Personally, I'm not a big fan of hostels because they tend to be cheap places with cheap people, but this hostel was NICE.

Day 1

HI Chicago Hostel (

I arrived at the airport in the evening and took a taxi to the HI Chicago hostel, located in downtown near Michigan Avenue. I had been to Chicago about three times before, but I didn't see everything. I only had a couple of days and I wanted to make this visit all about sightseeing. So I checked into the hostel and mapped out an itinerary for the next couple of days. As I've said before, I'm not a big fan of hostels, because they tend to be cheap places with cheap people. However, cities like San Francisco and Chicago have nice hostels.

This one only cost about $60/night for a single room and the facilities are top notch. I was impressed and I will most likely stay there again. The location is ideal, as well, and that's one reason I chose it. I wanted to be walking distance from Michigan Avenue, Lake Shore Drive, and Wacker Drive, because these streets have a lot of great sites which include the Chicago River, Trump Tower, the John Hancock Center, Navy Pier, and many other attractions that I was looking forward to.

Chicago Tribune Newspaper (

Chicago Stock Exchange (

Trump Tower & Chicago River

Cloud Gate (The Bean)

The Art Institute of Chicago (

John Hancock Center (

Sears (Willis) Tower (

There were so many awesome sites to see and some sites were sites that I had seen before from previous trips, but mostly at a distance. I wanted to get closer to a lot of these places and learn more about them. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States and it is so spread out. Like every large city, it has it's good areas and bad areas. Anyone interested in living, working, visiting, or going to school in Chicago can learn all about it online and through networking with people who are familiar with it on Facebook and Twitter. There are so many different kinds of people and so many different kinds of things to do in Chicago that just about anyone can fit in there. I mean, if a country bumpkin like myself can enjoy Chicago, then anyone can.

Day 2

The second day I was there I focused on the John Hancock Center during the day and then dinner with Dan in the evening. I could have contacted dozens of people that I know in the Chicagoland area, but with limited time and much to see and do I just couldn't do that. I had been to the top of the John Hancock Center before, during my visit to the South Side back in 2006, but I wasn't up there long and I didn't have a phone or camera to take photos with. This time I did and I was able to capture some great shots.

John Hancock Center (Gallery) (

I actually enjoyed being in Chicago while it was cold with the flurries blowing around. There was something about that that made my visit special. It was a nice kind of cold and there was no wind. Just a calm couple of chilly days. That evening I booked an Amtrak trip to Carbondale for the next day, since there are NO commerical flights from Chicago to the regional Marion airport, I had fewer options. But honestly, I've always wanted to do the Chicago-Carbondale Amtrak route. I know it sounds funny, but being in China has made me fond of train travel and I wanted to see how the American trains fared against the Chinese ones. China train travel is common and cheap, but not always comfortable.

Chicago Gun Violence

As I mentioned, every city has it's good areas and bad areas. I like to discuss the ups and the downs with every place I have the privilege of visiting. Though Gun homicide violence in Chicago has been decreasing for years, it continues to be a pervasive problem, and it's a debate that goes on and on with no real consensus on any one solution. Chicago has a higher murder rate and more total homicides than both New York City and Los Angeles, the first and second largest cities in America, respectively. Since there are several studies and crime reports that have been released on this major issue, I'm not going to drop a bunch of stats here, but rather focus on the big picture.

There have been numerous studies done about Chicago gun violence and people tend to point fingers at different causes of it. The "clearance rate" is calculated by dividing the total amount of crimes that are "cleared" by the total number of crimes that are committed. The "clearance rate" in Chicago for gun violence has decreased substantially in recent years. Many experts attribute this problem to the unofficial street "no-snitch code" along with the increase in outside organized crime syndicates that have moved in. The South Side neighborhood of Englewood and the West Side neighborhood of Austin have murder rates 10 times higher than in other parts of the city.

There are ongoing efforts by politicians, celebrities, and native Chicagoans to help in reducing the gun violence that has plagued Chicago for years.

Chicago Facts

Chicago is the 3rd largest city in the U.S. with 2.7 million people.

The Chicago metro area (Chicagoland) has about 10 million people.

Chicago was incorporated in 1837 and grew rapidly in the 19th Century.

The "Great Chicago Fire" of 1871 destroyed much of the city and left 100,000 people homeless.

By 1900, due to a construction boom, Chicago was one of the 5 largest cities in the world.

The Chicago O'Hare airport is the second busiest airport in the world, based on air traffic.

The Chicagoland area has the largest number of U.S. highways and railway freight.

Chicago has the one of the world's largest and most diversified economies.

Top tourist attractions include:

Millenium Park

John Hancock Center (

Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue)

Art Institute of Chicago (

Sears (Willis) Tower (

Museum of Science & Industry (

Lincoln Park Zoo (

For more tourist information about Chicago:

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