2009 travel writing awards entrant.

Author: Peter Briffa


I’d never heard of
the greeter system. But if you type the words “Chicago”, “Free” and “Travel”
into google ( that tells you quite a lot about me, already ) it will only take
you a couple of clicks before you’ve reached chicagogreeter.com. Once there you
discover a free service offered to all tourists, whereby a volunteer will meet
and show you around one of any of twenty-six areas to explore. You pick your
three favourites, and they’ll take you to one of them.

Ordinarily, I’d
have carried on clicking. But my wife has an even bigger eye for a bargain than
me. She also has a keen interest in architecture. When she saw that one offer
was a tour of the Beverly/Morgan Park, an area which has a number of houses in
it designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, she quickly sent the email. We got a
response within minutes.

So, two days into
our holiday, we walked the fifteen minutes from our hotel to the Chicago Cultural Center
on East Randolph Street
ready for our appointment. Sure enough, he was there. The first thing that impressed
me about Darren ( not his real name, but if I used that you’d all want him, and
I’m sure all the other volunteers are just – or at least almost – as good ) was
that he came equipped with two travelcards, known as Visitor Passes. Even more
importantly, Darren actually explained the travel system to us. After a few
days in Chicago the logic and simplicity of it all will soon become apparent,
but on day one you need someone like Darren, and he shepherded us around the
fabled El ( for Elevated ) network and onto the trains in a procedure that
would probably have taken us half an hour on our own. With him it took ten

Soon we were
travelling overland on a commuter train into the upper-middle-class
neighbourhood of Beverly,
where we got off the train and out into the gorgeous sunshine.

It was only April,
but all three of us had sunburned necks by the end of our three hours’ walk. Beverly is like a strange
sleepy village, but with the unusual, almost unique attraction that not only
are the houses seriously large, but each has a quite different style. If you
travel outside Chicago – as we did later in the
holiday, when we hired a car to visit Racine in Wisconsin – it’s easy to
find dozens of identikit houses in small estates, but in Beverley you find large
wide streets, surrounding houses, some of which have picket fences, some of
which don’t. Some have sprinklers in their gardens, some have basketball hoops
attached above their garage doors, and some even have a few red orangy birds
the size of large sparrows, known as cardinals, dotted around their lawns.

Darren may not have
been as much an expert in architecture as my wife, but he knows his history. He
is also a Geography teacher, and so we were filled with explanations and
information as to how the area had become so built up. There weren’t many
questions he couldn’t answer. Chicagoans are unfailingly helpful, friendly, and
funny, and Darren was no exception. Places to eat, what type of food to
eat, where the best theatres are, which baseball team has the better stadium,
which local paper we should read : Darren had advice and opinions on all of

After a long
leisurely walk through the area, we treated Darren to a meal at a small diner,
and then to an ice cream at a cafe down the road. This was the least we could
do for someone prepared to give up the best part of his Saturday to a pair of

By the time we got
back to the train station our time was easily up. Scheduled to last three
hours, our experience actually went on for double that, as we took the El back
into Chicago.
The sun was still burning down when we arrived back in the city centre, but we
all had enough energy to stroll along the downtown sidewalks. Darren was on
surer footing here, as we got to see the Millenium
Park, the Sears
Tower ( which, after 9/11, is the
tallest building in the USA
), and the Hancock building. We ended up with a quick breeze through the vast
Public Library. Finally, we returned to our original starting point in the Cultural Center, shook hands and went our
separate ways. Even then, Darren’s helpfulness didn’t end, as he gave us a card
with his phone number, in case we needed advice through the remainder of our
stay. As we parted company we said that if he
made his way to Europe we would be happy to show him round London and he said “Yes, I really must get a
passport sometime soon!” Darren’s a man who has never been abroad. But then, if
I were an American, I might not have done so either. America is not just a country, it’s
a continent.

So, is there
anything wrong with the Greeter system? Well, we never actually got to see any
of Frank Lloyd Wrights Beverly houses! But then there are only three, and
Darren could hardly be expected to know everything ( though, as he proudly told
us – all his friends tell him he’s the most knowledgable person they know when
it comes to Chicago,
and he has never actually lived inside the city ). But the point of the Greeter
is not to act as a tourist guide, as there are plenty of those around if you
need one. No, he’s there to make you feel at home, to kickstart your holiday,
and to make you feel confident enough to do the rest on your own.

It could for some,
I suppose, be an uncomfortable experience. I’m as shifty and as suspicious of
strangers as the next Englishman, and spending at least three hours with
someone I’ve never met in a foreign city is my idea of hell. Yet it worked. It
was fun, informative, and certainly saved a lot of time. If you actually know
someone in the city who is prepared to do the same then there is little point,
but if like us, you don’t, then I would recommend a greeter to anyone.

Why does Chicago feel the need for
the greeter? After all, it’s America’s
second largest city. It rests right against Lake Michigan, the people are
friendly, the food is tasty, and the arts and culture are second only to New York’s. Tourists
shouldn’t need encouragement to go there. Yet when you ask your average Brit
whether he thinks Chicago
is a suitable destination for a holiday, within minutes he’ll start mumbling
under his breath something about the violence. It’s a stereotype, and long out
of date. Like New York, the broken windows
theory of crime has led to a massive reduction, and for what it’s worth, I felt
a lot safer there than in my home of Tower Hamlets in London. But still, stereotypes are
stereotypes, and that, I assume, must be why the Greeters exist.

As for Chicago itself: it’s even better than New York. On our one previous visit to America I found New York a bit too frantic, a bit too
hectic. Chicago
is calmer. There are probably half as many people on the streets in rush hour
than there are in Tunbridge Wells, let alone in Oxford Street. Chicago
I can reveal, as no one else ever will, is far cheaper than London. You can visit numerous department
stores and pick up three tee-shirts for twelve dollars. Eating out is simple
too, and we even went to the theatre twice. It’s also very family-friendly:
with three zoos, and half entry to most of the museums and skyscraper visitor

So, go to Chicago, and go there in
either the spring or the autumn. Winters are too cold, and summers too hot. We
got rain, cold and warmth, all in a few days. And if you want a good
introduction, use a greeter.