I have had a nearly 37-year love affair with Chicago. One that is so deep, as I began my career fifteen years ago promoting Los Angeles as a cultural destination, I somehow felt as if I was cheating on my home town. I will be the first one to admit that I love this great city, but who doesn’t. During my time in LA, I would routinely take a Friday red-eye from LA to get back to a city that I called home. So why this love affair? I remember the moment I knew I was in love. Arriving into Midway airport and driving into the city north along Lake Shore Drive at night, you pass the light at Roosevelt and look up. There it is. This gorgeous skyline, all lit up and sparkling. Sometimes the buildings that line the park have a message….a pink ribbon, heart disease awareness, or a tribute to our city’s fallen heroes. Then there’s this beautifully landscaped garden with a gigantic fountain, rejoicing as you cross Balbo Avenue. What other city has one of the most beautiful front yards you’ve ever seen. Now, as a permanent resident of Chicago’s Woodlawn community, I reminisce more about this city and its great many attributes.
Enjoying a classic Chicago summer day, I think back to my first exposure to Chicago’s cultural scene. Just to be clear, I was raised in Evanston, but spent my teen years exploring the streets of Chicago. My mom never missed an opportunity to expose me to Chicago’s cultural treasures; those memories have long stuck with me. With spring came trips to our world-class museums; the summers meant any number of neighborhood festivals and concerts; fall was filled with theater; and finally the holidays…well, there’s no other city that celebrates the holidays like Chicago.
Even though Chicago has been on the world stage for many years, we should all be excited about the new opportunity that the cultural plan lays out for Chicago. It gives us a chance to grow and position our city as an even more prominent global cultural destination. The cultural plan is a blueprint that puts art at the heart of what we do. So what does this all mean? Who should care? Everybody. This is about claiming Chicago. How we set ourselves apart from other cultural destinations is crucial. We need to claim what is unique only to Chicago and invite the world to experience it.
This is an exciting moment for Chicago. There is much work to be done, investments to be made and time for us to roll up our sleeves. A city doesn’t embark down a path to position itself as one of the great global destinations in the world, without already knowing the foundation is already in place. It is time for usual and unusual partnerships to blossom and reveal the power and intensity that Chicago’s cultural community has to offer. Culture is what makes a city unique. Chicago’s assets are not only defined as museums, theaters, dance, architecture, history, music, festivals, neighborhoods and more; but also dining, shopping, and nightlife. And let’s not forget the depth of our creative industries and academic programs developed at the city’s prominent colleges and universities. All of this makes Chicago truly a unique cultural destination.
Chicagoans love this city, and want to share it with the world. We want people to experience the interesting and inviting corners of this great city. Cultural travelers seek enriching experiences, whether aesthetic, intellectual, or emotional. They are motivated to better understand the places they visit and the cultures and events that formed those destinations. The lifestyle of the people, the history of those people: our art, our music, our architecture, our thriving cultural community all have shaped Chicago into an amazing city.
And yes, this is about economic impact. Impact that is much needed not only within the cultural community, but within the actual neighborhoods that host some of Chicago’s most cherished treasures. There is a lot to be said about artists and cultural organizations that move in to Chicago communities and the magic that follows. There is a lot to be said about $2.2 billion in annual spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences in Chicago. There’s a lot to be said about how that supports more than 60,000 full time jobs, generates $1.3 billion in household income, and delivers $214 million in local and state government revenue.
Chicago must define its own voice and silence the misconceptions of this great city. We are more than a gangster town; we are a city with big shoulders that is blessed with both demographic and geographic diversity, and an abundance of cultural assets. Chicago is a city of neighbors, festivals, block parties and apartment galleries. Chicago is about the people, the languages, the music, and the flavor of our neighborhoods. We have a great story to share, and the moment is now. As the famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham stated, make no little plans…..make big plans. It’s all right here.
Melissa Cherry is currently the Vice President of Cultural Tourism and Neighborhoods for Choose Chicago. (www.choosechicago.com) Previously, Ms. Cherry was Vice President of External Affairs at the Chicago History Museum from 2002 through 2012, and from 1997 to 2002 Director of Cultural Tourism and Consumer Promotions for LA Inc.