By Susan Eleuterio.
Chicago festivals and celebrations range from the smallest unit, the block party, to citywide official events such as The Taste of Chicago, Chicago Blues Festival, Gospel Music Festival, the Printer’s Row Lit Festival and in recent years, commercial music festivals such as Lollapalooza.
Chicago Blues Festival
The Printer’s Row Lit Festival
Major festivities in Chicago began with the 1893 World’s Fair, known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, which featured the world’s first Ferris wheel. The Fair helped to inspire the City Beautiful movement and had a lasting impact on Chicago’s design due to the efforts of architect and urban planner, Daniel Burnham.
Chicago Navy Pier Ferris Wheel
Block parties are intimate celebrations of the nature of the neighborhood and its residents. When my children were young, our block parties reflected the ethnic diversity of our street with Chicago hot dogs on the grill, face painting, scavenger hunts, and Southeast Asian Indian gulab jaman for dessert. An important aspect of block parties is closing the street to traffic, behavior which feels transgressive in a city dominated more and more by cars but which retakes urban spaces for walking, playing, and behaving communally.
In between the block party and the city’s official events are a variety of parades, festivals, and neighborhood fairs, many of them reflective of the specific cultural identity of their location. Fiesta del Sol, the “largest Latino Festival in the Midwest” began as a block party in Pilsen, a port of entry neighborhood on the city’s West Side, now predominantly Mexican. Some communities even have dual events- so there is a South Side St. Patrick’s Irish Parade and a downtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade which begins with dyeing the Chicago River green, features large floats and Irish step dance groups and is a mandatory event for politicians, whatever their heritage.
Also on the South Side, the Bud Billiken Day Parade and Picnic was begun by the founder and managing editor of The Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, to honor and celebrate young African Americans who sold the paper. Known as the largest and oldest African American parade in the United States, this event includes marching bands, drum corps, floats, and is again nearly mandatory for local politicians.
The Chicago Pride Parade began its first year at Bughouse Square, or Washington Square Park, a site known since the 1890s as a place for soapbox speeches, rallies, and labor activists. Today the Pride Parade centers in the Lakeview neighborhood on the North Side, known locally as Boystown, a center of LGBT culture in Chicago.
All of these events reflect Chicago’s near obsession with politics and identity but also provide their participants and spectators with the opportunity to feel a sense of belonging, and to see the city from a holiday vantage point. Locals usually grumble about the headaches of finding parking, traffic ties ups, and invasions of outsiders at the same time that they enjoy treating visiting friends and family members to something new to eat, a chance to hear music, often for free, and a way to navigate world cultures without leaving the city limits.