Shafaq Imtiazi on why Chicago and Lahore are sister cities

One of the biggest decisions I’ve made in the last five years was to leave Lahore and move to America with my parents. One of the best decisions I’ve made in the same five years has been to move into my own apartment in Lahore’s official U.S. ‘Sister City,’ Chicago.

Leaving Lahore — my friends, my family, Defence Market, shaadi season, Hot Spot, load-shedding, rickshaws, ghar ka khana — was daunting because I was moving post-college-graduation to a new country without the kind of pre-constructed social framework and safety net provided by school, college, or khaandaan.  “Where will I meet people?!” I remember asking a close friend as my departure date approached. “Relax,” she said, “one day you’ll strike up a conversation with someone in a grocery checkout line or something, totally hit it off and bam — new friend.”

I never did make a random grocery checkout line friend, but it wasn’t the social tundra I had dramatically envisioned. Forty minutes from the quiet little suburb we settled in was the bright, bustling, colorful city of Chicago. Ethnically diverse, culturally explosive, climactically completely unpredictable, Chicago was exciting. After a couple of years in the suburbs, I moved into a cozy little studio in the trending, café-filled, farmer’s-market-having, music-festival-hosting Chicago neighborhood of Logan Square. It’s accented with little bits of Pakistan — Kashmiri embroidered pillow covers, a coffee table book of recipes from along the Grand Trunk Road, a lamp from Bajwa’s in Liberty, a very touristy toyrickshaw I bought once in Islamabad (and probably paid way too much for because I never was able to haggle like a proper Pakistani). All definitely worth the now hour-long daily commute to my design engineering job in the suburbs. And with rush hour traffic, that is saying something.




How to describe the Midwestern metropolis that is Chicago? The city has acquired a slew of monikers throughout history. The Windy City, the City of Big Shoulders, that Toddlin’ Town, and more recently the Chi, Chitown, Chi city… but when it comes down to it, most Chicagoans will settle on the sentiment that Chicago is just its own kind of beast. The phrase “Lahore Lahore hai” comes to mind. And that sentiment is not the only thing that truly makes Chicago and Lahore ‘sister cities.’ Both revel in vibrant cultural expression through art, architecture, music and cuisine.

A ten minute walk down my quiet Latin-American street brings me to my neighborhood Sunday Farmer’s Market (Itvaar Bazaar and then some!)

The architecture is the most visual representation of the love affair between the old and the new that pervades most aspects of the city’s culture. A large number of buildings were destroyed in ‘The Great Chicago Fire’ in 1871, so there was a huge architectural push driven by necessity. The city had the opportunity to actually rebuild instead of revamping and retrofitting itself as architectural technology progressed. The first modern skyscrapers were born. Architects philosophized, discarding precedent and embracing verticality and steel reinforcement while still celebrating intricate exteriors of heavy brick and stone. The diverse signature styles of the likes of American Frank Lloyd Wright, the German Mies Van der Rohe and the Bangladeshi-American Fazlur Khan pepper the city in the old Rookery Building, apartments along the scenic Lake Shore Drive, and of course the Willis and John Hancock towers. The result today is that one routinely sees ultra-modern steel and glass skyscrapers alongside stone-pillared brick-and-mortar structures sometimes that still have gargoyles on them.

The exciting and sometimes provocative nature of the architecture is immersive in nature. I see it everywhere I go. A great example is Millennium Park by the lake, one of my favorite summertime haunts. I sit at the center of the acoustically innovative Pritzker Pavilion watching the tourists taking pictures of themselves in the reflective surface of the giant bean (officially: the Cloud Gate), behind which rise the buildings of Chicago’s skyline. An ant’s-eye view.




A stroll away from the pavilion is yet another set of my personal Chicago favorites — the museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art, the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural history and the Shedd Aquarium. But I don’t experience these in the usual 6-hour-walk-from-one-exhibit-to-the-next kind of way. These museums are their own social scene. When I want to check out the planetarium, I go to “Adler After Dark,” an after-hours event open to the public and full of special interactive exhibits, themed drinks and hors d’oeuvres and a killer view of the skyline from the observatory on the lake. Who said museums have to be boring? The art museums host similar events regularly, and it is the most fun way of taking in the art and/or science.

I walked into a restaurant to have dinner with some friends. There was a hardcore punk concert in full swing in the back room

While I love downtown Chicago, it’s the surrounding neighborhoods that tourists never make it to that harbor the real charms of the city. And one of the biggest of those charms: the food. Chicago is home to some really exciting chefs and restaurants that create unique gourmet burgers, innovative tapas, classic deep-dish pizza — but you don’t have to go to them to engage in fine foodie activity. A ten minute walk down my quiet Latin-American street brings me to my neighborhood Sunday Farmer’s Market (Itvaar Bazaar and then some!). Here I can buy fresh ingredients for my own cooking endeavors, and I can also get favorites from local restaurants. Local bakeries showcase fresh bread baked in the myriad ways of the baker — baguettes, croissants, regular loaves, pastries, donuts (actually fried, not baked), cream puffs. The (arguably) best vegan restaurant in the city is selling vegan-ized burger patties. There is cheese. There are home-made salsas. Kitchen experiments are inevitable. My Sundays belong to this market for the rest of the summer.

There is a whole lot more to Chicago than I can fit in just this article, but I can’t not mention the really vibrant music scene. Punk, rock, jazz, hip-hop, soul, classical – hundreds of local and not so local acts every single night. Choosing where to go and what to see probably takes up a too-big-chunk of my Fridays at work (however, who’s to say that a healthy obsession with live music doesn’t make me a better engineer, right?). Historically, Chicago is where distinctive styles of Blues and house music were developed. That means Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, but also DJ Funk and Ten City. While most people know famous Chicago jazz artists and venues like the Green Mill and House of Blues, few know that house music actually originated in a Chicago nightclub called The Warehouse. With this extremely eclectic musical history and tendency to go ahead and create a sound if it doesn’t already exist, it’s not unusual to walk into places and find live music of all kinds. In fact, that’s exactly what my last Saturday night was like. I walked into a restaurant to have dinner with some friends. There was a hardcore punk concert in full swing in the back room. The walls were covered in Abraham Lincoln art. A typical Saturday night — almost as fun as sitting on a friend’s veranda after a gorgeous rain has swept Lahore.



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