The Great Chicago Fire and the not-so-great festival

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It has been nearly a fortnight since my thirty-first birthday.  I am still mentally absorbing the impact of growing older, though, as I balance out the negatives and the positives.  Fortunately, the balance has been tipping on the positive side of the scale.  Having a fantastic weekend-long birthday celebration certainly helped.

Historically, I was not that fond of 3 October.  During my awkward teenage years, I often worked on my birthday, and in my twenties, I demurred celebrating it (even my twenty-first, which I spent quietly at home doing school work while recovering from a cold).  That trend has changed in the past few years.  I uncharacteristically spent my birthday last year happily celebrating with my good friends at a brewpub.  It was a time of renewal for me, entering the third decade of my life.  So much had changed the preceding few years, and it therefore seemed apt to adopt a new perspective for 3 October.

Continuing on that outlook, I spent my birthday this year once again surrounded by great friends at another brewpub.  Given the awesome number of craft beer establishments here in Chicago, I intend to henceforth make this a tradition.  What marked this year particularly noteworthy, though, asides from the gifts of chocolates and various teas from my sister and a special bottle my favorite liquid from my friends Mai and Jeff, was a visit from my old friend Karen.

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A gift from Mai and Jeff, which itself will be the subject of a future post about lighting and composition.

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Karen; to call her my friend is a gross understatement.

Friday night’s celebration was fairly par for the course for a good outing, consisting of lots of drinking, political arguments, napkin throwing, poop jokes, and encountering some guy with an Irish accent speaking German.  Unlike St. Patrick’s Day, however, I drank just enough to enjoy the evening and not be completely annihilated the following day, thereby allowing me to spend some quality time with Karen for the remainder of the weekend.

On Saturday, we ventured into downtown.  Unsurprisingly, I had a camera and a few lenses with me.  It can be a bit difficult to switch off the urge to engage in street photography.

Despite a chilly wind and intermittent drizzle, the people of this great city were out in full force in anticipation of the highly promoted first Great Chicago Fire Festival.  As a production of the Redmoon theater group, this day-long celebration was to commemorate the city’s rebirth following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  While this massive conflagration 143 years ago obliterated over three square miles of central Chicago, the catastrophe brought out remarkable resilience among the survivors that lead to a rebuilding and recovering effort resulting in the grand city that stands today.

The planned zenith of the celebration was a fire show on the Chicago River in which three effigies of Victorian houses floating on barges were to be set ablaze and reveal symbols representing the spirits of hope, resilience, and rejuvenation.  With much great expectations, 30,000 Chicagoans flocked to the riversides and bridges; also in attendance was Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.  There was even speculations beforehand that this festival performance, which had cost $350,000 of public money, would rival the Burning Man.

After a nice and filling dinner, Karen and I proceeded to the north side of the river.  Fighting our way through the crowd to find a clear vantage point, we managed to balance ourselves on the concrete stairs leading to the water taxi pier below the Wrigley Building.  Only one of the three houses was visible as the other two were staggered along the river between the bridges.

Things looked promising initially.  After a ferry filled with a singing choir passed by, a procession of kayaks towing fiery cauldrons paraded down the river.  So hyped up was this performance that the people around were speculating that the kayakers would shoot flaming arrows to ignite the doomed houses.  One by one, though, the cauldrons were extinguished.  After some time of inactivity and nervous silence, floating locomotives spitting out flames from smoke stacks menaced around the river.

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Shortly afterwards, a flame was visible on one side of the house in view.  It was a bit puzzling at first as everyone had expected a sudden and spectacular immolation, even explosions.  Rather, the fire turned into a diminishing smolder, barely consuming a fraction of the house.  As the smell of campfire diffused into the crowd, confused grumbling grew.  A mumbled announcement through the loud speaker indicated that a technical error had occurred.

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The crowd began to disperse in disappointment.  It took one small spark in 1871 to create a blaze that spanned over three square miles and lasted for three days.  Apparently, on a chilly October evening in 2014, SIX ignition mechanisms on each of the three houses, fueled by propane, failed to torch a structure that was designed to burn.  The grand pyrotechnic show that would have started an annual tradition to celebrate the greatness of this city fizzled.

After it was apparent that nothing else would happen, Karen and I left for a stroll down Michigan Avenue in search of hot chocolate.  It was only after slowly emerging back onto the street through a detoured route that we suddenly saw and heard fireworks.  I scrambled back towards the river with my camera in hand and was fortunate enough to catch a few minutes of fireworks shooting out from the side of each mostly intact house.  So not all was lost, at least.

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All in all, with Karen’s visit, having my friends with me at a brewpub on my birthday, and seeing fireworks up close, I can say that this has been on of the most memorable and joyful birthdays I have had.  Time now to scout out another brewpub for next year!

All images © K. Dao Photography 2014, all rights reserved.