As a kid I used to hate Chicago summers, even though there was no better feeling than exiting the unsightly beige-brick building of grade school. This day marked the beginning of eternal sunshine and no homework, but that initial sense of euphoria was always fleeting. The feeling dissipated once the reality of day-camp emerged. To even begin to talk about what makes summer in Chicago amazing, I must begin with my own backstory. From a time when I had a deep disdain of June, July and August — and how that eventually changed.
Every year my parents stuck me and my older brother in the Chicago Park District day-camp system. Each summer we tried out a different Northwest-side park district in our vicinity: Kilbourn, Independence, Portage, and finally, Peterson Park. Located off Peterson Avenue and Pulaski Road, this camp took place in the middle of a park that was part nature reserve and part senior center. I spent most of my summer there for three years. I’m glad I had a reason to get out of the house at that weird tween age, but I must stress that it was not my preferred summer experience. I was a read-a-book-Inside type; an arts-n-crafts, air-conditioning, browse-the-internet type of kid. The type of kid that I still am to some degree.
If you have attended a Chicago Park District summer camp, then you know what this entails. But if you did not have this experience, just know this was the last thing on Earth that I wanted to be subjected to. The day-camp schedule went like this: Wake up early to spend time beneath an unrelenting sun, be forced to partake in physical activities outside, arts and crafts, weird camp games (in the old building that had no A/C), partake in the talent show, and the worst part: Twice a week, walk 1.5 miles past cemeteries to the nearest pool, and hang out in the shallow end. With actual five year olds.
I was a horrible swimmer and so self-conscious that I’d fail the swim test in front of our whole camp and be sentenced to the shallow end. While my camp friends and older brother did cannonballs in the deep-end, I tried to play it cool, conversing over the floating dividing line, pretending that was exactly where I wanted to be.
And so it began my love for summer in Chicago – it just took some time to bloom. The moment I aged out of day-camp came a profound satisfaction. The moment I became part of the larger group of Chicagoans who do nothing but express their love for those three months of summer post-rain, sleet and snow.
Summer in Chicago is refreshing. There are so many ways to pass the time. The wonderful thing about the city is all the park hold free events. It is a simple joy to wake up one morning and breeze by the nearest farmers market, spend your afternoon indulging in a picnic and reading a book in the shade, ending the day watching a movie on a huge projector screen beneath the hazy evening glow.
It’s impossible to be bored, not when you can go relieve your sweaty limbs at any of the free beaches that dot the lakefront, from the far north in Edgewater to far south in South Shore. You can attend museum free-days, check out what’s new at the Cultural Center or the Garfield Park Conservatory, go rollerblading at the Rink or at Fleetwood, bowl at Diversey, Waveland, or Fireside. It’s easy to battle boredom when there is a street or food fest nearly every weekend.There are countless concerts and shows across the city — at venues, in parks, and all of the places in-between.
Summer in Chicago deserves so much love because, simply put, it’s not winter. Somehow we have all made it through November, December, January, February, March AND April. Somehow, once May rolled around, the sun started shining consistently, the sky turned bright blue and cloudless and the birds started chirping. All of a sudden you realize you have just casually sat down at a park bench, or better yet, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, and realize that you can’t see your breath, you’re not freezing, in fact, you’re not even cold at all.
Regardless of autumn and spring — the only time we can somehow manage to find a brief balance before or after the winter tundra — Chicagoans spend most of the year sweating, and not just on the few hottest days of the summer. The reason we spend so much unnecessary time sweating in winter is because of the excessive layers of clothing and new-age thermal nonsense we wear to avoid impending frostbite.
As Chicagoans, we overheat as we speed-walk to make the next bus, overheat on a packed train during the morning rush, overheat once we escape it to trudge in a violent cold-sweat until we enter a miraculously warm building. There we peel apart our layers of clothing and spent a few hours de-sweating.
As I shake a dry fist at the barren sky, cursing out winter, I always find that I would much rather prefer to be sweating. Not in winter, but rightfully so in summertime. I want to be splayed out on the ground somewhere, engulfed by the sounds that warm weather brings, quenching my thirst for bliss (i.e. leaving the house without a coat on).
Every year, a miracle happens, and it’s when summer arrives in the city. If you’ve lived in Chicago for more than a year, you can boast that your bones have gotten stronger, your attitude is bolder, and best of all, you could probably manage living in Siberia, Antarctica, and Mars, and survive the impending Ice Age. Something not many Californians can boast about.