Knowing that the world’s secrets are just as close as your phone or computer keyboard – “Alexa, what is the meaning of life?” — Do we really need to buy and read books that claim to offer answers to questions we’ve never asked?
There have been previous literary efforts aimed at revealing the “secrets” of Chicago and its surroundings, and some websites offer to do the same. And I guess for a few bucks your local bartender will be happy to tell you where you can buy a cheap fur coat or a warm television.
There’s now a new book called “500 Hidden Secrets of Chicago,” written by my former Tribune colleague, a bright and energetic young woman named Lauren Viera. She herself writes that she wants to “thank all the people who shared their secrets.” to enlarge and diversify the list of treasures that go into this book.” She also thanks me for “embodying Chicago from start to finish.”
It’s flattering, and probably because I’ve written about this city for years and often ramble on about these stories when we sit next to each other at the newspaper. “I learned a lot about the city from you,” Viera told me.
That’s nice, but he worked hard listening to most of the others, because it wouldn’t have been possible for him to compile such a large and comprehensive meeting without the help of others.
Viera was born and raised in California, attending Oberlin College in Ohio, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and architecture, which he took to various places, eventually coming to Chicago to work for publications such as Time Out and Tribune. It’s been here for several decades, and before you care about its origins, please know that most historians in Chicago come from elsewhere. Studs Terkel was born in New York and Nelson Algren was born in Detroit.
After leaving Tribune in 2011, Viera worked in the advertising industry for a while, worked freelance in various media, and continues to teach at Columbia College as she has since 2007.
When he was approached to write this book, he was not very excited at first and thought: “When you write about secrets, they’re not secrets anymore, right?”
However, he was impressed by the quality of Luster, a publisher based in Antwerp, Belgium. This book is the last of the “500 Hidden Secrets” series, which includes books about cities such as Tokyo, Istanbul, Barcelona, Rome and Dublin. There are more than 30 of these, and there’s even one for a place called Porto in Portugal.
This beautiful book about Chicago is divided into 10 chapters devoted to food, drink, kids’ items, shopping, and other topics and activities. Each of these is further divided into categories such as gardens, boutiques, thrift stores, day spas, picnic spots, out-of-town visits, lobby bars, music venues, and so on.
There are a few small and interesting maps in the book, but these are merely decorative. The book tells you that “these maps are not detailed enough to help you find specific places in the city.” It is also said that “you can get an excellent map from any tourist office or most hotels.”
“These pages are just a starting point: a compilation of discoveries compiled by one local over several decades of travel. So go see for yourself,” Viera writes.
Viera brings a lively Chicago flavor to the book, and that’s one of its main pleasures. For example, there is no description of Malört or “dibs” in any of the other city guides. He has managed to create many of his own episodes and enjoys writing about local “wonders” such as the curse of the Billy Goat, the Great Chicago Fire, and the death site of mobster John Dillinger.
I know this and the other “500 Hidden Secrets” books are aimed at tourists, and there is nothing wrong with that. Tourists need to get off the beaten path. But there’s enough here to satisfy or interest any local.
One of Viera’s secret spots is One Bennett Park, located just west of Navy Pier. In the book’s brief section on “5 delightful parks,” he writes that this two-acre green space “features a variety of materials that will add aesthetic interest while protecting itself from wear and tear.” At its center is a lush green grass bowl.
Many of the places on these pages—Marina City, Vito & Nick’s, the Art Institute—will surprise you only if you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade. But Viera, 1733 W. Chicago Ave. At Alcala’s Western Wear at, he does a thoughtful job of reviving even the most familiar: “A destination for denim enthusiasts seeking a wide selection of Levi’s and Wranglers, Alcala’s is, above all, a mecca for traditional wear. western boots and cowboy style hats. The cramped store is known to stock thousands of items of each; “It’s worth window-shopping alone.”
No article in the book is longer than three or four sentences, and it gives addresses, phone numbers and websites for all of them. There are also a few photos of Giovanni Simeone, who came here from his native Italy and learned after a week of shooting that the city was “a wonderful and challenging playground for photographers.”
When you read the entire book, it is impossible not to feel Viera’s love for the city. “I love Chicago,” she says. The couple, who has been married for more than a decade to a professional surveyor named Jason Tinkey, has an 8-year-old daughter named Viola and lives in the Logan Square neighborhood.
“I have contributed to other books, but it was strange and exciting to see my name on the cover of this book,” Viera said. “I hope this book is a reflection of my love for the city.”