Monday, September 14, 2009

Barcelona - International City


Barcelona was not what I expected. It greatly exceeded my expectations for cleanliness, modernity and international appeal. Although I did not visit the city before it hosted the 1992 Olympics, I got the impression on this visit that Barcelona truly used momentum from that opportunity to become one of the great cities of the world. If awarded the Olympics, I hope that Chicago will endure a similar transformation. However, after experiencing Barcelona, I am less confident that Chicago has what it takes to host the world.

First off, Chicago lacks the crazy street performers - like this guy at the Parc Guell, who sung a hilarious rendition of At the Hop in a thick Spanish accent. Bonus points for the holey jeans and star-sunglasses. I think he was attempting to look American. La Ramblas, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, featured even more eccentric performers. The most popular was a guy under a sheet with a hand puppet that lunged out to scare people by saying, "hola!" Now where is that talent going to come from in the US?

More seriously and importantly, however, is Chicago's unpreparedness to communicate to non-English speakers. You might get buy with Spanish or Polish, but a majority of the world is going to struggle in Chicago. Most transit information in Barcelona, on the other hand, was printed in multiple languages. Restaurants made good use of pictures on their menus. And just about everyone we ran into had a satisfactory command of English. The Chicago Business Bureau better start handing out copies of Rosetta Stone.

Barcelona's transit system was incredibly robust. For a city nestled around several steep hills, it was possible to get just about everywhere by public transit. Chicago's El is helpful and historic, but it hardly offers the necessary level of coverage to destinations. Chicago may go toe to toe with Barcelona for architectural features, but I'm not sure that it has quite so many tourist destinations. Really, how does a 150 year old American city compete with one that boasts the square where Columbus was greeted on his return from the new world?

I don't mean to be down on Chicago. Despite my travels, I still believe it's one of the best cities in the world - in the summer. Chicago just needs to get serious and make some upgrades if it hopes to provide the international experience that the world is looking for.

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This work by Ken Maschke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.