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Chicago has spent the last few years in the national media spotlight, for reasons both inspiring and embarrassing. On the one hand, it's the adopted hometown of President Barack Obama, the place he got his start in politics and where he still maintains his Hyde Park home. His victory rally in downtown's Grant Park signaled Chicago's vitality and influence to the whole world (many of his top presidential advisors were local business and philanthropic leaders before they moved to Washington).

Unfortunately, Chicago must also lay claim to politicians such as former Illinois state governor Rod Blagojevich. "Blago," a product of the city's shady Democratic political machine, stunned even cynical Chicagoans with his blatant moneygrubbing and attempts to sell Obama's former Senate seat to the highest bidder. Obama's talk about a new era of hope in politics turned out to be short-lived, with his ties to Chicago wheeler-dealers a liability. Blagojevich proved that the old ways of doing business aren't so easily erased.

It's easy to be cynical about Chicago politics -- the miracle is that such cynicism doesn't pervade the way Chicagoans feel about their city. We're proud of our gorgeous skyline and love nothing better than hearing visitors compare our hometown favorably to New York. (You'll make friends for life if you tell us you'd rather live here than the Big Apple.) As the retail, financial, and legal center of the Midwest, Chicago has a thriving, diverse business community and an active arts scene, attracting everyone from thrifty wannabe hipsters to ambitious future CEOs. The one thing they've got in common? A certain humility that comes with living in the Second City. Being down-to-earth is a highly rated local virtue.

In this section, you'll get an overview of the issues facing the city today, as well as a quick primer on Chicago's history. Because architecture plays such an important role in the look of the city -- and so many influential architects have worked here -- you'll also find a guide to the major styles of buildings you'll pass by during your visit. But you won't get a full sense of the city's spirit unless you understand the city's role in popular culture, too. Chicago has been home to many great writers and has served as a setting for dozens of films, so we've included a section on recommended books and movies. Check out a few before your trip to put you in a Chicago state of mind.

Sky Train: Chicago's El

Watch any Hollywood film or TV series set in Chicago, and chances are, they'll feature at least one scene set against our screeching elevated train system, more commonly known as the "El" (witness The Fugitive, ER, and others). The trains symbolize Chicago's gritty, "city-that-works" attitude, but they actually began as cutting-edge technology.

After the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago made a remarkable recovery; within 20 years, the downtown district was swarming with people, streetcars, and horses (but no stoplights). To help relieve congestion, the city took to the sky, building a system of elevated trains 15 feet above all the madness. The first El trains were steam powered, but by the end of the century, all the lines -- run by separate companies -- used electricity. In 1895, the three El companies collaborated to build a set of tracks into and around the central business district that all the lines would then share. By 1897, the "Loop" was up and running.

Chicago's El wasn't the nation's first. That honor belongs to New York City, which started running its elevated trains in 1867, 25 years before Chicago. But the New York El has almost disappeared, moving underground and turning into a subway early last century. With 289 miles of track, Chicago has the biggest El and the second-largest public transportation system in the country.

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