They were lighting the tree the other night at Rockefeller Center in New York. Streets were crowded with revelers headed out for a skate on the famous ice rink, where for $300 during the holidays you can propose marriage to a soundtrack, and a potential bride, of your own choosing. Many folks were headed down to Radio City Music Hall, where the Rockettes were starring, for the 85th year, in their Radio City Christmas Spectacular. It was the kind of quintessential (and well-branded) urban vista that explains why the streets of New York are crowded with foreign visitors and why hotels there cost a fortune in December.
But when it comes to holiday dreaming, everything is relative. It all depends on what is your every day.
Head to the Rockefeller ice rink and you're already on the romantic streets of Midtown Manhattan. It's a whole other matter when you cruising down Interstate 294 and you, or your kids, spy the chance to skate under twinkling lights.
Now I-294 is an especially hellish experience: multilaned and full of trucks and hideous billboards, it drives defiantly through industrial parks, a huge rail yard, an absurdly massive toll plaza, a plethora of ugly low-rise commercial buildings, and the ugly rump of the airport. Exits come quickly—it's easy to miss I-88, go the wrong way on I-90, or end up on I-290 instead—so most drivers are tense. But ever since the rink at the MB Financial Park in Rosemont opened for business on Nov. 23, tail lights have become an integral part of the nighttime 294 experience. Heads turn in the backs of minivans. On one warm evening a few nights ago, I watched windows go down and small fingers point, even as I jammed on the brakes. The owners of those dangerous small fingers, I'd wager, had never been to New York. But their experience—the ordinary, followed by a glimpse of the improbably romantic-- was surely more intense than some rich kid walking down Fifth Avenue and turning into Rockefeller Center.
It's not just the ice rink. MB Financial Park—the name, I know, but it's Rosemont—actually is a little neo-urbanist collection of populist, good-night-out-no-food-critics-please restaurants, a bowling alley, bars and a movie theater, all centered around the ice rink. Weirdly, the whole place has a distinct sense of community—intensified because everything around it has no sense of community whatsoever.
It was palpable the other night in the Five Roses, an extravagant Irish pub named, predictably enough, in honor of the five decades of service by the late Mayor Donald E. Stephens who, depending on your point of view, was either the patron saint of Rosemont (for with development cometh jobs) or the epitome of its long, complex, well-documented relationship with no-bid contracts, dubious characters, and old-school graft. Well, John D. Rockefeller was no saint, either. Stephens' son, Mayor Bradley Stephens, deserves a lot of credit for helping get this place built in this economic environment. So what if I had to eat my Shepard's Pie under the elder Stephens' picture?
Through the window, I could see parents exiting with a warming Guinness (drinks are allowed outdoors at MB Financial Park) as their giggling kids headed for the rink with the smooching couples, who were just out of a movie, or the restaurant named in honor of the country star Toby Keith. All the park needs is an experience in the sky. Instead of the Top of the Rock, it could be the Top of the Donald.
Ah, Rosemont Christmas dreaming. Whodathunk?
It's a bizarre thing, given that had the Illinois Gaming Board not deemed Rosemont unsuitable for a casino license, MB Financial Park would have been occupied by a huge barn filled with slots, instead of that all going on up the street at the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. As Midwestern grind joints go, the Rivers is relatively classy (although perennially overcrowded). But it doesn't pack any of the romance of the rink that Rosemont, surely one of the weirder towns in the Midwest, built instead. Back in August, Stephens said this to the Tribune's Steve Johnson: "You know what? Ten percent of the people go away happy from a casino. Ninety percent of people go away happy from here." You can't argue with that statistic. Actually, at the rink on a warm night in the run up to Christmas, I'd say Rosemont was batting closer to a hundred.
MB Financial Park is not the only neo-urban entertainment district in an unlikely setting, of course. Downtown Disney rises in a Florida swamp. In Glenview, just a few miles up the freeway, the struggling development known as The Glen had some of the same elements, albeit fused with residential development, a category that never has much interested Rosemont, given that it tends to drain services more than it makes money. But you could still make the case that this particular little fake suburban party-town by I-294 is a veritable oasis, and thus serves the greater need. One drives by, and one is reminded of family or dating pleasures, not work. And unlike the solitary guy at the video-poker machine, Rosemont has stocked this joint with stuff for folks to enjoy together.
I think MB Financial Park might also be good for cleansing Rosemont's soul; it could signal a new direction. It could well end the village's chip on its shoulder when it comes to Chicago and its perceived representatives. Chicago has Navy Pier and Millennium Park, but in neither locale do eateries and entertainment venues hug a central point of community. Indeed, there are lessons now in Rosemont for Navy Pier.
On Dec. 14, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular arrives in Rosemont at the Akoo Theatre — the name, I know, but it's Rosemont. The Rockettes have been there before, several times, and I remember writing, many times, something along the lines of how the show is great family traditionalism, but the ambience, well, the Rosemont police officers waving their flares in your face don't exactly put you in the mind of a stroll down Fifth Avenue with Daddy Warbucks.
But Rosemont has changed a little while the Rockettes have been gone. Maybe this year, with a little entertainment city now sprouted in walking distance from the theater, the ambience and the synergy will be different. I'm told there is a new sequence in the show wherein the Rockettes, stuffed like clowns into a double-decker bus, take you on a video-fused tour of New York by night, eventually spilling out in Times Square.
I know, the MB Financial Park does not sound like the stuff that dreams are made of, even if you live stacked in an exurban warehouse by the side of the freeway for the rest of the year. It sounds ridiculous. But I now dread I-294 a little less. And you can't skate in Times Square.