I’ve been taking a photography class for a while now, and this week, at our final session, a discussion about how to shoot photos in a crowd turned to talk of Taste of Chicago.
In outraged tones a couple of people declared, “They’ve ruined the Taste!” “They” of course is the city and ruined meant a bunch of things: a shorter fest and no fireworks, fewer food vendors but more expensive food tickets, and having to pay for seats at the music acts.
All of this even before they found about there’d be no barbeque turkey legs, at which one point one of them threw up her hands and said, “But that’s what the Taste is all about – food on sticks!”
Clearly the "they” who are “ruining” the event are, to some, further signs of the new Chicago – more upwardly mobile definitely, less old-school Chicago possibly. Talk to newer city dwellers and many view the Taste with horror – one colleague who moved here recently was told to steer clear to “avoid being stabbed.” But if you grew up with the Taste, chances are you view it like an oddball relative – sometimes annoying but still family.
If familiar, frumpy Taste has been undergoing an upgrade, what’s the big deal? For such an established Chicago event, change has been the mantra of the Taste – from the size of the portions to the rules about which food vendors actually qualify as local, to who actually runs the thing (it’s gone from the city to the Park District and back again in the past two years).
And as long as its crowd-pleasing run has been (since 1980, with a one-year hiatus in the early '80s due to political infighting), the Taste in recent years has been equally divisive: plagued by violent altercation and anxiety about food poisoning (though apparently that really only happened once, at least on a grand scale). Add in declining revenues at Taste, plus general belt tightening at the city, and is it any wonder something’s got to give?
But I think all the talk about stuff going away isn't just about new economic realities or tougher policing. It's also a reaction to a cultural sea change, a shift in mindset about what kind of city Chicago should be. What, these days, is our city's character? And how well-behaved should its citizens be? Are we "Taste" – or are we in good taste?
My fellow shutterbugs talked about the event’s unruly nature as a positive feature – not the outright stabbings, but the Fest’s tendency to spill over official boundaries and regulations. If the upscale foodies take over the Taste, as they seem to be doing, how long before Grant Park's a sea of orderly white tableclothes rather than a mess of grease-stained cardboard containers?
In that sense changes at the Taste are a bellwether of a little more order and (to some) a little less fun and personality to be found on our city streets and at our community celebrations. Gay Pride tightened up its act this year and the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Bridgeport went away and then came back with a radical makeover. Celebrations of Cinco de Mayo or Puerto Rican Independence have also been curtailed over the years. When I moved to Chicago 12 years ago, traffic in and west of Humboldt Park came virtually to a standstill on those holidays – as an impromptu bumper-to-bumper parade of flag-waving motorists took over. Not so much these days.
So far the City seems to be making an effort to keep the Taste an event that can accomodate both old and new Chicago, both giant cheesecakes and celebrity chefs (a line deftly navigated by Asian carp sliders?) But you tell me – are the changes to Taste of Chicago a timely re-do? Or is the Fest ruined beyond recognition?
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