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Taste of Chicago about the food — and the dreams

“There’s reaswhy only one company bid” take over Taste Chicago says source close negotiations. | Al podgorski~Sun-Times

“There’s a reason why only one company bid” to take over Taste of Chicago, says a source close to the negotiations. | Al podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 30, 2011 4:46AM

‘This is the Taste of Chicago. It’s only a food festival.”

That was Mayor Daley’s assessment when defending his opposition to a $20 admission fee to our city’s largest summer celebration and transforming it into something similar to Milwaukee’s Summerfest.

I’m with Daley on the fee, but disagree that it’s just a food festival. Actually, I’m guessing the mayor would articulate a defense similar to mine on the positives the Taste offers. I worry his successor will come along and think it is just food and start chipping away at something really special.

The Taste is on my “to do” list every summer. It’s such a great place to see people of all walks of life out enjoying Chicago together. They’ve stepped out of the comfort zone of their neighborhoods and next thing you know, they’re talking to someone from the other side of town as they sit elbow to elbow at the picnic tables that line Grant Park.

I never miss the chef demo tent, where the seniors tend to gather. Everyone’s chattering away, offering their own cooking advice to whoever is sitting nearby. I often wonder how many left a lonely apartment and for at least this brief time have some companionship — with our city’s beautiful Grant Park as the backdrop.

I see the Taste as so much more than food. When my boy was little and money was tight, I’d feed him at home, and he thought the treat was the ice cream he got at the Taste. He was about 8 before I ever fed him there.

The point of our Taste visits was to see the kids’ entertainment and experience what our wonderful city has to offer, giving me a chance to show him: See, this is your city, embrace it.

We never visited the Taste without running into families of modest means doing the same.

It’s not a stretch to think a child could go to the Taste, gaze at our skyline of sleek business buildings and think: “Some day, I want to be part of this.”

I know firsthand this sort of thing can happen. I grew up in the shadow of the now-shuttered steel mills on the Southeast Side. Back in grammar school, a classmate’s parents would take us to the then-Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum). I couldn’t put my finger on what was different, but there was an unfamiliar energy on the streets nearby that I really liked. “Some day, I’d like to live somewhere like this,” I remember thinking.

On the days I drive to the paper, I go right past the corner where I first had that thought.

I think of the Taste as every Chicagoan’s opportunity to come down and be part of the beauty that is our downtown. Sometimes people back in the neighborhoods view downtown as a distant place where important people go. But the Taste reminds them: This beautiful skyline and lakefront are yours too, so come on by!

And once they’re at the Taste, they realize, hey, there’s nothing like dancing in the streets to some local band at the smaller stages on a warm summer night. Gosh, I sure would hate to see all of this altered.

As good a time as I had seeing Santana and Stevie Wonder perform at the Taste, I agree with the mayor that maybe the big acts gotta go so that the essence of what the Taste really is can remain for all of Chicago.

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