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Spirit of the Fourth spills out along Chicago’s lakefront

Three sunbathers enjoy the lakefront at the 39th Street Beach. | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

Everyone has their Fourth of July traditions; here’s mine.

I could sleep in, but don’t. Instead, I get my bike and head for the lakefront path. This ride is different from the ones I enjoy on other summer days. During those trips, especially on workdays, I see solitary figures, maybe the occasional couple biking.


But on this day, a new group appears: families. Oh, they aren’t biking. The lucky ones – knowing there’s a good reason to start out early – have snagged spaces in the parking lots. Others don’t even try; instead, they park in the neighborhoods and snake their way east on foot toward a green patch – hopefully near a tree – and the lake.

These aren’t just a set of parents and a couple kids. It’s that, plus aunts, uncles, a bunch of cousins, a granny or two and some good friends.

It’s obvious they’re on the lakefront for the long haul, probably until sunset or beyond. Coolers, chairs, grills and smokers are being carried or pulled on wagons and other makeshift transportation getups. And, of course, there are the tents. Tents used to be primarily camping gear, so it makes me smile to see how city folks put them to use now. With a tent, rain doesn’t stop the celebrating. With a tent, there’s a good place to corral toddlers who may not want a nap but sure do need one. With a tent, there’s respite if it’s a day when the sun is unforgiving.

I’m sure this Fourth I’ll also find more of another new trend on the lakefront: hammocks. Last summer I saw a few; this summer I’ve seen more. Much like the tents before them, hammocks didn’t seem to have a place along the lakefront. But now I see folks who I presume don’t have yards (or that is where their hammocks would be) bringing hammocks to the lakefront and suspending them between trees and posts.

Why is this display of lawn furniture and grilling accessories my must-see event? Well, because I like the idea of people deciding they’re going to celebrate our country’s independence shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers who are setting up their own stations for the day. Once the scene starts unfolding, you see folks of different ethnicities, races and sexual orientation out on the lakefront all doing the same thing: enjoying their families, eating a burger or hot dog, often along with their personal ethnic dishes.

The kids make friends-for-the-day with those from adjoining family. Parents share smiles and commentary about the young ones’ high jinks. (Yes, I am aware skirmishes can happen on the lakefront. But that’s generally on the beaches populated by the younger crowd. It’s a different story where the families congregate.)

It’s this scene that gives me hope. I had a lovely invitation to head out of town this Fourth. But I declined because, honestly, with all that’s going on in our nation’s capital, I need to see Chicago’s lakefront on the Fourth. I need to see this visual of what makes our country great.

I need to be reminded that on this day when we celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, those values aren’t meant only for a select group of angry white men with deep pockets.

Chicago’s lakefront Fourth of July scene helps me see we are more alike than different.

That’s something we all need to remember.

Email: sueontiveros.cst@gmail.com