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The Taste of Chicago could to be the safest place in the city right now

Photos taken at Taste of Chicago in Grant Park on June 9 and 10, 2014.
Photos taken at Taste of Chicago in Grant Park on June 9 and 10, 2014.
Scott Paulson

The Taste of Chicago, commonly known as The Taste, is the world’s largest food festival – though it is much smaller than it was during its heyday prior to the Mayor Rahm Emanuel years. The annual Chicago festival opened July 9 and goes through July 13 this year. Food and beverage tickets are sold in strips of 12 tickets for $8.50, according to an ABC News report on Thursday.

The Taste of Chicago 2014
Photo by Scott Paulson

The huge party, of sorts, is located along Chicago’s lakefront at loop level in Grant Park. The event was opened from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, as it will be on Friday. On Saturday and Sunday, the event will add an hour at the beginning of the day to adjust the hours from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

On Wednesday, I ventured to Chicago’s loop to experience The Taste. Fortunately, there was a parking spot waiting for me across from the Chicago Art Institute. Unfortunately, the meter only offered two hours and the parking cost in the loop is $6.50 per hour. Nonetheless, I headed to The Taste. The first night was not busy at all. A subsequent visit on Thursday was completely different where I didn’t luck out with parking nearby and the fest was shoulder-to-shoulder as it will undoubtedly be over the weekend. Most of the photos in the slideshow accompanying this article were taken on Wednesday when spacious views were available. The photos of large crowds were shot on Thursday.

Entering the fest on the first night had a number of street performers along Jackson Street up to the secured gate just east of Michigan Avenue. Most notably, a quite talented Tina Turner-impersonator was entertaining the passers-by. By Thursday, she must have been cited for not having a permit or just found the crowd to be lousy tippers because, unfortunately, she was gone.

At the gate, it's slow-going as security is checking all bags. Attendees who are not carrying bags are whisked through the line, but they aren’t told they will be whisked through an express lane until they’ve waited in the block-long line. If you go and don’t have a bag, move forward and to the left to find the express lane. One woman with a big expensive-looking bottle of wine refused to give up her bottle and didn’t go in. Apparently, no alcohol allowed unless you buy it inside The Taste.

Ironically, even though there is a full Chicago Divvy bike rack within a half-a-block of the event, no bikes are allowed inside the event. The only bicycles seen inside are manned by Chicago Police officers. Once inside, there is a souvenir tent which wasn’t doing any business either evening. Apparently people come to eat and not souvenir shop. Beyond the souvenirs are the tickets. Tickets may be purchased in sets of twelve for $8.50. With my 12 tickets, I had a scrumptious piece of Lou Malnati’s cheese and sausage pizza just coming out of the oven for 7 tickets and used the 5 remaining tickets for an Italian ice at a nearby tent. When I received my tiny scoop of Italian ice from my server at the booth, I lamented, “Five tickets for this?” The teenager serving me said, “Nothing’s cheap here!” Of course, I already knew that as I have found my way to The Taste most of the years it has been held in the city.

The Taste is reportedly kid-friendly, according to the Chicago Tribune with such events as “In the Zone.” However, as I left on Thursday, I witnessed one frantic parent going from port-a-potty door to port-a-potty door frantically looking for his child. Fortunately, he found his young daughter after rattling about a dozen doors. I’m using this incident to remind parents that there are kid-friendly events at The Taste, but keep your kids in a stroller or hand-in-hand with you. One can only imagine what a nightmare it would be to lose a child in that crowd. On a safety note, there are clusters of Chicago Police here, there, and everywhere throughout the blocks-long fest. The question of safety has logically come up this year more than other years, especially with the 82 shootings over the July 4 holiday weekend. Of comfort, Chicago’s shootings have not occurred in the downtown area and, again, there is an incredible amount of police presence at this event. While one should never say never in Chicago, the truth is that The Taste appears to be the safest place in the city right now with the secured entrance and the incredible police presence.

I only witnessed two police activities. First, a panhandler was being moved out of the entrance line along Jackson on Thursday – as there are many people begging for change and extra tickets near the entrance and exit of the fest.. Then there was a man handcuffed while – so it awkwardly appeared – the police officers were having the man’s acquaintance search the handcuffed man’s pockets for them. This odd occurrence was outside of the fest between Michigan Avenue on Jackson and the gated entrance to the fest further east. No other security issues were witnessed.

With the food tents being located right on Columbus Drive, that street and others in the area are closed off. Due to the crowds, especially on the weekend, officials recommend public transportation. Parking downtown on the city streets comes with a price of $6.50 an hour with Chicago’s new parking measures. Of course, there are parking lots and Millennium Garage which come with a price and more of a walking distance.

If you haven’t been to The Taste in a number of years, you will be surprised to see how much smaller it is under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It’s still worth experiencing and is set up basically the same as it has been set up for decades. But, there are fewer restaurants and fewer activities than there were in the past. Also, the music entertainment is greatly reduced from past fests under the current City Hall. This year, headliners include Emmylou Harris and Parker Millsap on Friday. Jeff Tweedy and Lucinda Williams will be there on Saturday. That’s about it for music this year.

For the best experience, take public transportation if possible. Do not bring any backpacks or bags. If you drive, plan on paying $6.50 an hour for parking on city streets. If you plan on staying for more than 2 hours, park in the city’s garage. Don’t ruin your day by getting a parking fine by over-staying your parking spot as Chicago is vigilant in handing out parking tickets to violators.

As far as eating is concerned, plan on two tickets per person which costs $17 at $8.50 per ticket. Be prepared to sit on the curbs or in the grass as there are not many places available to sit with your food or to rest. I walked over to the notorious Abraham Lincoln statue in Grant Park and found a place to sit on the cement benches while eating. Entrance to The Taste is free. Therefore, if one just wants to see it while also using public transportation to get there, the visit won’t cost much at all. But, hey, if you’re going to go, enjoy yourself and take some money to eat a little. For an added treat, stroll over to Buckingham Fountain and enjoy the cool mist with a view of Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. They are all part of what makes Chicago a great place to visit.