Personal ‘Greeter’ Tours Yield Photo-ops in Chicago

Peggy Farren 2014-01-28

Even in winter, volunteers can take you to the Windy City’s best neighborhoods, historic sites and cafes. By Tom Tracy.

Walking past an Italian restaurant Spiaggia on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, a favorite eatery of this city’s political establishment and society & weddings scene, my personal Greeter guide William Boehler couldn’t resist himself. “Lets have a look inside,” Boehler told me during a free, albeit cold December walking tour of the Windy City’s must-see downtown destinations. A semi-retired labor relations consultant for the steel industry and a resident of Chicago’s downtown, Boehler is a volunteer Greeter guide with the city based in a Chicago visitor’s center in the old Water Tower building.

Chicago2 Founded first in New York City in 1992 as the first "welcome visitor" program of its kind, the City of Chicago followed suite and in 2001 added what is called a Greeter program. It helps connect visitors with enthusiastic locals who in the space of a few hours can jump-start a big city romp for small groups or even a one-on-one photo walk.

In addition to Chicago, New York, Houston and a variety of international cities like Paris and many other cities in France; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Tel Aviv, Israel, now offer the service.Chicago3

My walking tour with Boehler required no per-registration and included elements of the Loop business district, picturesque Millennium Park, the Gold Coast shopping, the Chicago River area and the redeveloped Navy Pier with its Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Other guides took groups of up to six people to some of the city’s famed neighborhoods and on longer walking and public transportation-based tours which required reservations.

There are photographers who don’t want to be told anything in advance and who want to discover the places for themselves. I like to hit the ground with at least a little local knowledge from the right person who invariably knows more than I do and then take it from there. For this walk, I carried just one Canon body and my “nifty-fifty” 1.4 lens.

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“Our concept is you the visitor are like my cousin and I am going to show you the stuff that I think is neat. So it’s more casual and more flexible,” Boehler said of the Chicago Greeter. “At the end of the tour people want to know what they can do for the rest of the week.”

Volunteers are selected for their enthusiasm for specific areas of the city and they mentor with more experience greeters, according to Katie Law, Greeter program director in Chicago.Chicago5

“They are a collection of retirees and young Greeters – people who themselves travel, who have a sense of giving back and who have a strong pride in Chicago,” Law said. Mainly they love Chicago and want to show it off. We also encourage public transportation to teach people how to use that.”

Law said the Greeters are encouraged to recommend their own favorite places for eating, shopping, for photo ops and the arts.

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“In the Loop my favorite little place to eat is Oasis Café in the back of a jewelry store on Wabash Avenue; it’s a little Middle Eastern place for cuisine that no one will know about,” she said.

Her other secret places include Pastoral, a wine and cheese shop with several locations including one at the Chicago French Market. And for a cup of Joe she suggests Intelligentsia, a coffee roasting company and retailer headquartered at Fulton Street.

“Chicago is the Midwest and feels different in terms of layout, a different kind of openness of people,” Law said. “You can’t beat New York for having everything but Chicago is an easy city to get around and navigate and you don’t have that overwhelmed sense while getting around that you may have in New York.”

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For more information see: http://chicagogreeter.com/ ### Tom Tracy is a writer, photojournalist and event photographer based in West Palm Beach. He has traveled extensively as a travel & religion writer. www.TomTracy.com

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