Chicagoans cherish their beaches, before the fog creeps in

It's not Hawaii, but to city dwellers, the 25 miles of shoreline are consolation for long, cold winters, and offer a microcosm of the city itself.

Quick, which city has the best beaches: New York, San Francisco, or Chicago? Forget the oceanside location of the first two, and the Windy City's well-earned reputation for harsh weather. For at least three months of the year, give or take a cold snap or two, the broad-shouldered hog butcher and freight handler is also a beach town.

Miami and Santa Monica probably don't have to watch out just yet, but Chicagoans defend their beaches fiercely - and may appreciate them far more than the denizens of less climate-challenged locales.

This week, with Labor Day approaching and a few perfect summer days wrapping up the coolest August since 1928, many have rushed out to the more than 20 sandy stretches that run the length of the city, trying to store up enough sun to carry them through March.

"This is the Fort Lauderdale of the Midwest!" exclaims Betty, a cheerful middle-aged woman out lounging in her swimsuit with two cousins on Oak Street Beach. "This is what justifies the winter. It's fabulous, it's gorgeous, and it's free."

Chicago owes its beaches at least in part to Montgomery Ward, the department store founder who crusaded around the turn of the 20th century to keep Chicago's lakefront "forever open, clear, and free." Today, the city boasts some 25 miles of shoreline, complete with an 18-mile bike path that connects the 57th Street Beach with Hollywood Beach, and runs through Burnham Park to the south and Lincoln Park to the north.

On any given day, the beaches are a microcosm of Chicago itself, a haven for young mothers and retirees, for teenagers on summer vacation and yuppies grabbing rays after work. Scarf-covered Muslim women share the sand with barely clad nymphettes, and a visitor might hear 20 languages spoken, often reflecting the nearby neighborhoods.

Betty and her companions, Joel and Ralph, come pretty much every day that's over 70 degrees. None cared to give their full names because, as Joel says, "This is why we come here: Nobody has a name, nobody has an occupation, and everybody's friendly."

Oak Street is perhaps the most famous of the beaches, a stretch of sand just off the Magnificent Mile, in the shadow of the Hancock Center and the Drake Hotel. It can become a sea of flesh on hot summer weekends, but on a recent midweek afternoon there was still plenty of space for strolling, and only an elderly German couple were venturing into the chilly Lake Michigan water.

"I like it because it's tranquil, you can enjoy Mother Nature," says Joe, a gray-haired health-club worker in long pants and no shirt, taking a quiet break to sit and watch the waves. He came, he says, because "the weather's closing in."

The picture-perfect day also led Tracy Davis to bring her year-old daughter on her first-ever trip to the beach. "She loves it!" Ms. Davis laughs, watching the blond-haired girl wriggle and burrow through the sand in her pink swimsuit. "She likes the water more than me. Just getting down here, we wished we'd come a lot more."

Less than a mile away, the North Avenue Beach stretches out, the largest and most popular, with the greatest California vibe. It's a place where the young and bikini-clad go to ogle and be ogled. It's also the most fitness-oriented, with a health center and some 40 beach-volleyball courts that are almost always in use. A high-profile tournament this week includes both medaling US teams and four other Olympic players.

"This beach is the best," says Steve Williams, a friendly young salesman who works out of his apartment and says he comes as much as possible. "It's the most fun."

This summer, he joined a volleyball league and played every Thursday, and he just roller-bladed over - a 20-minute trip - to play frisbee with his brother. "There's always something going on here," he says. "Without this lake and this beach, Chicago wouldn't be nearly as good as it is."

Nearby, Jill is savoring one of the last school-free afternoons with her two sons and their friend, on their way back from the nearby Lincoln Park Zoo. "Don't go in the water!" she yells after them as they take off with pails and shovels.

"You take them to the pool and they want to leave after an hour or two," she says. "Out here, they'll play all day. And you lose the sense of time - that's what I like."

Farther north, a smallish section off Montrose Beach has its own attraction - a leash-free zone for dogs. Tammy Obriskie, taking a brief rest from swimming with her energetic Welch terrier, Nico, says the dog "gets excited as soon as we turn off Wilson Avenue and onto the street, because he knows we're here." The two of them come every day that she's time off from her work as a nurse.

As for that initial question? New Yorkers and San Franciscans may quibble; Coney Island is more famous and Ocean Beach far more scenic. But for true urban sand, for accessibility and use and beaches that fit themselves into the very fabric of the city, I'd take the Windy City's any day.

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