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NATO Summit: Chicago Braces For Big Commuter Headaches

By SOPHIA TAREEN and DON BABWIN 05/17/12 05:22 PM ET AP

CHICAGO — As President Barack Obama and 50 heads of state arrive for a weekend NATO summit, parts of Chicago are all but shutting down – the result of dire warnings about heightened security, snarled transportation and the threat of large protests downtown.

For weeks, the extensive preparations have been hard to miss. At one point, Blackhawk helicopters flying drills snaked between skyscrapers. On Friday, F-16 warplanes and other military aircraft will scream through the skies as part of a pre-summit defense exercise.

On the ground, barricades have been erected around landmark buildings. Many employees are being asked to work from home. And at least one apartment complex along a protest route advised residents to leave.

But others are shaking their heads at how some of the planning seems to be going overboard. A local columnist noted that in New York City, the short summit "would be just another day at the office." And some Chicagoans are determined to keep to their plans and routines, including a bride who's tracking the protests to make sure they don't interfere with her wedding.

Matt Sweeney, a media planner for an advertising company, said his bosses required all workers to stay home Monday, the last day of the meeting.

"They're worried it's going to be really, really crazy," Sweeney said. "I'm just glad they don't have this summit every year. I'm thoroughly intimidated."

Jonathan Vox, a patient-care consultant, said his company is letting employees work at home, too. But because he lives close to Wrigley Field, he has a second problem: On top of the demonstrations, his neighborhood will be swarmed by rival White Sox and Cubs fans arriving for a Crosstown Classic series, so he's staying away from home as well.

"It's an annoyance as much as anything," Vox said. "It seems a bit weird that they're all during the same weekend."

The Metra rail system, which carries more than 150,000 Chicago-area commuters every day, is limiting the size of bags that can be brought on trains and prohibiting all food and beverages – even coffee.

Paul Filbin, a downtown lawyer, was headed to work Thursday from the suburbs, carrying a travel coffee cup and two shoulder bags, including one with his gym gear. He plans to work at home Monday, when he would be forbidden from bringing any of it.

"I can't work out. I can't bring my coffee. This may be brutal," Filbin said.

The summit takes place Sunday and Monday at the McCormick Place Convention Center along Lake Michigan. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said the security precautions will present a "minor" inconvenience while the summit helps showcase the city.

Writing in a Chicago Tribune column, John McCarron, an urban affairs expert, questioned breathless media reports about the NATO preparations, contrasting Chicago's response with New York City's routine handling of United Nations meetings.

New Yorkers, he said, would simply conclude they should "stay clear of East River Drive and the Midtown tunnel. But no, here in Third City, we're acting like a bunch of bumpkins and nervous Nellies."

Some precautions are prudent in the post-Sept. 11 era, McCarron said. But he lamented that no one bats an eye anymore when major institutions such as the city's lakefront museums are shut down for security reasons.

"Has Chicago lost its ability to chew gum and walk?" he asked.

Still, downtown Chicago will look and feel different during the summit because of security measures large and small.

In a document obtained by The Associated Press, for example, the Secret Service outlines thousands of linear feet of unclimbable fencing and vehicle barriers that could withstand the impact of a vehicle traveling as fast as 50 mph. Illinois State Police and the National Guard will play a supporting role, along with police officers from Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C.

Several highways and portions of Lake Shore Drive will be closed, and major delays are expected Monday when motorcades return to O'Hare International Airport.

In addition to encouraging workers to telecommute, some companies are beefing up their own security.

Boeing Co., housed in a building along the Chicago River, has put protective panels on windows to guard against damage from a planned Monday demonstration. The Willis Tower, the nation's tallest building, has erected fencing around the perimeter.

Some businesses are closing altogether. BMO Harris Bank will shut the doors of three downtown branches. So will the Illinois secretary of state's offices.

However, companies in the Willis Tower, along with its tourist destination Skydeck, will remain open. "We're planning for business as usual," Tower spokeswoman Kate Murphy said.

The city has taken more subtle precautions as well.

Solar-powered trash cans have been removed and replaced with wire mesh containers that would be harder to use to conceal an explosive. Similarly, the Postal Service – which has warned of slower mail service – said it would remove some downtown mailboxes.

Construction companies have been told to make sure their sites are secure and that they have picked up any loose bricks or other objects that could be used as weapons or to shatter windows. They've also been told to notify police of any unusual markings that don't look like run-of-the-mill graffiti tags. Security experts say those markings can be used by anarchist protesters to communicate with each other.

Downtown buildings have stored sheets of plywood that can be immediately placed over broken windows. One condominium association even told residents to leave.

"We are STRONGLY recommending that all residents find alternative places to stay during the conference," wrote the Library Tower Condominium Association in a memo. Another building urged residents to refrain from wearing expensive clothes or jewelry or carrying a purse or shopping bags to avoid becoming a target of protesters.

Meanwhile, protest organizers insist their demonstrations will be peaceful. They blame police for scaring Chicagoans in an effort to keep crowd numbers down.

None of it has scared off Ashley Lucchese.

She plunked down deposits for her downtown wedding long before NATO made its meeting plans. When the summit was announced, she forged ahead, finding the few hotel rooms not booked by world leaders and tracking how close the demonstrations will come to her Friday reception. Her hair-and-makeup artist canceled because she didn't want to deal with traffic problems.

Lucchese has also become an expert on the activists, regularly checking Occupy Chicago's website for changes that could affect her Sunday when she's set to leave for her honeymoon from O'Hare.

"We'll just get there really early," she said.

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Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen

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Associated Press Writer Hugh Dellios contributed to this report.

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Filed by Lizzie Schiffman  |