Sunday, June 28, 2015

Simple Logic

Friday evening as we were in the car, a news report came over the radio about the Supreme Court Decision overruling state laws that prevent gay marriage. My fourteen year old son said to me that he couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Well I said, lots of people think it's wrong for many reasons, be it philosophy, tradition, religion or whatever. He just shook his head and we let it go at that.

The truth is, I never had too much interest in the issue. Not that I ever had a problem with gay people getting married, I just felt that with so many opposed to it, a compromise could be forged allowing gay unions where couples could be afforded the same legal rights as married couples, yet it wouldn't be called, well, marriage. President Obama proposed such a deal when he first ran for the office but later admitted it was just a way of sidestepping the issue in order to gain some votes.

Another argument against the issue that caught my interest went this way: if the idea of marriage as it has been defined for millennia, that is to say the union between a woman and a man, could be re-defined to be a union between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, where would that precedent take us. In other words, what would stop the courts from re-defining marriage further, say a union between three or more people? The possibilities are endless.

OK maybe that's not a really compelling argument, but as a born contrarian who questions everything, especially people who support concepts based upon ideology rather than critical thought, I could use it in my devil's advocate bag of tricks.

That lame argument is certainly better than the religious arguments against homosexuality. First of all, not everyone subscribes to the same religion if any religion at all, so how can we, in this pluralistic society of ours, impose the tenets of one faith over another? Beyond that, the obsession with homosexuality and gay marriage among the religious is grossly overblown. While it's certainly true that homosexuality is mentioned in both the New and the Old Testaments, (sorry I can't speak with authority of the sacred texts of other religions), the mentions in the Judeo/Christian sacred texts are few and far between. The bottom line is that homosexuality is simply one of many activities frowned upon in the bible which have become commonplace and condoned by society as a whole in our day, even by the religious.

I can come up with dozens of convoluted reasons to object to gay marriage, but few logical ones. Perhaps the best comeback I've ever heard directed at the anti gay marriage crowd came from an unexpected source, the former mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley. Responding to the idea that gay marriage undermines the institution of marriage, the former Mayor Daley in typical matter-of-fact language once said: "Gay marriage does not undermine marriage, divorce undermines marriage."

Thinking about it this weekend, heterosexual couples get married for the wrong reasons all the time. Perhaps they were pressured by their families because of social status or the accidental conception of a child. Not to say that those unions necessarily end up badly, or that ones begun for all the right reasons end up happily ever after, but by comparison, gay couples don't enter the institution of marriage under those pressures, more often than not they get married because they love each other and want to share each others lives. What could possibly be more in tune with the true spirit of the institution than that?

As far as raising children, I don't necessarily believe that being raised by a gay couple is the ideal situation for a child however, how many children are raised in un-loving, dysfunctional "traditional" families? Simply put, there is no such thing as the ideal situation in which to raise a child,

After my son's "what's the big deal" remark, the commentator on a radio station not known for its progressive attitudes, began to address the Supreme Court's decision. He prefaced his words by addressing the history of the 20th Century, pointing out that it was the deadliest century of human history, yet in its closing decades, great strides were made in the direction of peace and the recognition of the dignity of all human beings. Sadly he added, in subsequent years, we have seen a resurgence of violence and hatred in the name of patriotism, racial intolerance and religion. The radio commentator using simple logic and passion stated that in his opinion, the Supreme Court's ruling was a victory of inclusion over exclusion, of love over hate.

Guess what? He's right. It could not have been put simpler or more eloquently.

I may not have taken the opportunity to superimpose the rainbow flag over my Facebook profile picture, re-post a simplistic mime, or change my status to comment on the ruling, that's just not my style.

But I am indeed very happy just the same.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Spinning a Tragedy

Another unspeakable crime and once again, people on all sides of the ideological spectrum are using the tragedy as a bullet point to articulate their own points of view. After a young white male murdered nine innocent people in a prayer group at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we heard first from the usual suspects, the pro and anti gun control crowd. This terrible event would never have happened one group said, if we only restricted the sale, possession and use of firearms. On the contrary said the other side, if the members of that congregation had been armed, the death toll would not have been nearly so high.

Now I've stated in this space more times than I care to remember, my belief that there are far too many guns in this country and that the pro-gun lobby has taken the second amendment of the United States Constitution, guaranteeing the right to bear arms, to ridiculous extremes. That said, I see little point in taking the opportunity to use this tragedy as a springboard to espouse that particular belief. The truth is, I don't honestly believe that an individual intent on carrying out this kind of horrific crime, would be deterred in the least by a law saying he cannot have a gun. And personally, the idea of arming the general public to ward off mass murderers is something too scary and ridiculous to contemplate.

It seems events like these cause us to lose all sense of perspective and rational discourse.

Even the president got into the act, mistakenly claiming that out of all the developed countries in the world, crimes such as these, (where an individual or a very small group working independently of any organization, murders a large number of people), only happen in the United States, presumably because of the availability of guns. In July of 2011, a 32 year old Norwegian man carried out two attacks which resulted in the deaths of 77. That attack was the deadliest of all the "lone wolf" massacres that have taken place in recent memory. And Norway has some of the most restrictive gun laws of any developed nation. A quick check of the deadliest mass shootings in recent history shows that the while the U.S. has more than its share, it has plenty of company on that dubious list.

The media, social and otherwise, have been saturated with stories and memes devoted to the racial nature of this attack. The perpetrator made no bones about the fact that he is an avowed racist, intent on starting a race war. Strangely enough, the conservative Fox News network chose to frame this crime as an assault upon freedom of religion, rather than a direct assault upon African American people, the idea of which is probably less palatable to their own point of view. Since the shooter has given us a rambling manifesto stating his belief in the eradication of non-white people from this country while saying nothing about  religion, Fox's tack seems to be way off the mark.

Not surprisingly, Fox's failure to address race got plenty of mileage from the left, who seem obsessed with every bit of minutiae of semantics and symbolism coming from the media. One could argue that more words have been uttered in criticism of the coverage of the attack on the church, than on the attack itself.

The biggest gripe seems to be the fact the mass murderer has not been labeled a terrorist by much of the media and law enforcement officials. The argument is that had he been a Muslim, he would have been immediately branded with the "T" word. By labeling him everything but terrorist the theory goes, mainstream media and law enforcement are racists because they don't take mass murder committed by whites as seriously as mass murder committed by minorities.

Another popular theme is the comparison of the police treatment of the Charleston killer, Dyllan Roof, with the highly publicized cases of Michael Wilson and Eric Garner who died at the hands of the police as they were being arrested. Roof by contrast was taken into custody peacefully and it was widely reported that while being questioned in the murders, the police went out and bought him food from Burger King.

The point is crystal clear to some: Wilson and Garner, two African American men arrested in different parts of the country for allegedly committing petty crimes, ended up dead, while a white mass murderer, Roof, not only gets kid glove treatment, but gets treated to a Whopper. Obviously this proves there is a huge disconnect between police treatment of whites and blacks.

Well I believe there is good reason to believe that quite often the police in this country do indeed treat black people differently than white people. One could find loads of evidence to back that up, but the comparison between the police treatment of Roof and the treatment of Garner and Brown is beyond ridiculous. As heinous as his crimes were, Roof did not resist arrest. The police who apprehended him were doing their job according to the law. Garner and most likely Brown both resisted arrest. It is likely that the police involved in those cases used excessive force. Different cases, different circumstances, with different people involved, make these three incidents incomparable. White or black, the police act differently if you cooperate with them or not. If you don't believe me, try telling off a cop sometime. Defining race relations in America by this particular comparison is pointless, misleading, and shameful.

Is Roof a terrorist? Well he certainly committed a political act designed to terrorize a community. That sets him apart from his fellow mass murderers who walk into schools or movie theaters guns ablazing, shooting anyone in sight. Roof selected his victims because they were African American. Beyond that, what makes Roof's act particularly chilling and appalling is that he sat and talked with his victims before he murdered them. He even confided with the police that he almost didn't go through with his plan because the people he ended up killing turned out to be so nice to him.

What sets Roof apart from the people we generally call terrorists, at least as the term is defined by the law enforcement officials whose job it is to protect us, is that he acted alone. He was not a member of the Ku Klux Klan or a neo-Nazi, nor did he solicit their assistance. Contrary to the popular theory that whites are never labelled as terrorists, the KKK, and other white supremacist groups who commit violence are unquestionably terrorist groups and are labeled as such. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, both white men who committed the bombing of the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 were terrorists as were members of white groups such as the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist group known as ETA, and countess other organizations around the world whose modus operandi is committing acts of violence targeting innocent people.

In his daily TV program, comedian Jon Stewart, the sole news source and most trusted media voice for many Americans, (the Walter Cronkite of the left if you will), brought up the wars we waged in Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks for the purpose of comparing them to the government's likely response to Dylann Roof and those who may follow him. And what will that response be Mr. Stewart? "We're not going to do shit" said Stewart. Clearly according to him, the government doesn't believe that black lives matter either.

If you care to look into each matter specifically without making absurd comparisons, the people who carried out the 9-11 attacks were a very well funded and organized group who were living under the protection of the ruling body of a sovereign country, Afghanistan. If you remember, that country openly defied our demands to turn over the people who attacked this country, which in effect was an act of war against the United States. You may not agree with our actions in Afghanistan but a very good case can be made that those actions were justified. (Iraq of course is a completely different story for another day).

Fighting an organized belligerent group is far removed from trying to protect society from an individual bent on doing harm. So what can we do to protect ourselves from people like Dyllan Roof? Frankly I have no idea. It would be nice to say that what caused him to do what he did was the virulent racism that runs rampant throughout this country, if only we could eliminate that, we'd be well on the way to solving the problem. But the diseases of discrimination, bigotry, prejudice and racism have been around as long as humans, they're among the darkest sides of our nature. And contrary to what many people would like to believe, logic would dictate that racism wasn't the only disease from which Dyllan Roof suffered.

The slew of arson attacks on black churches following the murders in Charleston prove, if we needed any proof, that the disease of racism is alive and well in this country. Simply put it's not going to go away anytime soon, not even if we label Dyllan Roof a terrorist or remove the Confederate flag from public places, which by the way, I think would be a good idea, however irrelevant it may be in terms of addressing the problem at hand.

Through all the nonsense we heard in the week following the Charleston massacre, the words of a small group of people rang loud and clear as a beacon of hope, and perhaps may be the greatest challenge we have to the horrid possibility that attacks like this one will continue. They came from the relatives of Dyllan Roof's victims who the day after he was apprehended, confronted him at his hearing via closed circuit TV. One by one they got up to say they forgave him.

Now this may seem an act of weakness or surrender. On the contrary, it was a powerful act that said in no uncertain terms, both to Roof and to those who may be tempted to follow in his footsteps, telling them directly: "you may have the power to take away our loved ones, even ourselves, but you are entirely powerless to make us hate, even to hate you."

If there is anything that people like Roof are more afraid of than folks who are different than them, it's the thought of being powerless.

My guess is those words, as well as the kindness directed toward him by the people he murdered, will haunt Dyllan Roof as he lays awake at night in his cell awaiting his likely date with the needle.

Who knows, their words of grace may even have an impact on potential Dyllan Roof imitators. One can only hope.

Hate begets hate, most of the time. As we've seen time and again, violence in reaction to violence only leads to more violence. What the families of the Charleston victims did was remarkable, they did something that does not come to us humans by nature. Maybe it will take more remarkable acts by remarkable people to help stem the tide of racism.

The ideological divide in this country is tearing us apart. The victims' families understand that we're stronger as a community when we're together than when we're apart. Perhaps we could learn a little bit from those remarkable people in Charleston on how to love and forgive, and to accept each other despite our differences, rather than set ourselves apart, filled with vengeance and hate for those with different opinions and ways of life.

We've tried the vengeance and hate part, and God knows it's not working.

POST-SCRPIT

I struggled long and hard on whether to mention the name of the Charleston killer in the post as he doesn't deserve any more attention than he's already gotten. Lost in all that are the names of his victims who deserve all of our love and respect, along with their families and loved ones. They are:

Cynthia Hurd
Susie Jackson
Ethyl Lance
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
Rev. Sharonda Singleton
Myra Thompson

Here is a link to a USA Today article on how you can contribute to help out their families.

May God bring peace to the people of Charleston and to the families of the departed victims and the survivors, as well as to all of us.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

First Visit to The 606

Two of the thousands of visitors stroll the new 606 Trail on its inaugural day, Saturday, June 6, 2015

On its opening day, my son and I visited the 606 Trail, the new path created from the remnants of the old Bloomingdale spur line on the west side of Chicago. The weather could not have been more beautiful and by all accounts, the event which combined performances, art exhibitions, gardening workshops, processions, and thousands of individuals upon their bikes, skateboards, rollerblades or just their feet, came off without a hitch as far as I could tell.

Time constraints prevented us from visiting the entire trail, so we limited ourselves to the western third, from Humboldt Boulevard to the western boundary at Ridgeway Avenue.


Bloomingdale Line Viaduct over Humboldt Boulevard,
one block from the Humboldt Park home where I spent the first ten years of my life. 
Benches at the Humboldt Boulevard Overpass
Street fair, Humboldt Boulevard
Tributes to Pedro Albízu Campos, Roberto Clemente and Julia de Burgos
at her eponymous park

Carnival celebration at Julia de Burgos Park

Trail map, this one at Kedzie Avenue

A new perspective on life in the 'hood,
a bird's eye view of dangling shoes from a lamppost. 

Poplar Grove near the western boundary of the trail.

Part of the industrial character of the Bloomingdale Line celebrated by the new 606 Trail

The Exelon Observatory at the western boundary of the trail

Much of the real estate of the 606 Trail is devoted to bike paths, pedestrians are restricted to the blue strips..

Apartment dwellers along 606 will no doubt be drawing their curtains more than they did in the past.

I ran into a friend from work on the trail. He told me that he saw two well-dressed women taking verbal notes of the property adjacent to the trail's western edge, brazenly pointing out which properties they would tear down, which they would spare, and which they would convert to condos. This clearly would confirm the nightmare scenario of the 606 contributing to skyrocketing property values in the neighborhoods surrounding especially the western half of the trail, forcing many longtime residents out of their neighborhood.

Walking around those neighborhoods, it's quite clear that the change has already begun as the re-purposing of old properties mixed with new construction dots the area. The 606 Trail may indeed be a conduit for re-gentrification but more likely it will just hasten the inevitable as the neighborhoods of Humboldt Park are already changing.

Depending upon the way things work out, it remains to be seen if the photographs below will represent soon to be lost Chicago...





Let's hope not, it's the very mixture of cultures that exemplifies the neighborhoods that surround the 606 Trail today, that makes the city such a vital place.

Friday, June 19, 2015

It Never Gets Old

This year I didn't have to go far to become a part of the Chicago Blackhawks victory celebration, it all started when I hopped on the L...





... and then it turned out the victory parade would roll by the back door to work.





They said somewhere in the neighborhood of two million people showed up in Downtown Chicago yesterday to take part in the celebration, but hiding inside the office popping out when I heard that the parade was a few blocks away, I only encountered a fraction of them. My colleagues who ventured out at lunch told me they witnessed several drunk people (at noon), throwing up. My son who was with some friends a few blocks away smelled pot smoke. But everyone who I encountered behaved themselves, just happy to be a part of history, and to catch a glimpse of their heroes in the red Indian head sweaters, and the Stanley Cup.






There's something unique about that thirty five pound chunk of metal which since 1925 has been the prize de jure of the National Hockey League. Unlike other trophies in professional sports, there is only one Stanley Cup, they don't cast a new one every year. That means every team who wins the championship has to give it up the following year, unless of course they win it again. That hasn't happened since the Detroit Red Wings won it in consecutive years in 1997 and 1998.

The Stanley Cup pre-dates the NHL by 25 years. The Cup, pictured at the bottom center of the photograph below, was donated by the Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley.

The Montreal Hockey Club, first winners of the Stanley Cup, 1893

If it's not immediately recognizable, that's because of the seven tiers that have been added to accommodate the names of each player on every team that has won the Cup. Each player also gets to spend a day with the Cup. Usually they choose to share the Stanley Cup with their home town, which given the international character of the game, could be at any corner of the world.

If it could, the Stanley Cup would have lots of stories to tell. It no doubt made the rounds at watering holes around the city immediately after the Hawks won their third championship in six years. Before it appeared in Chicago's Loop yesterday, Jonathan Toews, the captain of the Blackhawks, shared it with the residents of  Miserecordia, a local institution in my neighborhood that serves people with developmental disabilities. Thousands of Chicagoans will take the opportunity to see and even lay hands on the Cup in the following weeks as it calls this city its temporary home,


Thursday was the fourth time I laid eyes on the Stanley Cup. The first time was in 1992 at the old Chicago Stadium where I saw it hoisted by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Two years later I saw it carried by Mark Messier at the New York Rangers Championship Parade on Lower Broadway in New York City. I wouldn't see it again until 2010 when Patrick Kane hoisted it aboard a double-decker bus on its way to Tribune Tower and the first Blackhawk championship celebration not in my lifetime, but certainly in my memory. This year it was Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and his young son, who had the honor of accompanying the Cup through the streets of Chicago, en route to the official rally at Soldier Field.


There were lots of downtown workers who grumbled about the inconvenience surrounding the event. The poor behavior of a small percentage of individuals who showed up, mostly teenagers and young adults, confirmed in some their worst feelings about sports and sports fans. Some folks even expressed outrage that a meaningless event such as a sports championship could capture the imagination of so many people, when there are so many other pressing issues in the world.

They could all be right. On the other hand, aside from the end of a war, I can't think of a single event that can bring together so many people of different backgrounds, for no other reason than pure joy and celebration. In a clip that went viral, on the night of the championship, a local news reporter looking for someone to interview encountered an African American man wearing a Blackhawks tee shirt. He asked the man how he felt and the response was "You know how awesome they are? They got black people loving hockey, ain't that something?"

On Facebook, a friend expressed how much he wished his dad were still alive so he could enjoy the Blackhawks championship. On several occasions on this site, I've expressed the same feelings about my dad who above all other sports, loved hockey, and passed that love along to me. For three times in the last six years, I have thought long and hard about my late father and how happy he would be with this team and their success.

And as has been my tradition after these three championships, after the game on Monday ended I looked up to the sky, raised a glass of good Czech beer, and toasted my dad by saying:

"Nazdravy Tati."

Friday, June 5, 2015

Courtesy Campaign

The Chicago Transit Authority is instituting a new publicity campaign focusing on certain behaviors that many riders find objectionable. Ads featuring humorous photographs like this one will be coming soon to a bus or train near you:

The most effective of the CTA's new signs encouraging more decorous behavior on the part of its riders.

This campaign is a departure from the no-nonsense signs posted on busses and L cars of my youth admonishing riders not to smoke or expectorate.

It seems those signs did their job, I can't for the life of me remember the last time I saw someone light up or hock a loogie on public transit. In the subsequent years, new annoyances came along and the CTA designed up to date signs to address them:


Notice there is no mention of spitting.

As you can see, loud radio playing, gambling, eating and littering have been raised to the level of smoking, that is to say violations so egregious, they can land you in the slammer. However truth be told, the last time somebody got busted for littering in Chicago, the Cubs were hoisting the National League pennant over Wrigley Field.

In case you don't follow baseball, that was a very long time ago.

After reading some of their mail, the CTA felt it was time to address a plethora of other issues that contributed to rider discontent. While there is some overlap, the issues the new campaign is directed at, are mostly kinder and gentler faux pas than the ones that made the verboten list.

As a long time rider of the CTA, I consider myself something of an expert on the subject. There is quite a range of offenses on the current no no list, from honest mistakes to outright violations of common decency. Folks on public transit may be excused for example, for failing to stand on the right side of an escalator, for not moving to the middle of the car, or not moving down the platform and using all the doors. These are learned behaviors, you're not born knowing this stuff. I have to remind myself of that whenever I'm tempted to yell at someone who enters the train before I have a chance to get off, giving them the benefit of the doubt that their mothers never taught them that piece of basic etiquette. Eating on the train, while to many may seem uncouth, is perfectly legal on Chicago's commuter railways, as is drinking alcoholic beverages. Therefore, the CTA's restrictions on eating and drinking must be clearly spelled out.

The truly boorish behavior on the list can be divided between sins of omission and sins of commission. Not surrendering your seat to a pregnant woman may seem to be as lame an act as possible, but as illustrated in the photo above, especially in our age of the electronic device, sometimes we become so engrossed in our own little worlds, we tune out the big one. I think all of us are guilty of that at times. Then there's that awkward moment of not being quite sure if a woman is pregnant. Do you try to do the right thing by offering her your seat and face the possible humiliation for the two of you if she is indeed not with child? Who knew riding the L could be fraught with such perplexing ethical dilemmas?

Listening to the radio the other night I heard a CTA official discuss the new program and its goals. He said the signs were intended to educate the public on the matter of bus and train etiquette, and in extreme cases, encourage appropriate behavior through humiliation. The thought is this, instead of directly confronting some jerk who insists upon leaving his bag on the seat next to him while other people are standing. a commuter could simply point to the sign above that says: "Did your bag pay a fare too?"

Rude behavior knows no bounds regarding
age, gender, race or country of origin.
Fortunately, the same holds true for exceedingly
polite behavior.
Well I'm sure the educational part of the campaign will have some impact but let's face it, jerks will be jerks and I'm afraid that all the humiliation in the world isn't going to change that. Some people simply wear their jerkdom on their sleeve like a badge of honor.

The truth is, in my decades of riding public transportation in Chicago and in other cities around the world, I've discovered there is a fairly constant, bell-shaped distribution of the behavior of public transit riders ranging from those who go above and beyond the call of duty, to total jerks. I'd say those two groups are represented in fairly equal numbers at either end of the curve, while the rest of us who are perfectly happy to do the right thing, albeit with a little bit of nudging at times, comprise the vast majority of riders.

Case in point, yesterday a woman in an enormous motorized wheel chair was about to enter the bus I was riding. At least ten people sitting in the front of the bus, got out of their seats without any prompting from the driver to make room for the lady. Two people who did not move on their own, made no fuss when the driver asked them to surrender their seats as well.

Then there's this guy in the photo above who despite the fact there were people standing on the train, (in this case, me), he continues to take up the seat next to him with his bag. Was his sin of omission inadvertent or was he an unrepentant jerk? Only he and his maker know for sure.

In case you're wondering, here's the complete list of transgressions the CTA plans to address in its new campaign:
  • Move to the Middle of the Car
  • Let Others Off Before You Board
  • Don't Block the Doors
  • Stand Right, Walk Left on Escalators
  • Move Down the Platform and Use All Doors
  • No Eating on the Train or Bus
  • Offer Seats to Expectant Mothers
  • Yield Priority Seats
  • Don't Litter
  • Don't Play Loud Music
  • Don't Put Bags on Seats
  • Refrain from Loud Cell Phone Talking
  • Don't Hold the Doors
Quite an impressive list isn't it? I applaud the CTA for their efforts to introduce new civility into its system.

Right now as I'm writing this on the L, blasting over the loud speaker comes the motherly admonitions of the operator of our train, instructing passengers on the platform to let others off before they get on, others to move to different cars if they can't get on the car in front of them, and still others on the train to move to the middle of the car so as not to block the doors. People at this moment are listening to her, and obeying.

It just occurred to me that the authoritative reproach coming from this strong-willed woman, is far more effective at whipping us all into shape, than any advertising campaign which no doubt costs the cash-strapped agency plenty. I bet even the unrepentant jerks would fall into line at the sound of her shrill voice.

Short of having everybody's mother ride with them, maybe cloning this operator to drive all CTA busses and trains would be the real solution to making sure everybody on board behaves themselves. After all, a little maternal slap on the wrist every now and then never hurt anybody.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The 606

My old neighborhood of Humboldt Park is in the news again.

This coming Saturday, June 6 to be exact, a new park, actually several of them connected by a trail will open in Chicago. Officially called The 606 Trail (after the three digits of Chicago's zip code), the system of parks was built along an old railroad spur that ran along Bloomingdale Avenue, two blocks north of North Avenue. The trail will run approximately three miles, from Ridgeway Avenue on the west, to Ashland on the east. In its day, the spur serviced several light industrial complexes that were built adjacent to it.

As a child I lived on Humboldt and Cortland, one block north of the railroad line. Even back in the sixties, it was somewhat rare to see trains rumble over its tracks. Despite Humboldt being zoned a residential boulevard, beside the Bloomingdale line there were two good sized businesses, a cartage company on the west side of the boulevard, and a glass company on the east. Bordering the playground of my elementary school a block away was the Acme Casket Company whose windowless north wall was perfectly suited as the backstop for our games of fast pitch.

It's structures like these, or the remnants of them, that the users of the new 606 Trail will pass as they stroll, hike, jog or bike along its paths. Much like the park built upon the site of the old Stearns Quarry in Bridgeport, now called Palmisano Park, the new trail takes advantage of the old industrial landscape it is built upon, rather than obscuring it. This is clearly NOT your grandfather's park. As you might imagine, the trail/park is not for everyone.

I for one, can't be more excited about its opening. As pointed out in the video accompanying Blair Kamin's piece about the 606, the trail is elevated only fifteen feet, but in a city as flat as Chicago, that height makes a difference. The view along the trail will be completely new to residents of this city, (except for railroad workers and those who snuck onto the tracks for whatever reason). It passes through portions of this city that are often overlooked, namely the industrial backbone that drove this city for over a century. Much of that backbone been lost due to changing economies and technologies, but I'm sure the stroll along the 606, if one pays attention, will enlighten the visitor on how cities change and reinvent themselves. Even the peeling paint of those old fast pitch strike zones on the sides of decaying buildings will have a story or two to tell.

Supporters of the project boast about the positive impact the trail will have upon the property values in the communities it transverses. But that's a double edged sword; good news for working property owners, bad news for renters who will face rent increases, home owners on fixed incomes who will face property tax hikes, and in this particular case, ethnic groups who are sensitive to the dilution of their numbers as a result of residents being priced out of their neighborhoods. The trail will provide a pedestrian highway from the transformed, up-scale neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown on the east, to the lower income neighborhoods comprising the community of Humboldt Park on the west. As we saw with the neighborhood objections to a large music festival in Humboldt Park, the new influx of well-heeled visitors from the re-gentrified east may not be welcomed with open arms by all the residents of the communities to the yet-to-be-re-gentrified west.

It's anybody's guess how this will all play out, my guess is the trail will contribute to the change that has been going on in these communities for the past generation. In other words it will be good for some, not so good for others, but in the end it will hopefully attract people, interest and investment into a community that sorely needs it.

Will Humboldt Park lose its soul because of the changes that have been taking place? I think my friend Francis Morrone brilliantly addresses that question in this editorial piece that appears in today's New York Daily News. His article is about New York but it applies to Chicago as well.

As I've stated in this space before, the only constant you can depend upon in a living, breathing city, is change.

Chicago's new park will reflect and be a direct part of that change at the same time, which is both exciting and terrifying.

That's what life in the big city is all about, isn't it?


Here is a link to the mission statement of the lead artist of the 606 project, Frances Whitehead.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Humboldt Park, again

From DNA Chicago, here is a piece about the conception and building of the Humboldt Park inland beach that the Chicago Park District has decided not to open this year. You'll find within that piece, a link to an article from the Chicago Tribune, dated June 10, 1973 describing the plans for the conversion of the century old lagoon into a beach, as well as a photograph showing the dredging of the lagoon to make way for the beach. 

I remember it well. My family left Humboldt Park in 1968, but on ocasion my father and I still visited the park where we used to spend our Sunday afternoons together.

We paid a visit as the dredging work was underway. It was a scene that nearly broke my heart. As the water was drained from the lagoon, neighborhood residents were invited to harvest the thousands of fish who once inhabited the lagoon. In a scene that could best be described as resembling Sebastio Salgado's photographs of the mines of Serra Pelada in Brazil, hundreds of individuals, covered head to toe in mud, plodded through the former bed of the lagoon, plucking the helpless fish, mostly carp, out of the remaining puddles of water in which they were stranded. The fish not "lucky" enough to find a small pocket of water to briefly keep them alive, suffocated as they lay in the mud. The sight, smell and pathos of the scene is something I will never forget.

For my father and me, it was the end of Humboldt Park as we knew it; I don't recall the two of us ever visiting it again together.

According to the DNA Chicago piece, the new beach was an instant success, drawing up to 20,000 on peak days, flying in the face of my memories of having never seen more than a handful of people using the facility. Mayor Richard J. Daley promised that more beaches similar to Humboldt Park's would be built, but in the end, only one came to be, that one in Douglas Park, another west side park that is virtually the mirror image of Humboldt. That beach closed sometime in the 1990s with little fanfare.

The article implies that City Hall broke its promise to the city by not building more of the inland beaches. As I pointed out in my previous post, an inland beach is a tremendously expensive venture, as well as environmentally unsound and destructive to the historical integrity of the parks where they would have been built. As the seventies, the nadir for historical preservation came to a close, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the idea of building these inland beaches in our historic parks, lost its appeal.

In my opinion, we can be thankful for that.

Much of the strong sentiment for keeping the Humboldt Park beach open comes from the fact that building it in the first place was a hard fought battle waged by the Puerto Rican community who still has strong ties to the park and the neighborhood, despite the re-gentrification that has been taking place for the last generation.

There has been resistance to the changes going on in the community. One recent effort has been the successful eviction of an annual event called Riot Fest, a Punk Music festival and carnival that has taken place for the last three years in Humboldt Park. Last year, rainy weather combined with record crowds took their toll on the park. The organizers of the traveling festival held in several cities across the country, agreed to pay the city for the cleanup of the park to the tune of $182,000.

The opposition to Riot Fest led by Alderman Robert Maldonado and a group calling itself Humboldt Park Citizens Against Riot Fest, cited the festival's taking over virtually the entire park for their activities.

Charlie Billups, a spokesman for the citizen's action group said:
We cannot allow big corporations that are making a lot of money to have blanket access to the parks.
The group also cited "ecological damage to the park" as another of its grievances.

In an attempt to ingratiate the folks who wanted them out, the producers of Riot Fest offered to contribute $30,000 toward the effort to keep the Humboldt Park Beach open.

The opponents of the festival weren't moved by the offer (30K being a mere drop in the bucket compared to the one million dollar annual upkeep for the beach) and last week, it was announced that the festival will be moved to Douglas Park.

Although they overstate the ecological damage, I entirely agree with the citizen group's concerns about the festival taking over the park in mid-September, both for the event itself, then the subsequent cleanup time. Despite the indisputable money the festival brings into the community, it is simply wrong to close off a public park to accommodate a privately sponsored event that charges admission for the privilege of entering the park.

Unfortunately some of the community's objections to Riot Fest are troubling. It is understandable that the Puerto Rican community has concerns that many of its members are being priced out of Humboldt Park neighborhoods. Along those lines, there have been comments that imply that much of the objection from the community toward Riot Fest has to do with the fact that it attracts non-Puerto Ricans to the park.

This quote is taken off a Facebook post from a group (or possibly an individual) calling itself "Chicago Puerto Rican Community":
Now that the Riot fest has been taken out of Humboldt Park those in heavy favor of the fest lashed out and said that Humboldt Park is not Puerto Rican and even threaten to have our alderman kicked out in favor of someone that will side with those that want Puerto Ricans Gone. (emphasis mine)
The Puerto Rican community certainly has left its mark on the neighborhood. Totems of la comunidad Boriqua were erected on Division Street (which runs through the park) in the form of two enormous sculptures a half mile apart representing the Puerto Rican flag. The street between the sculptures has been dubbed Paseo Boriqua. In a couple weeks following a parade downtown, a huge festival commemorating Puerto Rican Day will fill Humboldt Park as it has for nearly forty years. The Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture is housed in the park's ornate Stables and Receptory Building.

Humboldt Park unquestionably remains the heart of Chicago's Puerto Rican community.

In my previous post, I described the annual Polish Constitution Day Parade that ended up in Humboldt Park at the base of the statue of Tadeusz Kościuszko where a huge celebration took place. For many years, Humboldt Park was the center of Chicago's Polonia. Before that it was the heart of other communities as testified by the monuments and institutions in and around the park. The Norwegian American Hospital, where I was born, borders the park. The apartment building and immediate neighborhood where my mother lived between 1940 and 1968 were predominantly Jewish. The church down the block where my son and I were both baptized was built by Irish Catholics. The city's most beautiful Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Holy Trinity, designed by Louis Sullivan is a few blocks east of the park as is the community known as Ukrainian Village. The park itself was named for the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and much of what we know of it was designed by a man from Denmark.

Statue of the Norse explorer Leif Ericson looking toward the East Lagoon
of Humboldt Park.
Noting the pride of the Norwegian Community who is responsible for the statue,
the boulder upon which he stands is inscribed:
"Leif Ericson, Discoverer of America."

Yet no one would have ever dreamt of calling Humboldt Park, Polish, or Norwegian, or Danish, Jewish, Irish, Russian, Ukrainian or German, even though all those groups left indelible marks on the community.

The Puerto Rican community continues to be a vital and integral part of Humboldt Park and its environs but no, Humboldt Park is NOT Puerto Rican, because no one group can legitimately claim exclusive rights to it.

Simply put, Humboldt Park, as is the case with all our public parks, belongs to everyone.

The discussion of the future of the beach, much like the discussion over Riot Fest, has been framed around the context of socio-economic justice and race. Along those lines, the inevitable rhetoric over money spent on downtown parks, (namely the new Maggie Daley Park), versus neighborhood parks has been voiced. But all this is little more than demagoguery; the real issue regarding the inland beach is finding the practical means, and a legitimate rationale to keep open an enormously expensive amenity used by relatively few people for only three months of the year.

So far, no one has come up with the dough or short of that, a credible reason to choose the beach over the other essential features of Humboldt Park. My prediction is that the beach will remain closed this summer and a potential impasse between the community and the Park District will keep the twenty acres of Humboldt Park devoted to the beach, drained and useless to anyone for the foreseeable future.

The only winners in that scenario would be a handful of activists who will claim bragging rights for having stood up to the Park District.

If that happens, it would be a terrible waste of a precious resource.