Friday, March 20, 2015

La vie en Rose


Baseball fans eagerly awaiting the administration of new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, are debating how the new tzar of the game will rule on cases close to their heart.  One of those cases is the ongoing drama, saga, soap opera, or whatever you choose to label it, of discredited star Pete Rose, and his attempts to be reinstated into Major League Baseball.

Pete Rose 2008
Pete Rose
Rose you may recall, was banned from the game by the late commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti back in 1989 for gambling on baseball games, including ones in which he participated as player and manager. Fans appear to be split over the fate of Rose, aka “Charlie Hustle.” Those who support him say the man with more hits than any other player in the history of the game has paid the price for his transgressions. His detractors on the other hand, feel a suitable punishment is nothing less than a lifetime ban. Some are not even satisfied with that, as the possibility of extending Rose’s punishment into eternity is very real. Case in point, the great outfielder “Shoeless”Joe Jackson has been dead for over 60 years, yet efforts to forgive his sins (of participating in the 1919 Black Sox scandal), and rehabilitate his credibility in order to induct him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, have thus far fallen upon the deaf ears of the Commissioner’s office. There are those who feel that Rose shouldn’t be allowed into the Hall of Fame (if at all) before Jackson, and Jackson certainly isn’t getting inducted anytime soon.

Rose’s detractors have a compelling case in their favor, namely the rules of baseball, Rule 21(d) to be exact, which addresses the subject of  “betting on ball games”. The rule in its entirety states:

Any player, umpire, or club official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform shall be declared ineligible for one year.   

Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.

Clearly, Pete Rose falls into the second category and according to the rule, should be “declared permanently ineligible,” case closed.

Rules are rules after all.

Baseball is a game governed by rules, and no individual, no matter how great or important, is larger than the game.

I agree with that statement completely. By the same token, I believe that no rule is bigger than the game either.

Any student of the game knows that baseball has evolved a great deal over the 170 years since the first rules were put down on paper. Since then, rules have come and gone, they’ve been expanded, contracted, stretched, repealed, amended, side-stepped, tweaked, broken, ignored, and just about everything else you can do with a rule. There once was a rule that banned professionals from playing the game. Pitchers in the early days threw underhand (hence the term pitching), because the rules said they had to. And then there was the time, when any player who had dark skin was prevented by the rules from playing "organized baseball" of any kind.

A rule comes to be a rule because a perceived problem needs to be addressed. The gambling rule came about after multiple betting scandals rocked the game in the late ‘teen’s and early twenties of the twentieth century. The throwing the of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox was only the tip of the iceberg. There is very good evidence that players for the 1918 Cubs as well as the 1914 Athletics also were compensated for doing their best to lose World Series games, which they did. Gambling and game throwing were simply means to supplement the relatively paltry incomes of ballplayers of that era. The practice was rampant and threatened to destroy public trust in the “National Pastime.”

Kennesaw Mountain Landis
To combat the problem, major league owners created a new position, that of commissioner, the first of whom was the sour-pussed Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis, granted by the owners the power of chief judge, jury, and executioner, wasted no time in giving eight White Sox players including Jackson, the boot for their part in throwing the 1919 Series. He later put through the no-gambling rule along with its severe punishments. Landis for all his shortcomings, did manage to clean up the game as his treatment of the White Sox players, and everybody else whom he happened to think was not on the up and up, sent an unequivocal signal to MLB employees that it was to be either the commissioner's way, or the highway.

One measure of  Landis's efficacy in cleaning up the game is the simple fact that between the early 1920s and 1989 when Pete Rose was banned from the game, not a single major league ballplayer was suspended for betting on baseball, or conspiring with gamblers to fix games. That doesn't mean they weren't doing it, they just weren't caught, that is, until old Charlie Hustle.

That it works so well is a good argument that Baseball Rule 21(d) is sound and effective. I have no problem with the rule itself, just with its inflexibility and the severity of punishment. Some might say that there are no distinctions in gambling, that the very act of betting by someone involved in the game betted upon, undermines the very nature of competitive baseball. In other words, a two dollar bet is no different than a twenty thousand dollar bet, or that betting on your team to win is no different than betting on your team to lose. Granted, Pete Rose's bets were more in the twenty thousand dollar range than the two dollar range, but no one with any credibility has ever proven or even suggested that he bet on his teams to lose.

I agree there still is a conflict of interest when a manager of a ball club has money riding on his team to win. He may for example, because of his vested interest in a particular game, play starters whom he should be resting, or do other things to win that particular game to the detriment of winning other games down the line, or even a championship.  Common sense however would dictate that this transgression is much different from a manager betting on his team to lose.

I think it would be very difficult to prove that the Cincinnati Reds, both the team and the franchise while under the management of Pete Rose, were hurt by his gambling on them to win. If they were it would stand to reason that Reds fans would be the ones screaming the loudest for a lifetime ban on Pete Rose. In fact, quite the opposite is true, his biggest supporters are the fans from his hometown, which happens to be Cincinnati.

The same cannot be said of Joe Jackson's 1919 White Sox, who did indeed lose that year's World Series, were not contenders for many years after the team was broken up in 1920, and struggled mightily at the gate after the fans on the south side of Chicago lost faith in their team.

As far as disciplinary action goes, I believe that the punishment should fit the crime. A two dollar bet should not be penalized as severely as a twenty thousand dollar bet, and betting on your own team should not be dealt with as severely as betting against your team.

And I believe that under no circumstances, should a player be banned from the game for life, without any chance for redemption.

Yes friends I do believe in forgiveness, even for characters like Pete Rose.

One other issue I'd like to mention before I shut up, in this day and age where average MLB salaries are measured well into the seven digits, it's very hard to imagine that any player who makes that kind of scratch would be tempted to sacrifice a lucrative career for whatever amount gambling or associating with gamblers could possibly offer. Unless of course they have an addiction like Pete Rose, in which case the cure for the problem would be intervention, rather than banishment.

You might not like Pete Rose nor the things he did to get himself into trouble. But his contributions to the game of baseball are significant and should not be overlooked. In my opinion, those contributions should make Pete Rose eligible for a one way ticket to Cooperstown, despite his transgressions.

He deserves to be there, as does Joe Jackson, albeit, posthumously. As for Judge Landis's rule well, I think a little tweaking would be in order. A graded systems of penalties to match the severity of wrongdoing would be a good start. Perhaps a twenty year maximum suspension for the most egregious offenses would be enough to prevent players from crossing the line. After all as far as a baseball career is concerned, twenty years for all intents and purposes is a life sentence, even for a manager.

The punishment of an eternity in baseball oblivion for the crimes of people like Jackson and Rose, is ridiculously excessive, if you asked me. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An elegy for soon to be Lost Chicago


Ask me to name my favorite street in Chicago's Loop and I'd have to go with Wabash Avenue. The buildings that line the street aren't necessarily the best this city's architects had to offer, but they all reflect the attention to quality and detail that late nineteenth and early twentieth century architects put into their work. While not one single building is what you might call a masterpiece of design, when you put them all together, they create a breathtaking streetscape, speaking to each other in a distinctly turn of the twentieth century language. The loudest voice in that conversation, both visually and audibly, is the elevated structure that has dominated Wasbash Avenue since 1894. The L is to Chicago what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Brooklyn Bridge is to New York, and the cable cars are to San Francisco, that is to say, a magnificent work of late nineteenth century engineering that continues to stir hearts, and symbolize its city.

Of the four, Chicago's L is probably the least universally loved. It's noisy and it casts a perpetual shadow on the street below. It can be terrifying as well, as anyone who has ever traveled on or stood below trains as they make the tight, precarious curves twenty feet above ground can testify. Fears of trains falling from the sky came true in 1977, when an Oak Park bound train bumped into another train standing just east of the State and Lake station. The forward momentum of the trailing cars on the 90 degree curve at Lake and Wabash caused them to jump the tracks and topple to the street below.

The technology was well in place in the 1890s and a subway system as intricate as New York City's was considered. Because the Chicago rapid transit companies were privately owned by different entities, overwhelming difficulties and costs prevented it. The Union Loop as it was originally called, would enable the L lines to arrive downtown, traverse the overhead tracks, then return to their original destination without having separate terminals in the central business district of the city. This greatly facilitated transferring from one line to another as there were no routes that ran through downtown. As a private entity, city statutes mandated that the construction of the elevated structure above city streets would require 100 percent approval from the property owners along those streets. This being Chicago, you can imagine the shenanigans that went on to get the approval to build the Union Loop. But build it they did, and despite all the commotion and racket over the years, the 120 year old structure is still serving us well as it thrills and terrifies us at the same time.

The real beauty of our L, is the structure itself. As one of the consolations to property owners along the proposed route who feared the structure would cast the entire street in shadow, the builders agreed to build the structure supporting the tracks using an open, lattice-work system of trusses,  rather the solid beams. Consequently the Loop L, as opposed to the rest of Chicago s elevated structures, has a light, open feel to it, which perhaps enhances the death-defying quality of the experience of  trains rumbling above your head.

Madison St. station house
The elegant, functional design of the L structure, contrasts with the design of the stations which were built in a more traditional, historic-revival style, such as the neo-rennaisance of the station house on the left, reflecting the popular architectural fashion of the time. Most of the Loop stations have been significantly altered over the years, with the exception of the Quincy and Wells station, which has been restored virtually to its original appearance, and the Madison and Wabash station, which at this writing, has just been closed for good and is awaiting demolition.

The purpose of the demolition is to replace two Wasbash stations, the one at Madison, and eventually the one at Randolph two blocks to the north, with one modern station spanning from Madison to Washington Street. This would serve two very practical purposes. Reduction of the number of stops in the Loop, as they did a decade ago on Wells Street will, theoretically anyway, reduce congestion and improve travel times. Perhaps more significantly, the new station will be built to current ADA standards, making it possible for people with disabilities to better access public transportation, a very good thing by any standard.

On the other hand it's likely that another reason for the new construction to cut costs in the long run by reducing the staff needed to operate one extra station. Of course politicians love to get their names all over shiny new things and you can bet you'll see the mayor's name (whatever name that may be) plastered all over the new station.

The old Madison and Wabash station was built in 1894 along with the Wabash Avenue leg of the Loop structure, the first section of the Union Loop to be built. As you can see from the photographs, the station has seen better days, no doubt a result of receiving only the most basic maintenance as its days have been numbered for a good time now. Yet even through the rust, the pigeon proofing screens, and the grime, you can still appreciate the fine detail work of the ornamentation of the station. The new station as you can see in the photograph of the "Coming Soon" poster below, will sport undulating rib-like beams (a recent article compared the station's design to the work of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava), which will support a transparent canopy to protect passengers from the elements, while giving them an unobstructed view of the architecture that surrounds them. From the renderings, the new station appears attractive, exceptionally functional, and respectful of its surroundings.


Still I'm going to miss the old station which I must say was one of my very favorite places in Chicago if for nothing else, the spectacular views of Wabash Avenue, provided by the bridge that spanned the tracks.




That bridge has long been redundant as passengers can now walk beneath the station to transfer to the opposite tracks, and there are no plans to replace it with another one in the new station.

Attractive as it may be, the new station will definitely change the character of the street, which is not entirely a bad thing. Still, destroying a structure that's been around for 120 years shouldn't be something to be taken lightly. Then there's the view...



Take a good look, once the bridge is demolished along with the old station, no one will ever have this view of  Chicago again.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The president punts

In my last post about Chicago's bid for the Barack Obama Presidential Library, I speculated that the final decision to be made by President Obama and the First Lady about the library's location, scheduled to be announced at the end of this month, would have a tremendous impact on Chicago's upcoming mayoral election to be held on April 7. Well the president it seems has wisely chosen to delay the announcement until after the election.

Regardless of the decision where to locate his legacy museum/library, New York City, Honolulu, or Chicago, the president would have been in a lose-lose situation had he announced the winner right before the election.

The announcement of the delay itself has created considerable speculation among the pundits as to the final outcome of the competition. Some suggest it means that the president has not chosen Chicago, but doesn't want that decision to hurt the chances of his friend and former Chief of Staff, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of winning re-election. Others suggest that Chicago is indeed the choice, and the president does not want to be accused of using the announcement as a weapon to put the mayor over the top.

Of course, Obama knows full well that he will be raked over the coals for whatever he does; as someone humorously suggested, if Barack Obama were to openly come out in favor of air, 80 percent of Republicans in this country would hold their breath. As he is in his final term however, it's very likely that he is immune to fear of criticism from the intransigent right. That leads me to feel that the president is probably leaning toward New York or Honolulu, (as he wouldn't be fazed by making the controversial move to help the chances of his friend and political ally), but I wouldn't put serious money on it.

As far as the candidates' positions on the library, as I pointed out, Emanuel has engineered a land swap with the Chicago Park District, who agreed to hand over roughly twenty acres of one of two historic parks, Jackson or Washington Parks, both on the south side, in exchange for undisclosed vacant land owned by the city that would theoretically become devoted in one way or other to park use.

Personally I believe this is a terrible idea for reasons I enumerated here and here.

Emanuel's opponent, city commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, originally opposed the idea of the park swap as well, but has softened his stance as building the library at whatever cost is an exceptionally popular issue with a large percentage of Chicago's African American community, a constituency that both candidates desperately need to win the election.

So it turns out that both Emanuel and Garcia are willing to give up precious park land, and our historic and architectural legacy for votes.

And this election for me, at least as far as this issue goes, is a wash.

Friday, March 6, 2015

My iPhone and I during the evening commute...

So I've had my iPhone for about two months and haven't quite gotten to the point where I feel lost without it, but I'm getting there. There are still a few things I'm fumbling around with, I still haven't mastered the art of typing on the device, especially on a moving train, as being able to write this blog during my daily commute was one of the justifications for getting this thing in the first place.

Another justification was being able to have a camera with me at all times without having to carry around my rather cumbersome gear. Again, taking pictures with my phone at a moment's notice, isn't second nature to me just yet.

But the other night on the way home during a spectacular "sky event" as a good friend would call it, I got inspired...


I posted this image on Facebook and got about 50 likes in a day, I'm guessing it was the sunset. A friend asked if I used any digital manipulation or if I published the image straight from the camera file. I responded merely that the image corresponded more or less to the way I saw the scene at the time, which was in fact, true. Having been a serious photographer since high school, a very long time ago, I know that photographs seldom look the way you see the image in your mind's eye when you take the picture. There are lots of reasons for this but the most obvious one is that a camera and the recording medium, whether it be film or an electronic sensor, do not "see" an image the way our eyes and brain do. Photographers since the advent of the medium over 175 years ago, have understood this and have worked very hard to make their final images look just the way they think they ought to look.

Yet another surreptitious smartphone photograph of
people using smartphones on the train.
In the case of the picture above, there is a great difference between the amount of light coming from the sky and the amount of light reflected by the woman's coat or the tracks. Photographers call this the dynamic range. Photographic media can record a far more limited dynamic range than we can see. When we take a picture, if the range between brightest part of the image and the darkest is too great, compromises have to be made. If we want to preserve detail in the shadow areas, then we have to be willing to lose some detail in the highlights which will be rendered as solid white. Likewise; if we want to preserve details in the highlights, such as the vivid colors in the sky, we have to acccept that the shadow areas will be rendered solid black, unless of course we do something about it.

Back in the day when we shot black and white negatives, we could control the exposure and the development of the film to maximize its potential of producing a suitable print.  Ansel Adams took this technique to its logical extreme when he developed what he called the "Zone System." Then when we made a print in the darkroom, we had the ability to selectively control the amount of dark and light by means of what we call burning (adding more exposure) or dodging, (subtracting exposure), to specific areas of the print. Burning and dodging a print is an art form unto itself; watching the hand gestures of a skilled photographic printer dodging and burning in the darkroom is a truly sight to behold, akin to watching a potter on a wheel or a woodworker on a lathe.

Moonrise, Rogers Park
Alas, as a result of modern technology, this is becoming a lost art as most of the post-production of the photographic images we see today is done on a computer. If prints are made, they are produced on a machine. Today we can digitally control images to a degree that we could only dream about in the old days.

We like to think of photography as a medium that accurately represents reality but the fact is, photographs represent reality no more than paintings or any other kind of visual representation, as the act of framing and recording any three dimensional image onto a two dimensional surface, whether it be film, paper, canvas, or a computer monitor, is by its very nature, artificial.

Moonrise  RP2
Ever since the advent of the revolutionary digital photo editing software Photoshop in 1988. many people have viewed any kind of image manipulation as artificial, and therefore, cheating. Some folks for example, go to the extreme of claiming that the photographs they publish on the social media site Instagram, were made without the benefit of one of that app's many image-altering filters. Somehow they feel this is more pure and honest. But the truth is that every photograph made since the very beginning of the medium has in one way or other been manipulated.

Do photographs lie? Of course they do. Every one of them, to some extent.

All digital technology has done is make the process simpler and more accessible to the general public.

Today, there are apps for smartphones that make it painfully easy to do what once took a skill developed after years of practice in the darkroom to accomplish.

So there's the long winded answer to my friend's question if I used Instagram filters and other digital manipulation techniques on these photographs from the other day. Here's the sort version:

You're damn right I did.

Casa Bonita and Venus (the planet)

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Cuban Comet

When on April 19, 1951, Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso Arrieta became the first black man to play for a Chicago major league baseball team, he hit a home run in his first at-bat. Before that in 1949, Bill Veeck bought Miñoso's contract from the Negro League New York Cubans and signed him with his Cleveland Indians, making Minnie Miñoso the first black player of Latin American origin to play in the big leagues. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda wrote that Miñoso is "to Latin ballplayers what Jackie Robinson is to black ballplayers... the one who made it possible, ... the first Latin to become a superstar."



It's a strange coincidence that the seven time all star, three time gold-glover died just weeks after another Chicago baseball icon, Ernie Banks. Not only were both the first players of color to play on their respective Chicago teams, not only did both men have long and distinguished careers, but each would become unquestionably the heart and soul of their teams, even long after their playing days were over.

In Miñoso's case, it's difficult to say exactly when the end of his career came; he is perhaps best known as the only player to have appeared in a major league baseball game in five different decades, (seven decades in pro ball if you count plate appearances for minor league teams in 1993 and 2003). Miñoso's role was limited to pinch hitter for his old friend Veeck's White Sox, appearing at the plate eight times in 1976 and twice in 1980. In those ten at bats, Miñoso collected just one hit. Folks my age who never saw him in his prime, (and I'm no spring chicken), are more likely to think of Minnie Miñoso as a spry old man, rather than the "The Cuban Comet" as he was known in his glory days.

Call it respect, nostalgia, or a gag, just another bit of Veeckian mischief, but it's likely that those ten extra at bats for the White Sox while he was in his fifties, cost Miñoso some respect, at least among the folks who determine every ball player's ultimate dream, induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In his 2001 epic tome, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the author rates Miñoso as the tenth best left fielder of all time, between Willie Stargell and Billy Williams, both Hall of Famers. In his argument for Miñoso's induction, James lists by his reckoning, something not to be dismissed, the twenty greatest players in MLB history between the ages of 30 and 39. Minnie Miñoso is number 16 on the list, and the only one who is not in the Hall of Fame, with the exception of Pete Rose, who was excluded for his off-the-field shenanigans. Given that Miñoso didn't break into the big leagues until he was in his mid to late twenties (depending upon which birth date you accept), his already impressive career stats could have been better, had he more years in his prime to play in the majors, were it not for the color-barrier.

The latest snub of Miñoso came less than three months before his death, when the "Golden Era Committee" made up of eight Hall of Fame players and the same number of executives, rejected all ten of the stellar players of the fifties and sixties who came before them, Miñoso included.

In an ESPN article published just two days before he died, Christina Karhl interviewed Miñoso at length about his career, his disappointment at the snub, and the open hostility he faced as a player. Miñoso says:

My father and my mother taught me there was a way to pay somebody back, if they tried to break your arm or break your face: Pay them back on the field with a smile on your face. I used to keep my teeth clean all the time, just to make sure that's how I gave it back to them that way all the time.

He added this story about a confrontation with an opposing pitcher:

One day, this pitcher said he was going to get me. And I go up to the plate thinking, if I bunt it past this pitcher I'll get a base hit. So I put my hand out and push the ball up the line; we're both heading to first base -- and I didn't go after him. And he asked, "Why did you do that, why did you save me?" And I told him, "Because you have a wife, you have a kid, you have a mother. If you'd broken your leg or if I'd cut you, that would be on my conscience." Later on, he sent me a thank-you note, saying that I had earned his respect from then on.

Fitting last words I think for a great ballplayer and an even greater man.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Washington Park

View of Washington park looking toward South Open Green
I've spent a lot of my life in Chicago's parks. Ever since I first laid eyes on the magnificent sculpture by Loredo Taft, known as The Fountain of Time, there's always been a soft spot in my heart for Washington Park on the south side. I got to know the park in earnest in the mid-nineties when I began my extensive photographic survey of the parks of Chicago. Of all the landscape parks of this city, Washington stands apart in its great expanses. The field seen in the photograph above, originally called South Open Green, (today officially referred to as "Common Ground" Meadow), is certainly the widest expanse of open land in all the city's parks. As you can see, ball fields occupy the meadow as they have for nearly 150 years, ever since Paul Cornell, the founder of the community of Hyde Park who originally laid out Washington Park, convinced landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to put them there. In addition to the numerous baseball, softball, and football leagues that play their games in the meadow, Chicago's premier cricket league also calls the meadow it's home.

The biggest event the park hosts, is the picnic that follows the annual Bud Billiken parade which terminates in Washington Park. On any given weekend during the warmer months, you'll find it brimming with humanity in this, one of Chicago's loveliest parks.

But not today on a frigid late February afternoon, where aside from a couple of joggers and one solitary gentleman on foot, my only companions were a pair of cardinals and a few dozen black-capped chickadees, gleefully chirping and flitting from branch to ground and back, keeping me company.

With a fresh blanket of snow on a bright winter day like today, a park will reveal itself in ways it cannot during the summer when foliage and people are around. Being able to see from one end to the other, the landscape architects' work becomes readily apparent. Here you begin to understand that the great meadow is not just a flat patch of open land, but a carefully planned clearing, arranged brilliantly within the context of the rest of the park. Setting the meadow apart from the city to the west, is a ribbon of contoured land forms called berms. This undulating landscape, subtle as it is, serves two purposes. From the inside, it keeps the city beyond the park, with its visual clutter and traffic noise, out. From the outside, by hiding the ball fields within, it emphatically states to the world that this is first and foremost a landscape park, not a playground.

Section of Washington Park included in the University of Chicago bid for Obama Presidential Library
I'm afraid we don't put too much importance into the role of the urban landscape park anymore. To the designers of nineteenth century parks like this one, there was a premium put on open space in a naturalistic setting, intended for nothing more than walking or sitting, a place to get away from the frenetic activity of the city, including throngs of people. Today, big parks occupied by few people are seen as wasted space. Newer parks like Millennium Park and the new Maggie Daley Park downtown, cram as many activities, and people, as possible within their boundaries.The overall design effect is a jumble, not altogether different from an amusement park. Landscape parks if they're successful, give us a unified design with one feature effortlessly flowing into the next. New York's Central Park is a good example. Prospect Park in Brooklyn is even better. Not surprisingly, those two magnificent parks were designed by the same team of architects who designed Washington Park, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The ribbon of berms, trees and walkways on the western edge of Washington Park that Olmsted and Vaux carefully designed, about twenty acres in all, is in itself the size of a small park. This is the section of the park that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has offered to swap with the Park District for vacant city property, so it can be lumped together with nearby property as part of a bid for the Barack Obama Presidential Library. The board of the Chicago Park District, following the mayor lock, stock, and barrel, has agreed to carve up Washington Park. It hasn't been disclosed exactly how the western edge of Washington Park would be used in the proposed design, but if built, it would definitely change the character of the entire park.

It's easy to see why this patch of park land is coveted by the planners of the bid. Just west of the park, on the other side of King Drive, lie acres of vacant land, much of it owned by the University of Chicago, the sponsors of the bid. The site is perfectly situated in terms of transportation, less than a mile away from the Dan Ryan Expressway and directly underneath a CTA elevated station. While the available land is large enough to build a sizable building for
Vacant land immediately west of Washington Park
the presidential library, there may not be enough real estate necessary for the inevitable parking requirements, not to mention the landscaping around the library building that seems to obligatory as far as these things go. As others have pointed out, underground parking, similar to what currently exists at the Museum of Science and Industry, might solve that problem, and the willingness to scale back on the footprint of the entire library complex, would make this site feasible without intruding on Washington Park. There is also additional vacant land directly south of the site, across Garfield Park, just visible on the right of the photo that could possibly be incorporated in the design of the library complex.

I mentioned in the previous post, my opposition to taking over any part of Washington Park for the site of the library on the grounds that public land should not be surrendered for a private venture. In the case of this park, it's completely ridiculous to suggest that real estate located elsewhere could possibly make up for the loss of existing parkland that as we have seen, plays an integral role in the design of the rest of the park.

Furthermore, Washington Park has great significance to this city, as testified by its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately that distinction carries no weight as far as preservation is concerned, and as our mayor has shown before, he has no qualms about running roughshod over preservation issues regarding this city's architectural treasures.

They say that all politics is local yet in an interesting turn, this issue may be a 180 degree reversal of that old axiom. In a few weeks time, the president will have the final say about the location of his legacy library. That decision will more than likely be made before the runoff mayoral election between Emanuel and his opponent Jesus Garcia in April. I imagine it would be a tremendous slap in the face to the mayor if Obama chooses New York or Honolulu over Chicago, especially coming right before the election involving that president's former Chief of Staff. If that should occur, you can bet Garcia will make hay of the fact that the mayor couldn't bring home a prize that many in this town think is rightfully ours.

The land grab of public property that the mayor is advocating, is controversial, and it may be subject to law suits. If those suits become a reality, they could very well become the deciding factor that kills Chicago's chances for getting the presidential library.

And if that comes to pass, Garcia would indeed have a point that by not coming up with a more workable plan, Emanuel blew our chance of getting the library. Who knows, that might even be just enough ammunition to swing the election Garcia's way.

I'm on the fence right now but there are certainly loads of people in this city right now who would love to see Garcia become Chicago's first Latino mayor. They just may get their chance.

And Rahm Emanuel will have only himself to blame.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Park swap

There's a competition underway to determine the future site of the Barack Obama Presidential Library. The four contestants in the battle, all major universities, are the University of Hawaii, Hololulu, Columbia University in New York City, the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the University of Chicago.

President Obama has connections to all four. He was born in Honolulu, did his undergraduate studies at Columbia, and spent most of his working life before he became a US senator and president, in Chicago. Of the four, it seems to me that the University of Chicago would be the most logical choice, as the president has the closest ties to that institution, where he taught, as well as the south side of Chicago, the childhood home of the First Lady, and the couple's two daughters. It was on the south side where the president famously worked as a community organizer; he also represented a portion of the that part of the city as a senator in the Illinois State Assembly.

I am not aware of any specific connections the president has with the west side of Chicago (where UIC proposes to build the library) or with that institution itself.

The U of C is pushing full steam ahead with their bid, but with reservations. They are adamant about building the new institution in the neighborhood surrounding its campus but not on the campus itself. They claim that the library will do much more good in the community, in terms of spurring on new development, creating new jobs, and bringing new opportunities into the neighborhood. One of the stipulations that the Obamas and the group who will select the winning bid have, is that the land proposed for the site must owned outright by the bidding institution. The university owns considerable property in the surrounding community but apparently not enough contiguous tracts of land sufficient for a site for the library and its environs.

Not to fear, says Mayor Emanuel, the city will just take existing Chicago Park District land adjacent to U of C property, then turn it over to the university, thereby creating a site suitable for the needs of the proposed library. In exchange for the park land, the city would convert currently non-functioning city-owned property into usable park space.

This real estate slight of hand is a win-win proposition, a no-brainer right? After all, in the words of the mayor, we need to jump on this because we shouldn't have to wait for another president to come from Chicago before we get this opportunity again.

I understand the logic but there are ethical issues about grabbing public land and turning it over to a private entity, even if it is for an institution to be open to the public.

"Ethical-schmethical...", the folks in the affected communities seemed to say in a public meeting, "...we want the library and all the perks it will bring." And who can blame them? Drive around much of the Washington Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods to the west and south of the university, and you'll find acre upon acre of vacant lots interspersed with boarded up buildings and shuttered businesses. One can only imagine how plopping a presidential library smack dab in the midst of all the desolation would mean a sudden infusion of jobs, money and opportunity.

One can hear the residents of the community saying the park land in question is not heavily used, it's just land filled with grass and trees, there's nothing particularly useful there. After all, what could be more old fashioned than an uncongested urban park filled with nothing but grass and trees?

The Chicago Park District agrees and last week they rubber stamped the mayor's proposal transferring public park land to the city. The Chicago City Council is expected to follow suit shortly.

Here is a link to a site with a satellite view of  the area surrounding the University of Chicago, with the two proposed sites highlighted in red. One proposed site consists of about 20 acres on the western edge of Jackson Park, the other consists of roughly the same amount of acreage on the western edge of Washington Park. Both parks linked together by the Midway Plaisance served as the site of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, two of the preeminent American landscape architects of the nineteenth century, or any century for that matter, were responsible for the design of the parks before, during and after the Fair. As you can imagine, the two parks play an integral role in Chicago's history, are a significant part of this city's tremendous architectural legacy, and, simply put, are some of the most beautiful places in the city.

Jackson Park

It may be a tough sell these days but no one should take lightly the idea of carving up these historic, magnificent, public parks, even for a worthwhile cause.

One of the problems, as pointed out in this open letter to the president and all parties concerned from Charles Birnbaum, the founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, is that the mayor and the university are presenting this issue as an either/or; either the presidential library gets built on public park land, or it gets built in New York of Hawaii. If that happens, the folks in the affected communities will have the people who care about the parks to blame as the mayor and the university "did all they could" to bring the library here, but those damn park people got in the way.

Not surprisingly, that turns out to be a bunch of hooey. Mr. Birnbaum points out minor alterations in the proposals which would not intrude into park space, but the mayor and the U of C are so far un-moved. This scenario is painfully similar to the one we experienced a couple of years ago with the former Prentice Women's Hospital, an architecturally significant building that was destroyed by Northwestern University. That institution proclaimed that despite owning hundreds of acres of land in the Streeterville neighborhood, only the Prentice site was suitable to build a new research building. For his part, the mayor signed off on the destruction of the important building by saying it was OK to demolish it since we had other buildings in town by the same architect, Bertrand Goldberg. Then with the most egregious malfeasance, the Chicago Landmarks Commission in one breath voted to landmark the building, then in the next breath said it didn't matter, the city and the university needed the land so the new landmark, and in effect, all landmark buildings in the city be damned.

Essentially the Park District did the same thing last week when they declared that the land they are entrusted to maintain and protect as a public trust, could be traded off at the mayor's bidding.

Washington Park


This is not only a bad idea for the parks affected, but a terrible precedent which could have major ramifications for all our parks.

But why should any of this surprise us? As we've seen, in the recent words of a friend, when university officials want something, there is little that can be done to get in their way.

I would add, especially when the mayor is in bed with them.