Thursday, December 3, 2009

New businesses in the Loop

Today marks the opening of the French Market in the concourse of Ogilvy Transportation Center. This is great news on several counts, not the least being that anything new opening up in this economy is terrific. Also this will be the one and only open food market in Chicago, something woefully lacking in a city this size.

Another discovery was a storefront on Madison between Wabash and State Streets that specializes in vinyl LP albums. This is particularly exciting given the fact that most people have given that medium up for dead long ago, (not audiophiles of course), not to mention the fact that independent storefront businesses in the Loop are few and very far between.

I haven't paid a visit into either establishment yet but I plan to very shortly. Maybe I'll even be inspired to fix my turntable.

Good news indeed.

Ornithology

A Cooper's Hawk in the North Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2:00PM Wednesday December 2. I've been seeing a lot of these birds up in my neighborhood of Rogers Park but seeing one smack dab in the middle of the Loop yesterday was pretty exciting.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Milwaukee

There are few who know me who have been spared tales of my affection for the city of Milwaukee. Back in the day, when my friends were spending their summer vacations in exotic places like Greece or even California, I would spend mine with my grandparents in the Cream City.

To this day I look forward to our all too infrequent trips 90 miles to the north. And I dread the thought that yet another of my favorite haunts up there will have disappeared since the last time I visited.

Today on my annual birthday visit with my family, we sadly discovered that the Harry Schwartz bookshops have closed. At this point it's clear to say that I am clearly not up to snuff on all things Milwaukee as it turns out that the stores announced their closing last January. The Downer Street shop, as well as a suburban location have re-opened under new names, having been taken over by former Schwartz managers. Happily the Downer shop, now under the ownership of Daniel Goldin has not changed significantly under the new ownership and hopefully it will retain its position as the anchor of a very wonderful little urban enclave under the new name, Boswell Book Company. I wish them good luck.

Thankfully my favorite restaurant in the world, Karl Ratzsch's, is still alive and well Downtown. The taste of the liver dumpling soup always brings to mind my father and his love of the stuff which he passed on to his son. While my own son wouldn't touch it, it turns out that my carnivorous little daughter loved it, and this little bit of heaven should live on for at least another generation.

From what I could tell, the economy has hit the city pretty much as it has hit Chicago, as evidenced by ever more empty storefronts. But times change everywhere and resilient Milwaukee will be just fine.

It was good to be back, I promise not to be gone so long next time.

Ornithology

Some serious harassment of a Cooper's Hawk by several crows, Rogers Park, Saturday, November 28, 2009.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ornithology

Seen during the past week:
  • Bald Eagle, last Saturday, Starved Rock.
  • Brown Creeper, last Sunday, Chestnut and Dearborn.
  • Red-tailed Hawk, Robert Black Golf Course, Pratt and Ridge.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The ultimate urban experience

A while ago a former colleague at the Museum changed jobs and went across the street to work at the School of the Art Institute. He told me that he was leaving the realm of dead artists for the realm of the living. That gave me pause to think. On the surface it seemed like a compelling idea. His description conjured up images of leaving the old, creaky fossils behind in favor of the new, the exciting, and most important, the relevant. Thinking it through a bit however I realized that somewhere in the future, maybe ten years, maybe one year, heck maybe even less, much of what we find relevant today will become trivial, trite, or just plain silly. Yet the important work that has stood the test of time will remain fresh, enlightening, yes even relevant, while most of the art produced today, (as is the case with most of the art that has ever been produced) will be forgotten.

I was reminded of this today, on the Solemn Feast of All Saints. We Catholics dedicate the entire month of November every year to our departed ancestors. During today's feast, we celebrate the lives of people who lived exemplary lives, so much so that we believe they unquestionably dwell as citizens of that very unearthly place that St. Augustine described as the City of God. On the second day of November, the day of the Feast of All Souls, we reflect on the lives of all our departed. The two feast days are most popularly observed in Mexico as El Dia de los Muertos. Contrary to its (to our ears) macabre name, the Day of the Dead is very much a day of celebration and festivity as people reconnect with their deceased loved ones.

If there is one thing that distinguishes the Roman Catholic faith from most other Christian traditions, it is our devotion to those who came before us. We believe that the history of God's love for His people does not end with the last page of the Bible. At mass we proclaim that we believe in the "communion of saints." That is, we are members of an extended family of believers that not only encompasses the living of every race and nationality, but also those who came before us, and by extension, those who have yet to come.

Today in the Cathedral, the point could not have been clearer. We worshiped in a building that was built well over a century ago but is filled with adornments from our own era. The congregation every week comes from every corner of the globe. The liturgy, a work in progress for the past 45 years is based on liturgy that is almost two thousand years old. The music ranged from the Renaissance to practically yesterday. Jesus' words in the Gospel reading, commonly known as the Beatitudes, uttered so long ago, are pointedly centered on the present:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, there's is the kingdom of God..."

And while mass was devoted to those who lived in the past, the squeaks and squawks of the children sprinkled throughout the building reminded us of our future.

The Church is indeed about the timeless, as well as the here and now.

Which is perhaps why so many have strayed. Our culture today hasn't much time for, or interest in the timeless. I often hear the sentiment, "I just don't get anything out of going to church." It's trendy these days to say "I'm spiritual but not religious", meaning of course, "I believe in God but I don't go to church". The churches that do have growing numbers are charismatic, ones that offer a heaping helping of "spiritual experience". More reflective, traditional churches are struggling.

For me, the point of going to church is not what I get out of it. It is the collective experience of belonging to something that is much greater than myself, something much greater in fact than the sum of all its parts. I believe that we go to church for each other, for God, for our families, past, present and future, for our friends, for people we will never know, and yes even for the guy sitting next to us who shakes our hand during the greeting of peace but who wouldn't otherwise give us the time of day.

That to me is what sums up the urban experience. Our destinies are all tied together, whether we like it or not. Along with those who came before as well as those who will succeed us, we live, love, work, struggle, fight, build up, tear down, care for, and leave our mark on a place that we will eventually leave behind. That in a nutshell is the fabric of a city.

City of Man, or City of God, one thing is certain, we all need each other.

Friday, October 16, 2009

We made the List!

Chicago may have lost its bid to host the 2016 Olympics but we do have one thing going for us.

We have a building on Travel and Leisure magazine's list of the "The World's Ugliest Buildings."

Mayor Daley could not be reached for comment.

Spanning the globe from Pyongyang to Portland to well, Chicago, it's a strange list in my opinion. Lists such as these are always completely subjective and ten people could put together ten entirely different lists.

It seems that the major criterion to make this particular list is that the architects simply tried too hard. What is also bizarre, also in my opinion of course, is if you go on to look at their list of the "World's Coolest Buildings" you may find it difficult distinguishing to which list a given building belonged. Although I didn't take a complete survey, from a cursory view I noticed that buildings by Frank Gehry made both lists.

I suppose that's what separates great architects from lesser ones.

So of all of Chicago's ugly buildings, which one distinguished itself enough to make this esteemed list?

Why the Harold Washington Library.

Congratulations to one and all, a fine tribute to our city!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Look and Leave

I spent lunchtime one day last week at two exhibitions that deal with the urban experience in two very different forms.

The first featured the work of photographer Jane Fulton Alt who documented New Orleans after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

Alt, also clinical social worker, was on volunteer service working with other health care professionals accompanying the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward returning to view what was left of their homes for the first time, three months after the disaster. The effort was dubbed "look and leave" because the area was in no way inhabitable at the time. In her statement Alt writes of the effect on her, both emotionally and physically. So moved was she by the experience that she felt the need for others to see the ravages of one of the worst natural disasters in this nation's history. Thus began the project.

Alt's formally composed, large format digital prints are unpopulated, traces of life are depicted archeologically, in bits and pieces, personal momentos left behind, signs painted by triage workers indicating what was to be found inside a flooded home, a recently built church intact save for the fact that its steeple had toppled into the street. Covering everything is a whitish silt that settled after the flood waters receeded, dried and cracked in the sun, forming a ghostly patina. In a particularly moving picture, the interior of a home with fresh footprints in the cracked silt bears testimony to the length of time it had been deserted.

Most of the photographs were made in the Lower Ninth. Two exceptions are of New Orleans icons at both ends of the spectrum, one, a picture of the facade of the now notorious Superdome where thousands of flood victims sought refuge. The other is an atmospheric image of St. Louis Cathedral behind Clark Mills' famous equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson shrouded in a dense fog. The latter image might at first appear to be a promotional shot for a tourist brochure, except for the smashed lamp post in the foreground.

There is no such subtlety in the photographs of the Lower Ninth.

The depth of the devastation is so numbing that coming to the exhibit with a blank slate, a viewer might be overwhelmed by the banality of the destruction portrayed in the pictures.

Of course one would have to have lived under a rock for the past five years not to have some idea of the dreadful toll that Katrina took in the Gulf region, and especially in New Orleans.

To bring home the point the exhibit includes a soundtrack of New Orleans music, a slide show of photographs of the people of New Orleans, and ample didactic text of Alt's, describing her work. I don't normally like over abundant text and gallery soundtracks. I feel that the pictures should speak for themselves and that music is a too easy a venue for swaying the emotions of the viewer. But in this case the music and the text are necessary in that they ground the work as they evoke a sense of place to anyone who has ever known what it means "to miss New Orleans."

In her statement, Jane Fulton Alt notes that the visits of many of the people to their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward were both their first and their last.

I once had a conversation with a New Orlinean who told me that all's back to normal in his hometown. If I were to visit he continued, I'd never know anything ever happened.

I knew exactly what he meant. The French Quarter, the Garden District, all the restaurants, shops, and music venues are up and running and your casual visitor might not notice anything wrong. But in another account I heard what was a different truth. You may not see it in the physical city, downtown that is, but you see it in the eyes of the people who wait on you. New Orleans will never be the same.

A book of this work has been published. It is named after the effort Alt participated in which inspired the project, Look and Leave. It is available in the Cultural Center bookshop.

While Alt's photographs are an elegy for a lost city, the exhibit across the street at the Chicago Tourism Center was a full steam ahead look at the possibilities of the future. It was called Big, Bold, Visionary, Chicago Considers the Next Century. Unfortunately the show came down this week but it contunues to live online here.

I will discuss this exhibit in a later post. Please stay tuned.

His first opera

I took my son to the opera last night, Tosca at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It was my first opera too, same company, same building, 33 years ago. Theo was adamant that his first opera be the same as mine so there we were. We sat in the very last row of the upper balcony which was just fine because he could stand up to see better and it didn't bother anyone.

He was by far the youngest person in the audience. At eight, he is in fact the minimum age for admittance. There was some trepidation among a few of our neighbors way up there but that was relieved when they realized he was not going to be fidgety, at least not more than the average adult in the audience.

I'm not sure if his experience had the same impact as mine did so long ago, I was ten years older, by myself, buying a turnback ticket a half hour before the sold out performance. I was also in the midst of an obsession which would last several years. His obsession for opera was set aside this summer when he fell in love with baseball. Yet he maintained, at least for our sake, his enthusiasm, and seemed to have a good time. At the very least he got to be out on the town with the big folks way past his bedtime on a school night.

As for me, I got to pass down something to my son that has been an important part of my life. Not to take too much credit but I think I'm also doing my part to help insure that opera will be around at least for another generation.

Of course this would not have been possible had we not lived in a city that supported culture. I always felt lucky to be exposed to so many different experiences that a big city afforded and I'm glad that my children will have the same opportunities. While it's not always easy to bring up kids in the big city, the rewards are many.

It was a night that neither of us will forget for a very long time.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The urban experience on film...



In the twilight of the golden age of American city, the movie On the Town gave us this spirited and ambitious tour of 1949 Manhattan plus a side trip to the Statue of Liberty, in just over three minutes! The three mugs are Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munchin. The lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Leonard Bernstein, and the film was directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen.

Incidentally, the lyrics from the original musical stage play are more appropriate coming out of the mouths of sailors on a one day leave; "New York, New York, a hell of a town."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Post mortem

The dark "L" flag flying high in the rain above the scoreboard at Wrigley Field yesterday afternoon said it all. It had been a bad day for Chicago. What bagan as a sunny day filled with hope and promise, at least for half of Chicago's citizens, ended prematurely around 11:00 am when IOC president Jacques Rogge declared that "Chicago will NOT host the 2016 Olympic Games". As then as if on cue, it began to rain.

It was tough given the fact that Chicago had been eliminated in the first round of voting. But Rogge's very words were particularly brutal, couldn't he at least have said, in Miss America style: "And the third runner up is... CHICAGO!!!"

Now it's time for analysis and finger pointing. We were too arrogant, the president didn't do enough, or the president did too much, or the mayor was just, well he was just being himself.

The fact is, the selection of Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Games was simply in the cards. All they had to do was convince the IOC that they could deal with their own staggering crime problem, which by comparison makes Chicago look like Mayberry. Obviously they succeeded. As for the early exit, I've read accounts that since Chicago was the odds on favorite, the early votes that may have gone here went to Tokyo and Madrid as sympathy votes. There was simply no way either of those cities would have been selected. It seems that from the outset we didn't have much of a chance either.

I predicted correctly two days ago that in the case of defeat, the critics would say that the money spent trying to get the Games was wasted, that it should have been spent on the schools or other worthwhile goals, not by trying to get some silly games in order to fulfill the mayor's legacy. Well I agree that fixing the schools is definitely more worthwhile than the Olympics. And I don't think anyone, including the mayor, would disagree.

In fact I bet you that if the mayor had a genie that granted him only one of two specific wishes, either getting the Olympics, or having a first class school system where every child enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools would get a decent education, graduate from high school, then go on to lead a healthy and productive life, that he would choose the latter in the blink of an eye.

Imagine what a legacy that would be!

The problem is there are no genies. As difficult as getting the Olympics proved to be, fixing the problem of education in the city is infinitely more difficult. It is not a problem that can be fixed simply by throwing money at it, as some would believe.

Many have pointed to two tragedies in the past week, one on the south side and one on the north side, where teenagers were attacked by mobs of kids and beaten, one to death, the other, just to the brink. The mayor should have been at home dealing with these problems they say. Personally I don't blame the mayor or the schools for that matter, for the homicidal behavior of some of our city's children.

Nor do I blame him for the deep financial morass that Chicago, the State of Illinois, the United States, and the rest of the world are in at the moment.

The truth is that a mayor simply cannot fix all the problems of a city by himself. Many things have to change before poor education, poverty, crime, in that order, are fixed.

The vision of our mayor, and many others in this city is that opportunity is the key to begin to heal our city's problems. The Olympic bid was an effort to bring opportunity to this city. The failure to bring home the Games was in the end, not at all a failure in the big picture. I truly believe that we cannot continue being a great city without looking forward, and without being connected to the rest of the world. This bid, regardless of the outcome was a step in the right direction. It showed the rest of the world that we are willing to do the things necessary to bring us in step with world, and not to just to rest on our laurels, on our great architecture and beautiful lakefront.

I applaud the hard work and dedication that went into this effort. Today is a new day and we have lots of work to do. We can handle this setback because we Chicagoans have had lots of them. Just look at our sports teams for starters.

Some folks think that following sports is a big waste of time. But any Chicago sports fan can tell you that this endeavor prepares one for many of the hardships of life.

So in the end, on the day after our defeat in Copenhagen, I as a Chicagoan can proudly say, "Wait 'till next year!"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Legacy and the Olympics

As I begin to write this there are two days until the International Olympic Committee makes its choice for the host city of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. For the first time in my life I live in a city that is in contention to host the Games and like most people in this town, I am filled with excitement, and not a little ambivalence.

Putting myself on the line I'll go on record right now and say that Madrid is not going to be the one as the 2012 Olympics will be in London and the I.O.C. is loathe to have consecutive Games on the same continent. The same will probably be the problem for Tokyo as the 2008 games were in Beijing and the I.O.C. likes to spread the wealth around, at least among four continents so far. My money, if I had any right now, would be on Rio as the Games have never taken place in South America. And what Games they would be! But Rio has its problems too so it looks like Chicago and Rio are running neck and neck. We'll know in less than 48 hours.

I'm sure there are detractors in every city that tries to get the Olympics and Chicago certainly is no exception. The criticisms run from the mundane, (it would tie up traffic for two weeks), to doubts about whether we can really pull it off and at what cost.

I stated my support a few months ago on this blog for the effort to bring the Olympics to Chicago and I stand by that. There are good reasons not to bring the Games here, most notably the vast expense and the possible loss or alteration of significant buildings and parks. I believe however that there are simply more good reasons in favor. In the long run, and it may in fact be the VERY long run, the benefits will simply outweigh the costs.

Many of the criticisms center around Mayor Richard M. Daley. While the mayor enjoys success at the polls that no one, not even his father had, he has become the symbol for all that is wrong with city government. Admittedly Daley has exercised heavy handed authoritarian rule over the city, the most outrageous example being the destruction of Meigs Field by sending bulldozers to tear up the runway in the middle of the night. Ultimately however the mayor proved to be right on that issue, the city benefits far more by having park land along the lakefront than an airport used primarily by private planes. Charges of corruption coming out of the mayor's office (but not the mayor himself), and other misguided adventures, most recently the bungled out-sourcing of city controlled revenue sources like the Skyway and parking meters have certainly tarnished the mayor's administration.

So it's no small wonder that the mayor's almost single minded effort to pursue the Games, has appeared to many to be "Ritchie's folly". Bringing the Olympics to Chicago is really the mayor's attempt to secure his legacy, or so the argument goes.

Well what politician is not concerned about his legacy? Any public figure's legacy is indelibly tied to his or her successes and failures. If Mayor Daley leaves the city in better shape than he found it, then his legacy will be intact. And who but the most cynical among us would have a problem with that?

His vision may not be to everyone's liking but no one for a minute has ever questioned Mayor Daley's love of his city. Almost to a fault the mayor has been Chicago's greatest civic booster, never afraid to put his city in the same league with the great cities of the world.

Personally I have to admit that I cringe whenever I hear the term "world class city". It seems like a meaningless, hype-filled expression spouted by provincial bumpkins with a serious inferiority complex. But our mayor truly believes in Chicago, the world class city. And he is banking on the possibility that he may be right.

Look at the competition. Madrid with over a millennium of history, is the capital of the Spanish speaking world, a center of culture, government, and commerce. Consider Tokyo, one of the great metropolises of the world, a "command center" of the world's economy. And of course there is Rio de Janeiro, unquestionably one of the most beautiful and glamorous cities in the world. While it unquestionably applies to all three, I strongly suspect that "world class city" is seldom uttered in those cities, in whatever form it takes in Portuguese, Spanish, or Japanese.

In Chicago we rightfully extol the physical beauty our lakefront and our architecture. We are the transportation hub of the United States. The Chicago's Board of Trade and Mercantile Exchange are strong engines in our nation's economy. Many of our cultural institutions are second to none. Yet to this day traveling around the world, the first thing people say when you tell them you're from Chicago is "Gangsters!, rat a tat tat!, Al Capone!"

A local talk radio host recently asked the question, "Have you ever visited a city because they at one time hosted the Olympics?" Of course the question was pointed and everyone who called in answered no. A more reasonable question would have been, "has your image of a particular city changed because they hosted the Olympics?"

I would have to say that with the exception of Atlanta, and Athens, two cities I had already visited, I learned a great deal about all the cities that have hosted the Games in my lifetime. While Sydney, Barcelona, Seoul, Turin and Sarajevo to name a few were already on my map, my image of those places was definitely shaped by the Olympics. Not to mention the cities that I probably would have never heard of had it not been for the Olympics: Albertville and Grenoble, France, Nagano and Sapporo, Japan, Innsbruck, Austria, even Lake Placid, New York.

The Olympics have replaced World's Fairs as the single greatest showcase for a city to the rest of the world. Billions of people will be tuned in to the Games and it seems to be a no brainer that the value of that kind of publicity as far as developing international awareness, would be far greater than the simple expense of putting on the Games.

Mayor Daley understands this as do the Governor, the President, the First Lady and an entire slew of public and private figures who are in Copenhagen right now to lobby the effort.

Here at home nay sayers are dialing up their rhetoric in these final hours before the decision. Maybe their disdain comes from the fact that they don't care much for the Olympics themselves or that the boundaries their world end at the Indiana and Wisconsin borders. The bean counters and small thinkers among us have been the loudest in their criticisms and no doubt we'll be hearing a great deal from them after the decision is made around noon Chicago time on Friday, regardless of the outcome. "Now we're in for it!" they'll say if we get the Games, or "Well we sure wasted a bunch of money trying to get this thing" if we don't.

As far as I'm concerned, this has been a win/win situation for the city. Regardless of the outcome, Chicago has benefited from this endeavor in terms of exposure and securing its place on the world's stage. Perhaps, as an article I sited in an earlier post suggested, any city that bids for the Olympics benefits greatly, even more so if it is not the ultimate winner.

Like everyone else in this city, I eagerly await the news on Friday morning. Deep down I really hope we win, I think it would be a terrific experience and opportunity, especially for my children and their peers all over the city.

Chicago is a proud city with many mottos, "The City of Big Shoulders" and "The I Will City" are two of them.

As far as I know, "No, thank you" is not.

Win or lose I can summarize my feeling in four words:

Good job Mr. Mayor.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remember...

New York, Washington, Shanksville, PA, Afghanistan, Iraq, and all the innocent lives that have been lost as a result of a barbaric act committed eight years ago today.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Berlin

"You know what the fellow said, in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Harry Lime - The Third Man

The famous line written and delivered by Orson Welles* in Carol Reed's film The Third Man could be considered to be the ultimate cynic's view of the world, especially coming from a character who is using the argument to justify his ghastly crimes. Yet in a broader sense there is a germ of truth to it given that conflict and suffering define the human experience in ways that peace and contentment do not.

Consider the fact that the Divine Comedy of Dante is popularly referred to as Dante's Inferno, not Dante's Paradiso, even though the story deals with both Heaven and Hell, not to mention Purgatory.

Nothing captures the imagination more than misery.

This is true of the urban experience. Cities contain both the best and the worst of humanity, the great cities only more so. This goes all the way back to Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world, part of the cradle of civilization, center of art, law and science. But Babylon still has bad connotations to this day implying the degenerate behavior found in big cities.

The great cities of the world all have had their share of decadence, heartbreak and misery.

Of all the cities that I have visited, none has had to overcome more of all three in the course of one human lifetime than Berlin. What is remarkable about Berlin is that while its rebirths have been wildly successful, the city has done very little to obfuscate its troubled to say the least, past. Everything is out in the open for all to see, scars (especially the scars) and all. And Berlin is all the better for it.

If you say that you were in Berlin at some point in your life you would have to specify exactly when, as there have been so many Berlins over the past century.

Those lucky enough to have been there in the 1920s and early 30s experienced a magnificent city during its golden age. Berlin was the center of cutting edge painting, literature, architecture, film, science, design, music, philosophy and education, just to name a few.

Harry Lime's comment certainly holds true for this period as much of the fervent creativity was born out of war and the sense of desperation Germany faced with enormous reparations owed to the victors of World War I. Staggering inflation wiped out the savings of most Germans. There was a kind of "let's face the music and dance" atmosphere that swept over the city at that time.

The music ended in 1933 when Hitler came to power. The cosmopolitan, irreverent, and slightly decadent Berliners were never very supportive of the Nazis. But their city was Germany's capital and it became the center of the storm during the one of the most horrible periods in human history, an enduring symbol for the most abominable regime the world has ever known.

Where pre-1933 Berlin will be remembered for the Bauhaus, Einstein, German Expressionism, Threepenny Opera and Marlene Dietrich, pre-war Berlin will always be remembered for Nazi Rallies, the Reichstag fire, book burnings, and Kristallnacht. During that time the talented but morally bankrupt Albert Speer was as Hitler's hand chosen architect, busy making no little plans of his own, redesigning a Berlin that was intended to be the imperial capital city of the Third Reich. "Take a good look, " Albert Einstein said to his wife as they left the old Berlin for good in 1932, "you'll never see it again."

Speer's imperial city never took shape as his plans were forever shelved when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Beginning that year the look of Berlin would change drastically as impenetrable bunkers were built throughout the city in anticipation of war. It's look would forever change a few years later.

The British began areal bombing as early as 1940, but Berlin remained more or less intact until late 1943 when the Battle of Berlin began. The Americans got into the act in February, 1944, and the Russians helped finish the work starting in January, 1945.

The bombing continued until April, 1945 when the Red Army marched into the city. All in all, somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 civilians died in Berlin as a result of the bombing, a small amount compared to other bombed cities, due in large part to the bunkers. But the city was reduced to rubble. The death toll brought upon the world by the mass murderers who took their lives in their bunkers near the Brandenburg Gate will never be known, but estimates range between 50 and 70 million.

The spoils of war were split between the Allied powers as Germany was divided into four parts, English, French, American and Soviet. Berlin was situated, in the middle of the Russian sector, but since it was the capital and most important city, it too was split in four. Eventually the split became two as cold war tensions arose between the Soviet Union and the West. The part of Berlin not under Soviet hegemony became an island in the midst of Soviet controlled East Germany. Disputes with the West led the Soviets to blockade what became known as West Berlin. The western allied powers organized an airlift to supply the material needs of West Berliners. The Berlin Airlift was to last three years, from 1946 to 1949.

Remarkably through the tension, West and East Berlin remained one city with free access from one end to the other. This uneasy co-existence lasted through the fifties as over three million East Germans emigrated to the West through Berlin. To stop the hemorrhage, the East Germans constructed the infamous Berlin Wall that encircled West Berlin in 1961. Watchtowers with armed soldiers ensured that escape attempts would be met with deadly force. Between August 13, 1961 and November 9, 1989, 171 persons were shot while trying to cross the Wall.

This period marked two notable visits from U.S. presidents. John F, Kennedy visited Berlin on June 26, 1963 where he delivered his beloved show of solidarity.*






Ronald Reagan on June 12,1987 standing before the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate directly addressed his Soviet counterpart when he said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."




Two years later, Mr. Gorbachev did exactly that.

The reasons for the Fall of the Soviet Union are numerous and will be debated forever but on November 9, 1989, the extant East German government announced that its citizens could freely visit West Germany. Thousands took the opportunity to chip away at the wall as a shameful period in history came to an abrupt end.

What followed was a period of tremendous exuberance on both sides as two cities became one again. Germany officially reunited on October 3, 1990.

The exuberance did not last long. The forty four year period of division between the two cities was profound. East Berliners flooded into West, looking for opportunities that never existed for them. Economically the Easterners were far behind their counterparts and the German government was forced to create some kind of equilibrium, work that goes on to this day. Not long after the wall came down, chants of "put it back up" could be heard all over town, at least under people's breath.

That of course did not happen. What did happen was a tremendous construction boom. Tower cranes sprouted up like weeds all over the former East Berlin, especially in the formidable area once occupied by the Wall where complete desolation was replaced by new buildings, parks and boulevards.

Today Berlin is back to its prominence as one of Europe's cultural meccas. It is also the capital of Germany once again.



My father and I were both in Berlin. He spent much of the war there as a conscripted laborer from occupied Czechoslovakia. I was there in 1993 four years after the Wall came down. We were in two entirely different cities.

I had very personal reasons for visiting beyond being a tourist. All through my childhood my father made me very much aware of the war and its aftermath when the Soviet Union dominated Central and Eastern Europe. Going to the city where my father spent a formative part of his life was a pilgrimage of sorts.

The first thing I did in Berlin was go for a long walk. The walk I took would not have been possible four years earlier as my route would take me through the Brandenburg Gate from West to East Berlin.

Everything that I passed along the way held tremendous historical significance.
  • The Tiergarten, the enormous park in Central Berlin that was stripped barren during the war as the trees were used for firewood.
  • Strasse des 17 Juni, the grand boulevard through the Tiergarten, named after an uprising of East Germans on that date in 1953.
  • Siegessaule, the winged victory monument standing atop a massive column, an iconic symbol of Berlin.
  • The Russian World War II Memorial, which strangely enough is in West Berlin.
  • The Reichstag, the former and now current home of the German government whose burning was significant in the events that led to the rise to power of the Nazis.
  • The Brandenburg Gate, the last remaining entrance gate into the old city which ironically was closed when the Wall was built around it.
  • Fragments of the Wall itself.
  • Hitler's bunker.
  • Unter den Linden, Berlin's most famous street named after the trees that line it. Along UdL are some of Berlin's most important pre-war buildings, many of them by the city's preeminent early 19th Century architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
  • Humboldt University whose alumni and faculty list reads like a who's who of German philosophy, political thought and science.
  • Museum Island, one of the world's greatest collection of cultural institutions.
  • Alexanderplatz, the great public square, once along with with Potsdamer Platz was one of the great nightlife centers of the city. Today it is the home of the Fernsheturm, the giant TV tower, pride of the East Germans as it is the tallest structure in all of Berlin.
All this during only my first two hours in Berlin!

In crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin through the Brandenberg Gate it becomes immediately apparent that the area directly east of the Gate, along Unter den Linden is the heart of the city. The area west of the Gate was once the suburbs. As a parochial comparison, think of a wall built along North Avenue in Chicago that would prevent anyone living north of it from access to the Loop. A mere inconvenience when you consider the real tragedy of the wall, the permanent separation of families and loved ones.

My most vivid memory of Berlin was a visit to the lovely neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin. The neighborhood was traditionally working class and bohemian is atmosphere. As it was slightly off the beaten path it didn't get much attention from the Nazis, even the bombers left it pretty much in tact. I stumbled upon the Jewish cemetery. The caretaker and I were the only people in the cemetery. He provided me with a Kippah to cover my head. It was a cold and clear December morning, the only day during my trip when the sun shone, but it barely cleared the tops of the surrounding buildings. I walked in this sacred space among the earthly remains of the people who belonged to a culture that was destroyed after their departure from this earth. Being among the inhabitants of a magnificent city in a magnificent time made me forget for a moment about the abject terror that their descendants experienced. I was filled with a sense of peace that had escaped me during the rest of my trip.

Upon my return my father was anxious to hear what Berlin had become. He asked me two questions:

"Did you go to Potsdamer Platz?"

Potsdamer Platz back in the day (along with Alexanderplatz) was the commercial heart of the city and the center of nightlife, sort of like Herald Square and Times Square combined. It was probably the busiest intersection in Europe, the birthplace of the electric traffic light, or so it is said. My father was very candid late in his life about his time in Berlin. He was a young man in his early twenties living in a city where most of the young men were off at the front. You can fill in the blanks from there. Clearly he spent a lot of time at Potsdamer Platz. Life goes on, even during a world war.

Potzdamer Platz was hit particularly hard by the bombing due to its location in the vicinity of the Reich Chancellery and other government buildings. Unfortunately, after the war its location happened to be right on the border of the English, American and Soviet sections of town. When the Wall was built most of Potsdamer Platz was smack dab in the middle of the no man's land between both sides of the Wall. Literally nothing was there for 45 years. There is a particularly moving scene in Wim Winders' poetic film Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) where an old man in a dream like state wanders around the site of Potsdamer Platz where he recounts memories of his lost youth, "Where is Potsdamer Platz, it used to be here" he says. The man could have been my father.

When I was there the area was fenced off and tower cranes were abundant. Plans for the future were mapped out on the construction site. Today P.Platz is once again a happening place although from what I read and see in photographs, has not yet returned to its former glory.

"Did you see Anhalter Bahnhof?"

My father left Berlin as he put it, "on the last train out of the city." From the way he told it I always pictured a scene right out of Casablanca where my father as Rick waits in vain for his Ilsa as the train pulls out of the station. I don't know if there ever was an Ilsa in my father's case, my guess is there were many of them. Anyway the station where he hopped the last train was Anhalter Bahnhof, the tracks of which led him back home to Czechoslovakia.

Which is precisely why the station doesn't exist anymore. the headhouse of the grand station was in West Berlin and the tracks led to all points east, rendering the station pointless. It stood as a hulking ruin until 1960 when it was demolished. The entrance portico of the once proud station survived and was preserved as a reminder of the Berliners, mostly Jewish, who embarked on their last journey, to
the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

I stuck up a conversation with a gentleman who was walking his dog (a pitbull named Trudi) in front of ruins of the station. He told me a little bit of the history of the area, pointing out in particular the bunker near the site. "They've been trying to get rid of it for years, " he told me "but to do it they would have to blow it up and if they did that, they would take with it the rest of the neighborhood!"

Unbeknownst to me at the time was the fact that this was the very bunker that protected my father during the air raids. After my return home he recalled a time when a woman began singing Stille Nacht and was soon joined by the entire group of people huddled together for safety as the bombs fell one Christmas Eve.

Here is a scene from Himmel über Berlin that shows the ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof and what I believe is that bunker:



How do I begin to describe my feelings about Berlin? I must say that I have never felt such ambivalence for a place, loving it and hating it at the same time. Berlin is a city of exuberance and of ghosts, a progressive city that can never escape its past.

Reminders of the past are everywhere, be they monuments, photographs of the city before the war displayed in storefronts, plaques that describe terrible events, museums entirely dedicated to atrocities, architectural ruins that were preserved as reminders, or physical damage that was simply never repaired.

Yet the past flows together with a thriving, very much alive city that remains cutting edge in so many ways. That is the allure of Berlin. It's not an overtly beautiful city like Paris, or Prague. To find the beauty you need to dig beneath the surface and look in unexpected places. Through it all it remains a city of life that triumphs over tragedy, of good that transcends evil. The beauty of Berlin lies in the faces of the children of many cultures living in neighborhoods like Prenzlauerberg and Kreutzberg. And it lives in the fervent hope that the future will be better than the past. There is a spirit and vitality in Berlin like no place else.

Nelson Algren wrote: "Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovlier lovlies, but never a lovely so real."

Of course he wrote that about Chicago. Add a broken arm and a black eye and you could say the same for Berlin.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Another anniversary

Since 1969 was a such an eventful year, I've been mentioning some notable 40th anniversaries on this blog. Now we await another September 11th coming up, difficult to believe, the eighth anniversary of another day that will live in infamy.

But today, September 3, 2009, is the anniversary of an event that overshadows the rest, the tragedy of unspeakable proportions that has in some way effected every man woman and child on the face of the earth, both at the time and for all the years since.

After the invasion of Poland two days earlier, seventy years ago today England and France declared war on Germany, officially marking the beginning of World War II.

It's surprising how little attention this anniversary is getting, at least on this side of the big pond. It was brought to my attention over the BBC on Tuesday, the anniversary of the invasion, the day officially recognized as the beginning of the war. There was a ceremony in Gdansk, Poland attended by the leaders of the principal nations involved, Poland, Germany and Russia among others. For some reason President Obama did not attend which I think is a shame. We Americans need to be shaken from our historical amnesia, and the president's involvement in this solemn ceremony could have done some good toward that end.

Unfortunately the people of the generation that experienced the war directly are quickly leaving us, at a rate of around 2,000 per day I'm told. Soon all the information from that terrible time in history will be second hand at best. My baby boom generation which has been so preoccupied with its own relatively privileged childhood needs to pick up the slack. Our parents lived through some of the most trying times in history, great depression and war, and hopefully we will be able to pass their stories on to future generations.

Almost everyone I grew up with had fathers who saw action of some kind during the war. I had a friend as a young child whose dad was Austrian and fought in the German Army. My best friend's father landed in Normandy the day after D-Day, not knowing at the time that his kid brother was killed there the day before. Another dear friend's father was in the U.S. Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor aboard a destroyer on December 7, 1941. Another's dad fought with the Polish Resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

My mother's brother was a bombardier aboard an American B-24. His plane was shot down over Rumania. My uncle, one of only two survivors, was captured by the Germans and served as a prisoner of war.

My father, from occupied Czechoslovakia, was a forced laborer working in Berlin. He lived there until the end of the war. And the father of my colleague at work was an American B-17 pilot who flew several missions over Germany including Berlin, his plane dropping bombs over my dad during the day as the British bombers dropped them at night.

Sadly, all these men are gone, entrusting their legacies to their children, and hopefully their grandchildren, and beyond.

In that vein I would like to spend the next few weeks, this time of dreadful anniversaries, addressing how we preserve this legacy in our lives and in our cities.

My first stop will be Berlin.

Post script: In honor of Father's Day, 2011, the names of all the fathers I mentioned above can be found here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

With new eyes

There is no better way to view your home than to go away for a while. We did just that as we spent some time in Galena, the quaint picture postcard town, largest city and county seat of Jo Daviess County in northwest Illinois. "The town that time forgot" is not the official motto of Galena, but it just as well could be. Virtually every building in the heart of Galena dates back to the mid nineteenth century and history pervades every brick and pour of the place. Historic preservation is something taken for granted, unlike here in Chicago, but more on that later.

Galena is a bit of a curiosity if you come upon it without knowing a little of its history. As you take U.S. Highway 20 west out of Freeport, IL, you notice the landscape begin to change. The flat prairie gives way to gently rolling hills that eventually become less gentle. The region is part of a driftless area, that is, not flattened by glaciers that formed most of our Midwest landscape thousands of years ago. As you crest a particularly tall hill that hosts a now defunct lookout tower, you get your first glimpse of the church spires of Galena. It is a particularly lovely setting. From here you descend into the valley carved out in part by the little river which divides the town in two. Unlike the modest rural communities that you passed along the way, here you are met by glorious mansions of Italianate and Greek Revival style indicating that this was a thriving place. Homes like these are not unusual in the towns along the Mississippi River which experienced great prosperity during the heyday of the steamboat in the 1800s. But Galena is 20 miles from the great river. The stream that runs through town barely rates the term river, it is narrow enough for my eight year old son to easily throw a pebble across it.

It was once named the Fever River, its name changed to the Galena for obvious reasons. Once it was indeed a formidable stream, 200 to 300 feet across depending on which story you believe. The region sits upon land that was once rich in lead, its mines supplied eighty percent of the nation's supply of the metal. The term Galena is Latin for lead sulfide, the mineral found in lead ore. The town's advantageous position on the Fever River allowed steamboats to arrive in town to ship the lead extracted out of the ore out of town downstream toward the Big River and beyond. The lead and steamboat industries made Galena rich and its mansions are a testament to that era. It was believed that Galena would one day become the preeminent city in Illinois. It's not very difficult to understand why that did not happen. Lead was over-mined and eventually ran out. By-products from the mining ended up in the Galena along with the soil eroded from aggressive deforestation, silting the river up to the point where it became impassable for the steamboats. This however became a moot point as the railroad made the steamboats obsolete. What was significant were the floods that came due to the plugging up of the river which still was responsible for the draining of the region. By the late 1800s Galena became just another sleepy rural burg, albeit a very pretty one.

During its heyday, Galena was visited by several prominent characters on the American Scene. It seems that few of these visits went unnoticed and are not commemorated today by a plaque somewhere in town. Some of the visitors decided to stay. The most notable of course was General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant ended up in Galena in 1860 as a down and out former Army officer from Ohio who looked to improve his family's situation by working at his father's leather shop. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he reenlisted and quickly moved up the ranks. While it would be unfair to claim that Grant's success as a Civil War leader was dumb luck, it is not inaccurate to say that he proved to be the least incompetent officer among a group of overly cautious, indecisive, and ineffective Union generals. He quickly got the attention of President Lincoln as a determined commander who more often than not achieved results. After several unconventional and costly victories, most notably at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, the president named Grant general-in-chief of all the armies of the United States. From that position he would orchestrate the winning of the war. He returned to Galena to a glorious welcome and the leading citizens of the town pooled their money to purchase a house fit for a hero. The Grant family did not live long in the house as the General was elected president three years later in 1868. The home, modest by Galena standards, sits on a prominent hill overlooking town, and is one of Galena's prime attractions.

While he spent only a few years there, Grant's legacy looms large, his memory has become an industry of sorts which accounts for much of the town's success today. Over one million tourists visit Galena every year.

They visit as we did, to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. They come for the natural beauty, for the excellent recreational opportunities, the fine dining, and of course to experience a little bit of history. For our country, which has a serious case of historical amnesia, this is a good thing. But history in Galena is served up on a palatable platter. Apart from the buildings, Galena bears little resemblance to the town of Grant's time. The lead smelters and steamboats are long gone, replaced by fresh air and kayaks. There are no longer trains picking up and dropping off passengers at the lovely Illinois Central Depot which now is a tourist center. Main Street is filled with boutiques, art galleries, up-scale restaurants, candy and toy stores and the ubiquitous souvenir shops. Gone are the establishments that catered to the everyday needs of residents, grocery stores, apothecaries, dry goods stores. Plaques mark the storefronts they once occupied.

There are a few reminders to keep the visitor aware that this is a still real place. Enormous flood gates greet the visitor entering Main Street as well as a massive levy built along the river, protect the city from the river that once brought prosperity. And while the Grant memorabilia doesn't exactly evoke the tragedy of the Civil War, the enormous turkey vultures that patrol the skies above town area a constant reminder of the fragility of life.

Naturally much has changed here in Chicago as well over the last century. Most of the industries responsible for its development as a thriving metropolis are gone. But they have been replaced by other industries, and the ebb and tide of life that defines the city has not diminished. The urban experience is as much about living people as it is about buildings and ghosts.

Galena is a remarkable place filled with natural and man made beauty. You get there and the smell of the air is different, the birdsong is different, and on a clear night you can see the Milky Way. There is an understandable pride of place among the inhabitants. It is a wonderful place for a vacation.

But it's good to be home.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Chicago Rapid Transit

The CTA last week announced plans to extend three of its existing rapid transit lines. The Red Line would be extended south to 130th Street. The Orange Line would be extended south to the Ford City Shopping Center. Finally the Yellow Line, formerly known as the Skokie Swift, would be extended north to just west of Old Orchard Shopping Center.

From an extremely unscientific survey I made the other day judging from internet comments, it seems that the folks along the two south side lines welcomed the extensions while those up in Skokie for the most part opposed the project. This could be due to the fact that the Yellow Line extension would be built closer to existing homes and businesses while the other two lines would be built in relatively undeveloped areas. A couple of north siders even suggested that the Yellow Line extension would bring crime along with it.

The haves vs. have nots factor could also account for the difference in attitude as the south side has traditionally been bereft of rapid transit service. The Red Line extension for the first time would extend the L all the way to the city's south limits. It would also hopefully be a shot in the arm for development along the transit corridor, as the construction of the elevated line to Howard Street a century ago was to the Edgewater and Rogers Park neighborhoods on the far north side. The same could be said for the Orange Line extension, although it would not extend to the city limits as would the Red Line.

Another excellent post from the Urbanophile can be found here. It suggests that while these projects indeed have merit, they should be integrated into a far more comprehensive, Burnham, "make no little plans" style plan that would include major renovations and extensions, some practical, others perhaps not. The idea would be to bring the issue of public mass transportation to the forefront by including the entire city.

I couldn't agree more. Big plans for the future of the city are a far more fitting tribute to the legacy of the Burnham Plan than the two insignificant temporary pavilions by (St)archchitects Zaha Hadid and Ben van Berkel which are currently on view at Millennium Park.

I think the time is right to plan big in terms of public transportation in the city. In that vein I think the south side is the place to start by conceiving plans for a light rail system. If the Olympics come to Chicago, the opportunity will be right at our doorstep.

Let's not drop the ball.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock Nation

Today is the 40th anniversary of the world's most famous rock festival and you would have to live under a rock not to know that. The fascination with Woodstock is pretty interesting given that fact that at the time it didn't get all that much attention. Which is understandable when you consider what an incredibly eventful year 1969 was.

Less than a month earlier, Neil Arstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The War in Viet Nam was tearing the nation apart, the Chappaquiddick incident was big news as well as the Manson murders which had just taken place.

With all the turmoil in the world it must have been quite an experience to attend a festival with a half million other people dedicated to "peace love and music". The lineup was pretty amazing too, Janis Joplin, The Who, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on and on. Then there was the mud, the drugs, and the sex. A good time was had by all. It's no small wonder that it all came off with without anyone getting hurt.*

The baby boom generation for whom the sun still rises and sets upon, considers Woodstock to be its seminal event. The line "we can change the world" from Graham Nash's song Chicago was their mantra. The world did in fact change, a little for the better, a little for the worse.

Just as it has for every generation of Homo sapiens that has ever walked this planet.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Woodstock and its generation is its music which has permeated virtually every aspect of popular culture, much to the detriment of all other music. These days on the radio it's easier to find a recording of second and third rate rockers from the sixties than it is to find classical music. It's even harder to find jazz, blues or folk music. And it's virtually impossible to find anything else. Apparently rock & roll (and its descendants hip hop and rap) will never die.

The Woodstock generation is now the establishment, which is perhaps a little ironic since their other mantra was "question authority".

We were at a performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony last night at Millennium Park. It was a beautiful evening and the lawn was filled edge to edge with picnicking concertgoers, most of whom looked as though they were old enough to have been at Woodstock. The city looked beautiful and the performance was magnificent. At the risk of sounding like a fogey however I have to say that few in the crowd had the attention span to refrain from chatting, laughing out loud, or talking on their cell phones during the music. Many applauded smack dab in the middle of the Ode to Joy.

It made me think that the legacy, the greatness, and the sheer beauty of perhaps the greatest piece of music ever written, not to mention the commitment and sacrifice of all those young musicians on the stage, deserved better than that.

Sheesh, old folks these days!


* well not exactly, two people died during Woodstock, one of a drug overdose, the other was a sleeping person who was run over by a tractor.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Rethinking Detroit

Things may have gotten so bad in Motown that they can only get better. Imagine a city that has the potential of producing most of its own food. This and many other interesting scenarios from one of my go to blogs, the Urbanophile.

Yet another side of the Burnham Plan

What would Jane Addams have to say about it?

Here's a link to a link.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Urbs in Horto???

On the flip side of some of the positive things going on in the parks and boulevards, documentation of the wanton destruction of a lovely Chicago landscape can be found here.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A magnificent drive

As anyone who has visited Chicago in recent years has discovered, automobile traffic has become a nightmare. It's not unusual to find oneself in a traffic jam at any hour, day or night. Sometimes weekends are the worst, especially during summer when festivities may occur every few blocks or so. Such was the case this weekend with the Lollapalooza music festival downtown, the Bud Billiken Parade on the south side, a couple of White Sox games, a Bears public workout at Soldier Field, and countless parades and neighborhood festivals. Such is the life of a vital city.

This afternoon we decided to brave the traffic and visit the Hyde Park Art Center, basically at the other end of the city from where we live. The Center was terrific, if you're there in the next couple of weeks be sure to check out a wonderful site specific piece by my friend Glenn Wexler in one of the stairwells. We met up with some friends at a kids' art workshop, then had the best gelato and espresso in town at Istria Café, adjacent to the Center.

Then came the question of getting home. I convinced my hot and tired family that the best way was to avoid going through the Loop in favor of unquestionably the best drive in the city, the Boulevard System. I have lots of experience with the boulevards as I spent several years documenting them and the parks (with very few exceptions, the most significant in the city) that they connect.

Contrary to popular belief, the ring (actually a horseshoe) of tree lined boulevards that connect Jackson, Washington, Sherman, Gage and McKinley Parks on the South Side, and Douglas, Garfield and Humboldt Parks on the West Side, was not the result of the Burnham Plan. In fact the system predates the plan by several decades, most of it was planned and realized well before the Great Fire of 1871. The boulevards originally surrounded the city limits and were speculative developments designed to encourage people to move out to what were at the time the suburbs. Magnificent homes, apartment buildings, public sculpture, and places of education and worship were built along the boulevards. They became among the most fashionable addresses in the city.

Today many of the boulevards run through the most challenged neighborhoods of the city. The drive is at times hit and miss as many of the buildings that once graced the system are long gone, replaced either with ramshackle vernacular structures or worse, vacant lots. Yet very many magnificent buildings survive. With a little creativity one can imagine what was there, and even better, what could be. It is encouraging to see bits and pieces of new development even in the most difficult areas.

I have to say that in the eight or so years since I wrapped up the Park/Boulevard Project, there have been a number of improvements, along with a few setbacks. The city does seem to be committed to the boulevards, to a greater extent I think than is realized by the general public. The landscape architecture of Jens Jensen , Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons among others has gained new appreciation. Their work is beginning to be returned to its former glory after many years of neglect. Unfortunately not all the users of the parks share this apprecation and continue to carry on their slovenly ways. The same can be said of the parkways along the boulevards which are looking better than they have in years, save for the bad behavior of a handful of people.

Given all that, Chicago's parks and boulevards are urban treasures that need to be taken care of, by and for us, and for future generations.

Back in the Cathedral, again

We attended mass at Holy Name Cathedral today. Would have gone last week for the first mass since the church opened after the fire in February, but we had an appointment with a steam engine. As pastor Dan Mayall said a few weeks ago, the place indeed has never looked better. Every inch of the cathedral was polished to the extreme, the shine and the smell of wax and wood polish were almost overwhelming.

One new element I noticed was the seal of the Archbishop of Chicago above the bishop's chair, the cathedra at the very front of the church. I suppose it was deemed appropriate to add a little pizzaz to the ambulatory which was reduced to remarkable blandness after the removal of the main altar during the major renovation in 1969, but I found the seal to be a little distracting and unnecessary.*

Other than that, the experience was breathtaking. The place was packed, the small choir was in good form and even the congregation sang with vigor, for Catholics anyway.

For me the most poignant part was the fact that the celebrant this morning was Bishop Timothy Lyne, who celebrated the very first mass I attended at Holy Name some 35 years ago. It's good to see that some things never change!

There is still work to be done on the 134 year old church but it is truly a time for the entire city to celebrate the reopening of this remarkable building.


*The seal was gone as of August 16th

Summer in the City

As the mercury threatens to reach the century mark today, unbelievably I'm lamenting the imminent demise of summer. In the many childless years I had since leaving school, summer was simply a time to put up with uncomfortable weather.

But now that children are in my life I have come to love summer. I like not having to rush around so much getting everybody ready for school and work. The fewer obligations and slightly slower flow of life this time of year are very welcome. I love the still too infrequent days that I have the two kids to myself to explore the city, taking them on the Metra and the El just for the ride.

The best part of all this summer is that my son has finally discovered baseball. We've already been to a Cubs game and in a couple of weeks I've gotten him to agreee to go down to the Cell for a Sox game. He was turned off by the noise of the fireworks four years ago. Practically every day we're outside playing a little one on one baseball game that we invented. As is his nature about his new passions, he's obsessed. If you see a little boy on the street wearing a Cubs hat, winding up and pitching an imaginary baseball, it's probably my boy.

When people have asked him what he did this summer, he invariably tells them; "I played baseball with my Dad." For a father there is nothing in the world better than hearing that.

Summer's almost over but we still have our vacation to look forward to. And of course the Sox game. We're going to hear Beethoven's Ninth in Millennium Park next week. Hopefully we'll be able to catch the Zoppe Circus which we see every year. Then summer will be really over and the obligations of normal life will return. There will still be lots to look forward to. The World Series, my son's first opera at the Lyric, (Tosca) and Halloween (Charlie Chaplin and Frieda Kahlo, two probable costume candidates) to name just a few.

But as I've gotten older, I have learned not to put so much into looking forward. Now I prefer to concentrate on the here and now. Time just goes by so damned fast these days.

So today it's summer, it's gonna be stinking hot, and I'm going to love every moment of it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ornithology

A Common Tern, 8:30am, Thursday, July 30, 2009, Belmont Harbor.

Also seen on my bike ride this morning, two men aboard a double scull on the lake between Diversey and Fullerton. They made it look SO easy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Speaking of trees...


Here is a magnificent specimen, a Bur Oak, Quercus macrocarpa, on the northeast side of Chicago along the north branch of the Chicago River. This is an urban tree only by virtue of its residing in the city. Judging from its size, this wasn't always so as it certainly predates the City of Chicago by a few (human) generations at least.

I have photographed it in all the seasons and you can see a spring and winter version of it if you go to NoMI restaurant in the Park Hyatt Hotel on North Michigan Avenue.

Ornithology

American Kestrel. 8:15PM July 29, Jarvis and Claremont.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A tree grows in Brooklyn, and the Bronx


It should come as no surprise that trees are beneficial to the urban environment. They control temperature extremes by providing shade in the summer and blocking wind in the winter. They buffer sound. One healthy adult tree releases as much oxygen into the atmosphere in one year as ten adult humans remove. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and other toxins in the atmosphere. The list goes on and on.

Trees bring a sense of well being to a community. Research has shown that in otherwise comparable urban neighborhoods, crime rates in neighborhoods with trees tend to be lower than their treeless counterparts.

These are only the practical points. The emotional, spiritual and aesthetic benefits of trees are as countless as the number of leaves on every tree in every city in the world.

It's curious then that trees are probably taken for granted more than any other feature of our cities. Most city folks only notice trees when they disappear, when they have to rake leaves, or when a tree falls on their car.

The significance of the city tree is not lost on artists. Betty Smith wrote the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in the early forties. It tells the story of growing up in poverty in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The tree of the title is the Tree of Heaven, itself an immigrant of sorts, imported from Asia. This is very hardy species, a tenacious survivor, beginning life as a weed in back lots and alleys, but ultimately growing into a lovely shade tree if permitted or ignored. A fitting metaphor for the immigrant experience.

Pictured above is the Camperdown Elm, the most famous tree in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. It was planted 1872. By the mid sixties the tree, a cultivated variety, was terribly decayed and the cost of saving it seemed insurmountable. The poet Marianne Moore came to its defense and composed a poem for it which was published in the New Yorker. The Friends of Prospect Park eventually raised the funds to save the magnificent tree. Here is a wonderful tour of the trees of Prospect Park, compiled in part by M.M. Graff perhaps the greatest advocate of New York City's parks. Moore's poem can be found at the beginning of the tour. There certainly will be trees that have not survived the 40 years since the tour was compiled, but it a is a lovely and informative read just the same. Ms. Graff died in 2007 aged 97, and here is the obituary from the NY Times of this remarkable woman.

There is currently a wonderful public art project in New York City that brings attention to the urban tree, putting it into its proper context within the neighborhood. The name of the project is The Tree Museum and it can be found along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The project is the brainchild of Katie Holden who won a competition sponsored by the Bronx Museum to commemorate the centennial of the Concourse this year.

The Tree Museum singles out 100 specific trees of 24 different species along the Concourse. Adjacent to each selected tree is a sign which identifies the tree giving its common name in English and Spanish, its scientific name, and an identification number. The viewer then is asked to dial a telephone number (718-408-2501), and add the id number when prompted for an extension. On the other end will be a recording, each one unique, featuring "the boulevard's stories and the intimate lives of the trees as told by current and former residents; from beekeepers to rappers, historians to gardeners, school kids to politicians."

Featured among the recordings are the voices of my oldest friend, New York City historian Francis Morrone, giving a history of the Concourse, architect Daniel Liebeskind, recalling his teenage years along the Concourse, Lurry Boyd, a community gardener, and Dart Westphal, a preservationist who was involved in the creation of a green space built around a threatened cottonwood tree at the northern tip of the Concourse. There is even a recording of Coquis, a variety of Puerto Rican tree frog.

The trees represent a who's who of urban tree species from the noble London Planetree, a hybrid of the Sycamore family whose leaf is the symbol of New York City's Department of Parks, to the lowly Ailanthus (aka Tree of Heaven or Skunk Tree), the eponymous tree of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

An outstanding book on the subject of trees in the city is The Urban Tree Book, An Uncommon Field Guide for City and Town, by Arthur Plotnik, coincidentally a native of the Bronx. While this book serves well for the identification of species, its real strengths lie in Mr. Plotkin's ability to tell a story, this one conveying lovingly the history and lore of each of the 200 odd species of trees found in the book.

It's a great read as well as an excellent resource.

So feel free to hug a tree!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty years ago today


Forty years from now, senior citizens all over the world will remember exactly where they were the moment they learned of the death of Michael Jackson. Every generation has its defining moments. Mass media have made those moments instantaneously shared experiences.

For Americans of my parents' generation, their defining moment was December 7th, 1941.

I'm not certain if the 1950s produced events of that magnitude but the 1960s more than made up for that. Ask anyone who was alive at the time what they were doing at 12:30pm on November 22nd, 1963. More than likely they'll be able to tell you. I was in kindergarten. I remember learning the terrible news, probably from Walter Cronkite in that clip that has been played over and over again this weekend, as he took off those big horned rimmed glasses and told us that the president was dead.

There were many defining moments in that turbulent decade, most were bad news.

Except for one.

So where were you on July 20, 1969?

President Kennedy had set the bar awfully high in 1961 when he made the commitment to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. I find it funny that he had to add the part about bringing him home safely, as if there were an alternative!

As a boy growing up in the 1960s, much of my childhood was defined by the space program. I don’t remember America's first foray into manned space flight, the Mercury Program. Most of what I know about that comes from the movie "The Right Stuff". But I do remember very fondly Gemini, which was the second stage leading up to the Apollo Program which would ultimately accomplish Kennedy's goal.

I was not interested in science fiction. As far as I was concerned, who needed Star Trek with Captain Kirk running around in his Spandex jammies cavorting with intergalactic beauties when we had real life heros who truly went where no man had ever gone before. These were real men and later, women whose very existence depended on the skills and tireless work of countless scientists, engineers and technicians as they sat on top of what were essentially gigantic sticks of dynamite.

Every launch brought with it great excitement and anticipation. Huge chunks of air time were devoted to each mission. Every mission tested out new techniques and procedures, each bringing us a step closer to the moon. The commentators would sit at their special sets interviewing experts like Werner von Braun proving once and for all that "our Germans are better than the their (the Soviets’) Germans", one of my favorite lines from "The Right Stuff".

Those were the days before computer graphics and the reporters used plastic models to explain what was going on which no doubt spiked the sales of model spacecraft.

We children were encouraged to study hard because all the astronauts were all straight A students, or so we were told.

In one of the greatest marketing gimmicks of all time, the commercials told us that the astronauts drank a powdered orange drink called Tang on their missions. Guess what I drank for breakfast?

Of course not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the space program. Those were really heady times indeed. The summer of 1967 known as the “Summer of Love”, wasn’t.

In reality, violence and human rights issues were tearing the country apart. The Vietnam War was escalating and becoming increasingly unpopular. Cities across the country were ablaze from race riots. That was also the year of the Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

As bad as 1967 was, 1968 was worse. In January, the Tet Offensive began. This was the turning point of the war when it became increasingly apparent that our involvement in Southeast Asia was futile, Walter Cronkite told us as much. Lyndon Johnson heard the message and knew he had lost the support of Middle America. He announced to the nation that he would not seek a second term as president. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated and any hope for racial unity in America was shattered for years to come. The riots that ensued all across the country made the riots the year before look like child's play. The west and south sides of Chicago burned. Mayor Richard J. Daley issued his infamous "shoot to kill" order. The riots would forever change the fabric of Chicago and other cities as many who could afford to move, including my own family, made the exodus to the apparent safety of the suburbs. The term "inner city" became synonymous for poverty, crime, and above all, danger.

Late in the summer more riots took place in Chicago as protesters from all over the country came here during the Democratic National Convention. When several of his correspondents on the convention floor were roughed up by security, the normally even tempered Cronkite said: "I can't wait to get the damn hell out of this city".

On a personal note, at the time of the Convention, as we were moving into our new house in suburban Oak Park, my proudly Czech father came down the stairs with tears in his eyes to tell us that the Russians had just invaded Czechoslovakia.

In the midst of all this turmoil, getting to the moon must have seemed trivial indeed. But not to me. On Christmas Day 1968, the day when the furnace to our new house went out forcing us to huddle in the kitchen for heat, we watched one of the most amazing television events of all time. It was that day when the astronauts from Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders (OK I had to look up his name), made their historical transmission while orbiting the moon. They were the first humans to leave the earth's orbit and head into outer space. It was the most memorable Christmas of my life.

It would be seven months until the landing on the moon. During that time, Richard Nixon became president. In his inaugural address he said: "the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker." One month later he approved the bombing of Cambodia. The "Chicago Eight" were indicted for their role in the riots during the Democratic Convention. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire. And there would be two more Apollo missions to test the lunar module, the ship that would eventually touch down on the moon’s surface.

On July 16, Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Kennedy carrying three astronauts, Michael Collins, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Three days later they entered lunar orbit. The next day Armstrong and Aldrin would enter the lunar module for the descent to the surface of the moon while Collins remained in the Command Module, orbiting while his fellow astronauts would walk on the moon.

The landing would be the most hair raising part of the journey. In what seemed to be an eternity from earth, the astronauts had to depend on their wits and piloting skills as the planned landing site turned out to be a boulder strewn field. As the gauge showed a perilously low amount of fuel, Armstrong and Aldrin had to "wing" it, and landed with little breathing room. The first words from the surface of the moon were Aldrin's who was reporting technical data to Mission Control and Armstrong. Then the crew's wordsmith Armstrong uttered his second most famous line: "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed." Even today I can't think of these words without getting goosebumps. If you saw all the coverage of Walter Cronkite over the weekend, the clip where he looks downright giddy was right at this moment.

It would take another eternity for the two to actually leave the craft and walk on the moon.
As I recall, finally around 11pm a fuzzy black and white image from a camera mounted outside the lunar module showed a moving figure, Armstrong of course. It took a while to figure out what was what. The audio quality wasn't much better. Armstrong's famous if grammatically incorrect first words as he set foot on the moon sounded to me like this:

"Shhhhhhhhhhh eksh wa sma ste for mahyn shhhhhhhh wa giun lee fr mahynkye blipblipshhhhhhh"

But it finally happened and it was wonderful with Armstrong and Aldrin hopping and bopping on the moon for a couple of hours. I walked outside to look at the moon and part of me had a hard time believing it was true. They planted an American flag which had to be starched stiff because on the moon there is no wind to unfurl it. I can’t remember if I stayed up for the whole thing because it was very late.

The heroes came home and ignominiously had to stay in quarantine in a glorified Airstream trailer for several weeks in case of exposure to pathogens from the moon. Then came the tickertape and the adulation. The fascination lasted for a while. I remember standing in line for now what seems like hours to view a moon rock on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Then it was over. Life went on, crazy as ever. Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after he drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha's Vineyard, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. The Woodstock Rock festival took place on a farm in Upstate New York. The Days of Rage riots took place in October in Chicago. The Beatles recorded their last album, Abbey Road.

NASA sent six more missions to the moon. The public's interest in Apollo 12 was marginal at best. The ill fated Apollo 13 brought interest back for a while but the final three successful trips to the moon were almost anticlimactic.

While there has been an almost continuous presence in space since, nothing has fueled the public's imagination like the race to the moon.

The space program seems frivolous to many Americans. Why spend money in space when there are so many problems here is the sentiment. Even scientists questioned the validity of a manned space program when you can get much more bang for the buck by sending robots into space.

Admittedly, the quest to the moon was our government's answer to the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War and in the early sixties the Soviets were significantly ahead of us in the space race. Putting a man on the moon was the obvious goal. Once that was achieved, what was left?

Sending men to the moon is the greatest technological achievement in the history of mankind. Nothing we have done since has come close. It has been the standard by which all failed achievements have been compared.

"If we can put a man on the moon why can't we ..."

The assumption is if we put our energy into solving all the serious problems in the world as we did sending a man to the moon, we'd really be getting somewhere.

While the space program gave us the belief that we can do anything, the 40 years since we landed on the moon have proven otherwise.

Space program advocates site the numerous benefits from space exploration. Most involve all the technological advances developed by NASA that have improved life in many ways.

While there is no question that we have benefited tremendously from our technological advances, the reality of course is that technology cannot solve all our problems.

I think one of the most profound things that the trip to the moon gave us was a photograph. Actually several photographs. For the first time we saw our planet exactly as that, a small, fragile, finite world floating in a see of nothingness. We haven’t seen our planet the same since. We once thought of the earth as a bountiful place with infinite resources. Today, at least the reasonable among us we see this beautiful planet as our home. I don't think that it was coincidence that the environmental movement gained tremendous steam after we saw those photographs. The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan said: "We went to explore the Moon, and in fact discovered the Earth".

It was an audacious dream in 1961 to send a man to the moon. The technological hurdles and human danger that had to be overcome were tremendous. The tragic fire that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in 1967, as well as the Challenger and Columbia disasters much later are testaments to the risks that we never quite appreciated.

Given that, we seem to no longer pursue audacious dreams. I think that we are caught up in the cost/benefit ratios that big corporations have employed for years, much to our detriment. We don’t reward innovation and risk taking as we once did. He may be a curious person to quote in the context of the space program but I think we could do well to heed Daniel Burnham’s most famous quote in it’s entirety:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big. “

In the end I have to say I feel tremendously privileged to have been around in 1969, old enough to understand perfectly what was going on, but not old enough to have been at all cynical about the moon landing. It was one brief, shining moment in history when we really felt that anything was possible.






















In the photographs above:

Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on the surface of the moon, taken by Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969.

The photograph of planet earth showing the continents of Africa, Antarctica and the Arabian Peninsula was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Big Willie


It's official, Sears Tower is now the Willis Tower.

Or to paraphrase Yogi Berra, "It ain't over 'till the mayor cuts the ribbon." That happened today as Hizzoner officially blessed the name change at the unveiling of the new nameplate in the building's lobby. The Tribune article can be found here.

Way too many money quotes to point out but here's my favorite, from Joseph Plumeri, CEO of Willis Group Holding, the company that bought the naming rights:

"...you have to make a decision between sentimentality and the reality of what puts food on your table...there's no food on the table called 'tradition steak.'"

Ok then.

Needless to say, scads of locals are upset by the name change. They bemoan the idea of local institutions selling their names to the highest bidder.

Which is interesting when you think of possibly Chicago's most beloved institution, Wrigley Field. It was originally known as Weeghman Park. It became Wrigley Field in 1926 after it and the team were bought by William Wrigley, who just so happened to own a little chewing gum company, you may have heard of it.

Of course Sears wasn't exactly a ma and pa operation when they built the building. They moved out of there for cheaper digs in the 'burbs years ago so I can't exactly see what all the fuss is about.

The fact is, people will always call the thing Sears Tower anyway. At least those of us old enough to remember back when...

On another note, the Sox are in town on Friday. Maybe after I do some shopping at Fields, I'll hop on a Lake/Dan Ryan L down to Comiskey Park and catch the game.

I hear they serve a great tradition steak sandwich down there.