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.