Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Green Herons, Chicago River at Argyle Street, 2:00pm Saturday, June 27, 2009.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Goodbye Showmen's League Building

It was in the works for months and it happened a week ago, the little Showmen's League of America Building at Randolph and Franklin was demolished. The adjacent buildings will be coming down soon as well. Here's a link to Lynn Becker's blog about the future of the site.

While the building was built shortly after the Great Fire in the 1870s, its facade was altered when it was purchased by the Showmen's League, the union of "out-of-doors showmen", carnies for short. The alteration made the building ineligible for the protection of landmark status, for what that's worth these days.

Although I haven't seen pictures of the original, I'm assuming it had a cornice of some sort which was replaced with a parapet that mimicked the awnings one would find on a circus tent. Above each window were small metal circus elephants (representing the Showmen's League's logo) that were rescued a few weeks ago. No doubt they'll be turning up on eBay one day if not already.

I suppose it's hard to justify protecting buildings like these that don't meet the criteria for landmark's designation. Still it would be nice if developers and architects could work around buildings that have charm and a sense of history, instead of destroying them simply to make open space around their mega-office buildings.

Whimsy is not something that is valued in contemporary architecture. Architects today consider themselves artists above all else and each building must reflect that. It is as if all music to be found today were written by Ligetti, Stockhausen and John Cage.

If the Showmen's League Building were a piece of music, it would be "That's Amore" by Dean Martin.

Not a great work of art but something that makes one smile.

And there's something to be said for that.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A beautiful day for a ballgame

Last Friday was supposed to be the boy's first trip to Wrigley Field, a rite of passage for any Chicago youngster. He's been to Sox games at the Cell but the noise from the fireworks bothered him so much that it turned him off to baseball and worse, turned him into a Cub fan. I kept threatening to take him to a Cubs game, but as the years went by the moment never presented itself, in other words, I never had tickets fall into my lap.

Until this year that is when my wife bought a pair (at face value!) for a work outing and gave them to me for Father's Day.

Game day came and it seemed that the forces of nature, the baseball gods themselves perhaps were conspiring against us. Thunderstorms predicted for the whole day, 90 percent chance of precipitation. Even if the rain held off temporarily, I never thought my son would venture out in a thunderstorm which for him is as bad as fireworks.

The day started off ok, in the morning the sun even made a brief appearance. But it quickly became apparent that it was gong to get ugly and fast. The sky darkened and pretty soon the thunder claps started and the sky opened up with torrential rain. My son and daughter were both hiding under the covers. During a brief hiatus we piled into the car and started heading south. Before long the torrents returned. A lightning bolt pointed straight down hit I'd say about two blocks in front of us. On the radio they were predicting a break in the storms for a couple of hours and they said they might be able to get the game in. But at that point I was more worried about the children's safety than seeing a ball game. I was actually hoping they'd call the game so we wouldn't have to go to the park to claim the rain checks. My boy said "maybe we can just listen on the radio."

Finally we picked up my wife at work and we decided to have lunch together. While we ate, the rain stopped and the sky opened up a bit. Much to his credit, my son never once balked about going to the game, he was very brave. I had my wife drop us off in front of a souvenir shop two blocks from the ballpark so I could buy him a Cubs cap. Then we got into Wrigley and all the emotions of seeing that glorious field hit me, and perhaps the boy too if just a little. We got to our seats and it looked like they could be ready to play any moment. But the announcer said that another storm was predicted to pass through the area and the game wouldn't start for another hour.

That was cool, we could just take everything in.

There is simply no better place in the world to watch a ball game than Wrigley Field. Our seats were in the upper deck, first base line and we had a spectacular view of the entire north side and the thunder heads that were dumping more rain there, but not on us. While we were in the "cheap seats" we still were close enough to the game and could see almost the whole field with the exception of the right field foul line.

Of course there's the ivy and the ancient hand operated scoreboard that even with my failing eyesight I could still read. The folks behind us were amazed at the speed in which scoreboard guy posts balls and strikes which was true, sometimes I think he calls them quicker than the ump.

And the history. The Homer in the Gloamin, Babe Ruth's called shot, 93 seasons without a championship.

When they finally started to play, the Indians (it was an inter-league game) took an early lead with a three run homer in the second. They posted an other three-spot in the third and added another run soon after. I thought, boy if I had a dime for every 7-0 game I've been to...

The Cubs until the day before when they staged a big comeback against the Sox, had been struggling at the plate. But they slowly chipped away at Cleveland's lead with solo home runs in the sixth and seventh innings. Then came the bottom of the eighth. The Cubs batted around that inning and when it was over came to within one run.

The beauty of baseball is that is isn't governed by a clock like other sports. Which means there is no such thing as an insurmountable lead. A team could be down ten runs with two outs in the ninth and still however unlikely, come back. The same can't be said in other sports where time constraints would make such a comeback a physical impossibility. Yogi Berra's famous line; "It ain't over 'till it's over" really holds true for baseball.

On the flip side, by this time we'd been there about four hours and even though my Cub fan son wanted his team to win, he was ready to go home. He asked me how long before it was over. I said not too reassuringly, "well if the Cubs tie it up in the ninth, it could go on forever!"

Which they did.

Derrek Lee hit a solo shot, his second home run of the day.

Now my son was really worried that we'd never get out of there. He's only eight after all and has never been to a complete ballgame, let alone an extra inning affair. I promised him that no matter what happened, we'd leave at the end of the tenth. The Cubs got out of a jam in the top of the inning and then got two quick outs in the bottom.

As much as I hate leaving a ballgame before it's over, a promise is a promise, and by now I was resigned to leave without knowing the outcome of the game.

But then the much maligned Alfonso Soriano came to the plate and did what every good leadoff hitter should do, he drew a walk. Then he stole second. Ryan Theriot came up to the plate and with two strikes on him hit a sharp grounder to first which should have ended the inning. But it took a crazy hop which the Cleveland first baseman couldn't handle. Soriano scored, Cubs win.

Even the Sox fan in me got swept up in the passion of the crowd which much to my surprise was into every pitch, at least where we sat.

My boy didn't quite grasp what was going on, I've been woefully remiss in teaching him the game.

Until last last Friday that is. It was a great day.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reality bites

A neighbor, two of my best friends, my brother-in-law, and yesterday several colleagues at work, all laid off this year.

Just heard that the Illinois jobless rate is now over 10 percent.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The ride to work

I took some time to visit the Purple Martin houses and the Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, perhaps the most beautiful spot along the entire lakefront. Made beautiful in part by the fact that the public is not allowed inside.

While my skill at identifying bird song is not up to snuff, it's clear just by listening how many species of birds live or pass through that small eight acre paradise that cannot be found elsewhere in town.

It's like comparing Beethoven to Happy Birthday.

The Purple Martin story is quite interesting. Our relationship with them is truly symbiotic. The birds are almost entirely dependent on our building homes for them, as other more aggressive introduced species have taken over their natural nesting sites.

Volunteers there in Lincoln Park maintain the homes, and evict unwanted birds, especially European Starlings. Most amazing is that after their eggs hatch, the Martins happily allow the volunteers to clean out their little rooms on a regular basis, just like in a hotel! After the young are successfully weaned by mid-summer, the birds hang out in the Sanctuary, gaining strength before embarking on their 4000 mile journey to South America where they winter. The houses are then sealed up until they return in the spring.

This wonderful human/bird relationship goes back hundreds of years when Native Americans built Martin homes out of gourds that surrounded their settlements. Any intruder would incite the chatty nesting birds to make a racket, alerting the people to possible trouble.

Today we gain immeasurably simply by sharing our corner of the world with these marvelous creatures. Urban planning at its finest!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


It's a big week of firsts for my son, his first Cubs game on Friday and today my mother is taking him to see a live production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Oriental Theater.

I bring this up because she took me to my first play, also Fiddler on the Roof, when I was his age. The only difference was that it was at the long gone McVickers Theater, two blocks from the Oriental.

Maybe someday she'll be around to take her great-grandchild.

Photographs of Chicago

Linked to one of the sites I mentioned in the last post is a wonderful site that features the work of the late Vivian Maier. I know nothing about her other than what I've just learned from the site which features some of her street photography of Chicago from the 1950's through the 70's.

I'd also like to plug one of the current shows of photography at the Chicago Cultural Center, Articles of Faith: Photographs by Dave Giordano. In vivid digital color, his pictures document storefront churches in Chicago. The show consists of images of typical Chicago commercial interiors transformed into sacred spaces. The handful of portraits of pastors, elders and parishioners stand out making the work a respectful tribute to an integral part of the faith community of the city.

The late, great...

Further evidence of the failure of urban sprawl, I bring you a couple of sites lovingly devoted to the death of the shopping mall:

Exhibit one.

Exhibit two.

On the ride home...

Lots of rain, beautiful, constant, near torrential spring downpour for 12 miles.

But I was dressed for it. It was wonderful, haven't felt so alive in a long time.

Boy that extra two miles on the lakeshore bike path sure would have come in handy!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Crosstown Series

This evening weather permitting, is the beginning of what most baseball fans in Chicago wait for all year, the Crosstown Series between the Cubs and the White Sox. This is one of the most bitter rivalries in American sports as most Cub fans truly dislike the Sox and most Sox fans hate the Cubs.

Here's a link to something I wrote several years ago. It is dated only in the last part when I wrote about bragging rights which I said were a tossup at the time. Bragging rights now clearly belong to the White Sox who in 2005 won the World Series. In contrast this year marks the beginning of the second century of futility for the Cubs, not that I need to rub it in.

I became a White Sox fan in 1973. Before that I rooted mostly for the Cubs, I lived and died with them in the tumultuous 1969 season when they were set to take the division in August. Unfortunately they forgot they had to play through September.

The pitching staff was led by Hall of Famer, the great Fergie Jenkins. I still remember the lineup, Kessenger, Beckert, Williams (Hall of Famer), Banks (Hall of Famer), Santo (not in the Hall of Fame), Hundtley, then a few rotating Bozos in center and right field, let's see, there was Jim Hickman, Adolpho Phillips, a few other guys, and of course the immortal Don Young who single-handedly lost a few games with his scintillating outfield play. Even Jack Brickhouse, the broadcaster who never uttered a word of criticism of the home team had to express his disgust.

Frankly it was a too hard of a life lesson for a ten year old and I began to lose interest.

Then a few years later, a little older and wiser, I started watching the Sox. They weren't a better team by a long shot, but they were way cooler. They played night games and the fans weren't screaming little kids as they were back then in Wrigley Field. They had bad ass Ritchie Allen, who later became Dick Allen at first, Bill Melton at third, Carlos May in left, Pat Kelly, who my mother thought was an Irishman before she saw him, in right. Wilbur Wood the big fat knuckleballer who was about 50 at the time was their ace. Big fat Ed Hermann with his mitt the size of a small house was their only catcher who could handle Wilbur's knuckleballs. Bucky (F-ing) Dent as they call him to this day in Boston, was a rookie short stop. They tore up the league for a while but unlike the '69 Cubs, started to fade in mid-season and finished a distant fifth that year.

The best thing about the Sox was Harry Caray. He was already a legend after many years as the Cardinals' broadcaster. Such a breath of fresh air after the avuncular Brickhouse who spent most of his on-air time reading his mail. A typical Brickhouse broadcast would feature more dead air than the lunar atmosphere.

Harry was always pitching some kind of beer. In '73 it was Falstaff. One of his frequent guests in the booth was Dizzy Dean. They'd banter back and forth both of them filling up on Falstaff as the game went on.

One of my favorite exchanges was when they were talking about Sox 300 game winner Early Wynn. Harry said that Early was so mean that he'd even pitch high and inside to own his mother. Diz retorted, "his mother was a good fast ball hitter!"

Harry would not mince words about the home team, if they stunk, he'd yet you know. I can still hear his voice, bottom of the ninth, two outs with the bases loaded, the Sox down by a run, Dick Allen at bat, 3-0 count. "Here's the pitch.... paaaaahped it up"

Losing was never that much fun with the Cubs.

I've been a Sox fan ever since, even after Harry defected to the north side.

Some fun teams since then, the "South Side Hitmen" team of 1977, the "Winning Ugly" 1983 team that could have maybe won the pennant if only they could have won game 4 of their series against the Orioles and had given the ball to the at the time un-beatable LaMarr Hoyt. The '94 team that looked un-stoppable and might have been had it not been for the baseball strike.

Lots of coulda, shouldas in Chicago sports.

Then of course there was the glorious 2005 season.

A typical Sox fan's two favorite teams are the Sox, and anybody who's playing the Cubs. On the contrary, I don't hate the Cubs, I root for them, just not emphatically. In 1984 I too was depressed when the ball went through Leon Durham's legs in San Diego. I suffered as much as anybody during the Bartman game. And after a magnificent season, last year's playoff performance was like watching a giant deflating beach ball.

The Cubs notably have found more creative ways to lose than any other team in history.

This Friday I'm bringing the boy to his first Cubs game. He's been to White Sox games but he hated the noise of the fireworks so much that he became a Cub fan much to my consternation.

Maybe the drunken frat boys who now populate Wrigley Field will make him want to be a White Sox fan again.

But I'll be rooting for the Cubs just the same. They're playing Cleveland, the Sox' divisional rivals.

I'll let you know how it all turns out.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Urban Contraction

An interesting plan for dealing with urban sprawl is taking place in Flint, Michigan. The city has begun to eliminate entire neighborhoods and return them to nature. Flint is best known as the birthplace of General Motors and for its rapid decline which set the stage for Michael Moore's 1989 film Roger and Me. The decline mirrored the closing of several GM plants in the area beginning in the 1980s.

The author of the plan is Dan Kildee, the treasurer of Genesee County, the seat of which is Flint. Mr. Kildee has been approached by the federal government to participate in a study about how to implement this plan in other cities that have experienced significant declines recently.

An article from the Daily Telegraph can be found here.

In the article Mr. Kildee speaks of how Americans view development and growth as necessarily positive and perceive contraction as failure. But the reality is that some communities need to shrink in order to survive.

Here is the money quote:

"The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we're all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way," said Mr Kildee. "Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity."

The comments section contains some revealing thoughts about how we feel about development, property rights and the government.

Although the areas effected are virtually deserted, obvously in order for the plan to work some people will need to be forced from their homes.

Trepidations are understandable given that this seems at the outset to be a draconian solution. The idea of the Feds coming in and telling folks that their homes are going to be razed to make way for a prairie may sound to some a little Stalinist at best.

Yet we also need to look at the bigger picture of how our culture has promoted the idea of if something doesn't work, let's get rid of it and start fresh. We haven't been very good at holding on to our past, and that's both a good and a bad thing. Good in that we haven't been hindered by looking backwards, bad in that we have failed to see the value of what we have.

My belief has always been that our cities are our best hope for the future. They are dynamic, they're able to grow and adapt to the times, and they retain a sense of place by preserving the best of the past. Growth and development doesn't require the continued destruction of our ever dwindling natural resources.

Urban sprawl does not work. We are learning this more and more every day.

America doesn't need to expand to the point where every inch is covered in concrete. There's plenty of room to expand right here in town, if only we care to open our hearts and minds.

Better to have bid and lost than...

In an interesting take on the Olympics,  a University of California, Berkeley study finds that cities that bid on the Olympics and lose, benefit greatly economically, probably even more than those that are selected as host cities. 

Another satisfied customer

Ok so not everyone who visits Chicago likes it. Here are excerpts from something I found on a forum about our fine city. I left out the really negative parts:

"... Most Chicago people are rude arrogant, impatient, and hardened by their fierce defensive nature that Chicago is the best place on earth.
... Most neighborhoods are quiet due to everyone hiding in their homes waiting for the government to tell them what to do next. The only people that show kindness are other people who have as much money as you.
... If you need city services you have to deal with a bureaucracy that surpasses Hitlers Gestapo. Oh yeah please do not park your car on the street you will be ticketed,towed,vandalized,hated by the other guy who parked there yesterday. plowed in by some chivalrous neighbor who loves his new snowblower. or blocked by numerous chairs in the middle of your building just because he shoveled it out.
... Nobody will give you the time of day if you don't fit into their click."

Well at least we have our great sports teams and the weather.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

High tech Low tech

In a time when it's possible at the press of a button to access virtually any piece of information anytime, anywhere in the world in a matter seconds, it's wonderful to see a form of mass communication that is so low tech it could have been implemented a thousand years ago.

What I'm speaking of is the tradition of flying one of two flags from the scoreboard after a Cub's game at Wrigley Field, a white flag with a blue W for a Cub's win, or a blue flag with a white L for a loss.

The flag is visible to anyone passing by the ballpark after a game. The tradition started shortly after the iconic scoreboard, itself a marvel of the lowest of low technology, was installed in 1937.

The success of the Cubs at the box office if not on the field, is attributable to the charm of Wrigley Field. The owners if the team have to their credit steadfastly avoided most of the bells and whistles used at most big time sporting events. As everyone knows, night games were not played at the old ballpark until 1988.

As baseball is the ultimate game of stats, a true fan of the game hardly would be satisfied by the limited information available from the two flags. Someone equipped with an iPhone and internet access can in real time not only find the score of a game, but the speed and location of every pitch, the number of swings each batter took, just about anything everything but the smell of the hot dogs.

Still it's nice to go back to a simpler time and ride by the old ballpark on the L as I did with the kids today and find out how the Cubbies did simply by looking out the window.

Another great urban experience, this one unique to Chicago.

Incidentally today they were flying the L flag which was fine with me.

I'm a White Sox fan.

Seen on the ride home...

Cricketers practicing on a softball diamond, 5:50pm Friday June 12, 2009, Lincoln Park between Wilson and Lawrence.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Taking a stand

I've made a point in my adult life to carefully consider both sides of every issue and not cornering myself into any ideological corner. That's why I can't answer questions like "are you a liberal or a conservative" or "are you pro-life or pro-choice" or "what's your favorite reality show?"

I'm like Ringo Starr (definitely not my favorite Beatle) in "A Hard Day's Night" when he was asked by a reporter; "are you a mod or a rocker?" He considers it for a second and says: "I'm a mocker."

Going through some posts written in the five months since I started this blog, I've noticed that I have hardly taken a definitive position on anything. I've written things like; while it would be too bad to demolish St. Boniface, there might be no alternative or, maybe the Children's Museum in Daley Bicentennial Plaza is a good thing, maybe not.

What a dishrag!

That is why the I made a point the other day of coming out and saying that I wholeheartedly support the extension of the lakefront park to the city's borders, and highlighted it in boldface to boot.

The other day I came across a yes/no question on a forum on one of my new favorite websites "Forgotten Chicago" that asked; "are you in favor of the Olympics coming to Chicago?"

Whoa what a loaded question I thought. Honestly I've been thinking as most Chicago folks have about my answer to that question and like most, I can think of good reasons pro and good reasons con.

So I surprised myself this morning when on my bike ride to work a little light went off in my head.

"Yes..." I said to myself, "bring 'em on!"

Why, you might think would I support the mayor's boondoggle, a complete waste of time and money that promises if we are selected by the I.O.C., to tie up the city for years before the games and leave us in debt for many years after?

Good point. Wait, that's not very definitive of me.

I think Mayor Daley would have been remiss to let this opportunity slip by. Chicago didn't get to be a great city, (yes I truly believe it's a great city), by sitting back and resting on its laurels.

Detroit was once a boom town because of the automobile industry. They never expanded beyond making cars and today we see the result.

St. Louis was the most important city west of New York when they were the center of shipping on the Mississippi River. They could have continued their preeminence to this day had they done one thing, build a bridge spanning the river in the early 1850s. But because of the objections of the steamship lines they hesitated. Chicago on the other hand was heavily invested in the Illinois-Michigan Canal which connected the Great Lakes with the Mississippi. That did not prevent city officials from actively pursuing the railroads which stood to take significant business away from the Canal. In 1853 a bridge was built upstream from St. Louis connecting Davenport and Rock Island and the railroads that would ultimately cross the continent all came through Chicago, not St. Louis.

Not that hosting the Olympics will necessarily have the momentous effect of the railroads. But one never knows. I am always amazed when folks complain about forward thinking projects as being too expensive or too risky. Without people of foresight, without the risk takers, and the gamblers, Chicago would be a distant suburb of Kenosha. Sometimes we simply cannot afford NOT to take those risks.

Here's where I think the Olympics could benefit the city the most:

If done correctly, the transportation infrastructure could be greatly improved and expanded. People will need to get to and from venues and automobiles will not cut it. This will be a great opportunity to work on getting new, state of the art transportation systems jump-started, serving especially the neighborhoods on the South Side, where the major venues are planned and that are currently under served.

Again, if done correctly, improvements to the parks where the venue sights will be located can be made. Remember that Washington and Jackson Parks were the sites of the Columbian Exposition. They were returned to magnificence, (which has since faded a bit) after the Fair. I know this is wishful thinking but again let's be definitive.

The incredible visibility of the Olympics will put Chicago on the world stage in ways we can't even imagine. Yes, once more if done correctly and the Olympics come off well, the city will become a major tourist destination. Today tourists from all of the world who visit Chicago love this city. And the folks who have never been here still think that Al Capone reigns supreme. While we natives might take some perverse pride in that, it really doesn't help. We may poo poo tourism but let's face it, the factories, slaughterhouses and steel mills aren't contributing very much to the economy anymore. Tourism not only brings significant capital to the city, it also is great PR that attracts business.

These are benefits that may not be immediately realized. And there no doubt will be benefits that will not be foreseen until well after the torch is extinguished.

I do see some disheartening signs. The mayor in his single-mindedness about bringing the Games here has made some questionable policy decisions, especially related to preservation issues. I'd also like to see more focus on having venues built on the old South Works site in South Chicago rather than in Washington Park.

There I go again.

Let the record state that at 1:12am June 13, 2009, I am officially saying definitively, let the games begin.

Of course tomorrow is another day.

The Last Four Miles, a point of clarification

As I said yesterday, I support wholeheartedly the Friends of the Parks' proposal to complete the open lakefront both on the north and south sides.

But as someone rightfully points out in the responses to Bill Savage's piece printed on Blair Kamin's blog, while the FoP's proposal certainly does not include the extension of Lake Shore Drive up to Evanston, in the real world of politics, the extension could easily be tagged onto the project in order to get the approval of certain public officials who shall remain nameless.

If that is the case, I would vehemently oppose the effort.

I would also oppose any effort to extend L.S.D. south to Indiana.

Whew, glad I got that off my chest!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Planes, trains and automobiles, continued

A popular belief has it that there was a great conspiracy that took place in middle of the 20th Century that is directly responsible for the decline of public transportation in this country.

That a conspiracy took place is not in doubt. Several corporations, GM, Firestone, Standard Oil of California, to name a few, created holding companies which in turn purchased several privately owned transit companies across the country. Then they dismantled the existing streetcar systems and replaced them with buses which use tires and run on gas. And guess who manufactured those products?

The theory goes on to say that this dastardly act was an intentional effort to dismantle the transit industry and to set in motion the car culture that we are in today. Since buses as the theory goes are vastly inferior to streetcars, people became disillusioned and were forced into buying cars.

The death of intercity train travel is also tied to the conspiracy, although I can't figure out exactly how.

You can read about it in an unusually biased Wikipedia article here.

While the article lists many of the consequences of car culture that I've been lamenting, its cause and effect scenario leaves much to be desired.

It is certainly tempting to place the blame on corporation scoundrels secretly colluding to bring down public transportation in favor of the automobile for their own nefarious ends. While the companies in question profited illegally in what was unquestionably a conflict of interest, I think we're giving them way too much credit for intentionally destroying public transit in favor of the automobile.

I have no doubt that the change was inevitable and would have happened with or without the help of the corporations.

At the center of the storm is the streetcar. Today we look at them with wonderment, nostalgia for those old enough to remember them, and a missed opportunity given the fact that the infrastructure that once supported them is gone. We think of them as efficient, non-polluting alternatives to the city bus, which is considered by many only a last resort means of transportation.

The truth is that streetcars, at least as they existed until the late 1950s when they all but vanished from the American scene, had many of the disadvantages of buses, and in fact had a few disadvantages all their own.

  • Streetcar tracks were usually integrated into the street so they were affected by traffic just as buses.
  • The breakdown of a single car forced the shutdown of the entire line as a broken down vehicle blocked all traffic behind it.
  • As streetcars operated in the middle of streets, passengers faced greater hazards as they boarded and exited as opposed to buses where passengers board and exit from the relative safety of the curb.
  • While the electric powered streetcar itself did not produce exhaust, the generators that produced electricity to power the cars certainly did introduce pollutants into the atmosphere.
  • The construction and upkeep of the infrastructure for streetcars is hugely expensive compared to that for city buses.
There were many reasons that made buses attractive to transportation companies, flexibility, fewer operators necessary to run them, passenger comfort, the list goes on and on. By the time streetcars disappeared, they were considered a relic of the past, outmoded, and inefficient.

It seems logical that as the writing was on the wall, the evil auto related companies saw an opportunity to sell buses, tires and gas. Nothing less nothing more.

But wait there's more...

Running a public transportation system was never a very profitable enterprise, in fact by mid-century the private companies that once owned and operated the transportation systems around the country were all absorbed into public transportation authorities run by local governments.

The same is true for passenger trains. Even during the golden age of American rail travel, the 1920s through the 50s, passenger service was at best a break even proposition. The railways saw passenger service as necessary public relations for investors. The real money was in freight.

By the 1960s passenger service became far less than break even and the railroads couldn't abandon it quickly enough. Amtrak was formed by the federal government to preserve a modicum of passenger rail service in the States, certainly not to monopolize it as the Wikipedia article suggests.

There are many reasons for the decline of passenger trains, one of which is the rise of the airline industry which made long distance train travel seem ridiculously impractical. But it was the automobile that did the most damage.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the passenger train in the United States was the implementation of the Federal Interstate highway system that began during the Eisenhower administration. While inter-state highways already existed, (think of the famous Route 66), the Interstates took driving into new and unimagined territory. Where a long distance drive was once an adventure with many unexpected twists and turns, the Interstates insured that every mile of highway would be consistent, predictable, and above all safe, or as safe as high speed auto travel could possibly be.

As long as gas was cheap, the convenience and freedom of driving made travel by car much more attractive and economical than train travel, especially for trips under 300 miles or so.

Today gas is no longer cheap, but old habits are hard to break and the die has been cast. So where do we go from here?

Believe it or not, I'm going to advocate, are you ready for this...

bringing back the streetcar!

But more on that later...

The Last Four Miles II

A spirited debate on the Friends of the Parks' proposal to build landfill parks to complete Chicago's open public access to the lake on the far north and south sides can be found at Blair Kamin's blog here.

You can find my take here:

Completing the Chicago lakefront park system is a wonderful idea.

It would benefit everyone in the city in my opinion, except of course the people who currently enjoy private access to the lake in the areas that would be affected.

The latter point is made entirely clear by Bill Savage and John Redell, two residents of high-rises along the lake in Rogers Park and Edgewater respectively.

Both men make very impassioned cases why the proposal is bad for the city. In reality however, most of their claims can be easily refuted. Consider the referenda held in Rogers Park and Edgewater that both men site, resulting in virtual unanimous opposition to the plan. They fail to mention that only residents along the lakefront in those communities were polled, not the entire communities. I'm not sure why anyone even bothered to go to the trouble of taking such a poll, it doesn't take a genius to predict the outcome of that one.

Elsewhere, the environmental impact of the landfill has been noted by Mr. Redell in his web site stopthelandfill.org. Certainly some of his claims are true, the dredging and landfill will no doubt increase silt and cause some disruption of the lakefront ecosystem. However I think it stands to reason that the long term benefits to wildlife, for example providing new arboreal cover to migrating and resident avian populations would more than compensate for any temporary disruption.

Some claims such as Mr. Savage's that we need to preserve Rogers Park's uniqueness are just plain silly.

But the most telling remark comes from Mr. Savage who says that the plan is in fact a good idea on the south side, just not on the north. In other words, "not in my own back yard".

The bottom line is that while not entirely willing to admit it, both Mr. Savage and Mr. Redell care about this issue for entirely selfish reasons, they do not want their own little corner of the world disrupted.


If I were in their position, I would probably feel the same way. Which is why I believe that the residents of the areas effected should be heard and their opinions taken seriously on any issue considering their neighborhood. As I wrote a couple of months ago about the neighbors of the proposed Children's Museum in Daley Bicentennial Plaza, no plan however beneficial to the entire city should proceed without at least considering the people most directly affected (as has been the case at DBP).

That said, the whole issue probably is moot as the cost for such a venture would no doubt be very prohibitive, at least any time in the near future. What's more the mayor has not gotten aboard this train and as we all know, nothing gets done in this town without Ritchie on board.

But if he does oh boy, look out Messers Savage and Redell, you may as well close up shop and hop aboard the fait accompli express!

Planes, trains and automobiles...

I am a huge fan of trains, els, subways, streetcars, cable cars, basically any kind of people-moving object that sets its wheels to tracks. To me they embody the very essence of the urban experience.

Hang over the platform of a Powell-Hyde cable car slowly making its way up Russian Hill on a lovely San Francisco evening and you will agree with me. Ride aboard the toy-like trams that navigate the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Walk around America's grandest public space, Grand Central Terminal at rush hour and watch the commuters darting around trying to catch the early train home to Connecticut or Long Island. Descend into the depths Moscow's Metro and experience the most beautiful subway in the world. Or ride the L through the Loop.

If someone gave me the opportunity to design a city from scratch (heaven forbid!), it would be filled to the brim with all kinds of railed people movers, streets for automobiles would be an afterthought.

The blog post from Rochester, N.Y. that I brought up earlier brings to mind so many issues about what is wrong, not only with with the way our cities are designed, but what's wrong with us as well. The movement to design cities to serve the automobile instead of the other way around has created a mindset that the car is essential to any normal kind of life. And we embrace that notion wholeheartedly.

I'm as guilty as anyone. While we live in a city that has adequate public transportation, I love my car and life without it would be a tremendous burden for my family and me. Even though my daily commute hardly ever involves the car, grocery shopping, weekend outings, vacations, all revolve around the four wheeled beast. Take it away and things get, interesting. But still possible.

The same cannot be said for virtually anywhere else in the States, save for other big cities. This issue was brought home to me several years ago. My parents after retirement moved to the Phoenix area. My dad didn't feel comfortable driving after his second stroke so my mom did all the driving. Typically she would put 60 to 80 miles per day on the car just getting about town. After my father's final illness and death, my mother developed macular degeneration which rendered her legally blind. Ironically, in her community which consisted primarily of retired people, there were absolutely no accomodations for people without cars. Even delivery at the local supermarket was completely unheard of. While her friends were extremely helpful and bent over backwards to help, for my mother, being a fiercely independent person, losing the ability to drive made her feel helpless. So she moved the heck out of there, back to Chicago where she now leads a perfectly independent life.

I'm going to talk more about cars and what to do about them in the next few posts but right now I'm going to bed, good night!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Last Four Miles

Chicagoans are rightfully proud of our unique lakefront with 18 miles of unlimited public access. Yet the entire lakefront is not open to the public.

Friends of the Parks is trying to change that.

Not everyone agrees, not surprisingly the people who will lose their private access to the lake.

I suspect the nearly half-billion dollar price tag will be the ultimate test.

Old Post Office

Just heard that the Old Post Office Building by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, (originally built in 1921 and greatly expanded in the 30's) that straddles the Eisenhower Expressway between Clinton and Canal Streets is up for auction. I have to suspend my perhaps misguided admiration for buildings built before 1950 on this one. While it has some nice Art Deco details, it's a behemoth that creates a most un-welcome terminus to the view of the city to the west.

It's construction forever put the kibosh on the centerpiece the Burnham Plan, namely the Congress Street east-west axis of the city, and the focal point of the entire plan, a magnificent (if somewhat over-bearing), Beaux-Arts civic center at the intersection with Halsted Street. This is ironic since G.A.P.&W. was the successor firm to Burnham's.

Once that became a fait accompli, it was a mere twenty years before the construction of the Expressway which necessitated the widening of Congress Street east of the Post Office building all the way to Buckingham Fountain. This was arguably one of the most devastating blows to the city in terms of its architecture as it wiped out several buildings as well as the first floor storefronts of the Auditorium building and the Congress Hotel. It also irrevocably altered Congress Plaza at Michigan Ave. separating Ivan Mestrovic's two great equestrian statues, Spearman and Bowman. Here is the plaza as it looks today:

There have been numerous attempts to find an alternate use for the past several years but given the magnitude and the current economic climate, nothing has panned out.

I doubt there will be a strong move from preservationists to save it but I could be wrong.

Personally I wouldn't be sad to see it go although it is still kind of cool to drive through the center of the building to have the city open up to you.

Bids open up at just 300K, just a tad more than our condo.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

And you think the CTA is bad...

Be glad you don't live in Rochester.
Or in most other places in the U.S. for that matter.

Actually the blogger's last statement begs the question, why not consider investing in a bike?

Fabulous Chicago

I'm in the middle of a wonderful history of Chicago (set between 1835, shortly after incorporation, and 1920) by Emmett Dedmon which lent its title to this post. First published in 1953. It tells the tale of a boomtown populated by carpetbaggers, scoundrels, and scalawags. Oh yes and a little more than a handful of truly remarkable people as well.

A great read, the book paints a picture of a the city that lies somewhere between Scorcese's Gangs of New York and 60's sitcom Green Acres.

If you think that the problems of violence and corruption are unique to our generation, read this book. The only difference is that we're not up to our armpits in mud!