Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Remembering the fallen

Walking on the Randolph Street overpass above Columbus Drive today we saw a sight that has become quite familiar in town, the phalanx of police cars and black SUVs with tinted windows. I turned to my friends and said matter of factly: "look, the president is in town." A man with a grim look on his face shook his head. My heart sank when he told us that it was actually a procession for the firemen who were killed this morning. I knew exactly what he was talking about. In the morning the reports came over the radio of a burning building whose roof had collapsed with two firemen trapped inside. It sounded bad and all I could do was hope for the best. Then I got on with my day and forgot all about them, that is until I saw the fire trucks and a Chicago Fire Department ambulance carrying the body of one of the fallen heroes.

I haven't stopped thinking about them since.

Firefighters are special. A friend in the CFD gave me an insight a long time ago about what a firefighter is all about. When he was about to graduate from the Fire Academy, there was the scramble to get assigned to a "good" house. Most normal people would think that the difficult houses to get into are the ones in relatively safe neighborhoods, ones where a typical day includes maybe one or two false alarms, a trash fire and perhaps getting a call that there's a cat stuck in a tree.

Not so, the difficult houses to get into are the ones in the worst neighborhoods in the city, "where all the action is." That's why they became firefighters in the first place.

The fire today was in an abandoned building. The CFD could have contained the fire to the building and let it burn itself out. But firefighters don't do that. A group of them entered the burning building on the outside chance that there may have been squatters inside. Others were on the roof looking for hot spots. The two men who died were inside when the roof collapsed on them. Seventeen other firefighters were injured.

My heart aches this evening for the children who will have no father this Christmas, for the wives who have lost their soulmates, for the parents who have lost their sons. I keep thinking of the men as they left their homes for the last time, kissing their wives goodbye, telling their children to be good because Santa will be watching them, just as I do every time I leave for work in the morning. That morning ritual is so important because none of us ever knows for sure if we will come home in the evening.

Of course most firemen, policemen and people in other professions who put their lives on the line every day thank goodness, do in fact come home after work. All of them deserve our thanks and eternal gratitude because there is no way that we can repay them for what they do for us.

The names of the two men who will not be coming home again to their families are Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer. Pray for them.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Old number ten

As the boy and I were skating the other night we spotted two beautiful red hockey jerseys. One was worn by a teenager who donned a Montreal Canadien jersey with the number ten, the number of their retired star right winger Guy LaFleur. Ten must have significance in that family as a woman who appeared to be the boy's mother was also wearing the number ten. She wore a Chicago Blackhawk jersey with their current star Patrick Sharp's name emblazoned on the back.

Ten is a magic number in many sports. In soccer, the number is usually reserved for the best player on the team. The most famous number ten in all of sports is still probably Edison Arantes do Nascimento, known to all the world as Pelé. American football is a game dominated by the number and its multiples. The field is 100 yards long, you need to advance ten yards in order to keep the ball, and so on. Ten of course means perfection in sports that are determined by judges. For obvious reasons we base our numbering system on the number ten and all over the world, except of course here in the United States, measuring systems are based on ten.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the most American of games does not revolve around ten. Baseball instead revolves around the number three and its multiples. A batter has three chances to defend the strike zone, a team has three outs per inning, a game is divided into nine innings and in order to win, a team must get the other team out 27 times. There are nine members of the team involved in the game at any given time during a game. The most famous and perhaps greatest baseball player of all time, Babe Ruth, wore the number three.

Some pretty good ball players have worn the number ten, but that number doesn't have any particular significance to the game. That is with the exception of the north side of Chicago where no member of the Chicago Cubs will ever again be assigned that number.

That's because on September 28th, 2003, the Cubs retired the number in honor of old number ten, Ron Santo, the all star third baseman who played with the team from 1960 until 1973. That it took thirty years for his team to officially recognize Santo should not be surprising as just about everyone knows of his tireless fight to get respect among the baseball community. Even his death last week may not help his chances of getting into baseball's Hall of Fame in its upcoming election which will take place next year. The fact is that as good as a player Santo was, he's borderline at best to qualify for inclusion in the halls of that hallowed institution in Cooperstown. Adding to that was his almost shameless campaigning for induction over the years which probably did more to hurt his chances than anything else.

Here I will make the heretical statement that it really doesn't matter much now if Ron Santo is ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. No, not because I'm a White Sox fan who thinks way too much attention has been given to Santo's passing.

On the contrary, I could not possibly have more admiration for the man and his contribution to the game of baseball. The outpouring of grief following his death, not seen in this town since the passing of Walter Payton, is absolutely deserved for a man who meant so much not only to Cub fans, but to an entire community, and especially to those who suffer from Juvenile Diabetes, the disease that Santo so courageously lived with throughout most of his life.

It may be that the best one can say about Santo's baseball career is that he was a solid, above average major league ball player. His post retirement years however are another story. Santo left the public life for the business world, then returned to be immersed in baseball as the radio "color man" for the Cubs beginning in 1990. He remained there for the rest of his life. To say that he was THE voice of the Cubs is a gross understatement. While Harry Caray's was the voice most people associate with the team, the voice that presided over the era that saw the team's meteoric rise in popularity, it must be remembered that Caray did the same for the White Sox and before them, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Santo was a Cub, through and through except for one year...


... which he claimed was the worst year of his life. The Cubs were dumping their old sandbys from the "glory days" of the late sixties and early seventies. Santo was to be shipped off to the California Angels but as a veteran he was entitled the right of refusal. He agreed instead to be traded to the south side. The Sox already had a full time third baseman Bill Melton, and as you can see from his baseball card above, Santo after a lifetime at third base, was turned into a second baseman. As you can imagine it was an experiment doomed to failure.

The last time I saw Santo play in person was a night game at old Comiskey Park. It was seat cushion night at the ballpark, the first 20,000 through the gates received a free promotional fanny pad. The cushions were used for everything but their intended purpose, at first they were used as noisemakers. 20,000 seat cushions make a hell of a racket when banged against open palms or wooden seats in unison.

Seat cushions also make pretty decent Frisbees as about 15,000 fans discovered when Santo booted a routine ground ball at his unnatural position. Cushions floated from all directions and quickly the field was covered with the unwanted souvenirs. The teams were cleared from the field and before order was restored, the Sox stood a good chance of forfeiting the game. I never heard Santo comment about the incident, but it certainly had to be one of the lowest of the low points of his career. He would retire from the game after that season.

Today the sight of Ron Santo in anything but a Cubs uniform is as incomprehensible as the sight of water flowing up.

The person who coined the expression, "bleeding Cubbie blue" certainly must have had Santo in mind. I would bet that never in the history of broadcasting did an announcer have so much at stake in one team. Not only did Santo take every win and loss personally, but every at bat, every ball, strike, popup, every line drive, every squib single. But what he took most personally were errors, especially at third base. Santo himself was a glove glover many times over and he had no tolerance for poor fielding or lack of hustle.

Santo's disappointment was palpable every time his team screwed up, which was often. But so was his excitement at the good stuff. He did nothing to cover up his emotions as his partner in the booth for the past 14 years Pat Hughes, described the action on the field.

Here's a typical exchange between the two:

Hughes: "The Cubs are down by one run, the bases are loaded with only one out, Alfonso Soriano is at the plate."

Santo: "C'mon let's' get a hold of one."

Hughes: "The pitcher checks the runners. Here's the stretch, and the pitch, Soriano hits a ground ball to third..."

Santo: "NO!"

Hughes: "...he scoops it up and throws to second for one..."

Santo: " ah JEEZ"

Hughes: "...and over to first for a double play."

Santo: "OH MAN"

Hughes "and that's the inning, no runs, three hits, and two left"

Santo: "SHEESH!, oh man..."

pause

Santo: "DAMN!"

Yet after every disappointing loss, Santo's trademark sign-off line to Hughes was: "well we'll get 'em tomorrow partner."

He'd begin each broadcast of a home game with "From beautiful Wrigley Field" and preface his daily interview with the current manager with: "Here's the fine manager of the Chicago Cubs..." And after each win, you could almost picture him jumping in the press box and clicking his heels just as he did during his playing days, two prosthetic legs and all.

Santo was not particularly articulate, his observations were not very astute, and he didn't go much into the finer points of the game as so many of his contemporaries do in the booth. He and Hughes often got into their banter and it wasn't rare that you'd hear something like:"Hey how'd that guy end up on second?"

Santo was like your old man sitting in his Archie Bunker easy chair watching the game right next to you.

Which is exactly why he was so endearing to his listeners. He was a fan just like us. Yes, I'm including myself, the Sox fan in that mix. I enjoyed listening to the Cubs more than my White Sox on the radio, mostly because of Ron Santo. And I also wanted the Cubs to win, mostly for Ron.

As tireless as his campaign for the Hall of Fame was, an infinitely deeper concern was JDRF, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Santo learned he had the disease shortly before signing with the Cubs in 1959. Fearful that it might keep him off the field, Santo kept it private, playing most of his career while keeping the disease a secret.

In the twilight of his playing career, so that young people in the future would not have to suffer as he did, he made his condition public and in the subsequent forty years helped raise over 60 million dollars for JDRF. Perhaps even more valuable was the example he set for those of us who cared to pay attention. As his condition deteriorated over the years, Ron Santo could have easily slipped out of the public eye to live out the remainder of his life in private, cherishing the glorious memories of the past while keeping his current struggles to himself, leaving us only the memory of a youthful high spirited player. Instead he chose to be as open and honest in public about his condition as he could. As parts of his body began to fail him one by one, like the brave Sir Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who loses his battle with King Arthur limb by limb, Santo kept going on as if to say: "hey it's only a flesh wound."

A particularly poignant moment was re-played over the radio on the day he died. Last season on the 50th anniversary of his debut in the major leagues, Santo threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Wrigley Field. Standing in front of the pitcher's mound he bounced the ball over home plate to Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster. Pat Hughes talking about it later in the booth joked to Ron in an uncharacteristically patronizing tone that Dempster shook his catching hand in pain after catching the ball. (I checked the video and Dempster did no such thing). Santo sounding slightly defeated said, "well I did the best I could."

We hear the word hero bandied about quite liberally to describe sports stars. But Ron Santo is truly deserving of the word. He was a man who was blessed with incredible talent but who was also dealt many bad cards in his life. Yet like any good poker player he was able to play them to their best advantage, and we all came out ahead. Santo was a great ballplayer to be sure. But his life on the field was eclipsed by his life off the field by a mile. In his later years Santo showed the world that living with diminished abilities did not mean a diminished life, not in the slightest.

It would have been nice, very nice, if Ron Santo's wish to have been inducted into the Hall of Fame could have been granted during his lifetime. It also would have been nice if he could have seen his Cubs in the World Series, if not win the thing. But as we will certainly see today and tomorrow as he is laid to rest, the outpouring of love for the man and the way he touched this community will far outweigh any plaque hung in a hall in remote Upstate New York.

Santo was replaced on the field by a number of competent third basemen, who just like him, didn't make it to the World Series. But replacing Ron Santo and what he has meant to Chicago for all these years will be impossible.



Post script:

On December 5, 2011, almost exactly one year after his death, the Veterans Committee elected Ron Santo posthumously into baseball's Hall of Fame. Congratulations Ronnie, wherever you are!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

American System-Built Homes

Back in Milwaukee on our annual family visit, we returned to the 2700 block of West Burnham Street just past beautiful Layton Boulevard to re-photograph the six American System-Built Homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Throughout his career, Wright was interested in building housing in his distinctive style that would be affordable for the rest of us, and these particular homes were early ventures into that territory.




In the second decade of the Twentieth Century, Wright entered into a working relationship with the developer Arthur L. Richards whose company would implement Wright's System-Built designs in developments all over the country. Re-usable plans, and materials which would be cut to size at the mill and then assembled on site, greatly cut the cost of building the homes. The six Burnham Street structures would serve as model homes for the project and they were built on what was at the time the edge of the city's south side in 1916. Four of them are duplexes of nearly identical design although the westernmost is the mirror image of the other three. The remaining two houses on the block are single family homes.


Unfortunately the United States entered World War I in 1917 and home construction all over the country was suspended. Meanwhile Wright had other commitments and his relationship with Richards soured. That leaves this wonderful, eccentric collection of homes on Burnham Street and a few other System-Built homes scattered throughout the Midwest including two on the far south side of Chicago, as the only extant examples of this ambitious project. The Wilbur Wynant house in Gary, Indiana, as previously mentioned in this space, was recently demolished after many years of neglect.


The six houses make up Milwuakee's Burnham Street Historic District, and they were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Wright in Milwaukee is a site that deals exclusively with the Burnham Street homes, including detailed history, as well as tour information.

The homes are well worth a visit off the beaten path.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

As seen on the L ride home...

A bleak, rainy night left all of us on the L platform chilled to the bone. Then a cold gust of wind made everyone catch their breath and in a brief moment of solidarity, someone blurted out: "Welcome to fall in Chicago." We smiled.

It still takes getting used to the early dark after we turned our clocks back after Halloween, and nobody missed the point that the mild fall we just experienced had come to an abrupt end. The only good thing was that it was the day before Thanksgiving and the normally shoulder to shoulder crowd was reduced considerably, there were even a few remaining seats after the train exited the Loop. From my window seat, there was not much to see through the fogged up windows.

There is a multi-level parking lot just north of the S curve at North Avenue. Except for a flickering light and some movement that was on the same level as the L tracks, the lot was empty. I wiped off the window to see the source of the light.

It was a group of people putting on a shadow puppet show for our benefit. I don't know how many people on the train saw it, but I sure did appreciate it.

Happy Thanksgiving guys, and thank you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The right to whine

Gladly I don't fly much anymore. After my kids were born I haven't volunteered for many work trips, and after my mother moved back from Arizona we don't have to fly to visit family. A friend of my parents was a pilot for United Airlines. By pure coincidence, he retired on September 11th, 2001, the day in his words that: "it stopped being fun to fly."

And how.

The events of that terrible day changed the world forever, the world of aviation being one of the most obvious changes to most of us. The latest developments are x-ray scanning devices that provide airport security officers with images of contraband that could be smuggled onto airplanes, as well as unprecedented details of a passenger's anatomy. Travelers can opt out of the scan if they agree to an aggressively thorough physical search.

Needless to say countless travelers are appalled by such an intrusion of their personal space. Libertarian congressman Ron Paul has authored a bill that would prevent a government agency, namely the Transportation Security Administration, to engage in any kind of bodily contact that would be considered otherwise inappropriate and even illegal in this country. He contends that the TSA violates our basic liberties and is essentially doing nothing to increase safety in the air, and as such, should be eliminated. Government's responsibility says Paul should be to preserve our liberty and not necessarily our safety.

Interesting.

I must admit to having been a little appalled myself when I heard a report that the odds of getting cancer from one of these scans were about the same as being involved in a terrorist attack. Astronomical odds to be sure but it seemed that if it was an even tradeoff, what was the point?

Well the point, as Mohamed Atta and his homicidal companions proved with such deadly accuracy almost ten years ago is that an airplane in the wrong hands can, not only be deadly to those on board, but to countless other innocent women, men and children on the ground. So the TSA not only serves to protect the lives of air travelers, but all of us.

That point seems to be lost on Paul and countless of passengers who have been publicly balking at the increased security. Could there be an ulterior motive from a politician who is at odds with the current administration? I'll leave that up to you to figure out. Ideology aside, Ron Paul's assertion that the TSA is useless and should be abolished is ludicrous. Does anyone seriously believe that we should go back to the practices in place at airports before 9/11 where the airlines themselves were responsible for security? It's hard to imagine.

Someone made the point the other night on a radio program that with these draconian security measures in place, the terrorists have won. On the contrary, the host brilliantly pointed out, the terrorists are emboldened by all the whining done by Americans who feel their liberty is somehow compromised because they are inconvenienced. After all the terrorists, say what you will about their motives, are people who are willing to die for their cause. They can look at us with derision as a bunch of crybabies who can't look beyond our own selfish needs and who complain about a small sacrifice, one not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others.

More than three thousand people lost their lives in the attacks of 9/11. Hundreds of thousands of men and women volunteered to give up their liberty to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq to protect our liberty and our safety. So far over 50,000 have been seriously injured and over 5,000 of them have died. *

Liberty is not free, it has a price, and thousands of our best have paid the supreme price in the past ten years. We owe it to them and to their loved ones to do our own small part.

If our part is submitting to an inconvenient and possibly embarrassing search when we fly, it's a small price to pay.

Besides, what good is our liberty if we're dead?



* not to mention nearly 100,000 people from Iraq and Afghanistan who have died in those two wars.

Green Parking Lot

Blair Kamin examines this seemingly contradictory term here.

Does putting bike racks in front of your parking garage earn you green points? Apparently it does. Al Gore would be proud.

Who you callin' an oxymoron?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Scapegoats

We fans of professional sports are an odd lot indeed, spending our hard earned time, money, and emotional energy on a team made up of multi-millionaires who are loyal to whomever signs their paycheck and not necessarily to their team, its traditions, or the city the team represents. At least at the collegiate or high school levels there is some real connection and commitment between a school, its players and fans.

There are a few distinct categories of sports fans. There's the fan who's never satisfied. Last night the Bears played a splendid game against the Miami Dolphins, winning 16-0, dominating the game on both sides of the ball as they say in football parlance. But listening to some of the calls coming in on the post-game radio show, you'd think the score had been the other way around. The Bears settled for field goals when they should have gotten into the end zone, our quarterback threw a terrible interception (granted he did do that), and even though the defense "pitched" a shutout, it wasn't all that impressive since Miami's quarterback was a third stringer with little experience. And on it went.

Then there is the fan whose team can do no wrong. I have a friend who told me once in a mildly drunken stupor: "in life there's only one thing I believe in, and that's the Chicago Bears." This is the kind of fan for whom there are only two possible outcomes to a game, either his team wins, or the game was stolen from them.

Finally, there are Cubs fans. There's not much to say about the Cubs and their fans that hasn't been said before. Simply put, they are the fans of a team who has not won a championship in over 100 years. The Cubs have not even appeared in a World Series since, well as the late Steve Goodman once sang: "since we dropped the bomb on Japan."

Yet they cluster to the old ballpark on the north side like moths to a flame every spring when hope springs eternal, only to have their hopes dashed, usually by mid-July. But they keep coming until the bitter end in early fall, just before the ivy on the outfield walls changes color.

On those rare occasions when they are still playing ball at Wrigley Field after the ivy has turned a lovely shade of rust, Cubs fans are dealt the cruelest blow of all. That's when the eternal hope that turned into cautious anticipation in July, which later blossomed into passionate frenzy by September, has been crushed to a pulp in October, when the Cubs find yet another creative way to lose.

Odds alone would say that with all those years and opportunities, the Cubs somehow would have managed to stumble into the World Series. But it has not been meant to be. Surely it must be destiny or some other outside force that is preventing the men in blue from success.

Which is why Cubs fans turn to that old reliable comfort in times of trouble, the scapegoat. The Cubs fans' most enduring scapegoat has in fact been a real goat. It seems that during the 1945 World Series, a local barkeep was banned from the ballpark along with his "lucky" goat. So incensed was he that he placed a curse on the Cubs who didn't win then and they haven't won since. The barkeep's ancestor, Sam Sianis, current proprietor of the subterranean institution known as the Billy Goat Tavern has tried in vain for years to remove the curse but so far, no luck. The "curse of the billy goat" endures to this day.

A couple of winning seasons were laid to rest late in the year and the scapegoats were individual players for their less than sterling play in the field. In 1969 it was outfielder Don Young, and in 1984 it was the normally reliable Leon Durham, doing exactly what Bill Buckner so famously did a few years later in the World Series for the Red Sox, namely letting a routine ground ball trickle between his legs. Of course as the old adage goes, "you win as a team and lose as a team" and those players' gaffs were only the most memorable of many that led to the Cubs' demise in those years.

By far the most unjust scapegoat of all was a twenty-something, lifelong Cub fan who attended a fateful playoff game in 2003. That year the Cubs seemed finally destined for the World Series. They swept the Braves in the first round of the playoffs, then in the League Championship Series, came home to Chicago with a 3 games to 2 lead on the Florida Marlins, their two best pitchers, at the time two of the most dominant pitchers in the majors scheduled to pitch games 6 and 7. With one out in the top of the eighth, the Cubs were coasting with a 3-0 lead in the game, and five outs away from the pennant. Louis Castillo of the Marlins hit a foul pop-up. It was headed for the stands with Cubs left fielder Mioses Alou in pursuit. When he got to the wall, Alou jumped, reached into the stands but couldn't come up with the ball. It would have been just another out of play foul ball except Alou and pitcher Mark Prior made an impassioned plea to the umpires that fans interfered with the ball. The umps immediately dismissed Alou's plea as they should have.

After a ridiculously long to do about the play, the Cubs, especially Prior lost their composure and gave up 8 runs that inning which cost them the game.

During all this, the TV announcers took it upon themselves to determine what kind of "ignoramus" could possibly interfere with such an important play for the home team. Replay and slow motion technology determined which of the many hands going for the ball actually made contact deflecting it away from Alou's glove.

Then with the most abhorrent misuse of their power as broadcasters, for all the world to see, the camera zoomed in on a young man wearing a Cubs hat and headphones, all by himself, sitting sheepishly in his seat. The announcers proclaimed: "That's the guy."

The rest is history. The Cubs went on to lose game seven and the series the following evening. The young man received death threats, was blamed for the Cubs losing the game and the series, and forever more his name will be affixed to that season of Cub fan misery.

Over the last couple of weeks, there's been a new scapegoat in town held responsible for the Cubs' losing ways. It's none other than the Friendly Confines itself, the home of the Cubs since 1914, beautiful Wrigley Field. The new chant around town is: "given the choice between keeping Wrigley Field and a championship for the Cubs. I'd take the championship hands down." Now I'm not sure if this is a hypothetical choice between two unrelated events, like saying "given the choice between me winning the lottery and having peace on earth..." or if there is a real cause and effect relationship, saying that Wrigley Field is somehow preventing the Cubs from success on the field. Some say the facilities are too old, the weight rooms and training areas for the players are decrepit, the locker rooms are uncomfortable and the food is no good.

What is absolutely indisputable is the fact that the Cubs are a tremendously successful franchise at the box office, and the main engine behind that success is none other than Wrigley Field. The team markets the "Wrigley experience" and what an experience it is. It is one of only two places in the world, the other being Fenway Park in Boston, where you can see a major league baseball game in a classic park that has seen nearly 100 years of baseball history. At these ballparks it's all about the game, you are not inundated with the distractions of incessant nonsense on a Jumbotron scoreboard and blasting music over the PA system. Of course ballclubs like all that stuff because it brings in advertising revenue. So does plastering up ads in every available nook and cranny of the park. Somehow much of that has been avoided at Wrigley.

Then there's the shear beauty of the place, I won't go into it here because I've written about it before in this space.

In this article, Steve Chapman of the Tribune points out all reasons he thinks Wrigley Field should be torn down. The article is filled with such nonsense that frankly I'm not sure if it's intended to be serious or just tongue-in cheek. Assuming the former, I'll say that I think he's dead wrong about virtually everything he says in the piece:

Blessed with one of the biggest markets in America, and fans who turn out win or lose, they (the Cubs) are not about to pick up and move to Nashville.

One of the biggest markets, absolutely true.

Why, because of the quality of baseball?

Hardly.

Could it be Wrigley Field?

I'd be willing to bet my firstborn.

No they're not going to Nashville because Wrigley Field is in Chicago.

A new park would rid the Cubs of their maintenance headaches, while providing them better ways to relieve fans of cash — lots of luxury boxes, better dining, new shops and diversions.

There are already significant methods in place at Wrigley Field to relieve fans of their cash, seven dollars for a crappy beer is just a start. And what's better, to have 40,000 people at the park, sitting in the stands, or have 15,000 in the park, half of them in the skyboxes the other half in shops and other diversions?

It would allow the team to hire better players and pamper them in style.

How would it allow the team to hire better players? Do good players NOT come here because of Wrigley Field? I don't think so. The Cubs have one of the top payrolls in the major leagues. Clearly money is not an issue. And what the heck constitutes "pampering" more than paying a single player millions of dollars per year to play baseball? I just don't get it.

The architect could lovingly re-create the treasured features of the existing stadium, while omitting the shortcomings...

Yes like the architects of new baseball parks all over the country are imitating the treasured features of Wrigley Field. We have the real thing here, why replace it?

... the cramped concourses, primitive restrooms, modest kitchen facilities and obstructed views.

  • Far be it for me to judge but don't most people go to a ballgame to see the game? Yes I know many like the diversions of stores, places to eat, sideshows, etc. But it's the game, the field and the stands that count isn't it? Or could the 40,000 people who show up to every game at Wrigley Field be wrong?
  • Giving up the columns that create the obstructed views means you have to build high and far from the field. It's a tradeoff, go to the nosebleed seats at the Cell if you don't believe me.
  • I could write a book on the superiority of the in and out efficiency of the "primitive" troughs found in the johns at Wrigley vs. the modern individual urinals found everywhere else, but I won't. You're welcome.
  • I can't comment on the women's rooms at Wrigley Field since I haven't been there, sorry ladies. But let's face it, no one is ever satisfied with women's rooms in any large public venue.
If you own a building that is falling apart, you should either sell it, spend the money to fix it up or admit it's not worth saving — not ask your neighbors to pick up the tab.

With this I agree. Some of the on-line comments to this article questioned the the logic of someone buying a team then not being able to afford maintenance of the stadium. I don't believe that the Ricketts family is being straight with us on this one, and if they are, then they had no business buying the team in the first place.

To even think of replacing the nostalgia-drenched ballpark is heresy to diehard Cubs fans. But Yankee Stadium was even richer in history and tradition — winning tradition, by the way — when the Yankees abandoned it in 2008.

Yes they tore down old Yankee Stadium and there was tremendous opposition to it. One big difference is that the "House that Ruth Built" was remodeled beyond recognition in the seventies. In the end it bore no resemblance to the old ballpark.

They built New Yankee Stadium next door to the old one and made it to resemble the Yankee Stadium of old. Building a new park for the Cubs in Wrigleyville is inconceivable as space there is at a premium. There is no parking lot to build on top of. In fact it's hard to conceive a site, on the north side at least where they could build. One possibility is the former site of US Steel in South Chicago. plenty of land, lots of room for parking, heck they could even build apartment buildings with roof top decks down there to recreate the atmosphere of Wrigley Field. Then Chicago would have two teams, the South Siders being the White Sox, and the really far South Siders, the Cubs. Unlikely to appeal to your average brie and chablis north side Cub fan.

Well there are always the suburbs who would welcome the team with open arms. However it's very likely that a future Mayor Mosley-Brown, Del Valle, or Emmanuel would not take too kindly for the team to use the City of Chicago in their name. So we may end up with the Schaumburg Cubs. Problem is there's already a Schaumburg baseball team, a minor league team called the Flyers.

Chapman points out a huge difference between the Cubs and the Yankees in his argument when he brings up the "winning tradition." Think of the Yankees and what names come to mind? Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Roger Marris, Reggie (Mr. October) Jackson just to name a few. Think of the nicknames, the Bronx Bombers, Murderer's Row, the Iron Horse, all the great teams, all those championships.

What makes a winning tradition? Great players and even more important, a great team. The Cubs have had a few great players over the last hundred years. Ernie, Billy, Fergie and Ryno, all hall of famers who played on so so teams. It's a shame for those players as well as for the fans. The bottom line is that management for whatever reason has failed to put together a team that could win it all. Period.

Wrigley Field means more to the Cubs franchise than any other ballpark with the possible exception of Fenway Park. When they tried to replace that venerable ballpark with a new one across the street, with architects "lovingly re-creating the treasured features of the existing stadium, while omitting the shortcomings", the uproar was so great, they bagged the idea.

Tearing down Wrigley Field would not be merely heresy, it would be plain stupid.

Take the Yankees out of Yankee Stadium and you have future hall of famers Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees playing in New Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Take the Cubs out of Wrigley Field and what do you have? Overpaid underachievers Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke (Mr. April) Fukudome and Carlos Zambrano of the Illinois Cubs of Schaumburg playing in brand spanking new IKEA Park. I can just hear the vendors now, "Meatballs, get your Swedish Meatballs."

Now there's a team for the ages.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Visiting an old friend

This tree has been around, judging from its girth, somewhere between 200 and 300 years. It's a Bur Oak or, Quercus macrocarpa if you want to be specific. It gets the name from its fringed, crowned seed, the largest of all North American acorns, hence macrocarpa, Latin for big seed. The tree produces acorns sporadically, usually every other year. This year looked to be a bumper crop.

Bur oaks are often found on the crests of ridges near waterways, as this one is, along the North Branch of the Chicago River in the neighborhood of Edgebrook. They also typically form the dividing point between wooded areas and the prairie, which is also the case with this tree. Except here the prairie is a big open field in the middle of a residential neighborhood that fronts the woods that surround the river.

The Bur Oak is slow growing, most of its early stages are devoted to the development of the root system. It is both fire and drought resistant which accounts for its longevity as it is able to survive the annual prairie fires that once claimed most of its neighbors.

I came across this magnificent tree eleven years ago while working on a project documenting the Chicago River. While I could have stood back far enough to fill one frame with the tree, I knew I had to get up close to photograph it this way, twelve times, looking straight at the trunk, down at the ground, up into the branches, to the right into the woods and to the left left into the prairie. Looking at the picture when it is printed big, you are embraced by the tree, almost as you are in real life.

In those eleven years I've come back many times, sometimes to photograph, some times just to visit. This picture from an earlier post, was made in the summer of 2002. My son who was not yet born when I first encountered the tree, was with me. I used for the first time a camera that once belonged to my dear friend, the photographer John Mahtesian, who had recently passed away. When the picture hung for a while in the lobby of the Park Hyatt Hotel on North Michigan Avenue, I asked them to make a plaque, dedicating the picture to him.

A few weeks ago I returned to make what would be the first autumn picture with leaves both on the tree and on the ground. Two years ago I was a little too late and the leaves had all fallen. That time I brought both my son and my daughter who herself was not born the previous time I photographed the tree. This time however, I was alone, as both kids were at school. Time marches on.

Whenever I visit after a long absence, I always dread that all may not be well, this tree is after all pushing the edge of its life span. Even great oak trees don't last forever.

Well here it stood proud and magnificent as ever. My old friend.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Losing Frank, and finding him again

Here's a requiem for a lost Frank Lloyd Wright American System-Built Home that once stood in Gary, Indiana.

As you may recall from my post in October titled "Visiting Frank", we visited a block filled with these modest homes intended for the middle class on the south side of Milwaukee this past summer. The Milwaukee homes were lovingly restored and brought close to the original condition with the exception of one that was clad in aluminum siding.

The Wilbur Wyant home fared much worse. Linked to the lost Wright home post is a very maudlin tribute to the Gary home set to music. I don't recommend that but this instead this, an appearance of FLW on the 1950's game show "What's My Line?"





Interesting from a historic perspective but in my humble opinion, he's not nearly as funny as say, Groucho Marx.

"The Malling of Chicago"...

...is the title of a conversation going on right now on the web site of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, moderated by Edward Lifson.

It asks the question, are new developments in the city placing the emphasis on suburban rather than urban in their design. Three specific projects are addressed, Addison Park on Clark, in Wrigleyville, the monstrosity (my word not theirs) at Block 37 on State Street, and the Wal Mart Supercenter being built in the neighborhood of Pullman on the far South Side.

Wow, where do we begin? Read for yourself here.

There will also be a live discussion at (appropriately enough) Goose Island Wrigleyville on Wednesday, December 1st from 6 to 7:30PM, 3535 N. Clark Street.

Monday, November 15, 2010

High speed to nowhere?

The following is a comment and a response to that comment that I found following this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about the governors-elect of three states, including Wisconsin, promising to reject hundreds of millions of federal dollars earmarked for the creation of High Speed Rail systems in their states. Here is comment one:

Florida's governor seems opposed to HSR as well. He's talking about "privatizing" a rail system there. He may be on to something. Let's privatize roads! Let the markets decide, you know, that Ron Johnson "creative destruction" thing. Let's put rail up against roads in a competitive, free-market scrum and let capitalism decide who lives and dies. But it's got to be a fair fight -- with no socialist subsidies either way.

And the response:

I love it. Since we have had roads and cars shoved down our throat for so so so long it is easy to forget that oil companies make billions because they do not pay for the roads that people use. Car companies also do not pay for the roads. It appears that when you get the federal government to subsidize something it forces the population to use something they might not otherwise use because they are already paying for it. The goal of transportation is to foster economic growth and profit indirectly not directly. Roads do not turn a profit.


These two folks bring up a fact that is so often neglected in the debate over public subsidies for transportation. Namely that few of us ever factor in what it costs to build and maintain the tremendous infrastructure necessary to enable us to drive our cars. We do calculate the steep cost of owning a car, payments, gas and insurance, because that comes directly out of our pockets. Yet it would be impossible to use those cars without the roads, highways and bridges that are built and maintained by the government at the local, state and federal levels. In the winter they are plowed, in the summer the potholes are filled. Government provides police and safety workers that help prevent us from killing each other and when accidents do happen, someone comes along to take care of the victims and someone else comes along to clean up the mess, all on the government's payroll. And after the roads and bridges have served their useful purpose, the government steps in and re-builds them. We take our roads and highways so much for granted that it is inconceivable that one day they will not be there for us.

If roads were privatized as the first commenter suggested, and it were up to us to pay directly out of our pockets every time we used them, and I'm not referring to the token amount we pay on tolls, gas taxes and license fees, I mean really pay for them without any government subsidies, we would not be having this conversation about whether or not we should encourage the development of high speed rail. It would be a done deal.

Of course passenger rail service today is subsidized as well, but not nearly to the extent that driving is. The cost of a rail ticket is comparable to an airline ticket (whose industry also benefits from government subsidies). Since the current system of public transportation in this country, both long and short distance, is for the most part, expensive, slow, and woefully inadequate for serving most people's needs, the vast majority of Americans, myself included, feel compelled to own a car. The choice between traveling long distance by rail or by car is unfortunately a rather simple one.

Governors-elect Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Scott of Florida, all Republicans fulfilling campaign promises, have taken action to stop the creation of High Speed Rail systems in their states by announcing that they will reject federal money that has already been set aside for their states. The argument of the politicians is that the money should go into repairing highway infrastructure rather then into some government "boondoggle" to build a train that "no one will use." It fit right into their "let's cut spending and lower taxes" song and dance, music to the ears of the constituents who voted for them, most of whom are probably married to their cars and would never conceive of taking a train in the first place.

"Let's just privatize passenger rail" is the mantra of those against government subsidies for High Speed Rail, knowing full well that it will not succeed as passenger rail has never succeeded in making money. True there once were the glory days of passenger rail, back when railroads were thriving businesses and traveling by rail was still glamorous. But even then a railroad was lucky if it could turn a marginal profit off of passengers. It was always transporting freight that made the railroads their money, passenger service existed almost entirely for advertising and public relations. The Interstate System of highways built under the Eisenhower administration marked the beginning of end for most of the railroads, as the trucking industry took over much of the long distance freight business and the automobile began to reign supreme as the cross country transport of choice for most Americans.

As the two commenters above pointed out, roads do not turn a profit either. But roads and highways are seen in this country as a necessity while passenger rail is seen as a nice thing to have but something we can live without. This is not so in other parts of the world.

Americans have witnessed in the first decade of the 21st Century that driving and air travel both have their downsides. We saw what happened after the tragedy of September 11, 2001 with the complete shut down of air travel in the U.S. for several days, and the economic blows the airlines took in the subsequent years. And while we have for many decades been the beneficiaries of cheap gas, we all know that the oil market is capricious, and that the days of inexpensive fuel, both in terms of cost at the gas pump and cost to the environment, are numbered. Alternative transportation systems benefit all of us, now and in the future. Without them, one day we may wake up to find that the once most mobile of nations has become paralyzed. Not only will HSR benefit the economy, but it will also play a critical role in national security. I believe that not supporting it is both short-sighted and foolish.

The future governors rightly claim that HSR will cost the states money in operating costs, perhaps in the low tens of millions per year, certainly not chump change. On the flip side there is this: once they reject the HUNDREDS of millions of dollars of federal money, it will be gone from them forever along with opportunities for new support industries, jobs and tax revenue. The money will be freed up and made available to other states to further along their own development of HSR. States such as Illinois are chomping at the bit to get it and the opportunities that it will provide.

Governors-elect, Walker, Kasich and Scott however are sticking to their guns, hell bent it seems to leave their states behind in the dust.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

PC-Good intentions gone bad?

The talk radio show host's schtick is to point out the absurdities of what we call PC or political correctness. Today's rave was the Remembrance Day parade in a town in England that banned rifles. He devoted nearly an hour to the subject.

It does seem rather absurd to prohibit the principal tool of the people you are commemorating. Some folks might be offended by the sight of guns but what the heck, that's what war is all about, or so the argument goes. With that I agree. It's foolish to honor men and women who have gone to war without acknowledging war itself. I also agree that political correctness has gone haywire, that in our attempts to avoid offending anyone at all costs, we are creating a society that is afraid to address anything.

But I don't believe it's "political correctness" per se, whatever that may be, that's at fault. The problem lies in the very human flaw of mistaking the letter of the law for the spirit of the law, something that goes back to biblical times and beyond. For millennia, the religious of all stripes have famously been guilty of being obsessed with the tiniest details of the laws of their faith while missing the bigger picture.

Catholics for example are made fun of for seemingly arbitrary customs such as abstaining from eating meat on Fridays. The purpose of the custom which is virtually as old as the Church itself, is filled with deep significance and is quite beautiful. It revolves around performing acts of penance through personal sacrifice, commemorating Friday, the day Jesus died on the Cross. Not eating specifically the flesh of animals reminds us of God's works of salvation, particularly bringing to mind the animals that accompanied Noah and his family on the Ark. All of this of course all in the name of giving thanks and praise to God. This somehow got lost in the translation and for centuries many Catholics dutifully followed the rule without understanding it, either having forgotten their third grade catechism, or simply not bothering to ask why. Fridays became all about finding a suitable substitute for meat rather than a day to reflect upon God's supreme sacrifice for us.

Religious law in all faiths works this way, dogma serves the greater purpose of bringing the believer closer to God. Without that, a law is utterly pointless. Yet so many believers focus only the law, and not the meaning behind the law.

I think the same can be said about political correctness. The very term conjures up notions of absolutism and dogma, which is why it has been whole-heatedly grasped, most often by those on the right, as an ironic and pejorative description of their left leaning adversaries.

The first time I heard the term used in conversation, it was not as a slam against the left. It was used by a left leaning friend who described (without any irony in the least), a political candidate as being "politically correct". That is to say, the candidate's positions were exactly the same as my friend's. I was immediately struck by the arrogance of the statement, he essentially said: "either you think my way, or you're an idiot." That arrogance is unfortunately quite pervasive on the left, especially among the highly educated.

Small wonder that those on the right have grasped the opportunity to mock the other side, in particular their dogmatic approach to so many aspects of society, especially education and speech. But if PC is indeed dogma, then as is the case with all dogma, it has at its core, significant meaning and substance. Many of its adherents have simply over-reached by grasping onto the trivial, while forgetting the important stuff.

To put it simply, at the core of PC, (a term I use grudgingly for lack of a better one), is the idea that people of every gender, race, age, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation, physical or mental limitation, religious belief, or lack of one, in short all human beings on this planet, deserve a fair shake. This very simple idea is one that has not been around for very long. We all know that in our own country, citizenship was limited at one time to male property owners. Slavery was officially abolished only after the costliest war in this nation's history in 1865. Women did not have the right to vote until 1920 and poll taxes were used in the South to discourage poor African Americans from voting until the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964 that forever banned the poll tax. Here as in the rest of world, hatred and intolerance based upon our differences, continue to contaminate society. Even genocide, something we foolishly thought was finished after the terrors of World War II, goes on to this day.

This idea of equal rights for all is not a left vs. right issue. Granted there are still people in society who proudly proclaim their intolerance of those of different races, genders, you name it. We call them racists, sexists, homophobes, the list goes on and on. These folks are for the most part on the fringes of society as they should be. It is not appropriate to speak in language that expresses and encourages hatred of others. I believe this to be right, appropriate, and by golly, correct.

Please note for the record that I said hate speech is and should always be considered inappropriate and unacceptable, but not illegal.

There are words that are unspeakable in every language. In the old days swear words referred to bodily functions or the sex act. The late comedian George Carlin based a popular routine around the "seven words you can't say on TV". Carlin's point was that it's really silly to single out words that cannot be said, after all, "they're just words."

But Carlin was wrong. Words are by far our most powerful tool, more powerful than any weapon. They have the power to shape lives, to inspire people to greatness and to despair, to inspire love and to inspire hate, to create and to destroy people as well as nations. Certain words in every language are reserved for the purpose of expressing unmitigated anger, to incite, to arouse or to disgust. They serve a very useful purpose (as we all know when we hit ourselves on the thumb with a hammer), when their use is limited.

Today you still can't say those seven words on broadcast TV. But in common language they are as ordinary as the air we breathe. As a result they have lost their edge, and by definition their very reason for existence.

I can think of only two words in the English language that rate as truly unspeakable. The mere utterance of these words marks the speaker as a vile lout, an unrepentant sexist, or worst of all a bigot. One is a disparaging word for African Americans, the other, a vulgar term for the vagina, used as a disparaging word for women. You know what they are. I'm guessing that were he alive today, even George Carlin wouldn't dare say those two words in public.

If political correctness has succeeded in making the worst words you can possibly utter out loud to be words that degrade people instead of the old time "potty mouth" language, I'd say that's a pretty good thing.

However in my opinion there is a huge distinction between hateful, degrading language and merely offensive language. That distinction seems to have been lost somewhere along the way.

As far as education is concerned, the movement described with derision as PC has opened up the eyes of educators to be more inclusive, to encourage the study of new ideas, thinkers and cultures that simply had not been on the map in the past.

This is a good thing too.

However...

The flip side to all this, what has made PC despised by traditional educators, is that some of its proponents in opening the door to a world of different cultures have ferociously slammed the door shut on their own culture, creating a new kind of selective education, an intellectual intolerance if you will.

The intolerance in a large portion of academia today is directed toward the works of the dreaded DWM, the dead white male. I dare say that Western Culture, both European and American, the culture that paved the way for democracy, civil rights, women's rights, for freedom of religion, freedom of the the press, freedom of speech, not to mention PC itself, is filled with these DWMs. That is certainly NOT to say that DWMs are solely responsible for all that is good about our society. Far from it, although they have played a part. Nor is it to say that all's well with the West, and the DWMs can claim more than their share in that as well.

But to throw some 2,500 years of collective knowledge out the window, as some universities have been doing, seems a little extreme in the least.

-

To those people who say that PC is ruining society I say this: "Get that bee out of your bonnet and don't get yourself all worked into a tizzy, everything's going to be ok."

The events of the sixties that gave birth to PC, namely the civil rights and women's rights movements, and the many other movements they inspired, are the step children of revolutions for the rights of individuals and against oppression that go back thousands of years. Every revolution begins with the shout: "off with the king's head." Gradually as the foot-soldiers of the revolution become more emboldened and convinced that they are more true to the cause than the next guy, they demand the heads of the king's petty officer, the king's barber, and anyone who may have ever met the king.

Inevitably however, at some point reason and common sense start to take over. We may not have reached that point in the PC revolution yet, but it is coming.

In a time when political consensus is difficult to achieve, all men and women of reason should still be able to grasp the core values of the revolution that has in part resulted in PC. Today it is difficult to argue against this truth that we hold to be self-evident, as found in Thomas Jefferson's words (with the critical exception of one), that all people are "created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Those were and are still revolutionary words indeed.

Fortunately no one lost their heads, in the literal sense at least, in the PC revolution. The Great Books are still in print and thank goodness there will always be talk radio hosts to let us know when we screw up.

Two Storefronts

I ate at this restaurant about 25 years ago and here it remains, one of the most beautiful storefronts in the city.

Apparently the lack of my business hasn't slowed them down a bit.

It sits right around the corner...
















...from this wonderful throwback, another long time favorite. They just don't make 'em like that anymore.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Joe Sterling

If there is a Chicago School of Photography, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind are its founding fathers. These two artists could not have had more different personalities but their photography and teaching styles fit together like hand and glove. In addition to their groundbreaking work, Harry and Aaron's legacy is their students at the Institute of Design, the school that began as the New Bauhaus after the famous school of architecture and design in Germany that was closed by the Nazis in 1933. Callahan taught at the ID from 1946 until 1961, and Siskind from 1951 to 1971. Many of their students are distinguished artists in their own right. Teachers as well, they leave behind their own students, who in turn carry on the tradition. In the photography community of Chicago, all roads eventually lead through the ID to Callahan and Siskind.

Last week our community lost one of its direct connections to Harry and Aaron, the photographer and teacher Joesph Sterling.

Joe may not be as familiar as some of his fellow ID alums, Barbara Crane, Joseph Jachna, Richard Nickel, Art Sinsabaugh, Ray Metzker, Ken Josephson, and Yasuhiro Ishimoto to name a few. But he created a body of work in one project that stands up to the best work of his peers, even that of his teachers.

The project began as his graduate thesis in 1959. It was titled: "Age of Adolescence." Now I must say the title is a little misleading. To me it implies an authoritative, universal and timeless look into the difficult teenage years, something akin to the massive endeavor that Edward Steichen produced at the same time for the Museum of Modern Art called "The Family of Man."

Sterling's pictures are anything but authoritative, timeless and universal. Joe's style and the appearance of his subjects speak to a very specific time and place, late fifties and early sixties Chicago. In the photographs, you'll find all the trappings of teenage life of the period: cars, dances, soda shops, ("I had to go where the kids were", Joe admits in his statement), greasers, cigarettes, (lots of them), acne, tight jeans, the combing of hair in public, (mostly guys), leather jackets, horsing around, bobby socks, and sexuality, some subtle, some not.

The book is arranged chronologically so we see the drastic change in fashion that defined the span of time the photographs were made, 1959 to 1964. Slicked back hair and white tee shirts with cigarette packs tucked in the sleeves give way to mop tops and suit jackets for the guys, teased hair without any discernible style to bouffants and pageboys for the girls.

That's as far as the stereotypes go. Sterling's subjects are not straight out of central casting, the images of teenagers we think of from TV from period pieces like "Leave it to Beaver" or the insipid characters from the nostalgia driven "Happy Days". Nor are they the equally contrived, rough and ready, live fast and die young, troubled anti-heros from the movies as portrayed by James Dean, or Marlon Brando in the film "The Wild One". There is nothing about Sterling's subjects that is remotely romantic or even particularly attractive for that matter. Unlike the iconic images of Dean and Brando, no advertising agency would bother to use one of Joe's pictures to sell jeans or cologne.

Joe's work like the man himself was honest and real. Looking at the pictures, one gets the sense that he was in tune with his subjects, maybe he was one of the subjects himself as he was just barely out of his teens when he made the work. At first Joe admits, he was painfully shy, especially around girls, and would only photograph his subjects from behind. Slowly as his confidence grew, he was able to work from an intimate distance to forge a working relationship with his subjects. Outside of the occasional image of Joe getting flipped the bird, there appears to be little self-consciousness or primping and posing as kids often do, trying to make themselves look good for the camera. Unflattering as some of the pictures may be, Joe in no way attempts to denigrate or make fun of his subjects. Joe's intent was not to editorialize or make a particular statement, just to show his subjects as they were. He succeeded brilliantly.

The work gained instant success, early versions of it were published in the national photographic publication Aperture in 1961. That same year Hugh Edwards gave Joe and four of his classmates, Josephson, Jachna, Metzker and Charles Swedlund (the group later to be known as the ID 5), an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2005 for the first time, the work was published in book form. David Travis, long time Curator of Photography at the AIC wrote the introduction.

In his wonderful essay, David describes in detail the milieu of the time in America particularly as it related to teenagers. As he describes it: "a rising tide of confused identity" of the fifties led to "a tidal wave of emotional upheaval" of the late sixties. Chicago was at a crossroads as well. Richard J. Daley, father of the current mayor, was still a new mayor with big projects on his mind. The expressways he just built would tear communities apart. It would not be long before the simmering bigotry of many white Chicagoans would boil over when Martin Luther King marched for fair housing through Cicero and Marquette Park. The riots that ensued after King's assassination exacerbated the phenomenon known as "white flight", where angry, fearful people left the city in droves for the suburbs via Daley's expressways. While this was all to occur in subsequent years, the time during which Sterling made his teenage pictures was by no means an age of innocence. In the fifties Chicago was not only segregated racially but also ethnically. It was still a time when a person was just as likely to identify him or herself with the local ethnic parish (whether the person was Catholic or not) rather than with a particular neighborhood. Sometimes being in the wrong parish/neighborhood at the wrong time, could result in serious bodily harm.

Like many of his classmates, as well as both Siskind and Callahan, Joe was not from Chicago, but he understood it completely. It's purely speculation but I think that coming from the rough and tumble border town of El Paso, Texas, literally a stone's throw from that most troubled of places, the city of Juarez, Mexico, prepared him for Chicago's crosscurrents of racial unrest and ethnic divides.

There is a dark undercurrent running through Joe's pictures. People of all races are to be found in Joe's book but seldom together in the same frame. When they are, there is hardly any interaction between them. On the cover of the book is a picture of three menacing young men confronting the camera. It is as if they are saying to Joe, and by de facto to us, "what the f... are you lookin' at?" Anyone who grew up in Chicago around that time would immediately recognize these guys as characters you wouldn't want to come across in the wrong place or time.

The first picture in the book is one of Joe's most famous. It's a half foreboding, half comical two page spread of a bunch of girls socializing in appropriate beach attire, lying in the sand of the North Avenue Beach. They seem completely oblivious to the two ominous male figures in the foreground standing directly above them, visible in the picture only from their butts down. They are completely clothed, wearing their best gangster duds, pointy toed, Cuban heeled shoes, black socks and tight black trousers. What the guys are doing there, its impossible to say. Joe himself was a little imposing physically, with his big frame and slicked back hair that he continued to wear long after it was fashionable. It's not too much of a stretch to think maybe those guys were stand-ins for him.

I knew Joe later in his life when the ID 5 would turn up to Institute of Design related openings and events. They were like the Traveling Wilburys of photography, a diverse band of characters whose members were at times interchangeable. There was the reclusive Swedlund, the dignified Ishimoto, the professorial Metzker, the irreverent Josephson, and the zen-like Jachna. Then there was Joe, the regular guy. Joe was the group's most stalwart member who hardly ever missed an event. While he could converse fluently in artspeak, one always got the impression that he'd rather just shoot the breeze. He was a good storyteller who'd relish telling the same stories over and over again, probably because he liked hearing them himself, especially the stories about Harry and Aaron. It was clear that Joe treasured those memories of the ID and of his mentors most of all. In his acknowledgments, Joe touchingly thanks his two sets of parents, his biological ones in Texas, and his adopted ones, Siskind and Callahan.

Joe had a successful career in commercial photography and taught at three of the major photography schools in town, the ID, the School of the Art Institute and Columbia College whose photography program he helped establish. Throughout his life he also continued to pursue his own personal work. I've heard that Joe at times expressed disappointment that his later work never got the attention of "Age of Adolescence." "They're only interested in the teenager pictures" he'd say.

I suppose that's the price of producing a work of genius early in one's career, look at Orson Welles after he made "Citizen Kane."

Joe's work can be viewed here on the website of his representative, the Steven Dater Gallery in Chicago at 230 West Superior. Do yourself a favor and go there to see his work in person.

Short of that, pick up a copy of "Age of Adolescence", you will not be disappointed.

Joe is survived by his wife Debbie. He is also survived by the rest of the ID 5 as well as many friends and admirers including myself. He will be missed.

Now I'll let Joe have the last word. This comes at the end of his artist's statement in "Age of Adolescence".

Way to go, Joe.

After hundreds of these encounters and adventures and thousands of images, I amassed an archive from which I was able to extract, define, and develop a coherent thesis. I have gone on to numerous other projects and challenges, but this body of work remains close to my heart, and not just because of the girls.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Another one bites the dust

Mayor Daley announced last week that, contrary to an earlier decision to spare the main building of the defunct Michael Reese Hospital, the historic 1907 landmark structure designed by Richard Schmidt and Hugh Garden will indeed be torn down. The primary reason for the reversal was the fact that the building has deteriorated beyond hope since its closing in 2008.

The sad story of the building's imminent demise can be found here on Blair Kamin's blog.

Lynn Becker in this scathing piece, bookends Michael Reese with the travesty of Block 37 in chronicling the current mayor's less than heroic destiny as protector of Chicago's legacy. There, if you remember, in 1989 an entire block in the heart of the Loop bounded by State, Washington, Dearborn and Randolph Streets was destroyed (save for a Com Ed substation) for a speculative project that fell apart not long after the wrecking crews finished their work. Among the victims was an official city landmark, the 1872 McCarthy Building, a should have been landmark, the 1890 Unity Building, and several other notable if not landmark buildings. The block remained undeveloped until 2005 when ground was broken for the current travesty that occupies the entire block.

During the fifteen years that Block 37 stood empty, it hosted a number of public activities including an ice skating rink and the Christkindlmarkt in winter, and numerous events devoted to arts education in the summer. As an open space it provided a spectacular vista of the buildings on State, Randolph and Washington Streets. As an empty lot in my opinion anyway, Block 37 was vastly superior to the current waste of steel and glass that replaced it.

To be fair to Mayor Daley, the original Block 37 project, including the de-landmarking of the McCarthy Building, was initiated under Mayor Washington's administration as Becker points out. The promise to bolster the city's economy with the infusion of millions in tax dollars and the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs from the ill-fated project, must have seemed at the time to be a no-brainer. But with twenty-twenty hindsight, the contrast of what could have been given the high quality of the buildings that once occupied the site, and the lack of quality of what what we have now, is most depressing.

By contrast the mayor cannot escape responsibility for what's going on now at the former Michael Reese campus. The idea to raise the defunct hospital was originated when its campus was proposed as the site for the Olympic Village for the proposed 2016 Games. Demolition began before the International Olympic Committee voted Rio de Janeiro to host the Games. In lieu of the Olympic Village, the city remained committed to clearing the site for "future development."

In addition to the main building, the campus consisted of several impressive Modernist buildings by Walter Gropius, as well as beautiful landscape work designed by Hideo Sasaki and Lester Collins which you can find documented here. Losing the Gropius buildings is a particular shame as they represent the esteemed architect's only extant work in Chicago. And while Schmidt's and Garden's buildings still grace the city, the Chapin and Gore Building on Adams Street just west of the Art Institute being a prime example of their firm's elegance and style, the loss of the Reese Main Building will be a major loss to not only Chicago's architectural legacy, but its historical legacy as well.

Becker's comparison of Block 37 to Michael Reese is apt considering that any future development at the site needs to be looked at as a 50/50 proposition at best given the current economic climate, even more doubtful than development at Block 37 was in 1989. When and if any new construction ever takes place at the site, it is almost certain that it will not measure up to what will have been wantonly destroyed.

It seems that we continue to fail to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Such a pity.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

You think this was bad...

The passing over the weekend of Ted Sorensen, coming on the heels of the current election cycle begs obvious comparisons between the politics of the past and the politics of today. Sorensen was best known as one of President Kennedy's chief aids as well as the speechwriter responsible for some of the most memorable, eloquent and poetic phrases in the annals of U.S. political history. From Kennedy's inaugural address, Sorenson is responsible for this:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

And of course, this:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Refreshing isn't it to read after listening to politicians with little or no vision of their own resorting to the most viscous attacks on their opponents for the past six months.

Every year the pundits and public alike decry that campaigns get dirtier and dirtier and politicians wring their hands and say something must be done to stop this. Then comes another election cycle and more of the same.

By far the most atrocious ad that I heard this year was one that urged voters not to approve the retention of Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. In the ad, actors read first person accounts of criminals recounting their crimes. One began: "I sexually assaulted a woman and her daughter, slit their throats and burned them..." It then continued: "...but Judge Kilbride let me off." The ad was sponsored by a special interest group that opposed the judge's rulings on placing caps on malpractice suits, but apparently felt that this angle was more likely to get voters' attention.

It turned out that Justice Kilbride won another term to the state's highest court, but only after waging what turned out to be the most expensive campaign for that post in the state's history. He won with 65 percent of the votes in the affirmative, (he needed 60 percent). One can only assume that many of the the 35 percent who cast no votes (an unusually high number) were influenced by that ad.

The fact is that ads that play on people's fears, despicable as they are, work. Who can forget Willy Horton?




Or this, perhaps the most shamefully manipulative, and effective political ad ever.

Lyndon Johnson won that election by a landslide, thereby sparing the little daisy girl and the rest of us from Armageddon.

Attack ads have been with us since the beginning. Looking at some of the mud that was slung during 19th Century campaigns makes today's political discourse look like an afternoon social.

What I find startling in reading Kennedy's speech so beautifully crafted by Sorensen, is the call to commitment and sacrifice that stands in marked contrast to what we typically hear from office seekers of today.

The utter self-interest that has dominated the current election season is appalling and disheartening to me. Certainly no one wants to pay higher taxes, especially during tough economic times. It seems inconceivable however that higher taxes are not in our future as the government, especially at the state level, is fast becoming insolvent. Yet I can think of only one candidate in Illinois at least, who openly admitted this in his campaign.

No, the current mantra is "lower taxes and cut spending." This is music to the ears of much of another generation, born after depression and war, tempered at least until recently by prosperity and as a result, lacks discipline, is practically ignorant of its heritage, and is more than willing to let go of hard fought human rights that it feels do not directly concern it.

Well let's see, where do we cut the spending? How about education. People without kids have always griped about having to pay for others' kids' education. Never mind that children whether they're ours or not are our future.

What about public transportation? Folks who drive everywhere continually moan about paying for transportation they don't use, conveniently forgetting that infrastructure that allows them to drive their cars also costs a lot of money. Then how about cutting spending on roads? No way!

Security and defense cuts are OK for some until something terrible happens and then comes the universal cry: "why didn't we do anything to prevent it!"

One of the most appalling suggestions that has been bandied about frequently in the "let's cut the budget" ads has been to cut the pensions of state workers. People working in the public sector have been getting a bad rap lately and this message resounds with the anti-government crowd.

Of course if anyone suggested cutting the pensions that they themselves worked so hard for so many years to accumulate, the anti-govs would cry bloody murder.

And so it goes, "balance the budget, cut the stuff I don't need, and whatever you do, don't raise my taxes", is the rallying cry of a growing segment of the population whose political power appears to be gaining momentum.

It gives me pause to reflect on the words of that tremendous speech delivered almost fifty years ago. They inspire us to greater heights through hope and promise by encouraging us to work together for the greater good of the world, not just for ourselves.

One "sound bite" comes particularly to mind that stands chillingly in contrast to the muck we've been thrown in the past few months:

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. (emphasis mine)

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

I think those are good words to reflect upon today, cleansing our pallets after months of empty promises, lies, accusations, disinformation, and if I dare say it, an all out fear and hatred of those with different opinions.

For those of us who are particularly appalled and relieved that the election is over, all I can say is this: just wait a few months when the arduous presidential campaign begins in earnest.

In the words of Al Jolson:

Folks, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

World class mumbo jumbo

I stick by my assertion that any city that takes great pains to point out its qualifications as a "world class city" isn't a world class city. Yet this small post by Aaron Renn and more significantly the numerous comments it generated, is an interesting study of Chicago, its strengths, and its viability.

Funny, where else would you see leader in freight transportation (comment #2) as a qualification for world classiness?

Brilliant.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Things change

It was a blustery bike ride home this evening. I had to go out of my way to run an errand and in doing so decided to take the opportunity to take a different route home. I had no idea that this little divergence from the routine would make my life flash before my eyes.

Ok not really flash, as it might for someone crossing railroad tracks and realizing that a speeding train is just a few feet away. Rather I should say episodes of my life slowly revealed themselves to me like the peeling away of the layers of an onion.

Autumn is after all the time of contemplation, the falling leaves and first brisk winds of the season remind us that things change, that the life we have settled into will someday disappear, that nothing ever stays the same. My contemplative spirit began earlier in the day when I paid a visit to a camera store in the Loop where I went to buy developer for some film that I shot last week while on a much needed one week "stay-cation" from work.

It had been a long time, shooting film that is, and paying a visit to one of my favorite locations in the Loop, that venerable old shop, set the tone for what was to come. The store which was once a beehive of activity was today, as it is most of the time now, quiet as a tomb. The shelves that were one time stocked to overflowing with at least ten different brands of photographic papers were practically barren save for one shelf. The film counter, with its once steady stream of customers was deserted, even the salespeople at the camera counter had only each other to talk to.

The errand I mentioned earlier was to drop off color film at a lab which once proudly occupied several floors of a building in the trendy River North. Gradually they took up less and less space in that building and ended up in the basement. A couple of years ago they left altogether to cheaper digs in the less glamorous West Loop. Necessity forced them to branch out in other directions and now frames and other bric-a-brac related to the display of photographs dominate their customer area. It was a lesson of survival actually, either adapt, or give up the ghost.

As I was in the West Loop, instead of heading home my normal way along the relative serenity of the bike path along the lake, I decided to take the direct route up Desplaines and Halsted Streets. Serene they were not, the streets were torn to shreds and filled with rush hour traffic. The snarly urban landscape of this route, was dotted with signs of a working city, factories, warehouses, railroad tracks. But now sprinkled in between is a college, a huge grocery store, and condominiums. Even the old chocolate factory whose wonderful smell (which the company was forced to eradicate by the EPA) once permeated the neighborhood, now houses a retail shop.

The notorious housing project Cabrini Green is all but gone as is the old Ogden Avenue overpass that provided a startlingly surreal view of the projects to the east and Goose Island to the west. Gone as well are the hookers that used to ply their trade 24 hours a day in front of the old Proctor and Gamble factory and Meister Braü brewery on North Avenue. Once upon a time, those in the know knew that the best place to buy wine in the city was in the basement of a dilapidated liquor store on North and Halsted owned by a guy named Sam. While the clientele upstairs consisted of derelicts buying pints of Jim Beam and Thunderbird, downstairs you'd find the highest of the high browed wine connoisseurs on the north side schlepping around cases of Chateau Lafite Rothschild in the musty, cramped basement. Sam eventually became respectable and moved into the old brewery which became the impetus for the development of an upscale strip mall which in turn inspired much of the turnaround of the neighborhood. He later moved his business into a warehouse the size of an airplane hangar a block away .

It hit me as I passed the brand new Apple Store on North and Clybourn, kitty corner from where Sam's used to be. "Where is Potsdamer Platz" the old man in the great Wim Wenders film "Wings of Desire" says as he walks though a barren landscape strewn with rubble and absolutely no sign of the marvelous neighborhood that once stood there. By contrast, the desolation in this area that I had grown accustomed to (and quietly loved) was gone. What was once one of the grittiest areas of the city, on the north side at least, had swung around 180 degrees. It is now dare I say, warm and cuddly.

And so it went pedaling up Halsted and later Broadway, bits and pieces of my past, old hangouts, some that have gone and some that remain, memories of people long departed from my life, events, some significant, and others hardly worth a mention, all passed before my eyes as the sky grew darker and the cold wind buffeted my face.

The funny thing about living in the same city your entire life is that although virtually your whole existence is contained in that one place, you can easily avoid the past as the city and the people who pass through it, like the waters of a river, continuously change.

Yet today for some reason the accumulation of a lifetime of experiences along that route I seldom take anymore was overwhelming. It was as if I had been thrust upon an epic (if I dare use that word) retelling of my life.

What a long strange trip it was.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chicago 1943

Today I've been looking on line at pictures of Chicago from the 1940's and this one immediately caught my eye. It's of the interior of the late-great concourse of Union Station, looking pretty much as I remember it from my youth in the sixties, dramatic beams of light and all.

Wouldn't you know it, the picture was made for the Farm Securities Administration by none other than Jack Delano, the photographer who made the great images of the Michigan Avenue Skyline which was at the time dominated by an enormous Pabst Blue Ribbon sign.

The pre-eminent scholar of the Chicago School of Architecture, Carl W. Condit, considered this to be one of Chicago's best interiors and one could say that the comparison between those pictures and this one is a trip from the ridiculous to the sublime.