Thursday, July 29, 2010

1810 W. Cortland

So here it stands today, the center of a landmarks controversy of sorts, the former home of the photographer and preservationist Richard Nickel. I decided to make the pilgrimage after I picked up my wife from work about a mile away. Last week I wrote a post about an article in "Time Out Chicago" which balked at the idea that the building was worthy of landmark status.

I've been thinking a lot about Nickel lately as we've recently installed an exhibition at the Art Institute of his photographs along with those Aaron Siskind and John Szarkowski, all dealing with the architecture of Louis Sullivan.

Of the three photographers it was Nickel who devoted his life to the single minded pursuit of documenting Sullivan buildings as they disappeared at a horrifying rate during his twenty plus year career. In 1972 while he was in the process of recovering fragments from the Old Stock Exchange Building during its demolition, he was killed as the building collapsed around him.

His life is chronicled in Richard Cahan's excellent book; "They All Fall Down; Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture".

According to Cahan, Nickel was a difficult, irascible perfectionist. His character on the one hand enabled him to set his focus narrowly on the subject of Sullivan, but his perfectionism prevented him from following through on his most ambitious project, a book that was to be a compendium of the complete work of the Master. The book was begun while Nickel was under the tutelage of Siskind at the Institute of Design in 1953, and remained unfinished at the time of his death.

His character also resulted in a tumultuous life, never financially secure, couldn't hold down a job or a relationship, he was constantly reckless and depressed. Nickel's depression no doubt was exacerbated by the fact that the subject of his work was literally turned to dust before his eyes. This is the stuff of the quintessential artist melodrama and it would have made for a good movie. An alternate title for Cahan's book could have been: "The Agony and the Agony."

That said, Nickel's work was sublime. In his endless passion for the work of Sullivan, he developed such a comprehensive understanding of the Master, it was almost as if the two had become one. Nickel documented Sullivan's works not only with a camera, he also drew up scrupulously detailed plans of doomed buildings and removed whatever he could of Sullivan's magnificent ornament. The fruits of his work are virtually all that remains today of the bulk of Louis Sullivan's work.

Nickel was more of an advocate for Sullivan's buildings than Sullivan himself.

Here is a quote from Sullivan's "Kindergarten Chats" that Rich Cahan reproduced in his biography of Nickel:

And decay proceeds as inevitably as growth, function is declined, structures, disintegrate, differentiation is blurred, the fabric dissolves, life disappears, time engulfed. The eternal life falls.

Out of oblivion into oblivion, so go the drama of creative things.

Those exact words were read as testimony in favor of destroying the Stock Exchange Building in a 1970 hearing before the Landmarks Commission.

Nickel bought the Cortland St. building that housed a bakery, remembered fondly by long time residents of the neighborhood as the "Punchki Bakery", in its storefront in 1969 for $7,500 after an exhaustive search. The building is in Bucktown, only a few miles from Nickel's childhood home in Logan Square. Moving into the midst of an old Polish neighborhood, catty-cornered from the magnificent Polish Cathedral style St. Mary of the Angels Church, Nickel was returning to his own heritage and he called the house his "Polish Palazzo."

It is an attractive Italianate Style building, built the same year as the Auditorium Building. It's a vernacular building that proudly announces its place in the world with its original name, Grims Building, prominently spelled out in abbreviated form on the frieze. Nickel loved the little touches of detail which grace the storefront.

Nickel spent an enormous amount of time reconfiguring the house to suit his needs. He and his friend and some-time collaborator, the architect John Vinci, drew up plans and executed the rear wall of the building to replace the bakery section of the building. Again, Nickel's perfectionism got in the way, he never completely moved into it, living for the most part with his parents in suburban Park Ridge. His work on the building also remained unfinished at the time of his death.

For many years the building served as the studio for the portrait photographer Mark Houser.

In 2009 when the owner of the adjacent property to the east purchased the property, Preservation Chicago, a citizen's advocacy group, included the building on its list of the seven most endangered buildings in Chicago. The owner then made a deal with the Chicago Landmarks Commission agreeing not to challenge landmarks status for the facade in exchange for a construction permit to alter the rest of the building.

The house has been gutted down to the beams and joists, the back wall that Nickel and Vinci built is gone, and as you can see from this snapshot taken from the alley, even the honey locust tree that Nickel planted in the backyard has disappeared. All that's left of the structure are the outside walls and the facade.

This begs the valid question, is this house worthy of landmark status as virtually nothing is left of Nickel's work?

There are seven requirements for landmark status in Chicago, and at least two of need to apply in order for a building to become a landmark. The seven are listed in this post on Lynn Becker's blog.

Preservation Chicago claims that three necessary criteria for landmark status apply to the Nickel house, although they don't say which three in their web site.

Here are three requirements that I believe the house fulfills:

1) Identification with a significant person: Richard Nickel's life and work was devoted to the preservation and documentation of the work of not only Sullivan, but to the rest of the significant architects of Chicago. He created a body of work that not only showed the city as it once was, but created a unique and cohesive vision. Nickel is in his own right, one of our city's most significant artists.

2) Critical part of the city's heritage: Nickel's life and death brought public attention to the importance of this city's architectural heritage. While he in no way constituted the entire preservation movement, he became the public face of it. In addition, without Nickel's steadfast devotion to the documentation of the work of Sullivan and others, much of the heritage of the Chicago School of Architecture would be lost forever.

I would say that last sentence speaks for itself. But to convince those who see architecture only as a disposable commodity, let us consider the unquestionable fact that Chicago's architectural legacy brings business to this city. Look at every tourist brochure, every ad, every enticement to come here, and you will see, hear or read some reference to the city's great architecture. People come to Chicago from all over the world to see the work of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. At best this is practical thinking, at worst cynical, but it is a fact worth noting that our great buildings are our golden goose that we would be terribly foolish to squander. And Richard Nickel is at least partly responsible for that phenomenon.

Every city worth its salt takes pains to address its history. One can't walk a few dozen steps through London, Paris or Berlin without stumbling upon some reminder of what happened on a particular site decades or even centuries ago. In our own country, New York City has landmarks ordinances that put ours to shame.

3) The home in question is a terrific example of late 19th Century storefront architecture, a style that is typically not protected and is disappearing throughout the city. This would probably fall under the Unique visual feature category. In a neighborhood that has seen a great deal of development over the years with a mish-mash of styles being employed, the house I believe is worth saving for this reason alone. Contrary to opinions expressed by the author of the "Time Out Chicago" piece, the building is not "drab" at all, as are many of its neighbors. Even in a state of reconstruction, with its orange face brick and the splendid detail work on the cornice and around the windows, the house is a gem.

I think that were he alive today Richard Nickel, would find delicious irony in the fact that people were willing to fight tooth and nail over his modest little home, when in his day he witnessed the destruction of some of the greatest buildings ever built.

As for singling out only the facade for landmark status, I would say that it makes sense in this case. Richard Nickel significantly altered the building when he converted it from a bakery to exclusively a residence. The facade remains the only historically significant part of the building. True it would have been nice to leave the building preserved as Nickel left it, but one can only assume that subsequent owners changed it as well in the last 38 years. Short of the city buying the property and converting the house into a Richard Nickel museum, a highly unlikely scenario indeed, I think it's a good thing that the current owner and the Landmarks Commission worked out an arrangement that benefitted all parties. It was a compromise to be sure but given the fact that this building was admittedly not a slam dunk candidate for landmark status, I think everyone came out ahead in the end.

The preservation of our history doesn't impede progress in the least. In front of the Landmarks Commission, testifying against the demolition of the Stock Exchange Building, preservation activist Thomas Stauffer said:

Progress does not consist of starting over at every sunrise. Progress consists of the accumulation of achievements.

That, in a nutshell is what great cities are all about.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Jack Jaffe

Twenty five years ago I was working on a self directed project photographing the "Region", the neighborhoods that surround the oil refineries and moribund steel industry of Northwest Indiana and the Southeast side of Chicago. I got a call from Ken Burkhart who at the time was the photography curator at the Chicago Cultural Center. He asked if I'd be interested in being a part of a project whose working title was the "Rust Belt Project" which was to be sponsored by the Focus/Infinity Fund of Chicago. The founder and director of the Fund was Jack Jaffe who grew up and continued to live at the time in the Region.

Being paid for something I was doing anyway was an offer too good to refuse. I met Ken and Jack at the Fund's office which was in one of the penthouses of the new Booth Hansen Building at 320 North Michigan Avenue. There was a muffin shop in the lobby back then and the smell of the baking treats permeated that building so much so that whenever I encounter that aroma, I think back to those days, and to Jack who passed away last week.

But I digress. Having never met Jack, the only thing I knew about him was that he was on the Photography Committee at the Art Institute, and that he was the owner and founder of Car-X Mufflers. He sold the business and used much of the proceeds to start the Fund. I was a little intimidated at first by the setting, an apartment with one of the most spectacular views of Michigan Avenue, and by meeting a guy whom I assumed to have had more money than God. But Jack was completely disarming. A magnificent (teddy) bear of a man, full beard, a deep, robust, gravelly voice and a warm, firm handshake, Jack, casually dressed as always, immediately treated me as if I had been an old friend. Other than the small Car-X plaque that hung from a wooden sea gull mobile, he never made reference to the car business in all the years I knew him. That's because Jack's passion first and foremost was photography.

The photography that Jack was interested in was documentary, the kind of work that spoke of people's lives and told their stories. He loved Lewis Hine, Dorthea Lange, the New York Photo League, Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson among others. That is to say, work that speaks to the heart and soul. Jack loved people and he loved pictures of people.

Ironically, Ken sent him two photographers, Bob Thall and me, who did not photograph people. We had both spent a considerable time photographing the Region and I can only assume that was why we were chosen. Our job from the outset was to take fifteen photographs apiece that would constitute a proposal for the Fund's first project. Bob was already an established photographer and Jack knew there was little point in trying to influence his work. But in conversation with the both of us he asked, "couldn't you just set up your tripods and click the shutter when a someone walks by?." I was perfectly happy to oblige. Jack's influence I must say opened up a whole new world to my work.

Ultimately the Rust Belt Project turned into a much different project. The title of the new project was borrowed from a body of work made by the great Berenice Abbott called "Changing New York". "Changing Chicago" was in part modeled after the Depression era Farm Securities Administration project that documented the Dust Belt in America in the Thirties. Jack was to be the Roy Stryker of the project.

Thirty three photographers of various styles and motives participated resulting in a city wide documentary project that explored various aspects of life in the city and its environs. The project was exhibited concurrently in the city's major museums, and a book was published with the same title. In his preface to the book Jack described what was essentially his raison d'ĂȘtre. He wrote:
"We are told that a whole generation of photographers - the so called me generation- want to create artistic pictures but have no interest in what photography does best: tell us about the human condition."
Jack sought to prove that assumption wrong.

Although Jack was the manager of the Changing Chicago Project I suspect he truly would have been happier as one of the photographers. He was a terrific photographer in his own right, he knew how to tell a story and how to relate to his subjects. I suppose, being the guy that held the purse strings, he felt it might have been a conflict of interest to participate as a photographer, or that people may have thought the project one of vanity. But in retrospect, it is a pity that he didn't participate.

During his years as "a businessman", Jack found time to be a working photojournalist as well. He once showed me an old Look magazine whose cover had a picture of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 waving to a crowd from an open car. He told me to look closely at the windshield of the car which reflected the press photographers in the car ahead. Sure enough, among those photographers, clear as day, there was Jack, shooting away on his old Nikon F1.

Jack also covered Richard Hatcher's successful campaign to become mayor of Gary, Indiana, among other significant events of the time.

The Focus/Infinity Fund that Jack founded supported many of our projects in the photographic community as well as those of film makers and other artists. Here you will find Jack's CV as both an artist and champion of the arts.

In his later years Jack withdrew from the Fund and put more energy into his own photography. He and his wife Naomi, who is also an artist, purchased a home in Montana where he could pursue his second passion, fly fishing. He bought a Widelux panorama camera and made his first landscape photographs, while Naomi worked on her ceramics.

At our Photography Committee meetings, we'd usually sit together while the curators and high rollers on the committee would congregate at the adult's table. We were kindred spirits of sorts, at least about art and photography, giving each other the raised eyebrow whenever some inscrutable work of art was presented by a curator who would take pains to try to explain it.

Jack was a tough guy. After one shake of his hand you knew immediately that he was not unaccustomed to hard work. He'd always greet me with a bear hug. He once pointed out to me the Cancer Survivor's Garden that was built across Randolph Street from his home. "That's me" he proudly said of it. During a trip to Brazil a few years back, Jack contracted malaria. One day when he was still running the Fund, he was attacked while parking his car in the alley behind the Michigan Avenue building, and was beaten up pretty badly.

All this happened during his so called "Golden Years."

But the compassion for his fellow man and the fire inside of him never diminished. He was generous, funny, and impassioned, a gentleman and a mensch. About a month ago I saw Jack at a meeting where he told me that he was undergoing treatment for his third bout with cancer. Yet he was filled with as much spirit as ever. In a strained but still strong voice he spoke to the committee about his relationship with the Japanese photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto. As we said goodbye, again with a huge bear hug, I was concerned for him but the thought that this might be the last time I would see him honestly never crossed my mind. He was a survivor and I was shocked when I heard the news that he was gone.

Jack was my friend, colleague, and mentor. I will forever be indebted to him for his support of my work, but also for his warmth, camaraderie and his insight.

He had so many proud moments in his life but I never saw him so happy as when he learned that my former boss David Travis hung one of his photographs right next to a picture by Cartier-Bresson in an exhibit at the Art Institute. During that exhibition, Jack became one of the regulars, always with one friend or other by his side, sharing a treasured moment of glory. Ironically Jack died on the eve of our current Cartier-Bresson retrospective. It's too bad, he would have loved the show.

Of all his accomplishments, he would have been enormously proud of the headline above his obituary in the Chicago Tribune that summed up what he felt was significant in his life. It read simply: "Photographer loved Chicago, sharing craft."

Jack leaves behind a strong legacy. Most important of course is his family, his children, and grandchildren as well as Naomi and her children. He leaves behind a marvelous body of work, and the work of others that he made possible. And he leaves behind all of us who are tremendously blessed in having known the man, his work and his passion.

Jack's was truly a wonderful life.

There will be a memorial for Jack on Saturday, August 21st. Details can be found here.

A note on the pictures:

The picture at the top is Jack posing as a somewhat upscale drifter in my sendup of Richard Avedon's "Portraits of the American West", c. 1986.

On the bottom is Naomi and Jack meeting our son Theo in 2001.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The birth of the skyscraper

Where was the first skyscraper built? In Chicago of course we claim it was here.

Structurally a skyscraper is often defined as a building whose floors and exterior walls are suspended by a steel skeleton, instead of the walls supporting themselves from the ground up. Tall buildings were already being built with load bearing walls. Chicago's Monadnock Building, one of the tallest, was at the practical limit of that technology. The steel skeleton provided the means by which a building's height was virtually unlimited. While there is some debate about this, William Le Baron Jenny's Home Insurance Building, built in 1885 at La Salle and Adams, is usually credited with being the first building constructed in this manner. Therefore it is considered, in Chicago anyway to be the first skyscraper.

There is however another technology without which tall buildings would have been entirely unthinkable. That of course is the elevator. It was possible to build eight and ten story buildings before the elevator's invention, but obviously few people would have relished the idea of climbing ten flights of stairs to work. The first office building to be built with a passenger elevator was the Equitable Life Building in Lower Manhattan, completed in 1870. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers consider this to be the first skyscraper.

Now thanks to Chicago Magazine's list of the "top forty words" coined in Chicago (and to Pete Andersen's great blog Pete Lit for sending me there), coming in at number two, here is the first time the word skyscraper was used in print to refer to buildings:

“The ‘sky-scrapers’ of Chicago outrival anything of their kind in the world”

as published in Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper in 1888.

So the invention of the skyscraper may or not belong to us, but the word certainly does.

Take that New York!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A case for the taking the bus...

...from the Urbanophile.

I used to love to take the bus. When I lived in Oak Park, I'd often walk from the Loop to North Avenue and take the #64 bus all the way home rather than take the L. The whole commute would take about 2.5 hours but I found the walk plus the ride with its cast of characters inspiring and exhilarating.

As a child, taking the bus was one of the joys in my life. My mother and I would regularly take the Armitage electric trolley bus to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Back then in addition to everything bus drivers do today, the driver would have to make change and punch transfers. I remember the mountain of chads at the feet of the driver by the time we got to our destination. Occasionally the trollies would jump off the overhead wires and the driver would have to get out of the bus and realign them. I'd always sit in the front seat if it was available and if I was lucky, get to talk to the driver.

On our yearly vacations to Milwaukee, my grandparents and I would hop on the first bus that came along and ride to the end of the line and back. It was a fun kind of roulette because we never knew exactly where we would end up. The drivers were almost always friendly and went out of their way to accommodate us.

But alas there's no time in my life anymore for such frivolity. Today I do almost anything to avoid taking the bus. Busses are just too few and far between, much of the time I feel as if I can get there faster by walking. Even when I do manage to catch a bus, I'm constantly fidgeting. A few weeks ago I needed to get from Hyde Park on the south side to Warren Park on the far north side for my son's baseball game. The ride involved three transfers, a bus to a train to another train to a bus. The first three rides covered 20 miles in about 50 minutes. The last bus ride, a 2 mile trip, took 30 minutes.

Busses are clearly a much quicker fix for a city's transportation needs than light rail which is extravagantly more expensive to build and maintain. Plus, light rail systems are subject to most of the same traffic problems as busses. Perhaps bus only lanes or certain streets reserved for bus traffic during rush hour would help. Bus stops spread further apart and bus friendly timed traffic lights would reduce the frequency of stops.

Contrary to what was written in the linked article, the cool factor will always heavily favor light rail (streetcars as they used to call them) over busses. And that will certainly help lure people from their automobiles.

It's time to get creative, I see the future of transportation in Chicago and other like minded cities involving an expansion of the combination of innovative rail, light rail and bus systems, perhaps to the detriment of amenities for drivers.

Which will be a good thing in the long run. Maybe then I'll gladly hop on the bus again.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Spring Garden

A terrific and exhaustive photographic document of the Pittsburgh neighborhood Spring Garden can be found here on the Skyscraper Forum site.

I have dreams of such places, a little bit of a cross between the worlds of Theodore Dreiser and Franz Kafka.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Annals of the game...

The season that began with promise four months ago has ended for the Warrren Park Cardinals. What was to have been our first playoff game disappointingly ended before it began as we had to for the only time this season, forfeit the game because we couldn't field the minimum eight players. The kids did get to play a game for fun with two of the Red Sox players subbing for our no shows. We ended up losing a very tight game making everyone wonder what might have been had we been able to field a complete team.

Yet the promises of having fun, of learning a wonderful game, of bonding friendships, of teamwork and sportsmanship have all been fulfilled.

And to top it all off, the Cardinals even won a few marvelous games, four to be exact. Winning isn't everything but not winning at all would not be much fun at all. That is what almost happened to the Mets this season. Until they played us that is. I have mixed feelings about our defeat, our guys didn't play very well, I didn't coach well, and most of all, the Mets played great. They deserved to win and we deserved to lose. The absolute joy on the faces of the Mets kids (and parents) on the other side made our loss tolerable.

As for my boy Theo, well he's been in a bit of a slump. He was going gangbusters during the first half of the season culminating in his great performance with his first home run and his first save. But we've been working on some bad habits at the plate which, while they didn't prevent him from being an good hitter at the beginning of the year, would hinder him in the future. Now thanks to our coaching, he's become self conscious of these little problems, and consequently is struggling with the bat.

Where he once swung with gusto at pitches way out of the strike zone, he's taken to watching almost every pitch go by. In the game against the Red Sox, their pitchers struggled for control, Theo was out twice to end the inning on called three strikes. Then in his last at bat, again bases loaded with two outs, he got a squib hit beating out the pitcher's throw to first by sheer hustle. That combined with a spectacular relay throw from short to Andrew at third for an out plus a few other good plays in the field, made his final appearance for the this year's Cardinals a positive one.

Other kids on our team had good games as well, Liam made a terrific diving catch of a fly ball in right field, Andrew hit a couple of doubles and a triple, and everybody got on base at least once by virtue of walks if not hits. Thomas who spent all year batting last, batted in the five hole and even got to pitch one inning. He walked three then gave up a grand slam but before the fifth run was able to score to end the inning, he managed to get three outs, the third by strike out.

Quite honestly I can't say who had more fun this season, Theo or me. A few of the parents razzed me a bit for my over-zealousness. While they spent practices and games in their lawn chairs socializing, I took it upon myself to be self-appointed coach, filling in where I thought I could be useful while trying my best not to over-step my bounds, and keeping my big mouth shut where necessary. I'd always be there, glove ready, to help warm up players, or the pitcher between innings while the catcher donned his "tools of ignorance." Or I'd be filling in with the bat at infield practice while the real coaches were busy with other things.

Like most kids I dreamed of being a big leaguer one day but most of my diamond exploits were played in my head. I never had the opportunity to play Little League but did play a little ball in my day, mostly 16" softball. So to answer the obvious question, am I living vicariously through my son's fledgling baseball career, the answer is obviously, yes.

Pathetic? Perhaps. But I've learned something very valuable this summer. There are folks that think of sports as frivolous entertainment. At best they are diversions from the mundane realities of life, at worst a tremendous waste of time. Yet since my boy has become obsessed with sports, he and I have never been closer. We've played hockey, football, and soccer together as my father and I once did. We shared the Bears' up and down season, the Super Bowl from across the sea, the World Cup and the magnificent Stanley Cup season. Baseball which was his entry into sports just last year has become his true passion. Mine as well now. The Cubs are still his team but he will gladly root for the White Sox who gave him several autographs and the opportunity to run the bases in their infield during Kid's Day at the ballpark a couple of weeks ago.

Perhaps the most fulfilling moment came last week when the family went up to visit the in-laws in Wisconsin. I couldn't go because of a work obligation. Normally we'd take our gloves and bats up to there to play with Theo's grandpa and uncle. When they got back I asked him if he played any ball up there. He said: "no, it's just not as much fun without you."

It's something I might have said to my dad forty years ago.

The circle remains unbroken. I can't wait until next year.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two points of view

Yesterday I stumbled upon two iconoclastic articles about Chicago architecture, both a little surprising and refreshing in their candor. The tone of each piece is crystal clear from the first sentence.

The first began like this:

"Much modern architecture has grown tiresome to me."

Wow. Chicago architecture boosters love to boast about this city being the birthplace of modern architecture. One hundred fifty years of innovation and struggle only to be summed up in those seven words.

And this is how the second article began:

"No doubt Louis Sullivan made a beautiful building or two in his lifetime."

Ouch. My contrarian personality has to admire the chutzpah of a Chicago writer lavishing such faint praise on Louis Sullivan. It would be like an Italian writing: "Verdi no doubt wrote a few catchy tunes."

The first piece was by Roger Ebert. I've always marveled at Ebert's keen sense of observation and this piece is no exception. He makes the point that to him one of the failures of Modern architecture is that it doesn't speak to history and to the time it was made. More than fifty years after Mies' first Chicago buildings were built, they continue to seem new to him, in Ebert's words, "they seem helplessly captive to the present."

This obviously is not a problem for Madeline Nusser, a staff writer for Time Out Chicago. Her article titled "Sullivan Sullied" asks the question: "is our obsession with the past ruining Chicago's cityscape?"

Obviously neither of these opinions will be heard on any Chicago Architecture Foundation tour.

Nusser's piece was written in response to the two major Louis Sullivan exhibitions in town, "Louis Sullivan's Idea" at the Cultural Center and "Looking after Louis Sullivan" at the Art Institute. She feels that after "the city celebrated Sullivan’s 150th birthday in 2006 with a deluge of activities," all this attention to the architect amounts to hagiography, the "sanctification of his work."

It is certainly true that Sullivan is revered in Chicago more now than ever, more even than during the zenith of his career. Nusser is probably correct in her assertion that the adulation may be a bit overblown. After all, Sullivan's influence on subsequent generations of architects was limited to say the least. She also correctly points out that in Sullivan's own words, he didn't cringe at the idea of his own buildings being destroyed. "Only the idea was the important thing" she quotes him as saying.

Roger Ebert also sites Sullivan's words in his piece and speculates what the architect might have thought of the work of Mies and his followers. He says: "Although Mies is believed by many to have followed in the direction indicated by Sullivan, I doubt Sullivan would have been pleased by many of his buildings."

This may or may not be true but what is certainly without a doubt is the fact that Sullivan reserved the bulk of his wrath for his contemporary Daniel Burnham, whose work and influence Ebert lavishly praises. After the death of his estimable partner John Root, Burnham and his firm in its various incarnations, became the chief exponents neo-Classisism, all that Sullivan stood against.

That said, Sullivan's legacy, like that of any other artist, should be his work, not what he said about it. While Sullivan was eminently quotable, he wasn't a great writer. He was a blow hard. His writing is filled with an unquestioning belief in his own correctness. Often times he is simply unreadable, he painted himself into such a tight corner that he could not find a way out. This uncompromising attitude is what ultimately destroyed his career and led to years of relative obscurity following his death.

It is the profound experience of the eloquence of Louis Sullivan's architecture, the buildings themselves, what little is left of them, and the photographs that document his work by John Szarkowski and Richard Nickel to name only two, that should speak for him. The buildings he made reached for the sky but remained bound to the earth with his glorious attention to detail in the form of ornament.

Of course his use of ornament is quite the matter of personal taste. "Their modern uselessness" is how Nusser describes Sullivan's elevator grilles from the Stock Exchange Building, as seen in Szarkowski's wonderful photograph at the Art Institute. Clearly she has been sucked into Modernist ideology ironically inspired but ultimately misunderstood by Sullivan's own "form follows function" dictum.

Ebert on the other hand provocatively follows no particular ideology, he just knows what he likes.

Like him, my heart soars whenever I cross Edward Bennett's Michigan Avenue Bridge walking north toward the magnificent ensemble of buildings surrounding it, specifically the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. These two buildings may not be at the top of the list of Chicago's greatest buildings as compiled by most ideologically driven architecture critics. Sullivan had he lived to see them to completion would have despised them. Yet they are crowd pleasers along with the bridge, itself a result of the Burnham Plan. Crossing that bridge day or night is an unmistakably unique Chicago experience, one of the truly great urban experiences of the world.

Yet unlike Mr. Ebert, I am also moved to this day by particular works of Modern architecture. Their bold lines clearly expressing two materials, steel and glass, surfaces that reflect sunlight creating beautiful plays of light and shadow, gravity defying structures that appear weightless, are also thrilling to me, dare I say even beautiful. The problem as I see it lies not with Mies and his contemporaries, but with their followers who slavishly held to the dictum "less is more" (which Mies himself never did) to the point of stripping all life out of their buildings. As one of the commentators to Ebert's online article aptly remarked, "less isn't more, it's simply less."

Unfortunately Nusser doesn't make a good case for her assertion that we are bound to the past at the expense of the city. Chicago's cityscape today is a splendid amalgam of architectural styles ranging from those of the 1860s to yesterday. Preservation of historical buildings in fact has always been a struggle, it has been stymied by developers and politicians for well over a century, and continues to be to this day.

She does however tip her hand to reveal a specific ax to grind. It turns out that a couple of her friends tried to build themselves a Modern style home in a neighborhood filled with "Victorian" structures. The residents of the community objected to the proposal and it died. But this isolated case in no way represents the majority of residential neighborhoods throughout the city who for the most part have even fewer landmarks restrictions than commercial districts. Evidence of this can be found here from Robert Powers' wonderfully peripatetic blog, A Chicago Sojourn.

The most appalling part of Nusser's piece is her mindless quibble with Preservation Chicago's placement of Richard Nickel's house on Cortland Avenue on its list of the seven most endangered buildings in Chicago.

For starters, Preservation Chicago is a citizen's advocacy group, not to be confused with the Chicago Landmarks Commission, and is not tied to city government in any way. It has no power other than suggestion. In an era when all but a handful of Chicago's most significant buildings are threatened, Preservation Chicago serves an important purpose in bringing the city's history to the public's attention.

Then this remark: "You might be asking Richard who?", as Nusser snickers at the suggestion that the house of the man whose personal struggle to bring justice to our architectural legacy which ultimately led to his tragic death, is worthy of preservation.

"Actually, Nickel was neither architect nor artisan." she adds. "He was a photography student turned preservationist." The omissions from this statement are cruel and stupid. Richard Nickel was an artist of the highest caliber. He and his work may not have the same cache as artists in Nusser's own limited sphere of knowledge, but are important just the same. As I wrote in this space a few weeks ago, were it not for Richard Nickel, (and may I add, his collaborators, namely John Vinci and Tim Samuelson), and for a handful of other people who were voices crying out in the desert in the days when nobody else cared, Chicago might have completely lost all traces to its past, and today might be just another big American city, undistinguishable from Houston or Denver.

These past two weeks I brought my son to art camp at the School of the Art Institute. He has just developed an interest in architecture and every day we would take a different route to point out some of my favorite buildings. And every day we would pass the entrance of Sullivan's Old Stock Exchange Building which was saved from destruction during the building's demolition through the efforts of Messrs Nickel, Vinci and Samuelson. It now stands isolated, completely out of context in the midst of Renzo Pianomania. Instead of being the backdrop for yellow cabs and fedora wearing gents smoking cigars, it now serves as the backdrop for a garden of native flowers, with Millennium Park visible through the arch.

Although its power is diminished in its new setting, it is still a grand monument, and a great reminder that the work of preservation of our city's treasures is an important, never ending task that we must pass on to our children.

Chicago is indeed a very special place.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gun bans

Let me say from the outset that I'm ambivalent about the Supreme Court's recent remanding of Chicago's handgun ban back to local courts. On the one hand, the Second Amendment to the Constitution stipulates a citizen's right to bear arms. I believe that the Constitution is the glue that holds this country together and that any challenge to it must be done with great care and trepidation.

On the other hand, the Second Amendment states in fairly clear terms the purpose of its aims:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

The opening clause is usually omitted in the discussion of the Second Amendment by gun rights advocates. It must be remembered that in 1791 when the Bill of Rights was ratified, the standing army of the United States was virtually eliminated. The dire concern was that a tyrannical government could forcibly trample upon the newly won rights of the People. This left the defense of the country's infant democracy in the hands of these well regulated civilian militias. The civilian militias ultimately didn't work out so well and now we obviously have a substantial military and police force.

The question as to whether the Second Amendment insures the individual the right to bear arms for self protection along with the collective right of the People to protect itself from the government is not so clear. If the esteemed members of our Supreme Court can't agree on it (the ruling was after all only five votes to four), then how can we mere mortals decide? And there's the rub.

I find it troubling that some folks who would defend the First Amendment to the death, see the Second Amendment as something that should be disposed of with the trash. Likewise the people on the other side who continually use the argument "well you can't yell fire in a crowded theater" to dismiss First Amendment claims that might effect public safety, but oppose any restriction whatsoever to gun ownership, no matter how it effects public safety.

It is obvious that the ban on handgun ownership in Chicago that has been on the books for twenty eight years, has done little to stem the tide of gun violence in the city. Criminals they say, aren't going to be stopped by a law banning guns. It's the law abiding citizens who suffer because they can't own a gun. But I'm not so sure there is not a fine line that separates the law abiding citizen from the criminal. After all, how many of us drive above the speed limit? How many shoot off fire works in their back yards on the Fourth of July? I'm not so convinced that all the otherwise law abiding citizens of Chicago refrained from owning a gun simply because of the law. I'm also not so sure that as some critics say, we'll see a decline in crime because the bad guys won't know who's packing heat.

What I do expect is that more guns getting into private hands means, whether it be by accident, or by passion, or whatever, that more people will get shot. That's what handguns are for.

Guns don't kill people, people kill people they say.

So now we'll have more guns in order to protect ourselves from people with guns.

Which is insane.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Here is part one of the report by Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that deals with Chicago's reversal of the flow of the Chicago River, and its role in the possible introduction of an invasive species of fish, the Asian carp into the Great Lakes.

Chicago reversed the flow of the River over 100 years ago if you remember, to avoid dumping its sewage into Lake Michigan, the source of its drinking water. As horrible as the thought of dumping sewage anywhere is, one has to remember that, well as a guy who owned a porn shop explaining his place in society once said to me; "shit is shit, and it has to go somewhere."

So for 110 years the recipients of our effluence have been the communities along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, and ultimately the beleaguered Gulf of Mexico itself. And how you may ask did these communities react to Chicago's action to send its crap their way? Well it's a great story, one that is recounted in the MJS article. Essentially the state of Missouri sought a Supreme Court injunction to stop the opening of the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal. But before the court had a chance to review the case, in the middle of the night of January 17th, 1900, crews were dispatched from Chicago 30 miles downstream to open the canal, instantly making the matter a moot point. It's the Chicago way after all.

It is this same waterway that conservationists fear will be the conduit for a very unwelcome fish to enter Lake Michigan and ultimately the entire Great Lakes ecosystem. The Asian carp was originally introduced into the Mississippi River in the 1970s by catfish farmers to remove algae and particulate matter from their ponds. Periodic flooding made the ponds overflow thus introducing the fish into the Mississippi River. These fish are big, weighing up to 100 pounds, have a rapacious appetite, and are extremely prolific. If they manage to find a way into the Great Lakes, they most certainly will wreak havoc with the ecology of the world's largest supply of fresh water.

Clearly something has to be done and it is looking more and more like the answer is blocking off the Sanitary Canal from Lake Michigan. This would have a deleterious impact on the economy, directly effecting the shipping (predominantly barge) industry which relies on the waterway to move heavy materials from the lake to the river. Clearly the biggest impact however would be the fact that our waste will be released into Lake Michigan, once again, the source of our drinking water.

This scenario may not be as dire as it sounds. Sewage, which is already treated in Chicago before it's released into the water in a process briefly described here, would then be chemically disinfected to remove harmful bacteria that would otherwise contaminate the water supply. This disinfection process is done in virtually every major city in the country already except Chicago. The MJS article goes to great pains to excoriate the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the governmental body in charge of disposing of the area's waste, for resisting measures that have been standard procedure elsewhere in the country. In this article from the Chicago Tribune, the Reclamation District did its own study which found that chemically treating water not surprisingly has its own ecological drawbacks. To be fair it must be stated that most environmental groups claim that this study is mostly stonewalling on the part of the District.

The MJS article is misleading in implying that Chicago simply dumps its untreated waste directly into the waterways. It states that Chicago's canals contain "bacteria at levels that can be more than 1,000 times higher than what is discharged at Milwaukee's Jones Island sewage treatment plant." This may be true but what the article fails to point out is that Chicago's canals were built specifically for the purpose of transporting diluted, treated water while Milwaukee returns its treated water directly into Lake Michigan, the source of its drinking water. What Egan describes as Chicago's "crude sewer system", was actually, along with Brooklyn's, the first comprehensive combined sewer system constructed in the United States. Chicago's system in fact was an engineering marvel given the city's flat topography. In the 19th Century while Chicago was transporting its diluted sewage away from its water supply, Milwaukee was dumping raw sewage directly into Lake Michigan and to some extent, continues to do so today.

The tone of this one sided MJS article is clearly biased against Chicago, which is their prerogative. But the fact is that if Milwaukee and other cities had the opportunity and wherewithal to address their sanitation issues as Chicago did at the turn of the last century, they most certainly would have done exactly as we did. I find it just a little disingenuous that journalists and the public at large up in the great state of Wisconsin, given the less than stellar record of dealing with their own sewage, feel compelled to bash Chicago in what is turning out to be a supremely complicated problem. Perhaps a little case of the pot calling the kettle black no? But what do I know, I'm just another "fucking Illinois bastard".

Re-reverse the flow?

This interesting plan to help save Lake Michigan comes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In Chicago we like to boast of our grand undertakings, and the reversal of the flow of the Chicago River was certainly the grandest of the grand. Unfortunately we tend to obfuscate the other side of the story. This is another side.

Almost as enlightening is the comments section where our neighbors to the north profess their never ending love and admiration for us.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The solution to the Gulf oil spill..

... will not be found here.

Everyone seems to have a solution to what has become this nation's biggest catastrophe since 9-11. The remedies range from the simple minded to the insane to the downright idiotic. The dumbest idea I've heard to date comes from a talk radio host (the source of so many stupid ideas), who said that maybe every time an oil company has an oil spill, the government should as a punishment, force the company to lower the price of gas until they clean it up. Nice to the ears but do we really want to force the demand for oil up when it is the demand for oil itself that caused this problem in the first place?

The finger pointing has gotten so bad that I'm starting to walk around with my eyes covered. There certainly is plenty of blame to go around. The lion's share has got to be with BP who owns and operates the rig that is from latest estimates spewing one Exxon Valdez worth of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every five days. The company and its CEO Tony Hayward are deservedly favorite targets of the Left along with the administration of former President Bush.

The Right not surprisingly sees it differently. The fault they say lies squarely on the shoulders of President Obama. It is his oil spill they say, "his Katrina". Well guess what, both sides are right. The Bush administration certainly paved the way for disaster with their laissez-faire policy of letting the oil companies self regulate, thereby allowing the foxes guard the chicken coop if you will. But the Obama administration did little or nothing to change this atmosphere as spelled out in this article in Rolling Stone.

Of course all the finger pointing in the world will do absolutely nothing to stop the spill and even more significantly, prevent these tragedies in the future. If all of us were sincere in looking for the real culprit, if we truly cared to find the people who could make a real impact on the enviroment, all we would have to do is find a mirror. It is our own insatiable appetite for energy that has created the worst environmental disasters of the last two hundred years.

Yes, all of us are to blame. As anyone who has ever experienced a long term power outage knows, our dependence on energy is staggering. Normal life grinds to a standstill when our lights go out. No light to read by, no tv, radio, computer or fan, not to mention air conditioner, you can't open the fridge unless you want all your food to spoil. Our very existence is tested. Unless you of I live as survivalists up in the nether reaches of Michigan or Montana, raising our own food, building our own shelter, commuting on foot over unpaved trails we blazed ourselves by hand, you and I must claim some share of the responsibility for this crisis.

"We have to do something" has been the cry heard around the globe. One of the popular feel good movements is the one to boycott BP. But how will putting BP out of business as many have suggested, help solve the oil spill? Who will be left to clean up the mess after there's no more BP? Not to mention the terrible blow to the world economy, yes including our own if BP were to go under.

Of course BP will not go out of business simply by us buying gas at stations that don't sport the BP logo. The only people that a boycott will effect are the people who run those stations, people in our communities who need their jobs as much as we need ours.

Despite the global awareness of the perils of dependence on oil over the past forty years at least, our demand increases yearly. During the Seventies when Arab nations in the Middle East cut off the flow of oil, we learned difficult lessons about gas shortages. Gas prices skyrocketed, there were tremendous lines at filling stations, and gas rationing was introduced in some states. American cars that were once built like ships, became smaller and more fuel efficient. President Carter appeared from the White House wearing a cardigan sweater making the case that we turn down our thermostats and learn to live without, if only just a little. He was a supporter of alternative energy sources and went so far as to install solar panels on the roof of the White House.

Then the crisis eased up and gas prices leveled off, not to increase significantly in 35 years, in fact gas prices decreased if you factor inflation. Detroit didn't go back to the ship sized cars but came up with the SUV which guzzled gas with just as much relish. President Carter lost his re-election bid in part because of his suggestion that we live smaller than we had in the past. You can guess what happened to those solar panels. We went to living just as we had before.

The problem is, we want a strong economy, freedom to move about in our cars, use our air conditioners, hair dryers, dish washers, etc. We want to live far from the grind of the big city, in the relative peace and tranquility of the suburbs and beyond. We want cheap energy, and we want clean air and water.

Unfortunately, these things are mutually exclusive. Oil is simply harder and harder to get to as we've used up all of the easy sources. Companies are going to have to drill ever deeper to get to that black gold. The effort is going to be expensive and fraught with great risk to our environment.

If we want to do something truly meaningful to help prevent further catastrophes, we as a society must learn to change the way we live and build our communities. Despite forty years of awareness of not only of the finite supply of crude oil, but its deleterious effect on the environment, we continue to build communities that are entirely dependent on the automobile. This has to change.

My own experience bears this out. In the mid-nineties, my parents retired to the Phoenix area. As anyone who has ever flown into Sky Harbor Airport knows, the most significant land masses in that sprawling urban/suburban area are the lush green fairways and greens of golf courses markedly contrasting with the muted greens and browns of ever shrinking natural environment. The other unmistakable feature of the area are the expanding concrete ribbons of highways. Phoenix is enormous in land area and an average commute, at least in my mother's case, was about 45 miles each way. Public transportation does exist in the form of limited bus service. Ever take a city bus 45 miles? Needless to say, the automobile is the only way to get around the Valley of the Sun.

The real fallacy is that Phoenix like so many other regions of the Sun Belt is a very attractive place to retire as my parents did. The problem is, as people get older, their facilities begin to diminish. My father needed heart valve surgery in a hospital of course 45 miles from their house. At the very same time, my mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration which rendered her legally blind. Yet she was still driving the 45 miles to and from the hospital during the vigil with my father who never recovered from his surgery. After my father's death, my mother had to give up driving which meant that she was essentially stranded in her own home. She fortunately had friends who were very generous and willing to go out of their way to take her anywhere she wanted to go. But that was not her style so she moved backed to Chicago where she continues to this day to live quite independently on her own, dependent mostly on her two feet and the CTA.

My question is what do all the people in Phoenix (or comparable place) who do not have the gumption to move to a walkable, public transit friendly city do, once they cannot drive? Aside from the obvious lack of foresight on the part of planners is the fact that the Phoenix area is an environmental disaster. In addition to all those golf courses are lawns that people transplanted from more temperate climates seem to need. All this grass requires a tremendous amount of water in the middle of a desert.

As Phoenix is in a valley, pollution from all the vehicles typically creates a shroud of smog that is contained over the city.

All of this is contributing to climate change, no longer can a Phoenician retort, "but it's a dry heat" as humidity levels are slowly increasing.

The greatest tragedy of all is the fact that Phoenix sits in the midst of one of the most magnificent ecosystems on the planet, the Sonoran Desert which contains dozens of species of plants and animals that are entirely unique to the region. The encroachment on the desert due to urban sprawl, make the future of this truly spectacular place uncertain.

I single out Phoenix only because I know it first hand. In fact, in terms of urban planning in the United States over the past several decades, the Phoenix area is the rule, not the exception.

Phoenix and cities like it, i.e; sprawling, low population density urban-suburban areas that are designed to be entirely dependent on the automobile are the paradigm of old, failed systems of urban planning. If we are going to move ahead and create a world fit for our children and their children to live in, we must, like my mother, rethink our values and our lifestyles.

Big, densely populated, walkable cities with good public transportation systems aren't quite so old fashioned anymore. The future of cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco to name a few, perhaps isn't quite so bleak after all.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Going home

When I was nine years old, my family moved to Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Often I thought of how my life would had been different had we moved to the much different suburb of Lincolnwood which was my mother's first choice, or if we had remained in the city.

Fifth grade is a tough time for a kid to move and change schools. I ended up in a school where I was an outsider in a class made up of kids who for the most part had known each other since kindergarten. Looking back after forty some years, I can honestly say that was one of the most difficult years of my life. Eventually I gravitated toward people who were outsiders like me. One of them, another transplanted Chicagoan, continues to this day be my best friend. My wife experienced being an outsider too as her family moved around quite a bit during her childhood. I've always been attracted to the eccentric, rooted for the underdog, and prided myself on my contrarian ways. It's only dawned on me recently how all this may be related to my first experiences in Oak Park.

The year we moved to Oak Park, 1968, was a watershed time for Chicago. The riots on the West Side after the assassination of Martin Luther King set in motion an exodus of white families from that part of the city. Oak Park is on the western border of Chicago and it was the natural destination for many of those families. The pattern of white flight from the city meant that the racial composition of the West Side shifted entirely from all white to all black in a very short time. Oak Park was smack dab in the midst of this transition and village officials and concerned citizens set upon a radical program of institutionally bringing integration into the suburb. The idea was to gradually bring blacks and whites together to stem the tidal wave of racial tension that devastated much of the city.

Oak Park in 1968 was a much different place than it is today. Back then the village was lily white and staunchly conservative. We were the only Democrats on the block. Having grown up in the city, used to kids of different ethnicities and races, I was shocked when I came to Oak Park to hear the n-word used repeatedly. The parents of those kids who spewed racial epithets naturally were appalled by Oak Park's integration policies and ran as fast as their little legs could carry them. Which turned out to be a good thing as it weeded out exactly the people who would have been at the forefront of the "let's get the hell out of town before the ni--ers come" movement. Those that remained, and there were a good many, realized that Oak Park was a wonderful place to live and raise a family. It had the best of both worlds, good schools, beautiful homes, parks, and a plethora of amenities and services, yet it was still very close to the city and all that it had to offer.

It remains that way to this day. The political climate of Oak Park today is an about-face from the way it was when we moved there. It is one of the most staunchly progressive communities around, fiercely liberal, racially and ethnically diverse. The village is also a nuclear free zone although I'm not quite sure exactly what that means. I've often joked that if a member of the "Axis of Evil" decided to nuke Oak Park, they'd have to answer to the formidable Oak Park Village Board.

When we moved to Oak Park I pined for the old neighborhood. I missed the wonderful Sunday afternoons in Humboldt Park with my dad. I missed our apartment building named the Luella, where I had the run of the place because my grandmother was the manager. I missed Logan Square where the end of the line of the elevated (now the Blue Line) was smack dab on top of the building that housed the aptly named Terminal Restaurant. I even missed our old church, St. Sylvester's. Every chance I got I asked to be taken back to the old hood and when I was old enough, went there on my own as often as I could. When I left home I moved to Logan Square where I remained for many years.

But Oak Park was the place where I spent my formative years. It was there I learned some of the most of the valuable lessons of my life. It's where I first became interested in art, architecture and photography. It's where I first fell in love, had my first kiss, and my first marriage. And it's where I developed some of my deepest and most lasting friendships.

Given all that, surprisingly after I left Oak Park all those years ago, (my parents left shortly after me), I have visited it only sparingly. Perhaps the memories of the normal trials and tribulations of my adolescence and of my difficult first year there override my nostalgia for the place.

This past week I brought my children to Oak Park as my son has developed an interest in Frank Lloyd Wright. I took them to Fair Oaks Avenue which has a good number of Wright works including the Fricke House which is as radical a departure from the neighboring houses as humanly possible. On that street is another significant house by the architect E.E. Roberts, which was the home of a boyhood friend of mine, another eccentric, with whom I have unfortunately lost contact. I spent many hours in that grand house only slightly aware of its architectural significance. We didn't make it to another Roberts house, the ancestral home of yet another dear old friend, the godfather of my daughter, whose one son is my godson and whose youngest is a friend of my boy. We strolled along Forest Avenue where the heavy hitters of Wright's work reside including his first truly Prairie Style work the Thomas House, the over the top Nathan Moore House, the sublime Heurtley House, and Wright's Home and Studio.

The funny thing about Wright and Oak Park's other favorite son, Ernest Hemmingway is that both had swift departures from the place. Hemmingway famously called Oak Park the place of "big lawns and small minds." He left after high school and never looked back. Wright's ignominious departure took place when he left his family after he fell in love and ultimately married the wife of a client whose house we also visited on our little trip.

But all's forgiven these days.

The highlight of our trip for me anyway, was showing the kids the house where I grew up. It's not at all a significant house by any means, not even all that attractive. But it was home, the place I lived longer than any other place in my life. While I've driven by it numerous times in the 25 years I since have been gone, this was the first time I passed by on foot. Apart from the deck that was built to replace the decrepit back porch where we spent so many warm summer evenings, not much has changed in the house's appearance.

What was stunning was the work done in the back yard, not by the owners, but by nature. I think the reason my parents fell in love with the house was the yard. When we moved in, we had two enormous elm tress that my father and I used for soccer goal posts. We also had a gnarly old cherry tree whose trunk came out of the ground at a 45 degree angle, making it the perfect climbing tree, and a magnificent spruce in our front yard that towered over the house.

The first to go was the cherry. The year after it gave us a magnificent spring show of flower blossoms, then a bountiful harvest of the most delicious cherries I have ever eaten, it gave up the ghost. Our biggest fears came true the following year when Dutch Elm disease took our two beautiful elms within a year of each other. To add insult to injury, the spruce tree suddenly died for no apparent reason shortly thereafter. Our yard which had once been a haven of shade during the brutally hot summers, suddenly became a windswept open field.

Yet the lack of shade made it possible to plant a garden. We had rose bushes, peonies, day lillies and planted several varieties of annual plants. We also had a modest vegetable garden. In the midst of the garden I dug up a volunteer maple that was maybe about a foot tall and replanted it in the lawn, a little bit away from the former site of the elm. Also in the garden which formed the strip of dirt in front of the fence that separated our yard from our neighbors', was another volunteer, a small elm which I decided to leave alone.

I mention these volunteer trees because today they are two great trees. The elm I'd say is about thirty feet tall with a girth about two thirds that of the elms we lost. The fence is gone, most likely in order to accommodate the tree. The maple is only a little smaller than the elm, it's a tree that has been taken care of and appears to be a cherished part of the property, as our trees had been decades earlier.

It reminded me that while I've taken a lot of Oak Park with me, both willingly and not, I've also left a little bit behind. After all the years I spent there and amazingly the even more years I've been gone, I never appreciated the place as much as I did the other day.