Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fields of Dreams

There it stood, looming large in its legend, appearing as if it had arrived from the same planet as the apparition that landed inside Soldier Field seven years ago . Driving across I-94 over the Menomonee Valley just short of Downtown Milwaukee, this behemoth from outer space dominates the view to the west that was once the domain of the three domes of the Milwaukee Botanical Gardens.

It is of course Miller Park, the home of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club. This was to be my first experience of a game at Miller Park along with my son and my father-in-law, also named Miller (no relation unfortunately), himself a Brewer fan from the day the team moved to The Cream City from Seattle in 1970.

I've been interested in ballparks for quite some time. Living in a city that supports two big league ball clubs begs the comparison between the teams, and of course their respective ballparks. Then there was Milwaukee, 90 miles to the north, where I spent a considerable time as a youngster, attending several ball games at old County Stadium.

Wrigley Field, old Comiskey Park and County Stadium were built before the era of the "modern" stadium, when many great old ballparks were replaced by multi-purpose, astro-turfed monstrosities that were designed to accommodate football as well as baseball. These buildings did not serve either game particularly well and few of them survive today. In the nineties a new era of ballpark building began when a new source of revenue for teams was invented, the luxury skybox. Although ballparks could be retrofitted to fit this new gold mine, many teams decided to do what comes naturally here in the States, tear down the old and build from scratch.

This turned out to be a good thing for the most part. The new parks were built for baseball only. Ironically most of them were a throwback, resembling the ballparks of a bygone era, with natural grass turf and eccentric dimensions. This resulted in intimate ballparks where the fans could once again be close to the game. Each park had an idiosyncratic character all its own, usually featuring the skyline of its respective city beyond the outfield walls.

County Stadium and the two Chicago big league parks fortunately survived the "modern" era intact, but with the exception of Wrigley Field, not the skybox era. The last game at old Comiskey Park was played on September 30, 1990. Here is a lovely remembrance of it, written by my friend Tom Harney. It was replaced by new Comiskey Park, later re-named U.S. Cellular Field after the naming rights were sold. The new Comiskey was built exactly one year before the era of the retro ballparks began, that is to say before the paradigm shifting Camden Yards was built in Baltimore. While new Comiskey was built as a baseball only park with natural turf, it was roundly criticized as being as characterless as the pre-fab clunkers of the sixties and seventies. The biggest problem was the highly steeped upper deck, the top parts of which were at vertigo inducing, stratospheric heights. Anyone sitting in this netherworld reach of the ballpark was all but completely removed from the game.

Fortunately about eight years ago. the top eight rows were removed and an overhang with a facade slightly reminiscent of that of old Yankee Stadium was put into place. New amenities were added and much to the consternation of Cub-hating Sox fans, ivy was planted in part of the outfield. At least the place looks more like a ballpark now and while it still doesn't have the charm of many of the newer parks, it's still a fine place to watch a game.

County Stadium was built right around the time when professional baseball games started to become a circus. We have Chicago's own Bill Veeck to thank for much of that. He was the guy who introduced exploding scoreboards, outrageous promotions, and a pinch hitting midget to the game. In the forties, Veeck was part owner of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers (no relation to the current club). Contributing to his colorful legend, in his autobiography, Veeck-As in Wreck, Bill Veeck claimed that he had a movable screen placed in the outfield at old Borchert Field that could be moved to challenge the hitters on the opposing team. During one game when he blatantly had it moved in when the home team came to bat and out when the visitors came to bat, the league put in a rule banning such shenanigans the very next day.

In the early fifties, the city of Milwaukee decided to build a new stadium to attract a major league club. County Stadium was the last home of the old Brewers before the Braves moved to town from Boston in 1953.

Warren Spahn
Featuring future Hall of Famers, Warren Spahn (the winningest left handed pitcher of all time), third baseman Eddie Matthews, and of course the great Henry Aaron, the Braves would enjoy several successful seasons highlighted by a World Series championship in 1957. Their move to Atlanta in 1965 was a huge blow to Milwaukee especially as the team was still viable both in the box office and on the field, unlike the old days back in Boston. In the interim period before the Seattle Pilots would become the Milwaukee Brewers, County Stadium would be the part time home of the Green Bay Packers as well as the then struggling Chicago White Sox.

Compared to current standards, County Stadium was a no nonsense, few frills ballpark. That is except for the giant beer stein in the outfield that the team's mascot, Bernie Brewer would slide into from his cuckoo clock style house, whenever the home team hit a home run. Despite its deceptive size, (its capacity was over 50,000), County Stadium is fondly remembered as having been one of the most intimate ballparks in the Major Leagues.

The first game at Miller Park was played on April 6, 2001. I saw the place from the outside dozens of times. My wife and I visited the construction site not long before an accident tragically claimed the lives of three workers. It was built next door to County Stadium, right in the venerable old park's parking lot. The seating capacity of the new park would be considerably less than the old one, but due to its retractable roof, skyboxes and obstruction free seating, the thing was at least twice the size.

Being built in the era of the retro ballpark, Miller Park is a bit of an anomaly as its enormous space age roof evokes the likes of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader more than Enos Slaughter and Cool Papa Bell.

As such I was prepared to hate it.

While Im not a Cubs fan, I have to admit that Wrigley Field, along with Fenway Park in Boston, are the best places anywhere to watch a baseball game. They are the two oldest ballparks in the Major Leagues and of course have seen an incredible amount of history. It was in Wrigley Field that Babe Ruth made his famous "called shot" home run in the World Series of 1932. Fenway has the Green Monster and left field in front of it was patrolled by the legends Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice among others. The two ballparks are so intimate, there is a continuous dialog between the fans and willing players. Wrigley Field is particularly beautiful with its stunning view of the lake and the apartment buildings of the north side of Chicago, the red marquee out front, the hand operated scoreboard, and of course the ivy covering the outfield walls. The latter two features incidentally were both the brain children of none other than Bill Veeck. Fenway has its own iconic view out with the famous Citco Petrolium sign visible behind the Green Monster. The experience of games at these two landmark venues more than makes up for the lack of amenities such as convenient parking and gourmet food within an arm's length of one's seat. At both parks it is unapologetically baseball at its purest.

By contrast, every other big league ballpark has in one way or other given in to the three ring, Ringling Brother atmosphere that Veeck was influential in creating so long ago. Unlike sports like basketball and hockey where there is a continuous flow of action, much of the drama in baseball happens during the breaks between plays where much of the strategy takes place. To those who don't know the game, this is considered dead time which is why baseball is incomprehensible to those who don't follow it. Today at virtually every professional ballpark, there is no dead time, during every second of inactivity on the field there is a constant barrage of activity at the ballpark, be it music, messages flashing across the scoreboard, public address announcements, or the antics of the team mascot.

Miller Park has taken all this to a new level. Not only is there no dead time here, but there is also hardly an inch of dead space either. The scoreboard in center field is only one of many, the fascia of the upper deck features electronic signage that can be used for any number of purposes. An incredible array of players' stats along with the line score of the game are presented throughout the park. Unfortunately all this information is taken away between innings in favor of advertisements and diversions such as directing attention to the famous sausage race in the middle of the sixth inning.

As such Miller Park is a cacophony of sights and sounds, a sensory overload of ads, concessions, information and entertainment. And yes in between all that, occasionally a baseball game breaks out. As a consequence, at least in our experience at this particular game, the fans in the stands were not particularly focused on the game. We had a pair of women sitting immediately behind us who had a continuous dialogue about their love lives. At one point one of them actually said to the other, "I'm so glad this isn't a football game because we wouldn't be able to have this conversation." But at least these two ladies stayed in their seats and payed some attention to the game. Our row was a steady stream of activity. As we sat on the aisle we were continuously getting up for someone coming or going, or passing beer and money between our row mates and the vendors. Unlike most ball parks, this activity was not limited to between innings but went on constantly. A one point I suggested, not jokingly, that they might consider buying us a beer for all the work they had us do for them. They agreed but unfortunately didn't follow through. And while there were the obligatory cheers for the home team, especially when the scoreboard told us to "make noise", it didn't seem as if the fans were truly into the game. The Brwers took an early commanding lead but they had pitching issues throughout the game and were never in the clear. With four runs up on the Diamondbacks, the Brewer pitchers walked the bases loaded in both the eight and ninth innings. In both innings they had 3-2 counts on the batters with two out. Now this is about as dramatic a situation as you can have in a baseball game and at every other ballpark I've ever been to, as all three base runners would take off with the pitch, all the fans would be on their feet, wildly cheering on the home team pitcher to strike out the batter to end the inning. Not so here where the few fans remaining that hadn't left early to beat the traffic and were still paying attention to the game, nervously and politely clapped, their butts firmly planted in their seats.

Now to be fair, this was an afternoon game in the middle of the week in August, with neither team having much of chance of making the playoffs. Most of the folks sitting around us were there for an office party so naturally there was much socializing going on between them. There were about 34,000 people in attendance that day and the Brewers in a typical year draw over three million per season. That's not too shabby for a reatively small market team that, save for one pennant, has had little in the way of success on the field in their forty year history.

You could say that much of that success has to do with Miller Park. Given my reservations, it's a pretty amazing place. The massive parking lot serves as a tailgate haven before the games. As you walk into the park you are immediately at the concourse level where there is a commanding view of the field. This reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a New Yorker on his impressions of the new Yankee Stadium. He noted that the design common to all new ballparks that opens up the concession area to the field, greatly reduces the drama of entering a stadium. In old parks, like Wrigley, Fenway and old Yankee Stadium, you would climb up a set of stairs through a tunnel to have the glorious field suddenly appear before your eyes. I understood exatly what he meant at Miller Park. Yet on the plus side there is a much more comfortable flow of the masses of humanity in the newer parks.

Miller Park also opens up in left field to reveal a very nice view of Downtown Milwaukee a few miles away. Of course the roof means that rain outs are a thing of the past, and being retractable means that they can grow real grass on the field. We had great seats but truly I can't imagine there are any bad seats in the house, even the most remote ones here actually called the Bob Uecker seats, as the self-deprecating one time major leaguer turned beer spokesman is the longtime radio voice of the club. For its enormity, the seats at Miller Park are not at all removed from the field and while I certainly would not call it intimate, there is still something very comfortable about the place.

One interesting consequence given the height of the roof, the shadows between home plate and the pitcher's mound that in most ballparks occur late in an afternoon game, appear at the outset of a 1:30 game. Then later in the game as the sun gets lower in the sky, an amazing play of light and shadow occurs on the field as the sunlight travels through the truss work of the roof.

A couple of very nice touches at Miller Park remind us of the significance of children in the game. Every game for one inning, a child is invited to be the public address announcer, introducing each Brewer as he comes up to bat. And in the parking lot, on the site of the former County Stadium, stands a working Little League Park. What a thrill it must be for kids to play there.

The architecture of the exterior is a strange hybrid with its Buck Rogers style roof contrasting to the brick facade which is inspired from some of the traditional architecture in Milwaukee. This reminded me of our visit to St. Louis five years ago during the last season of old Busch Stadium. The facade of the new stadium, also built adjacent to the old one, evokes the ancient facade of old Comiskey Park, while the old stadium with its distinctive arches that echoed the iconic Eero Saarinen St. Louis Memorial Arch a few blocks away, still looked new. It was like being in a strange time warp, difficult to tell which stadium which was going up and which was about to come down.

Such is the way with the ball parks. Baseball with its tenacious glorification of its past along side the demands of the public for ever more convenience and entertainment as well as the new and imporvied strategies of the owners to separate fans from their money, has created this strange amalgam of architectural styles and cultures. The game is certainly much different today than it was in the past, but not necessarily for the worse.

And there are still few better ways for a grandfather, a father and a son to spend a lovely summer afternoon together.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Memorial for Jack

There will be a memorial for Jack Jaffe at 2:30 this coming Saturday, August 21, on the 8th floor of 1104 S. Wabash Avenue. A reception will immediately follow at 600 S. Michigan Avenue.

You can find my tribute to him here.

Anyone who is at all involved with or interested in documentary photography in Chicago and the Midwest owes a debt of gratitude to this wonderful man.

I hope to see you there.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A tale of two neighborhoods

The children and I had a great day in the city last Saturday, half of it spent in the north side community of Lincoln Square, the other half in the south side neighborhood of Bridgeport.

The first part was to be all errands, go to the library, pick up a present for a one year old cousin's birthday, feed the kids, etc. The area bisected by the half-mile stretch of Lincoln Avenue between Montrose and Lawrence Avenues has been one of our go to neighborhoods for quite some time. It has a terrific branch library, the Sultzer, the Old Town School of Folk Music where our children take music classes, Welles Park with its many amenities, as well as one of our favorite restaurants, La Boca della Verita. We also have very good friends who have lived there for a couple of decades now. They've seen the neighborhood go through ups and downs, mostly ups, in the time they've been in the area.

It just so happened that we ran into this friend on Saturday along with another old friend from out of town. We decided to stop for coffee at a bookstore/cafe, a privately owned establishment, not one of the big chains. Then we got to chatting about the neighborhood and its charms, of which there are many. My friend told us that his four boys are all fixtures in most of the shops and restaurants of the neighborhood and wherever they go, people know them by name. He then started to reminisce about the old German businesses that have been replaced by trendy, upscale establishments.

There is some credibility to his lament about the good old days, but let the truth be known, the new establishments combined with the spiffed up older ones such as Merz Apothecary, have kept the neighborhood vibrant, while retaining much of its traditional gem├╝tlichkeit. One does not need to travel far around town to realize that successful storefront business districts like this one are becoming a rarity in Chicago as shoppers are drawn to car friendly strip malls and suburban shopping centers.

The topic of Jane Jacobs came up and how this section of Lincoln Square would fit into her scheme of what makes for a successful urban neighborhood. Lincoln Avenue is an active street of storefront businesses of the old school, that is to say they come right up to the sidewalk. What little parking exists, is on the street and in a couple of small public lots that are often commandeered by festivals and farmers' markets. About twenty years ago, through traffic on Lincoln was diverted from the core of the business district between Lawrence and Leland Avenue two blocks south. In those two blocks the street remains but only one way for the purpose of parking on one side of the street.

The scarcity of parking does not seem to deter folks from visiting and shopping in the least.

Though it is not a pedestrian mall, the greatly reduced traffic on Lincoln between Lawrence and Leland makes for a relaxed atmosphere which has been greatly enhanced in recent years by the creation of Giddings Square, which cut off the street of the same name from Lincoln Avenue.. Blocking off streets to automobile traffic is of a risky proposition. It didn't work on State Street, Lake Street in Oak Park, or in countless other cities throughout the country in an attempt to wrestle business back from the suburban shopping malls. But it seems to be working here in Lincoln Square. Although not all of the businesses have survived these turbulent economic times, I haven't heard much of a call to bring back through traffic. As it is now, this little two block oasis serves as a destination spot, a gathering place not unlike the Greek agora or Italian piazza. Giddings Square is an attraction unto itself as it hosts weekly musical performances and other events.

I can't say what percentage of people who were on this stretch of Lincoln Avenue last Saturday live in the surrounding area and how many come from elsewhere, but the essence of Lincoln Square is that people get around and mingle on foot. Since people walk from place to place rather than hopping into their cars between every stop, there is an active street life contributing to a tremendous spirit of conviviality in the place.

Some, including the local Chamber of Commerce, make the claim that Lincoln Square has a "small town atmosphere." I think this is a misconception. In the small towns I've visited, out of towners are held at an arm's length, the locals may be friendly enough, but every visitor knows his or her place. It used to be that way in the old, tight knit neighborhoods of Chicago where outsiders were considered a threat. Times however have changed and while this city still has strictly defined neighborhoods, people get around a lot more these days. Today, Lincoln Square is a neighborhood of great diversity, at any given time you will see people, young and old, of all races and hear a rich variety of languages spoken.

As my Lincoln Square friend boasted about the friendliness of his neighborhood, I made the observation that he might not be the best judge. After all I pointed out, this guy could win the Mr. Conviviality award as everywhere I go with him be it in his neighborhood or downtown, he runs into people he knows. I no sooner got those words out of my mouth when my daughter's violin teacher walked into the cafe and gave the two of us a big hug, confirming my friend's point to a tee.

Lincoln Square is a tremendously convivial place, and as such, it is a great urban neighborhood.


Part two of our day was devoted to the continuation of my photography of Stearns Quarry Park, the terrific new park built on the former site of an old stone quarry in Bridgeport. That neighborhood like Lincoln Square has undergone considerable change in the past few decades. Bridgeport has always been a working class neighborhood combining homes and industry. As is often the case, young, urban pioneers, looking for inexpensive, off the beaten path places to live "discovered" it, and people with money followed, to some extent. Cafes and other establishments heretofore unfamiliar to old time Bridgeporters have appeared along side venerable neighborhood institutions like Shaller's Pump and the curiously named Healthy Food Lithuanian restaurant.

Amazingly, a small community of expensive homes sprung up about ten years ago along the South Branch of the Chicago River, the stretch of the river known not so affectionately as Bubbly Creek. I won't go into details other than to say that this section of the river flowed through the old stock yards and was the dumping ground of a century's worth of effluence from the yards as well as other heavy industries in the area.

The demographics of Bridgeport have also been changed by the expansion of Chinatown to the north.

Through it all Bridgeport, as the ancestral home of the two Mayors Daley, retains much of its solid ethnic, blue collar roots, as well as its influence on the city's political landscape.

And now it is the location of Stearns Park, in my mind one of the best large scale urban redevelopment projects I've ever encountered. As I wrote earlier in this space, the park embraces the industrial landscape and history of Bridgeport rather than insulating itself from it. Walking through the park the sound of chirping crickets competes with the drone of traffic coming from the Stevenson Expressway just to the north.

Stearns Park is unique in many ways. It does not have a parking lot. It's not uncommon in a typical city park to see folks set up shop, be it a picnic, ballgame or whatever, a few feet away from their parked car. By contrast, at Stearns Park, in order to get to any place of interest, be it the remnants of the quarry some thirty feet below street grade, or the top of the berm formed from construction landfill which affords a spectacular view of the city, you must go by foot along prescribed walkways.

Most of the acreage at Stearns is covered by native grasses and wild flowers evoking the prairie that dominated the Chicago region before it became settled. There is little to be had here of recreational amenities, save for an expansive lawn where you might find a pickup soccer game, and one of the best kite flying spots in the city at the crest of the berm. The real point of visiting the park is the walk. As you stroll through this unique park you experience a magnificent urban landscape as well as topography, flora and fauna, all of which are quite unusual anywhere else in Chicago.

Recreational facilities are across the street at McGuane Park. While McGuane is no great shakes aesthetically, it has served an important function for decades as one of only a handful of parks in the neighborhood. As such it brings together a cross section of the community, hosting parents with their small children in its playground set in a very urban setting, softball and baseball leagues in the summer, and a variety of year round athletic activities in the field house complete with gym and swimming pool.

Stearns Quarry is the perfect counterpoint to McGuane and the combination of the two parks create a great public space that enlivens and celebrates this very essential part of the city.

What these two drastically different places, Stearns Quarry/McGuane Park and the commercial heart of Lincoln Square have in common is that their spirit of community is greatly enhanced by their dependence on foot traffic, and their success is hardly compromised by not going out of their way to accommodate the automobile.

Both serve their respective communities extremely well as public gathering places that bring together people from within the community as well as outsiders.

These two great public spaces are wonderful models that hopefully will inspire designers, planners, and civic leaders throughout Chicago and elsewhere.

As I emphasized these two areas as being friendly to those without cars, I'd be remiss is not mention how to get there by public transportation:

The commercial center of Lincoln Square, at the intersection of Lincoln, Lawrence and Western Avenues is served by the bus lines (#11, #81, #49 and #49B) of all three streets as well as the CTA Brown Line Western Avenue stop.

Stearns Quarry Park is on Halsted Street between 27th and 29th Streets. It is served by the CTA Orange Line Halsted Street stop two blocks to the north and the Halsted Street (#8) bus.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ornithology

A Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, spotted flying above Indian Boundary Park, 8:15 PM. Monday August 9, 2010.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ornithology


A Caspian Tern, Sterna caspia, at Stearns Quarry Park, 6:00PM, Saturday, August 7, 2010.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Call the Rose Man

This little guy has been blasting the buggers from his home on North Avenue for at least as long as I've been around, and judging by his hair style and attire, probably a lot longer.

If their claim of longevity is correct, Rose Exterminators have been the vermin's worst enemy for 150 years! Yes before there was a Palmer House Hotel and Marshall Field had his own dry goods store, the Rose people were there keeping the citizens of our fair city safe from pests.

After all my blathering about historic preservation in Chicago, it's kind of nice to see that some things in this town never change.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Perspective

To put Richard Nickel's work into deeper perspective, according to Richard Cahan's biography of the photographer, between the years 1950 and 1972, roughly the span of his career, 39 buildings of Louis Sullivan, one third of the Master's major works, were destroyed. Nickel photographed as well as salvaged artifacts from practically all of them.

The two greatest losses of these were the Stock Exchange Building at 30 North La Salle Street, (where Nickel lost his life), and the Schiller (later the Garrick) Building at 64 West Randolph Street. The Old Stock Exchange was replaced by a thoroughly undistinguished skyscraper while the Garrick Theater was replaced by a parking lot. Ironically, that parking lot was subsequently leveled to make way for the Goodman Theater complex which leads to the lament, if only...

Many more important Chicago buildings were lost during that particularly dark period of the city's architectural history. The Republic and Cable Buildings by Holabird & Roche, the Pullman Building and Grand Central Station by Solon S. Beman, the concourse of Union Station by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White and the lovely Edison Building by Purcell, Frick and Elmslie were all replaced by vastly inferior buildings, if anything at all.

In his eulogy for Richard Nickel, his longtime friend and mentor, the photographer Frederick Sommer wrote:

When the single masterpiece is struck down, the act is attributed to the madman, but when the coherence of an entire society is vandalized, the destruction is viewed with proud arrogance as evidence of progress.