Monday, July 22, 2013

Ghost signs

Looking through some old photographs of mine I came across this one made while I was a photography student at the Institute of Design in Chicago. The building on the left with the enormous painted sign is the Reliance Building, one of the greatest buildings in Chicago, perhaps the pinnacle of the late 19th early 20th Century Commercial Style of architecture commonly known as the Chicago School. Today the building, designed by Charles Atwood while under the employ of Daniel Burhham, houses appropriately enough, the Hotel Burnham, and a fancy restaurant called the Atwood Cafe. Between the the Great Depression and its 1999 conversion to the luxury hotel, the building struggled to attract tenants. By 1977 when the photograph was made, it was run down and half empty. Like many buildings of its era, its cornice was removed and its delicate cream colored terra cotta facade was covered with a patina of soot. Despite all that, no one ever questioned the building's significance. A friend once quipped that the Karroll's menswear store on the ground level (where the restaurant now sits) was world famous due to all the photographs of it found in architecture books. Eventually the city of Chicago stepped in and purchased the building with the intent of restoring it to its former glory, which actually happened. Like Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott building a block away, and Burnham and Root's Rookery Building, the Reliance today looks as good as it ever did, in fact, probably better. It is one of the great success stories of Chicago's preservation movement.

Not surprisingly, part of the restoration was the removal of the old sign as well as the fire escape and the enormous smokestack seen in the photograph. Today we're left with nothing but the wall, a great expanse of common brick which contrasts dramatically with the splendid north and east facades of the Reliance. The same thing occurs on the south face of the building. It's safe to assume this lack of attention to detail was due to its builders anticipating that tall buildings would one day butt up to the west and south sides of their building. But that never happened, which is one reason why the Reliance Building continues to capture our imagination as it soars over its neighbors. 

Plain brick walls all over the city served as blank canvases for sign painters and provided excellent revenue generating engines for the owners who created their buildings after all to make money, not to be works of art. Today we look at buildings, the significant ones anyway, quite differently. We cherish them as representatives of the architectural legacy of our city as well as works of art in their own right. As such we feel the temptation to restore them to pristine perfection, to a state that in fact never existed in the past. If you look at historical photographs of Chicago's great commercial buildings of the same vintage as the Reliance, you'll see they were all plastered with advertisements of one kind or other, on their walls, their windows, and in some cases, especially along the great Michigan Avenue backdrop to Grant Park, on their rooftops.

Today most of the signage is gone, lost in the notion of the city planners, preservationists, and concerned citizens, that the visual cacophony created by these advertisements distracts from the glory of the architecture, and cheapens the urban landscape. I'm not so sure I agree. In a sense, great cities exist for the same reasons that the signs do, to attract people. Generating opportunity, (and revenue), is the whole point of the city; take away a city's commercial function and what you have left are beautiful, empty buildings.

You will find great architectural monuments of civilizations past all over the globe. In Greece, Italy and Turkey, places I have been, these monuments have been carefully rebuilt and preserved; their stark white marble facades give us the impression that life in ancient Athens, Rome and Anatolia was devoted exclusively to the worship of gods and the state. What has been lost are the ephemeral aspects of these societies. We no longer for example, see evidence of the ancient world's equivalent of Coca-Cola signs, whatever they may have been, reminding us of the teeming masses going on with their everyday lives, buying and selling their wares (or themselves), in the agora just below the Acropolis or in the Roman Forum. Today it's hard to imagine that the austere ancient Greek and Roman temples were not always stark white, but were originally painted in polychromatic splendor. We imagine the other-worldly sounds of the Gregorian Chant filling the great Medieval cathedrals of Europe (also once painted), not the mooing of cows and the bleating of sheep which was often heard in their early days, necessitating the construction of exquisite rood screens and communion rails that served in part as barriers keeping domestic animals out of the sanctuaries.

Those ancient cities were once filled with everyday life, not very much different from our own cities. It's not the kind of life that makes it into the history books necessarily, but the life of the vast majority of the people just the same.

It's funny that we shun the crass commercialism of our own day, but find infinite interest in the commercialism of the past. Recently on the far north side of Chicago, a building was demolished revealing a sign painted on an adjacent building. The sign for what else, Coca-Cola, remained unseen on that wall for nearly one hundred years, covered up and protected from the sun's damaging rays. When it was revealed last year, it's condition was virtually pristine. "Ghost signs" like this one continuously re-appear in our cities (although seldom in such good condition), and there is a legion of people who document and write about them. A Google search for "ghost sign" plus the name of any city, will return dozens of sites.

Garish as it may be, advertising speaks volumes about the culture that created it. I think it's a bit of a shame that the old ad for Stetson Hats and the shop for big men, probably dating from the forties or fifties was removed from the west wall of the Reliance Building. It provided a visual connection to the past, to a long lost era when men and women dressed up when they came downtown. Its removal is just another example of how much life has been sapped out of Chicago's Loop, now largely the domain of austere office buildings of glass and steel and restored classic masonry buildings whose blank walls have been decreed by the aesthetic police, off limits to anyone with a paint brush.

No, it wasn't a profound work of art and perhaps it was not worthy of gracing the hallowed walls of the Reliance Building. Still, that hat sign and others like it in the Loop, if nothing else, made people who saw it, smile. Unfortunately, the cities in our brave new world of pristine restorations and "starchitects" who have little use for them, have been discarding smile inducing objects at an alarming rate.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Where is the Justice?

Yesterday, a jury of six women acquitted George Zimmermman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. As you may recall, last year Trayvon, a 17 year old, was visiting relatives who lived in a gated residential community in Sanford, Florida. As he was walking through the community after a visit to a convenience store, he was spotted by Zimmerman who was on a neighborhood watch patrol. Trayvon appeared suspicious to Zimmerman. Zimmerman who was armed, confronted the boy. A struggle ensued and in the end, the unarmed Trayvon Martin was shot and killed.

Zimmerman was taken into police custody but initially released after police and lawyers from the District Attorney's office determined he was acting in self defense, as described by Florida law. Once news of the story broke, a firestorm of protest engulfed the country around the injustice of an innocent, unarmed young African American youth being killed by a private citizen, simply because he looked suspicious.

Responding to almost unanimous public outrage, the D.A.'s office eventually indicted Zimmerman on murder charges which ultimately led to his trial this month.

I wrote about this story not long after it took place last year. You can read that piece here. My feelings then are the same as they are today. Essentially I believe that this is an unspeakable tragedy and I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for Trayvon's family and for his young life cut short. I believe that, from what I know, Zimmerman was over-zealous in his pursuit of the young man, and in the end his actions proved to be reckless and foolish. However, given the testimony from the witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense, (Zimmerman himself did not testify), there was not enough proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict Zimmerman of murder.

I realize this is a very controversial opinion that many people are not going to like. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, has been portrayed in at least one sector of the media, as a racist, paranoid sociopath. All that may or may not be true, nothing that has come out about him, at least to my ears, either confirms or contradicts those accusations.

What is unquestionable is that Zimmerman profiled a young black man who was visiting his community as a potential criminal, because of the way he was dressed and the way he way carried himself. Zimmerman confronted Trayvon, and after some kind of altercation, (where Zimmerman's life may or may not have been threatened), shot and killed him.

According to Florida law, the question of whether or not his life was threatened during the altercation, is at the heart of whether or not Zimmerman is guilty of murder, or was acting in self defense. As a policeman member of my family said the other day: "only two people know exactly what happened that night, one of them is dead, the other is George Zimmerman." We simply will never know the facts of what really happened during that altercation, leaving me and obviously the jury to believe that while he may have acted inappropriately, perhaps criminally, the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman is guilty of murder.

We can expect in the coming days, public furor over the verdict in this case. Our legal system will be raked over the coals. But it must be remembered that our system of law, imperfect as it is, is designed not only to punish the guilty, but also to protect the rights of the accused. I remember when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in his famous trial several years ago, many of the same people who are now excoriating the system, back then applauded the verdict because they felt that despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, there still existed a reasonable doubt that the former football star murdered two people. Remember this line of defense: "if the glove don't fit, you must acquit"?

The bottom line is that Trayvon's death and the media circus that surrounded it, is a tragedy that speaks volumes about our society and the way we treat each other. There are no winners here, just as there would not have been had the verdict been different.

As for justice for Trayvon, I will quote myself from last year:
Trayvon Martin's story on the surface is very compelling, filled with right and wrong, good guys and bad guys. It could have come off the pen of Harper Lee or any number of authors who have dealt with the tragic story of race in this country. Yet the reality is not as simple as we might have hoped. The grim truth is that Trayvon's murder is not simply a case of a paranoid vigilante, profiling and murdering an innocent victim, and a racist police force (and justice system) turning a blind eye on the death of a minority child. It is the tragic result of decades of stupid, senseless violence in our society. We can blame all sorts of causes for the violence; guns, poverty, racism, violent movies, video games and TV, the lack of respect for human life and dignity, the breakdown of the family, heck maybe even the people who commit the crimes themselves. Innocent people are murdered every day in this city and around the country at an alarming rate. Yet where is the righteous indignation over all those victims and their families?
Justice for Trayvon Martin will not come with George Zimmerman's arrest or conviction. Justice will come only when we as a society, all of us, learn to love, care and respect one another, and by God, figure out how to stop all the killing.
Then and only then will Trayvon's death, and the rhetoric that surrounds it, have any meaning.
Oh and since I'm spewing out my take on controversial subjects, here's another one: This tragedy should give pause to anyone who seriously believes that private citizens carrying concealed weapons in public is a good idea. In two words, it isn't.

Perhaps one life saved by someone realizing that he or she has no business carrying a gun around in public, would be the start to bringing justice to Trayvon Martin, his family, and everyone who dies needlessly because of violence in this country.

Friday, July 12, 2013


I don't consider myself a griper. People who know me know I'm pretty much an even tempered guy, not usually given to fits of rage over trivial matters. My son said to me the other day: "You're kind of a glass is half full kind of guy aren't you?" It's true; while I'm not exactly like the characters at the end of the irreverent Monty Python's Life of Brian, I generally try to look on the brighter side of life.

But there are some things people do that really get my goat, and my reaction to their indiscretions at times surprises even myself. I'm reminded of this as during the past couple of weeks I've been taking my children to the Loop with me, dispersing them at their various summer activities. The extra time with them gives me great joy with this one exception: I normally ride my bike to work during reasonable weather, but with my kids I'm forced to take the "L". Summer is a particularly bad time to take public transportation; it's hot and muggy and most people going to work like me are irritable and would much rather be away on vacation.

I'm not sure if people are ruder on public transportation in the summer or if I'm just a little more sensitive to it. Take this morning: my six year old daughter and I were standing on the platform as our train pulled into the station. It just so happened that we stood directly in front of the door as the train stopped. Just as the door was about to open, a young woman maneuvered herself in front of us. I let out an audible "Really?" but no matter, she got on the train ahead of us and took the only available seat. True to my sense of fair play, I must say that quite often, people are polite on public transportation in this city. While I'm traveling with my kids, it's not uncommon for someone to offer one of my kids, his or her seat. This kind of selfless behavior truly humbles me. On the other hand, one seat is not enough for some people. Directly across from the rude woman I mentioned above, sat a young man taking up an entire seat intended for two passengers. When I'm by myself, normally I let this kind of selfishness slide not being interested in a confrontation. But I didn't want my six year old to have to stand unnecessarily on a moving train so I let the guy know I intended to sit down whether he liked it or not. Grudgingly he moved over, allowing my daughter and me about one quarter of "his" seat. At one point during our long journey, the lout dropped his iPhone on my leg and let out a sarcastic,"Oh I'm SO sorry", to which I responded in kind: "Oh NO problem."

You may have noticed that I described these boorish characters as being young, both I'd say were in their early twenties. But I've found that rudeness knows no age, gender, ethnic or racial bounds. Neither does kindness. I've had people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and races offer me their seat while I'm with my kids, which under all but the most extreme situations, I turn down while thanking them profusely.

One day this week, my son and I found ourselves on a packed L car, crammed against the door. When the train pulled into the next station, we stepped out of the train to allow passengers to exit. As we were waiting to get back on board, a man who had not been on the train cut in front of us, and once all the passengers got out, attempted to board the train. This time I was not so passive. I said "excuse me" and pushed myself and my son in front of the guy. Despite believing to be in the right, I felt like a complete jerk, plunging myself into the domain of the louts. That feeling was only exacerbated a moment later when a woman offered her seat to my son.

And so it goes in the big city, whenever you have an encounter that makes you think the world, you included, have all gone to hell, someone comes along and restores your faith in humanity.

On the radio the other day I heard a story about wearing "inappropriate" clothing in public, especially in the summertime. Four people selected randomly on the street were interviewed on the topic. Two said they felt that people should take care to dress modestly in public while the other two said it shouldn't matter, citing that people should be free to wear whatever they pleased so long as it makes them comfortable. It's clear that our ideas of appropriate attire have changed drastically over the years. If you look at an old photograph of people in Chicago's Loop for example, everyone is dressed formally, men in suits, women wearing gloves, and everyone wearing a hat. Today it's not uncommon to see people on the streets of downtown Chicago wearing clothing that would not even have been considered appropriate beach attire fifty years ago. Because we live in a society that seems to value personal freedom over everything else it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that values such as etiquette, manners, and politeness have become unfashionable.

However when you distill those three quaint values down to their essence, they don't seem so old fashioned at all, for at the heart of all three is a virtue that continues to ring true in most people's hearts and minds. At least I'd like to think it still does. That virtue is respect.

Many people associate the "golden rule", that is, doing unto others as you would have done to you, with Christianity. But in fact this virtue, the cornerstone of civilization,  exists in every culture, if not expressed in those exact words. Respect for others is the glue that binds society together. It's what prevents us from beating, robbing, and killing one another on a daily basis.

The glass full part of me wants to give the line cutters, seat hoggers and the like, the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it was a momentary lapse of consciousness, maybe they had a bad day and not thinking, knew not what they were doing. Society and rules of conduct as expressed by grooming and attire certainly have changed as we can tell by comparing photographs of people of the past and people of today. But honestly I cannot say that rudeness and lack of civility in public are worse today than in the past. As they say, it only takes one apple to spoil the whole bunch and for many including myself, one or two bad experiences can sour one's view of the state of humanity.

Given the perception of how much we've lost in terms of common decency in our world, sometimes it surprises me that there is any decorum left out there. That said, unwritten laws of conduct and common sense still are the rule. On the L they dictate at the very least that you treat your fellow passengers with the same respect that you would expect for yourself. While not everyone thinks to do the right thing and give up his or her seat on a train to a person who is elderly, handicapped or a pregnant women, many people still do it without question. The people who offer their seat to a perfectly healthy guy with a kid or two in tow are going above and beyond the call of duty. To all of you who have offered my children and me your seat on the train or bus I have this to say:

Thank you, your simple gift of kindness makes the world a better place.


A funny thing happened: just now as I finished writing this piece, the following song played on my Pandora radio station:


 I must be on to something.