Tuesday, October 29, 2013


It's that time of year again and my son and I are heartily enjoying another World Series. We're watching this one more intently than usual perhaps because our lives, mine by association only, have more than any other year to date, revolved around baseball, and we're not quite ready to see it end for the year. My son just had an experience that doesn't come along all that often in sports or in life for that matter. Last week, he and his team won the very last game of their season, meaning they went out as champions. In some ways that's a double edged sword as experiencing early success like that may make anything less in the future seem like a letdown. Of course many times in his life he's also experienced, as they used to say in the opening of the TV classic, The Wide World of Sports, the "agony of defeat", so I guess it all balances itself out in the end.

Anyway, this year's Series, at least the first five games of it, has proven to be a real corker featuring just about everything a baseball fan could hope for. For starters, the two best teams over the grueling 162 game regular season, actually made it into the Series, something that doesn't happen all that often in these days of extended playoffs. Last night, Boston's Jon Lester pitched a brilliant game while his teammate, David (Big Papi) Ortiz has been so hot at the plate that even when the opposing pitchers try to walk him, he still manages to hit doubles and home runs. On the other side, the St. Louis Cardinals under the capable hands of the best catcher in the game, Yadier Molina, have had some excellent pitching of their own, especially the youngsters, starter Michael Wacha, and their relievers, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, both capable of 95 plus mph heat. Despite game one being a comedy of errors, and with a few other miscues sprinkled throughout, both teams have shown brilliance in the field, especially the second basemen: Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox and Matt Carpenter for the Cards. Carlos Beltran perhaps made the play of the series by robbing Ortiz of another home run. Plus, this series features teams with long, storied traditions, each representing a great city that I love.

Quite honestly the only thing I'm rooting for this year is a seven game series, so what's there not to like?

Actually there are two things: the endings of games three and four. Game three ended with a controversial call when Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, in the process of attempting to field an errant throw from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, was charged with obstructing the progress of the runner, Allen Craig.  Although Craig would be thrown out at home by the Sox left fielder on that play, he and the Cardinals were awarded the winning run of the game because of the obstruction. Upon scrupulous viewing of replay after replay, the home plate umpire made the correct call in my opinion. However no one wants to see a game, especially a World Series game, decided by an umpire's judgement call.

Then in game four, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Cardinals down by two, Allen Craig (him again), got a base hit. Rookie Kolten Wong came in to pinch run for the slow-footed Craig who had recently come back to the team after a leg injury. The Cards' best hitter, Beltran was next up, but he didn't get a chance to swing the bat because Koji Uehara, the Red Sox reliever picked off Wong at first, game over. It was the first time ever that a World Series Game ended with a runner being picked off a base. Thrilling to be sure, but it came at the expense of a huge mistake on the part of the base runner. As has been pointed out ad-nauseum since the play occurred, the run that Wong would have represented was essentially meaningless, as the batter Beltran would have represented the tying run. Therefore there was no need for Wong to have taken a big lead off first, placing himself in jeopardy of being picked off.

Wong has been raked over the coals since the play, he was publicly excoriated by his manager Mike Matheny as well as by the incessant blabbering of sports radio. Close to tears, Wong did not shun the cameras after the game as he could have, but stood up to account for his error. He later apologized via Tweet to "#Cardinal Nation."

Last night, the Cardinals dropped their second game in a row after the aforementioned Jon Lester masterpiece, meaning that in order to win the World Series, they must win the next two games in Boston, no easy task.

And so we have the birth of yet another baseball scapegoat. If the Cardinals lose this World Series, you can rest assured that poor Kolten Wong's base running miscue will be remembered for as long as there are people who care about baseball. His name will go down in history, grouped with other players, and at least one spectator, as people who through one unfortunate act, allegedly cost their team a championship.

I don't know if any other sport produces as many goats as baseball. Perhaps it's because every play in the game hinges around the actions of relatively few players. If you mess up, it's there for all to see, and right there in the scorecard, recorded for posterity. There are as many ways to mess up in baseball as there are different plays, but I think you can distill baseball mistakes down to three or four categories:

The missed opportunity. Case in point: you're up to bat with tying run at third and only one out. Then you hit into a double play, game over. Probably the most famous missed opportunity in baseball is the mythical "Mighty Casey,"who after much anticipation comes up to the plate with two runners on and the chance to win the game with one swing of his bat. But with his "haughty grandeur," he just stood there watching the ball go by for strikes one and two. Then with the force of his mighty blow, he shattered the air, but not the ball, for strike three, dampening the joy of the faithful fans of the Mudville Nine. However, batters who fail to come through in the clutch are not usually blamed for their team's demise. As the great Ted Williams once said:
Baseball is the only field of endeavor in life where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.
The error. When you play in the field and the ball is hit to you, you either make the play or you don't. If it is determined by the official scorer that the play should have been made but wasn't, it's an error. Errors are simply a part of the game and for the most part are quickly forgotten. They do become a big deal when they have a direct impact on the outcome of a game, especially a big game. One of the most famous errors in history came in game seven of the 1912 World Series. The New York Giants were leading the Red Sox 2-1 in the bottom of the 10th inning. The Sox' Clyde Engel hit a routine fly to center fielder Fred Snodgrass who misplayed it. That opened the door for a series of events that enabled the Red Sox to tie the game, (with Engel scoring the tying run), and win it later in the inning. Snodgrass, otherwise a terrific fielder, made a sensational diving catch preventing a sure triple immediately following his error in that game. Despite that, a distinguished career, and a long, productive life, the headline of his New York Times obituary 62 years later read:
Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.
In recent memory of course there was Bill Buckner, another player of distinction who will always be remembered, especially in Boston, for misplaying a ground ball hit by Mookie Wilson of the Mets, that would have ended the inning but instead allowed the game winning run to score in game six of the 1986 World Series. The Mets went on to win game seven and the Series.

The mental gaffe: This is probably considered the most inexcusable of mistakes as baseball players are expected to be 100 percent in the game at all times. It's true that despite being a rookie, Kolten Wong should never have allowed himself to be picked off in that situation. But he's in good company. In a play during this year's American League Championship Series, Detroit Tiger great Miguel Cabrera was rounding third when he got the "stop" sign from his third base coach. He chose to ignore the sign and ended up being thrown out by at least twenty feet at home. The culprit of one of the most famous boneheaded plays in World Series history, was none other than the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth himself, who made the last out of the 1926 World Series against the Cardinals by being thrown out while trying to steal second base. When asked why he attempted to steal in that situation, the Bambino just said: "because they weren't expecting it." Turned out it didn't matter, they weren't expecting it but the Babe  was so slow they got him anyway.  To this day no other World Series has ended with a runner caught stealing.

Wrong place at the wrong time: This is the most unjust cause of goatsmanship. Here in Chicago, we just witnessed the tenth anniversary of the Steve Bartman incident. In case you don't recall, the Cubs were leading the Florida Marlins 3-0, and five outs away from their first World Series appearance in 58 years, and counting. With a runner at second, Luis Castillo hit a foul ball hit in the direction of the stands and several fans reached out to grab it. At the same time, Cubs left fielder Moises Alou tried to make a play on the ball. Of all the hands that reached out, it was Bartman's which actually touched the ball, deflecting it away from Alou, who may or may not have had a play. That simple out of play foul ball, and the ensuing hubbub the Cubs made charging Bartman of "fan interference," completely unravelled the team and by the end of the inning, the Marlins scored eight runs, more than enough to win the game. They won the next game too and the Marlins, not the Cubs represented the National League in the 2003 World Series. Despite all the the bad plays from the team that game including shortstop Alex Gonzales booting a tailor made, inning ending double play ball (hit by Miguel Carbrera), that would have gotten the Cubs out of that disastrous eighth inning virtually unscathed, it was the poor fan who to this day is blamed for his team's demise. Today the name Steve Bartman is more familiar to the public than most of the names of the players on that ill-fated team.

Probably the most famous incident in baseball history took place even before Fred Snodgrass's muffed fly. On September 23, 1908 in the old Polo Grounds in New York, the Giants were in a heated pennant race with the Cubs. The game was tied in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a runner at first. Up to bat comes another rookie, Fred Merkle of the Giants. He gets a hit that advances the runner to third. The next batter, Al Bridwell, hit a solid single to center field, scoring the runner at third, game over, Giants win. Or so it seemed. Merkle, the runner at first, did what every other major leaguer had done up to that point after a game winning run, he turned around and went back to his dugout. Well it so happened that the Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers had been prepared for such a situation. You see, the rules of baseball state that if there is a force out at any base with two outs, any runner crossing home plate will not be awarded with a run, even if he crosses the plate before the out is registered. Evers yelled to his center fielder, who himself was headed to the dugout, to retrieve the ball which he did. After getting the umpires' attention, Evers then tagged second base with the ball and argued that since Merkle had not touched second before the ball (he had in fact long since left the field), he was forced out, and that the run should not count. After agonizing with the decision, the umpires ruled in Evers' and the Cubs' favor, Merkle was declared the third out of the inning, the run was not allowed, and the game was still tied. But since by that time darkness had settled upon New York, the game was suspended, to be replayed at a later date if necessary. It turned out that it would be necessary as the Giants and the Cubs both finished in first place with identical records. The game was replayed in its entireity on October 8th. The Cubs won that game, the pennant, and the World Series (for the last time to date).

Despite himself having a long respectable Major League career, from that point on Freddie Merkle, for doing what anybody else would have done in the same situation at the time, would be forever known as "the Bonehead." He died in 1956, and here's how he was remembered in the New York Times:
Giants 1st Baseman’s 'Boner' in Failing to Touch 2nd Led to Loss of ’08 Pennant
In each case depicted above, despite all the other things that went wrong in those games, despite all the opportunities other members of the teams had to pick up their teammates, one person was singled out by fans and sportswriters, (but not the players who know better), as the scapegoat for the team.

It's a sad comment about the human condition that whenever something doesn't go our way, it always helps to blame somebody else.

And who says baseball isn't a metaphor for life?

So now I have a legitimate reason to root for these Cardinals. I'd like to see them win this thing for no other reason than saving Kolten Wong from the burden of being forever known as the guy who cost St. Louis the 2013 World Series.

Well actually I do have another reason. I really can't stand those stupid Red Sox beards.

Go Cards!

POST SCRIPT: In a case of life imitates art, (or is it the other way around?), in my haste to get this post out in a timely fashion, I originally credited John Lackey for the brilliant win in game five. Of course it should have been the lefty, Jon Lester. Lackey pitches tonight. Score that as an E-B (Blogger). In my defense all those Boston beards make their players look alike.

POST POST SCRIPT: The Red Sox just won their first World Series at home in Boston since Babe Ruth was on the team in 1918 and they beat the Cubs in six games. Game six of the 2013 World Series was filled with what I described above as missed opportunities as the Cardinals left nine runners on base in their 6-1 loss to the Red Sox. John Lackey, (yes I believe I got it right this time), was just as good as Jon Lester was in game five, pitching himself out of several jams and giving up only one run. After missing two games because of a back injury, Shane Victorino was the offensive hero of the game breaking a scoreless tie with a bases loaded triple in the third inning off Michael Wacha. And the Cardinals just gave up on David Ortiz, the Series MVP, intentionally walking him three times, tying a World Series record.  What can I say, the better team won, it's going to be hard to pin this loss on Kolten Wong, but I'm sure we haven't heard the last about him and his adventures on the basepaths.

Congratulations Red Sox!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Open House Chicago

This weekend, October 19th and 20th, the third annual Open House Chicago will take place. The event sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation was based upon a similar event that began in London nearly two decades ago. Buildings all over this city will open their doors and allow visitors to see parts of Chicago that are typically off limits the rest of the year.

I'll be busy giving tours of our own building, the Casa Bonita in Rogers Park, so I won't have the opportunity to take advantage of all the event has to offer.

But if I did, here's where I'd go, in no particular order:
  • The Auditorium Theater. OK this probably would be my first choice, you'll get to visit possibly the greatest interior in all of Chicago, maybe anywhere for that matter.
  • The building that replaced the Auditorium as Chicago's principle opera house, The Lyric Opera House, another grand interior especially if you like Art Deco.
  • McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum where you'll get to see the infrastructure of a thoroughly Chicago institution, one of the city's movable bascule bridges, smack dab in the epicenter of Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett's realized Plan of Chicago.
  • JAHN, the architecture firm founded by the controversial Helmut Jahn, its offices are located in the cupola of the Jewelers Building. You might not like the work of the frim but their offices are stunning. This touor is for CAF members only. 
  • Palmisano Park in Bridgeport, the site of the former Sterns Quarry. The tour will be led by members of the design team responsible for this magnificent park's creation.
  • Two businesses located on the site of the Old Stockyards, The Plant, a "net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation" and Testa Produce, another fully sustainable food business featuring its gigantic wind-powered turbine. Unfortunately the tour of the Testa plant is no longer taking reservations. 
  • On the west side, Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, unquestionably one of the most beautiful, and historically significant Roman Catholic churches in Chicago.
  • Another church, this one I've always been curious about, Harvest Bible Chapel, formerly the Scottish Rite Cathedral in the Gold Coast, across from Bughouse Square and the Newberry Library. The church is one of the few buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire. 
  • Also in the Gold Coast, the Charnley-Persky House, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright while he was under the employ of Louis Sullivan.
  • The Brewster Apartments, a highfalutin 1890s apartment building with another magnificent interior.
  • The Elks National Monument, a Classical Revival temple which was highly praised by John Drury in his book Chicago in Seven Days. (see my previous post).
  • Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Hyde Park where you can save the money on the regularly scheduled tours and see the inside for free.
  • KAM Isaiah Israel, a gorgeous synagogue in Hyde Park/Kenwood.
  • You can save yourself another tour fee by visiting H.H.Richardson's Glessner House, the great architect's only surviving Chicago building.
  • In South Shore, the former St. Constantine Greek Orthodox Church, now the Mosque Maryam, modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Whew! I could go on and on but I've run out of time, and you will too, there's simply too much to see this weekend and far too little time. Most of these buildings are generally not open to the public. Churches and temples of course are open during services so you might plan to visit them some other time. Check out the Open House Chicago website and plan your visits accordingly. 

And have a great weekend.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chicago, 1928

Courtesy of a fellow subscriber to a Facebook group devoted to "Forgotten Chicago", the fascinating book, Chicago in 7 Days was just brought to my attention. The book, published in 1928, was written by John Drury, a poet, writer, and later a radio host, much of whose work was based upon the Chicago scene. In the twenties and thirties he had an article in the old Chicago Daily News specializing in restaurant reviews, which becomes readily apparent when you read this little book. He was not related to the famous local TV news anchor of the same name.

Chicago in 7 Days is written as an account of a day by day tour given to a Miss Anne Morley, a self described "wide eyed visiting yokel from the Corn Belt." (We later learn that she hailed from Springfield). Day after day, the author takes Miss Morley on an exhaustive bus, streetcar, and elevated tour of the city, from the top to the very bottom. Miss Morley is shown neighborhoods where many life-long residents today wouldn't dare venture.

For example, stopping at an establishment for something to eat in the vicinity of Sacramento Avenue and Madison Street in East Garfield Park, Mr. Drury writes the following:
Because of its good food and pleasant appointments"  I explained to Miss Morley, "this place is popular with the beau monde of the far west side.
Today this area would be off limits to all but the hardiest urban pioneers and adventurers. The "beau monde" of the west or any other side for that matter, haven't been found in that part of town for years. In truth, many of the places our tour guide takes his intrepid guest would have been far off the beaten path for the average 1928 visitor as well. Hardly a stone is left unturned in their exploration of the city.

The ground rules are expressed at the outset: "We won't visit the stockyards." To our 21st Century ears, that might sound like an ironic remark, as if a gentleman would ever think of showing a young lady the brutal, mechanized killing industry that put our city on the map. On the contrary, Miss Morley is a bit put off that Chicago's number one tourist attraction at the time, might not be on her tour guide's agenda. The author puts her mind to rest, she would indeed get to visit the stockyards including its most gruesome features, but not before she saw the "fruits of our famous pioneer industries", that is to say the architecture, public works projects, and great cultural institutions that were all made possible by those industries.

There is an unabashed pride and optimism in Mr. Drury's words about this city. One can easily see the Chicago swagger and braggadoccio that is so off--putting to critics such as Rachel Shteir whose lambasting of Chicago in the guise of a book review was published in the New York Times earlier this year. That's not to say this little guidebook is a mouthpiece for the Chamber of Commerce. Far from it, Drury doesn't pull any punches, he takes Miss Morley through some of the most unflattering parts of the city, places with colorful names like Floptown, Bum Park, the Slave Market, and a place he calls simply, the "Underworld District". They visit the Western Undertaking Company which is:
particularly interesting because practically all persons who meet a sudden death in the north end of the Loop are brought here-that is, until such a time as the relatives of the deceased are located of notified by the police.
The couple visit the "Noose" Coffee Shop across from the Criminal Courts building and County Jail where the proprietor, Joe Stein:
provides meals gratis to condemned prisoners on the eve of their hanging.
Drury takes the lovely lady to Little Sicily on the near northwest side where:
at Milton and Oak Streets, we stood at Chicago's notorious "Death Corner"... where Sicilians are mysteriously shot to death every two or three weeks. And a shrug of the Sicilian shoulder is as far as the police ever get in their investigations.
And to the famous neighborhood on the south side, just west of the stockyards where in Drury's words:
in recent years, Back O' the Yards has been the scene of many gang murders and shootings, arising from the territorial disputes in distribution of illicit beer and alcohol.
In 1928 of course, the country was still under the grips of that noble experiment, Prohibition. Substitute the word "drugs" for "beer and alcohol", and he could have written those words today.

Despite the desperate conditions, Drury takes pains to point out that things were much worse in the past, that great strides were continuously being made to rectify the evils of poverty and its effcts. While walking through Floptown past the:
gnarled old men with yellow teeth, shabby young men with dirty wrinkled clothes, middle-aged men with doughy complexions, laborers, Mexicans, lumber- jacks, and drunks, 
he shows Miss Morley, Hobo College, an institution :
founded and conducted by Dr. Ben Reitman... for the betterment of the down-and-outer.
And they visited Chicago's legendary institution devoted to helping the needy of this city, the Hull House. Founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr as a settlement house and a place for social reform, the Hull House provided housing, educational opportunities and cultural activities for tens of thousands of individuals, mostly newly arrived immigrants on Chicago's west side. Unfortunately Miss Addams, who was still very much alive at the time of the writing, was not available  for a visit.

Of course not all of the seven day journey through Chicago ivolved visiting as Miss Morley called it: "how the other half lives." Starting from her base camp at the late, great downtown hotel the Sherman House, our travelers' urban excursions typically began mid-morning, and didn't end much before midnight. The first day is a whirlwind overview of the city, north, south, and west. Even the much overlooked east side is explored as the two find their all the way down to the residential neighborhood still known as "The Bush", adjacent to the now defunct United States Steel South Works plant.

Day two was devoted to Michigan Avenue (mostly south of the river), and the lakefront. It's interesting to note the contemporary sensibilities about architecture and other matters of the day. Drury singles out two specific buildings on that day's tour as "two of the world's greatest structures." His choice might come as a surprise given the number of notable Chicago buildings that were built before 1928. The first stop on the Michigan Avenue tour, number one on Mr. Drury's list of great buildings of the world, is Tribune Tower. The tower, the work of the New York architects Raymond Hood, and John Mead Howells, was selected the winner of a 1922 contest sponsored by the newspaper to build "the most beautiful office building in the world." The stiff competition included submissions from all over the world; many of them were, as was the winning entry, designed in the popular at the time, neo-Gothic style.  Drury spends several pages on the building, waxing poetically about its magnificence: the breathtaking design that makes the building appear to be reaching toward the sky yet remaining firmly planted on the ground, its cathedral-like entrance, the masterful stonework, the unforgetable view of the Chicago skyline between its flying buttresses thirty stories above the ground, and yes, he even goes on and on about the building's occupant, richly deserving in his opinion, of its self-proclaimed title: "World's Greatest Newspaper."

Surprisingly, for all the words Drury devotes to the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, directly across the street, is mentioned only in passing.

The "second burst of glory" in John Drury's collection of great buildings of the world found in Chicago, conveniently comes at the end of this particular tour sitting as it does at the other end of Michigan Avenue. My guess is that unlike Tribune Tower, this one would not rank highly on most lists of Chicago best buildings today. It's the Stevens Hotel, today known as the Hilton Chicago but best known to most long time Chicagoans as the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Its ornate Beaux Arts style,  Louis XV appointments, and especially its enormity overwhelms the visitor. These days, those of us who care about such things, marvel over the originality of the great architects of Chicago, John Root and Louis Sullivan for example. Back in the twenties, those architects' work already three decades old, was seen as "old fashioned." It was the architecture that looked back to the past for its inspiration, that was the current vogue. Another building that Mr. Drury lavishes praise upon, is the Classical Revival Elks Memorial at Lakeview and Diversey, a building well off the radar of most contemporary Chicago Architecture buffs.

Interestingly, under the heading of Architecture, the book's index lists, Classical, Colonial, Moorish, Reproduction of Parisian churches, Romanesque and Renaissance. However, the couple does explore a number of buildings that do not fit into any of those categories. These styles are described by the author as "modernistic" or "futuristic." Inside the long lost Union Station concourse, Miss Morley makes the observation:
I would say it looks unfinished...
Drury continues:
What aroused this thought in her was the appearance of square pillars of exposed fabricated steel, forming criss-crosses along the walls and lofty ceiling. "This exposed steel work," I asserted, "is an original innovation in terminal design. In fact, many of the more advanced modernistic artists claim that this is the first appearance of a typical American architecture. Because of its simplicity and directness, these artists believe that such an interior fulfills the purpose of art. They hold that art, particularly in the field of architecture, should reflect the present and not the past."
OK so Mr. Drury may have gotten his timeline a little mixed up; the appearance of a "simple", direct" and "typical" American architecture did not begin with Chicago's Union Station, not by a long shot.

Here's another passage from the couple's tour of the South Side:
Our walk then led north on Woodlawn Avenue to 58th Street.  
"What an odd-looking house," sang out Miss Morley, indicating a long, low, rambling house on the northeast corner.

"That," I replied, "is known as 'The Houseboat House because of its similarity to a boat, and is one of the show- places of the south side. It is easy to see that it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the foremost of American architects of to-day.
In case you haven't guessed it already, the house he's referring to is Robie House, one of FLW's most iconic designs. While Drury's writing on the subject may not shed much light on architectural history from a scholarly point of view, he does give us great insight into the way the average person looks at buildings, back then and today.

Miss Morley and her guide do eventually make it down to the stockyards where the visitor is at the same time repulsed and exhilarated by the goings on. "Gracious..." she says:
...the experience has a weird thrill with so much killing going on. I shall never forget it in all my life.
No sooner than the thought of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came into my head, Miss Morley brought up the muckracking novel. Always quick with the reply, her tour guide said:
"Yes," I said. "That novel caused as much of a stir when it appeared years ago as Uncle Tom's Cabin did earlier. Its expose of conditions in 'Packingtown' did much to bring about improvements in the meat-packing industry in Chicago. The deplorable conditions pictured in the novel are of course a thing of the past.
Of course.

In many parts of the book, Drury brings up Chicago's literary scene, even taking his guest to some of the hangouts of the famous writers of the time. He drops names of the likes of Theodore Dreisser, Ben Hecht, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and others. Unfortunately, our wanderers never seem to meet up with any of these literary giants. No one would ever confuse this book with the works of the great writers whose paths crossed at some point with this town. What Drury's book lacks compared to the works of his literary idols is a critical edge and a sense of irony. Superlatives abound in desribing the assets of this city, and its problems are reported as matter-of-fact, they're little more serious than smashed bugs on a windshield. Drury even finds something positive written from perhaps the greatest cynic of all, H.L. Mencken, who wrote this on Chicago's literary scene:
In Chicago there is the mysterious something that makes for individuality, personality, charm; in Chicago a spirit broods upon the face of the waters. Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every pulse- beat, an American who has something new and pecul- iarly American to say and who says it in an unmistak- ably American way, and nine times out of ten you will find that he has some sort of connection with the gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan— that he was bred there, or got his start there, or passed through there in the days when he was young and tender.
No, you will not find within its pages of this book, an insightful critique of this town. That's part of its charm. It would be almost inconceivable to find such a book, even a visitor's guide, written in our own cynical age.

If you were to break open a compenprary guidebook to Chicago, you will notice the book more than likely covers only a sliver of a section of the entire city. The large swaths of "unworthy" areas are deemed so because authors and editors consider them to be short on interest and/or high in danger. Not so with Chicago in 7 Days. The greatest joy for me in reading this book was Drury's portrayal of a city of tremendous life and potential. He and his guest embark on a magnificent seven day journey exploring practically every nook and cranny of Chicago, discovering treasures in even the most banal of places. Those banal places are are woven in seamlessly with the landmarks, the places considered "worthy" of note as tourist destinations go. That in a nutshell, is the essence of what the eperience of any real city is all about.

Unfortunately, tourists in our day it would seem, are not by and large interested in exploring real cities.

Again that term, "Disneyfication" rears its ugly head. Chicago's North Michigan Avenue is a good example. In the book, Drury writes about the neighborhood then known as "Towertown", after the Water Tower. In the twenties, this was the heart of Chicago's "Bohemia" as Drury called it, referring not to ethnicity but its lifestyle. The neighborhood once abounded with cafes, nightclubs, bookshops, and art galleries, much like New York's Greenwich Village and San Franciso's North Beach back in their heydays. As its counterparts in other cities, there was a certain edge to Towertown, which only added to its appeal:
Anne saw a long, low, dimly lit room filled with swaying couples - long-haired men and short-haired women. A jazz orchestra in one corner at least provided time for the dancers. On the walls of the room my companion noted weird futuristic and impressionistic drawings and cartoons, as well as newspaper clippings and art pictures.

"This," I said, "is Bohemia in all its glory !"
This milieu would over the years combine with upscale shops making for an interesting mix. Towertown as it was, became history in the late sixties and early seventies as major projects like the John Hancock Building and Water Tower Place anchored a wave of commercial development that continues to this day. North Michigan Avenue now is Chicago's major shopping street and any trace of its "bohemian" past is long gone. As a result, the neighborhood is both perfectly safe, and perfectly bland. It's also highly successful, economically at least. It may have gained the world at the cost of losing its soul.

Chicago of the Twenties was anything but Disneyfied; it was real to the core. Its lifeblood as John Drury pointed out, was found in its steel mills, factories and stockyards. In them, and in all their "fruits", progress and the hope for a better future seemed to writers like John Drury to be boundless. Today that industrial lifeblood is all but gone, but the great institutions that were made possible because of the industries still hang on. That is testimony perhaps, to the greatest quality of this city, its willingness to re-invent itself. Chicago has been doing just that since its inception. Simply put, no city can re-invent itself without people believing in it.

The term "world class city" had not yet been coined in 1928 but I have no doubt it would have been used unsparingly in Drury's text if it had. Perhaps taking their cue from Chicago in 7 Days, more recent unabashedly overbearing accounts of Chicago testify to the fact that there are people who still believe in this city. Whatever your opinion of the grandiose rhetoric, I'd be inclined to put this city's future in their hands, rather than in the hands of the apologists and cynics who can come up with nothing better than: "well at least we're better off than Detroit."

It's a charming book, a fun read, and a fascinating insight into the spirit of a city in the midst of one of its golden ages.

If you have any interest in Chicago, its past, and how that past relates to the current city, Chicago in 7 Days is a must read. Pick up a copy if you can find one. Short of that, you can find a PDF version here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The library

On my recent trip to Washington DC, I had the great privilege of having a personal tour of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. This is the building that sits on Capitol Hill, just behind the Capitol Building and adjacent to the Supreme Court Building. Our national library's prominent location on the most important patch of land in this country, symbolizes our culture's committment to knowledge and learning.

Or should I say symbolized?

This Flicker page has been making the rounds of social media this past week and has over 100,000 views. It consists of a series of photographs of the Mark Twain Branch of the Detroit Public Library which has been abandoned. According to this site, the library closed for repairs in 1996 but never re-opened; asbestos abatement was cited as the main stumbling block. Currently the building is awaiting demolition. Photographs from both sites show that despite a crumbling interior, the library's shelves contine to be filled with books.

I find it ironic that in a city like Detroit, where abandoned buildings are stripped of every inch of material that folks could get a dime out of, nobody seems to particularly care about the books.

This afternoon my son and I spent a couple of hours in one of our local libraries. As usual, the magnificent facility was underutilized; blame it on the beautiful weather or the internet. As we were leaving, I commented to him on how lucky we are to have libraries and particularly such a great one at our disposal. I hope my message sunk in.

He may be called upon someday to fight to save it.