Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Goodbye Old Friend

As if the change of seasons wasn't depressing enough, we came upon this scene at Navy Pier a couple weeks ago. The Ferris Wheel that was the centerpiece of the renovation of Chicago's old Municipal Pier over twenty years ago is coming down.

It's a part of the reconfiguration of this city's number one tourist site which in all honesty never quite lived up to expectations or potential. The current, soon to be former attraction will be replaced by a fifty foot taller wheel with gondolas that will accommodate ten passengers compared to the current six. Those gondolas will be enclosed meaning the new wheel will be able to operate year round rain, sleet, snow or shine, the obvious cost being the thrill of exposure to the elements while swinging in a basket some fifteen stories above the ground.

I only rode the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel a handful of times but the mere sight of the structure always gave me a great deal of pleasure, a very happy landmark in the skyline. This is probably true for the majority of Chicagoans who, as pointed out by Rick Kogan in his piece in the Tribune from the other day, probably never set foot on the thing, as Navy Pier is almost the exclusive domain of tourists.

That's a shame because the Pier has some truly worthwhile attractions such as the Skyline Stage, the Grand Ballroom, the unfairly maligned Children's Museum and the redoubtable Shakespeare Theater.

Unfortunately, mixed in with all that is a collection of schlocky retail establishments targeting the least common denominator of tourists. Perhaps in its attempt to have a little something for everybody, nobody is completely satisfied.

Here's a piece I wrote about Navy Pier four years ago. Of all the changes to update the Pier suggested in the study that inspired my post, ironically the most conspicuous change that will take place is the replacement of the most successful feature, the Ferris Wheel. I can't for the life of me understand why a new Ferris Wheel is necessary as the old one was perfectly wonderful in my opinion. In addition to being enclosed, the new gondolas will, for the attention span challenged, be outfitted with video monitors.

Here's a DNA Chicago piece on the history of the Ferris Wheel, including a great video of the original wheel built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and later moved to Lincoln Park. In case you're wondering, the new wheel would still be dwarfed by the original which topped off at 264 feet. By comparison, the London Eye, excuse me, the Coca Cola London Eye on the River Thames, is 443 feet tall. For what it's worth, there's a 550 foot Ferris Wheel in Las Vegas which currently holds the record.

When I saw the Ferris Wheel ready to be dismantled the other day I couldn't help be reminded of something that Rick Kogan alluded to in his article.  Nearly fifty years ago, in 1967, Chicago lost its happiest place. It was an amusement park called Riverview that was located only a few miles from where we lived. We'd go there four or five times every summer and I distinctly remember as an eight year old, bitterly crying when I heard the news of its imminent demise. With it went a piece of my young childhood As Kogan pointed out, the twenty odd years of the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel may not have been enough time to etch it into the collective conscious of Chicago history, but it was certainly there long enough to have made a distinct impression on several generations of the city's children.

Next year there will be another wheel but it won't be the same with its hermetically sealed cabins subjecting their captive audience to video messages which will no doubt be aimed at selling stuff. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with that, commerce is what makes Navy Pier exist in the first place and is the thing that enables it to support truly worthwhile institutions like the Shakespeare Theater. Still there was an innocence about the old wheel that won't be there anymore, and lost with it, will be the childhoods of yet another generation of Chicagoans.

Not the end of the world certainly, but a little sad just the same,

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