Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back, Looking Forward...

Another year gone by, quicker than the last one which was, until this one, the quickest year of my life. Yes, everything my elders told me as a child came true, time does indeed seem to go faster the older you get. With that bit of stating the obvious out of the way, 2015 by and large was a pretty good year for us. For starters, no one close to us died. I know that's setting the bar awfully low but after last year it was quite a relief.

My son graduated from elementary school and got into his first choice of high schools. He made the freshman baseball team and has been amazing us with his perseverance in keeping up with his new rigorous schedule including three grueling afternoons per week of sports conditioning. My wife had a magnificent exhibition of her ceramic art in the form a site-specific installation piece on the site of the old Peabody mansion in Oakbrook, Illinois. Our daughter, now in third grade, continually amazes us with her insight and remarkable capacity for compassion and empathy. Just today at lunch with my mom, she reprimanded me for a mildly disparaging remark about someone, leading me to comment that she was my conscience.

There were no great milestones for me this year but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that something I did late last year turned my life around, I bought a smartphone. For a long time I resisted the temptation to indulge myself with what I used to consider one of the scourges of society, see this. In some ways I still consider cellphones a scourge but me criticizing other cellphone users would truly be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, just ask my mother. Turning me into just another rude, obnoxious lout with a smartphone isn't what turned my life around, as I already was a rude, obnoxious lout. It was the image-making capability of the device and the ability to take a camera with me everywhere I go.

You see, photography was my first passion and that passion for the medium and my work was once the driving force of my life. Then I got married and started a family, and my work took a back seat. There hasn't been one second of my life when I regretted that decision as today it is my family who keeps me alive and vital. I never actually stopped taking pictures since my son was born almost fifteen years ago, it's just that it became harder to justify and motivate myself to spend time away from the family, especially countless hours in the darkroom. Digital photography has eliminated much of the need for the darkroom which is a mixed blessing; it has put still photography and film making, another passion of mine, into the hands of people who never would have been able to master the specialized skill sets of the two media or afford serious equipment. Of course image making involves more than access to gear and knowing how to use it. Just like owning a computer with a word processor does not make you a writer, owning a digital camera and a copy of PhotoShop doesn't make you a photographer, at least a good one.

Unfortunately that point has been lost on many companies (including newspapers), who used to employ professional photographers and no longer do so because they believe any employee can take acceptable pictures with their cellphone. Consequently the profession has taken a beating.

OK I've gotten myself off track which is another thing that happens when you get old.

It was the cellphone that got me back to photographing on a regular basis. The device I have, an iPhone 6, has a very sophisticated on-board camera. I wouldn't attempt to make huge prints with files produced with my iPhone, but it's perfectly suitable for reasonably sized prints and great for images viewed on a computer screen. Still I don't feel like a serious photographer when I'm out and about taking pictures with my cellphone. After all, the thing is designed for making calls (actually I spend way more time taking pictures with it than making calls), and to me at least, it still doesn't feel right as a camera.

So I got myself a real camera, and my New Year's resolution is to use it and my iPhone to get more than my feet wet in the medium that has been so important in my life. Another resolution (actually a plan that has been in the works for sometime but not fully realized), is to populate this blog with more images on a regular basis.

That said, here are of what I consider some of my best images from the past year, my top fifteen
if you will:

Going back to my past, photographing in black and white in the parks again, this for a post about what will be lost if the Barack Obama Presidential Library is built on public park land.

This photo was taken from one of the top floors of City Museum, in the words of a good friend, "St. Louis's greatest gift to the world." I cannot disagree.

On the day of the official opening of Chicago's 606 Trail, I made this photograph of a family on their front stoop in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where residents fear the new trail will bring unwanted change to the community. 

Unaware at the time that the platform upon which I was standing would soon be history, I made this, one of the best photographs I ever made in Chicago's Loop.

Exercising my formalist side, this was made in the Bowmanville neighborhood of a factory building I've always admired.

Italianate facades dominate this shot of the Randolph/Wabash elevated station, also not long for this world.

My wife Beth Iska's installation piece at Mayslake Peabody Estate, Oakbrook, Illinois.

This is the view my mother gets to wake up to every morning. 

More formalist exercises, this one at the Adams/Wabash El stop, here,,, 

...and here. 

Octogenarian Coach Harold giving some pointers to one of my son's teammates.

This was made on a foggy way to work last week.

For a soon to be published post on what may be the next addition to the endangered architecture of Chicago list, this is the James R. Thompson Center.

I'm a strong opponent of texting while driving, but not making photographs while driving. I once took a picture with a twin lens reflex camera while driving over the Williamsburgh Bridge in New York City.  It was a pretty good picture too, but not as good as this one, made on the Clark Street Bridge over the Chicago River.

The first good picture made with my new lens.

And so it goes. I hope to be posting more work very soon but now am struggling to stay awake until midnight to greet in 2016.

To all of you I wish you a Happy and Healthy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Fall of the Suburbs?

Cities are a product of time. They are the molds in which men's lifetimes have cooled and congealed, giving lasting shape, by way of art, to moments that would otherwise vanish with the living and leave no means of renewal or wider participation behind them. In the city, time becomes visible: buildings and monuments and public ways, more open than the written record, more subject to the gaze of many men than the scattered artifacts of the countryside, leave an imprint upon the minds even of the ignorant or the indifferent. Through the material fact of preservation, time challenges time, time clashes with time: habits and values carry over beyond the living group, streaking with different strata of time the character of any single generation. Layer upon layer, past times preserve themselves in the city until life itself is finally threatened with suffocation: then, in sheer defense, modern man invents the museum. 
By the diversity of its time-structures, the city in part escapes the tyranny of a single present, and the monotony of a future that consists in repeating only a single beat heard in the past. Through its social division of labor, life in the city takes on the character of a symphony: specialized human aptitudes, specialized instruments, give rise to sonorous results which, neither in volume nor in quality, could be achieved by any single piece.
-Lewis Mumford - Introduction to The Culture of Cities

In the debate between the virtues of the city versus the suburbs, a typical defender of our great urban centers might look upon these words of the great writer-philosopher Lewis Mumford rhapsodizing the city, as a mission statement for his or her cause.

With the dichotomy between left/right political ideologies tearing this nation apart, words like Mumford's probably appeal more to the left than the right, as demographically speaking, big cities, and those  who believe in them, traditionally have been populated by people of a liberal bent compared to the suburbs.

Enter Charles Marohn, a city planner with a background in civil engineering, and an avowed conservative Republican from Brainerd, Minnesota.

According to a MINNPOST article from earlier this month, Marohn came to the conclusion that the way we have come to design communities since the mid-twentieth century is a dead end, after saving the skin of a small community whose sewer line was compromised during the building of a highway. The community could not afford to rebuild its sewer so Marohn came up with a plan to not only fix the sewer but expand it, paving the way for further development (or urban sprawl if  you prefer), down the road. To some, the promise of growth for growth's sake is an aphrodisiac, signalling jobs and economic opportunity. Marohn's plan appealed to the federal government who paid the lion's share of the cost of the project, while the small community would kick in a fraction of what the original project would have cost them had Marohn not brought in the Feds.

Still, that chunk of money was more than the bedroom community could afford and in time not only were they faced with having to pay off their share of the project, but were also stuck with the repair bills when the system inevitably malfunctioned. The piece quotes Marohn as saying:
I bought them time, but I gave them a giant unfunded liability.
It dawned on him that while the construction of residential communities built far from cities and their economic base, may create temporary economic opportunities, but once those communities are built, they are unable to generate enough new revenue to sustain themselves.

Quoting from the article:
It’s a perspective that has led Marohn to conclude that the nation’s 70-year experiment with suburban development is a failure — because it is economically unsustainable. That is, the lack of density does not produce tax revenue necessary to cover current services, let alone the long-term costs of maintaining and replacing those services. And because suburbs were built as fully developed places, they don’t have the flexibility to adapt, to become more dense in response to fiscal realities.
There you have it, nothing more than bottom line common sense, in the true spirit of conservative laissez-faire economics, with some social Darwinism thrown in for good measure. Distant suburbs and more distant exurbs according to Charles Marohn, should be allowed to die, as they are too weak to survive.

Could this issue become a common ground between liberals and conservatives in this country? I hardly think so. So entrenched are a significant number of Americans who live in abject fear of the city and all that entails, so enamored of the automobile are these folks, and so bought into the myth of the quasi "country life" found in the land beyond the airport, it's hard to imagine many dyed-in-the-wool suburbanites buying into Marohn's ideas. As he describes it, his is a voice crying out in the wilderness.

That's not for lack of trying. Marohn created his website, Strong Towns back in 2008 and regularly tours the country preaching his notion that communities with any chance of long term economic growth, need to evolve slowly, rather than be built as ready-made communities. Just like Jane Jacobs, Marohn believes that the traditional wisdom of building cities that existed for millennia still works, while the new systems which have evolved since the end of World War II, simply put, do not.

You can read the mission statement of Strong Towns here.

A must read for anyone interested in the future of the city, Marohn is truly a man after my own heart.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

My New Lens and I in the Loop

In the days before digital photography, you could make an investment in serious gear and expect it to last a lifetime. Now photographic equipment evolves almost as quickly as do computers, so in order to keep up you have to invest in new equipment on a regular basis. 

Of course the good part of that is you get to buy new stuff.

A good photographer can take a good picture with a ten dollar camera in his or her back yard but let's face it, there's no shot in the arm more satisfying than getting a new piece of gear.

Last week I bit the bullet and invested in a new camera and a serious lens, my first big photographic purchase in a decade.

The lens arrived the other day but I'm still waiting for the camera. I jumped ships going from Nikon to Canon which means the new lens won't fit my old camera, so to test it out I slapped the lens on a borrowed camera. These were taken the other day in my own back yard so to speak, Chicago's Loop, with a cheap camera and an expensive lens.

I'm particularly happy with this last one.

The camera won't arrive until after Christmas so I'll have to be a good boy and wait.

Merry Christmas to all! 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Our Fragile Democracy

In the wake of the Paris attacks last month, a meme scattered about social media presented a map of the United States with each state colored to represent its political leanings. As has been the custom of late, the states which have voted predominantly Republican in recent years were colored red while those preferring Democrats were blue. Leaving no doubt as to the political leanings of its creator, instead of labeling them as such, in the map's legend, the red states were labeled "The United States of America" while the blue states were labeled "Dumfuckistan."

I assured my friend who re-posted the map on Facebook that the feeing about the other side was mutual in the blue states.

I've been around a long time and can't for the life of me remember when there was so much acrimony between the right and the left in this country. The first presidential election I can recall was back in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson faced off against Barry Goldwater. The Senator from Arizona was a staunch conservative (for the time) whose hawkish stance on Vietnam and communism, and his apparent willingness to use nuclear weapons was considered by many to be extreme. That stance inspired perhaps the most controversial political ad of all time. The spot featured a little girl counting the petals she plucked off a daisy while an ominous male voice is heard in the background counting down from ten. The girl looks up into the sky as the camera zooms into her face. When the countdown reaches zero the shot of the closeup of the little girl's face dissolves into an explosion, clearly the result of a nuclear weapon. Some words follow from President Johnson including a quote from W.H. Auden: "we must love one another or die", then a voiceover admonishes the voters to: "Vote for President Johnson..." because "...the stakes are too high for you to stay home." The message was clear to TV viewers during the height of the cold war: vote for LBJ or the little daisy girl dies.

As a five year old, I was oblivious to all that, all I knew was that my parents were vehemently opposed to Goldwater. I remember walking by a huge photograph of the Republican candidate at a campaign office during the election and asking my mother if he was a bad man. No my mom said, he's not a bad man. we just don't agree with him.

It was a huge distinction that I'm afraid is lost on many of us today.

Johnson won that election by a landslide but despite campaigning as the peace candidate, he and his administration ended up escalating the Vietnam war. That war along with the struggle for civil rights tore this nation apart in the sixties. The man who replaced Johnson in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon. also promised to end the war but instead expanded it into Laos and Cambodia. Nixon who was never liked by the left, nor by much of the right for that matter, was indeed a divisive president, less so after the coverup surrounding the Watergate Hotel break in came to light. That event, more than any other I think, ushered in a wave of cynicism that has defined our relationship with politics and those we elect to run this country ever since.

An even more polarizing figure in the White House was Ronald Reagan. To the left he was a bumbling old movie actor whose views on the economy, social justice and the environment set this country back fifty years. To the right, by bringing the US out of the economic morass, stagnation and self-doubt of the seventies, Ronald Reagan did nothing less than save this country.

As divided as the left and right were during the Reagan era, things still got done in Congress, people understood that in order for a democratic republic to function, those of different opinions needed to get together and work out a compromise. The Democrats in the time of the Reagan era, perhaps at their weakest point in a century and on the brink of irrelevance. still looked upon themselves as the loyal opposition.

After twelve years of Republican hegemony in the White House and Congress, Bill Clinton became president. The first baby boomer president, Clinton's politics was largely forged out of the cynicism of the sixties and seventies and he gave back that cynicism to this country in spades. The Republicans hated him for it to the point of impeaching him over of all things, the coverup of a sex scandal. With that we became the laughing stock of the world.

The Monica Lewinsky affair and the impeachment of Bill Clinton in my opinion took this country to unprecedented depths of cynicism and mistrust of government, from which point we have kept diving deeper and deeper ever since. George W. Bush, seemingly a lightweight, intellectually challenged candidate, won the 2000 presidential election under dubious circumstances, and had zero support from Democrats until the fateful morning of September 11, 2001. The terrible events of that day had the potential of bringing this country together like no other since the attack on Pearl Harbor. But the Bush administration dropped the ball when under the guise of national security, they used the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq, purging it of its admittedly horrific dictator Sadam Hussein, and creating a power vacuum in that country which at the very least is partially responsible for the terrible situation we find ourselves in today in that part of the world. Then in 2008 came the economic collapse, the seeds of which were planted long before, during the bullish economic optimism of the Clinton administration and beyond.

When Barack Obama was elected president in November of 2008, he inherited the uncharted territory of this nation fighting a war on two fronts combined with an economic crisis the likes of which we hadn't seen since the Great Depression.

One would think that in such a time of crisis. a newly elected president would enjoy at least the tacit support of the overwhelming majority of Americans, rooting for him to succeed in bringing the nation out of its doldrums. But that was not the case as there were Republicans who pledged from day one of the Obama administration to work tirelessly, not for the betterment of this nation, but merely to defeat Barack Obama. For whatever reason, a tidal wave of Americans agreed with them and in fact, rooted for the president to fail.

Now at the twilight of the Obama administration, the jury is still out on the efficacy of his presidency. One can only imagine that jury will be split along party lines.

Perhaps the most salient and depressing symbol we have of our political landscape at the moment is the current crop of Republican presidential candidates hoping to win their party's nomination this summer.  You have to dig deep in order to find a credible candidate in the bunch. While millions of Americans scratch their heads over how anyone in their right mind could possibly support someone like Donald Trump, millions more believe he speaks for them.

The title of a Washington Post editorial published the day after the last Republican debate in Las Vegas says it all: For Republicans, bigotry is the new normal

The editorial goes on to say that while most of the Republican candidates distance themselves from Donald Trump's rants about Muslims, Mexicans, and other minorities, that distance is less than you might imagine as a plurality of registered Republicans agree with Trump on even his most outrageous stands. It took a real whopper, Trump's idea that ALL Muslims should be barred from entering the United States to get any reaction from his fellow Republican candidates, perhaps only because that idea runs so counter to what this country is supposed to stand for, even the most ardent supporter of the strictest immigration controls, except of course Trump, had to cry foul.

Which makes you think, are these guys and one woman really as bigoted as their plattforms would lead you to believe, or are they just telling their constituents what they want to hear. No question mark needed at the end of the last sentence because no one should be the least bit surprised that candidates say all kinds of things in order to one up their opponents.

On the other side, the Democratic race lacks the side show quality of the Republican circus, but let's face it, the candidate who is the darling of the left, Bernie Sanders, much like Trump, is telling his followers exactly what they want to hear. Unlike the Republicans, I haven't the slightest doubt that Sanders is sincere about what he's telling people on the campaign trail. A dyed-in-the-wool socialist, Sanders makes no bones about telling America he believes in the re-distribution of the wealth of this country, that everyone should be assured of cradle to grave health care, a college education, and a job waiting for them when they get out, all paid for by the government. After all, if Denmark can do it, so can we. Of course what Sanders fails to mention in his vision of a utopian America modeled after Denmark is that in order to sustain their utopia, the Danes contribute about 56 percent of thier income to the government. Good luck trying to convince Americans that it would be a good idea to do the same.

The only other serious candidate on the Democratic side is Hillary Clinton who has so much baggage in her past that, save for her zealous supporters, most of the people who consider themselves likely to vote for her come November, 2016 seem to be holding their collective nose.

Not a good choice at all in my opinion on either side. If I had to predict the outcome of the upcoming election, I don't think I'm too far out of line by saying chances are pretty good that Hillary Clinton will be our next president, if only because the Bernie Sanders is too extreme and the Republican Party is in disarray. I don't think they could elect someone to the proverbial office of dog catcher on a national level these days. As someone who has voted Democrat far more often than Republican, you might think I would be happy right now, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. I believe that in order for our democracy to survive, we need at the very least, two credible parties that can freely represent differing points of view in a reasonable, logical manner, without slipping into the morass of intolerance, fear, bigotry, and sheer stupidity, which seems to be the rule of the day. There will always be special interest groups, some of them with inordinate amounts of money and power to sway elected officials this way or that, which is why I think the Supreme Court's recent ruling on campaign financing was such a disaster. In the end however, I still believe the will of the people ideally is stronger than the power of the special interest groups. In the end, we still have the ultimate say as to who gets in and who does not, if only we choose to do so.

In an address to the British House of Commons as World War II was coming to a close, Winston Churchill said this:
At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.
The problem we have is this, our political system has become so petty, ugly and mean spirited. that the majority of Americans, especially young ones, have absolutely no interest in participating. This does not bode well for our future.

Beyond participation, as I see it, a democracy needs two things in order to work, the minority needs to accept the will of the majority, while the majority needs to accept the rights of the minority. This can actually be boiled down to one essential ingredient, both sides need to respect each another, accepting that we cannot agree on everything. As my mother so wisely taught me 51 years ago, people who hold different opinions are not necessarily bad people. Chances are good that we may have more in common with the people on the other side of the fence than differences, if only we took the time to find out.

Democracy cannot succeed (at least at the moment) in a place like Iraq where people on opposite sides are mortal enemies who have no interest in accepting the will or the rights of the other side. Our leaders, including those in the current administration, are foolish to assume that democracy will naturally sweep in to fill the vacuum of vanquished tyrants. They're even more foolish to believe that democracy will actually succeed if by some chance it is introduced.

Our country seems to be headed in the direction of splitting into two separate states, one red, one blue, divided by political ideology and defined by intransigence, rather than one country strengthened and emboldened by reasonable and rational discourse.

I've lived through an era where the likelihood of the destruction of the planet was on everyone's mind because chances of it happening was not at all out of the question. I've seen cities including my own burn over racial hatred and intolerance. I have seen one president assassinated, one impeached, and another resign before he could be impeached. I've seen the nation torn apart over wars that we should not have fought, and I saw the Twin Towers collapse before my eyes, live on TV. Trust me, we've been through worse crises just in my lifetime. That doesn't include two world wars, the Great Depression, and on and on and on...

We survived those crises because somehow we managed to come together in times of trouble, mending our fences and working as one. We are a nation that has come together not because we share a nationality or religion or even an ideology. What we do share is the basic idea that our strength as Americans is our differences. It is defined by a motto written in Latin and found on the back side of our currency, "E pluribus unum", out of many, one.

Our fragile democracy above all is the glue that binds us together and makes us one, It can only survive if we learn to respect and talk to one another, and most important, to fulfill our right and responsibility as citizens by participating in government, at the very least in the electoral process. Failure to vote is not a valid form of protest, it only sends a message to the powers that be that we simply don't care. Once that is established, any form of tyranny can rule the day, and it will be nobody's fault but our own.

The closing line from that old LBJ commercial rings as true today as it did a half century ago,

The stakes are too high for you to stay home.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Next Time

One of the useful things about writing a blog for a while is being able to look into the archives to see what you were doing at a specific moment in your life. For a very long time, it has been a tradition of ours to go up to Milwaukee on the weekend after Thanksgiving which also happens to correspond with my birthday. I knew we didn't make it up there last year, but was quite certain we were there the year before.

Thanks to this blog's archive, and the realization that I wrote about Milwaukee the last time we made it up there, it turns out our last post-Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the Cream City (named after the color of bricks typically found on its buildings), took place in 2012, three years ago.

Our periodic visits to Milwaukee confirm two of the most undeniable facts in human existence: things change (the title of my last piece on Milwaukee), and the scariest of them all, time flies. Because of that and our all too infrequent visits to one of my favorite cities, I've learned not to take another concept for granted, "next time."

In all my travels, next time comes up whenever I reckon I'll have the opportunity to do something I didn't get around to doing, the next time I visit a city. Until recently, the thought that there may not be a next time never occurred to me. That revelation struck me perhaps the first time a few years ago when I visited Melbourne. Quite frankly, despite how much I enjoyed that lovely city in Victoria, Australia, the idea of getting another opportunity to fly half way around the world to visit Melbourne again seemed quite unlikely indeed. 

Being only ninety minutes away by car, Milwaukee is obviously a different story. We could go up there at the drop of a hat if we choose, but somehow life seems to get in the way.

A couple things came to mind when I discovered that it's been three years since our last Thanksgiving visit. If we wait another three years, who knows what will have changed in our lives, but two things will be certain, I'll be sixty years old and my son will be a senior in high school, perhaps without the slightest desire to join us.

Also unknown is what will change in Milwaukee in the next three years. Both my wife and I have long histories with the city. She lived and studied there in her late teens and early twenties. and I've been going up regularly since childhood, starting with summer vacations with my grandparents. Since my wife and I have been going there together, we've observed the changes that have occurred, usually lamenting the loss of one favorite haunt or other.

Fortunately at this writing, more than a handful of Milwaukee institutions remain intact, unchanged since, well at least as long as I can remember, and no doubt much longer. 

My surrogate grandfather was from Germany and whenever we visited we inevitably dined in at least one of the city's great German restaurants, Maders and Karl Ratzsch's. Much later I had my first legal beer at Maders when I was nineteen, which was the drinking age in Wisconsin back then, two years younger than my home state, explaining the extraordinary concentration of police at the Illinois-Wisconsin state border on weekend evenings back in the seventies.

But Karl Ratzsch's at least in my opinion is superior to Maders in every way and my dear family obliges me on my birthday with a visit to my favorite restaurant on the planet. (Allegedly it was Frank Lloyd Wright's as well).

Looking exactly as it did in my childhood, the redoubtable Karl Ratzsch's restaurant
As you can see in the picture, the joint wasn't exactly jumping when we were there a couple weeks ago. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that German restaurants with their heavy fare are not popular these days, perhaps for good reason. But to me this kind of cooking is the ultimate comfort food, introduced by my Czech father who passed on his passion for delicacies such as roast duck, wiener schnitzel and liver dumpling soup to his only son. The food combined with the gemutlichkeit, accompanied by a soundtrack of Johann Strauss waltzes and other light classical and old pop standards. kept the memory of my father, surrogate grandfather and my long lost childhood alive.

Unfortunately, as yet I have been unable to pass along the passion for Central European cuisine to my own children and I'm probably not alone. My fear is one day we'll drive up to Milwaukee and Karl Ratzsch's and Maders will be gone, victims of changing times, appetites and wastelines. 

Knowing the visit to Karl Ratzsch's would take up a good chunk of our limited time and money, I had reservations about visiting it this trip. Yet well aware of my new found appreciation of next time, I decided we had to go. It was the right decision and it made me very happy to be in the venerable restaurant again, hopefully there will be a next time.

Another valued treasure in Milwaukee is the Hotel Pfister which first opened its doors in the 1890s. The hotel expanded in the sixties, perhaps tripling its number of rooms when it built the adjacent Pfister Tower, one of the butt- ugliest sixties era buildings in a city filled with them. Fortunately the old building remains in tact and as you can see in the photo, every effort has been made to retain its 19th century charm.

The sumbtuous lobby of the Hotel Pfister
In the vicinity of Karl Ratzch's and the Pfister, another Milwaukee institution is still there but eroding before our eyes. George Watts & Son, in business since the 1870s, is famous for its tea room which is still going strong. In addition, Watts once had a retail establishment that occupied the rest of the two floors of its lovely building at the corner of  Mason and Jefferson Streets. The Watts Gift Shop, similar in feel to the one featured in the classic Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner, specialized in exceptionally courteous service and high quality odds and ends. In my wife's words, Watts featured "expertly curated, lovely but non-essential items for the kitchen and dining room," Watts was the go to place for wedding registries and Christmas gifts for the well heeled of Milwaukee's North Shore. Every year we'd take the opportunity to purchase gifts, especially for my mom for whom the shop was perfectly suited. About ten years ago we noticed that the company was reducing the footprint of its shop, renting out bits of space in their building to other high end retail establishments like a bridal salon and an art gallery. Today Watts Gift Shop is limited to the vestibule of their building and one small room on the first floor. Worst of all, a sizable portion of the second floor now is now occupied by a law office. My wife lamented putting off buying many things she had her eye on because she always assumed Watts would be there the next time we visited. Now she's not so sure.

In a post I wrote way back in 2010, I enumerated five of my favorite things in the world that were found in Milwaukee. Today, one of those establishments, Palermo Villa is gone, Alterra Coffee and Sendiks Grocery on Downer Street have both changed hands and altered in the process. We didn't visit Ben's Cycle this time but they have grown considerably and as a reliable source, our friend who is Ben's cousin assures us, the business is doing quite well thank you very much. Of the fives laces listed, only Karl Ratsch's seems to have changed not one iota.

There has been one change in Milwaukee since our last visit that pleased me to no end. Back when I was visiting the city with my grandparents in the sixties, we always made time for a brewery tour. Milwaukee of course is best known as a center of brewing and when I was a kid, the city boasted three major breweries, Schlitz, Pabst and Miller. We visited them all. To me the most impressive part of any brewery tour was the brewhouse and its enormous kettles which boil the liquid known as wort, extracted from mashed, malted barley and other grains. Into those kettles at various times in the brewing process, hops are introduced, typically by hand. From a historic postcard of the Pabst brewhouse that I collected as a child, this is how it looked:

Image from a fifties postcard showing Pabst Brewery workers
monitoring and adding hops to the brewing wort.
Notice in the background of the photograph there is a stained glass window. That window depicts the legendary King Gambrinus, the "patron saint of beer." You can imagine how impressive this room would have been to a little kid. What cannot be conveyed in the photograph is the tremendous aroma of the cooking sweet wort, combined with the spicy fragrance of the hops. That smell is not to everyone's liking but it is definitely unforgettable and in the rare circumstances when I encounter it, I'm magically transported to that very room, c. 1965.

The brewing industry fell upon hard times a decade later, Schitz closed its doors in the eighties and Pabst followed suit in the nineties. Since that time I often wondered what became of that beautiful room with its glorious kettles and stained glass window. Here's a link to a Flicker site devoted to some of Milwaukee's industrial ruins including the old brewhouse. Some of the photographs show markings on the floor where the mash tuns once sat, several stories above the brew kettles. They were no doubt removed in order to salvage their copper. But the beautiful kettles remained, covered with a patina of dust, as grass took seed within the grout of the old ceramic tiles on the floor. I can only guess why those old tanks didn't meet the same fate as the other equipment in the brewhouse, someone must have figured they had not completely worn out their usefulness.

A few months ago, the Pabst Company (whose chief product is now contract brewed by the Miller Brewing Company on the west side of town), announced that it will open up a boutique micro-brewery on the site of their old downtown plant. Naturally I had to go see.

One of my childhood haunts, the Pabst Brewery,
closed in the nineties and left to decay for twenty years
is finding new life. The brewhouse is the building on the right.
Today in the former Pabst guest house where the brewery tours used to originate, there is a gift shop that sells memorabilia from all the old Milwaukee breweries. There I inquired about the plans for the new brewery. Mistakenly I thought it would take advantage of some of the old equipment, thinking of course about the brewhouse. I was told the new micro brewery would be built inside an old church building on the edge of the property. What then I asked would be the fate of the old brew kettles? Clearly I hadn't been to Milwaukee in a while.

It turns out the brewhouse has been converted into a hotel, appropriately named, the Brewhouse Inn. The centerpiece of the new hotel is the lobby one floor above the reception area featuring what else, the six magnificent kettles and the window, all of which have been lovingly restored. The rooms of the hotel sit where the mash tuns used to be, and all overlook the lobby and the brew kettles.

The interior of the Pabst brewhouse as it appears today as the lobby of the new
Brewhouse Inn in Downtown Milwaukee.  
Like an iceberg, the majority of a working brew kettle exists below the surface, except for these giants as their bottoms have been lopped off. You can now stand underneath them one floor below and look up into the inside of the massive tanks from the reception area of the hotel. For a guest just arriving at the hotel not knowing what was going on upstairs, these massive copper voids in the ceiling must appear as brazen, abstract statements of modern interior architecture. 

As I told the doorman who judging from his appearance, could not possibly remember the old brewery, the one thing they couldn't replicate was the smell. He humored me but I got the distinct impression he thought those were the ramblings of a crazy old man. Perhaps he was right, I just couldn't hide my giddiness.

Standing in that room again after so many years, seeing these magnificent symbols of Milwaukee's industrial past as well as my own childhood, made me extraordinarily happy. Yet there was a tinge of sadness as the amputation of their bases means the kettles will never again function as they were intended. They are now only props, relics of a lost past. The lack of the natural aroma of brewing beer drove that point home even more. Without that function, when and if the curiosity of this room wears off, who knows how long the kettles will remain, as they and that space are no doubt costly to maintain. I was just glad to be able to show them and what I consider  one of the most remarkable interior spaces anywhere to my wife and children.

As the sun set in the west on a wonderful day, we left the city of Milwaukee for home, secure in the knowledge that like any great living city, it looks toward the future without forgetting its past. Change is a natural, inevitable fact of life. Cities that do not change along with the world around them, wither and die.  

It's sad to see old friends go away, but that's part of life. Perhaps if you're lucky, one day when you least expect it, they might return. Having said that, I leave you with this:

Yours truly posing with a statue of Good King Gambrinus
restored to his former glory and back in his old home at the former Pabst Brewery