Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Phantom Tower

Here's a good Chicago trivia question for you.
It's a picture clue:


In this view looking up Michigan Avenue from Monroe Street, three of the buildings pictured were at the time of their construction, the tallest building in Chicago. Name them.

I bet you can't. Well at least I couldn't name all three a week ago, as at least one of my picks would have been wrong. That in itself might be a clue, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Years ago, the syndicated columnist Sydney J. Harris used to have a regular feature called "Things I Learned on my Way to Looking up Other Things." That was back in the day before the internet when you'd look through a general interest reference book, perhaps an encyclopedia, and come across information that might catch your eye that had absolutely nothing to do with what you were looking for. Internet searches are more focused, so if the web is your primary source of information, you're less likely to be looking up say, gestation periods of mice, and find yourself engrossed in an article about the Gettysburg Address.

But I digress. As I was looking up information for an earlier post on the Sears/Willis Tower on the Emporis website, I came across a link that listed the chronology of the tallest buildings in Chicago, beginning in 1854.

It turns out the same list can be found on Wikipedia, which is what I copied here:
Building Dates as tallest building
in Chicago
ft (m) Stories
First Holy Name Cathedral 1854–1869 245 (75) 1
Saint Michael's Church 1869–1885 290 (88) 1
Chicago Board of Trade Building1885–1895 322 (98) 10
Masonic Temple Building 1895–1899 302 (92) 21
Montgomery Ward Building 1899–1922 394 (120) 22
Wrigley Building 1922–1924 438 (134) 30
Chicago Temple Building 1924–1930 568 (173) 23
Chicago Board of Trade Building 1930–1965 605 (184) 44
Richard J. Daley Center 1965–1969 648 (198) 32
John Hancock Center 1969–1973 1,127 (344) 100
Aon Center 1973–1974 1,136 (346) 83
Willis Tower     1974–present 1,451 (442) 108

Now if you know your Chicago buildings, you'll realize that the three buildings in my picture on the list of one time tallest buildings in the city are the Aon Center, (formerly the Standard Oil Building, the tower on the extreme right), the Wrigley Building, (the bright white building which you can see off in the distance in the lower left quadrant of the picture), and the Montgomery Ward Building, (also known as the Tower Building, the third building from the left).

The list contains a few surprises in its omissions. If you're an old time Chicagoan like me, you might be surprised that the Prudential Building, (or One Prudential Plaza as it's now called, the Mid-century Modern building with the huge antenna), is not on the list.  Between the time it was built, 1955, until the construction of the John Hancock Building on North Michigan Avenue in 1969, most people in town assumed the Prudential was the tallest building in the city because it featured an observation deck, and pretty much billed itself as such. Mea culpa, I declared it as Chicago's one time tallest in my appreciation of the building in this blog post. There I called it "the tallest building in the city and the most prominent building in the skyline." Well at least the second part was true. The first part was partially true, as the Prudential did once have the tallest roof and highest occupied floor in the city. But if you count the statue of the goddess Ceres atop the Chicago Board of Trade Building on La Salle Street, as the folks who compile building height stats do, that 1930 building is taller, by all of four feet! It became a moot point when the Richard J. Daley Civic Center was built in 1965, a full 47 feet taller than the Prudential. Still the top of that building is devoted to mechanical equipment so the Prudential still could claim the highest occupied floor in Chicago until 1969.

These may seem trivial distinctions until you consider the brouhaha over One World Trade Center in New York City, which was completed in 2014. The roof of that building is 1,368 feet above the ground. The roof of Sears/Willis Tower in Chicago is 1,450 ft. The difference is that One World Trade has a decorative mast on top of the building, which looks very much like an antenna, bringing the total package from ground to pinnacle, to 1,776 feet, an easy number to remember (no coincidence there). There was a huge debate at the time between backers of the two cities over which town's building was taller. The official arbiter of such things, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, determined that the thing on top of the New York building was indeed an architectural element, as opposed to a an antenna, which meant it counted toward the building's official height, making it by decree, taller than the Chicago building. Here, on their site you can read about their criteria, which is in agreement with the Chicago list which takes into account architectural elements like church spires and statues atop buildings, but not antennas and other purely functional elements.

Another surprising omission from the list is William LeBaron Jenny's Home Insurance Building. Topping off at 138 feet, the ten, later twelve story 1884 building was dwarfed by the 290 foot steeple of St. Michael's Church. Yet the significance of Jenny's building is far greater than the church steeple as it was the first tall building to have been supported both inside and out, by an interior fireproof metal frame. Ask any dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan and he or she will proudly tell you that Jenny's building was the "world's first skyscraper." Given the term, one would assume that distinction alone would make it, upon its construction, the city's if not the world's tallest building. It wasn't even close. However "skyscraper" is not a technical term describing a particular construction technique, but a relative term that describes any tall building in relation to its surroundings. In Chicago, a city with today, perhaps 100 buildings with more than 50 stories, no one would call a new ten story building a skyscraper, regardless of how it is constructed.

Beyond their usefulness for providing esoteric facts and trivia game answers, if you actually put some thought into them, lists like these can be useful tools in the study of the history of a city. One might reasonably assume for example, that the tallest building in a city at a given time is an indication of the relative importance of the institution that built it. For example, if you look at the list of the chronology of the tallest buildings in Chicago, you'll notice that in the early years, the tallest buildings were churches. You might conclude that Chicagoans at the time were more concerned about building temples to God than to Mammon. This in fact is an interesting topic which has no simple answer, it is the jumping off point for such disparate topics as19th Century religion and building technology.

There is a practical reason why commercial buildings were not as tall as church steeples in the mid-nineteenth century; the first passenger elevator wouldn't appear in Chicago until the mid 1860s. Before that, it was simply unfeasible to build "walkup" buildings above a certain height as no tenant would rent a space where they'd have to climb more than six or seven flights of stairs to get to their office or home. Church steeples on the other hand, could be built at the discretion of their congregations, to great heights, some of them exceeding the height of a present day twenty story building. The taller the steeple, the greater the prestige of the congregation, and also the neighborhood in which it stood. While religion certainly wasn't the centerpiece of early Chicagoans ' lives, the presence of churches in a community gave at least the appearance of cultivation, that contrasted with the get-rich-quick, no-holds-barred, boom town mentality of Chicago, the necessary yin to the young city's yang, so to speak. In the 1860s, the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted cynically wrote in his journal:
A church steeple will be built higher than it otherwise would be because the neighboring lot holders regard it as an advertisement of their property. There is nothing done in Chicago that is not regarded as an advertisement of Chicago.

Spire of St. Michael's, Old Town
The tallest of tis kind in Chicago
 With the introduction of the elevator and William LeBaron Jenny's technical innovations, multi-story buildings could now be as tall as the economic conditions of the time permitted. As commercial buildings grew taller, church steeples did not. With the exception of the 1924 Chicago Temple Building which features a church steeple placed atop an office building, (a unique temple to both God and Mammon), the tallest stand-alone church steeple in Chicago is still St. Michael's in Old Town (not to be confused with St. Michael the Archangel Church, another landmark church with an enormous steeple that defines its community, South Chicago). After the destruction of the Church of the Holy Name in the Great Fire, the steeple of its successor, Holy Name Cathedral, would be several feet shorter than it predecessor's. Rather than compete for height with the new skyscrapers, church congregations in Chicago found new ways to distinguish their houses of worship, such as placing them adjacent to parks and other open spaces.

When I first conceived this post, my idea was to simply print the Emporis/Wikipedia chronology list
accompanied by some comments and contemporary photographs of the nine extant buildings, and historical photographs of the three that have been lost. In doing a little background research, I opened up my copy of the Encyclopedia of Chicago, to their entry on skyscrapers. That article included the book's own chronological list of the city's tallest buildings. To my surprise, their list doesn't quite match the Emporis/Wikipedia List. Here is the Encyclopedia of Chicago list, as borrowed from their web site:

Building Date ft Stories Address
First Holy Name Cathedral 1854 254 1 733 N. State Street
Water Tower 1869 154 1 800 N. Michigan Avenue
Holy Family Church 1874 266 1 1080 W. Roosevelt Road
Masonic Temple 1892 302 21 State and Randolph, NE corner
The Tower Building 1899 394 19 6 N. Michigan Avenue
Wrigley Building 1922 398 29 400 N. Michigan Avenue
Chicago Temple 1923 568 21 77 W. Washington Street
Chicago Board of Trade 1930 605 44 141 W. Jackson Boulevard
Richard J. Daley Center 1965 648 31 50 W. Washington Street
John Hancock Tower 1969 1,127 100 875 N. Michigan Avenue
Aon Center 1973 1,136 83 200 E. Randolph Street
Sears Tower     1974 1,450 110 233 S. Wacker Drive

Two buildings on the Encyclopedia of Chicago's list are not on the Emporis list, the Water Tower, in place of St. Michael's Church, and Holy Family Church, rather than the old Board of Trade. Now if you look closely at this second list, there is something curious about the inclusion of the Water Tower. Built in 1869, the Water Tower's height of 154 feet is exactly 100 feet shorter than the building it succeeds, the old Church of the Holy Name. That church was destroyed in the Great Fire while the Water Tower stands to this day, so it makes sense that as the tallest building left standing intact, the Water Tower would have succeeded the church as the tallest building in the devastated city. But the fire took place in 1871, so I can only conclude that the 1869 date is a mistake.

Holy Family Church
Prevailing SW winds on the night of
October 8, 1871 prevented this
great west side church from being
consumed by the Great Fire which
started only one half mile away.
Holy Family Church, built in 1860, also survived the Fire, apparently in answer to Father Arnold Damen's prayers that the church he built to serve Chicago's burgeoning immigrant Irish population of Chicago's west side, be spared. Whether it was divine providence or merely the strong southwesterly winds that steered the flames away from his church, less than a half mile from the source of the fire, to this day lights are lit at the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help inside the sanctuary of Holy Family in eternal gratitude that the church was saved. The reason why the the Encyclopedia of Chicago's date for Holy Family succeeding the Water Tower is 1874, rather than its construction date, was answered for me by Father George Lane and his seminal book on the subject, Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, which points out that the spire of Holy Family wasn't completed until 1874.

But what about the spire of St. Michael's, which is 24 feet higher than Holy Family's? Unlike Holy Family, St. Michael's was directly in the path of the fire. As this stereo-photograph of the devastation of St. Mike's shows, had there been a 290 foot tower at the time of the fire, it did not survive.


Confirming what's visible in the stereograph, in his book, Father Lane notes in his book that the fire, "... gutted St. Michael's leaving only the walls and part of the tower standing." According to Lane, the great spire and landmark of the near north side of the city wasn't completed until 1888. I haven't been able to ascertain whether the pre-fire tower was the same height as the one we see today, but it simply cannot be true that the church could claim title of city's tallest structure between October, 1871 and 1885 as the Emporis list claims.

I have no answer at the moment why the Encyclopedia of Chicago omits the old Board of Trade Building from its list. Here is a photograph of it standing on the same site as its Art Deco successor, where LaSalle Street meets Jackson, with the estimable Rookery Building visible on the left. Again it is the tower which puts this building over the top. The old Board of Trade lost its distinction as tallest building in the city in 1895 when its (in my opinion) inelegant clock tower was removed. The opulent building designed by W.W. Boyington, the architect of the Water Tower and many other mid-nineteenth century Chicago buildings, was demolished in 1929 to make way for its successor.


The real mystery surfaced when I began to assemble historic photographs of the buildings on these lists. Although its great size encouraged the Archdiocese of Chicago to use it for official diocesan ceremonies, the Church of the Holy Name, built in 1854, was, contrary to what it is called on both lists, never Chicago's official Roman Catholic cathedral. That distinction went to St. Mary's Cathedral in the Central Business District, what today we call the Loop. Holy Name was built in conjunction with the original St. Mary of the Lake University, Chicago's first university. Continually plagued with debt, both the university and the church struggled to keep afloat, and the university closed its doors in 1866. (The university re-opened in 1926 as St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in the Chicago suburb of Mundelein, IL). The photographs I found of old Holy Name Church were few and far between, but I was unable to find a single photograph with a tower anywhere close to the advertised 240 feet. I don't have the dates on these first two pictures but based upon what I learned, more on that later, I'd say the first photograph was made around 1862, give or take a couple of years.



You can clearly see the base for what would be the tower, hadn't yet reached much beyond the roof line of the church. The next picture shows the second stage of construction of the tower complete. I'm guessing it had to have been made not more than a couple years after the first, judging by the height of the tree on the right:


The date of the next picture is certain, the fall of 1871, shortly after most of the church was destroyed by the Chicago Fire. In this picture you can see the third stage in the development of the tower, and two beams protruding from the top, suggesting that there was indeed some kind of structure above:




Granted it's true that the documentation of the buildings of pre-fire Chicago is inconsistent, but the idea that I couldn't find one photograph of the completed spire perplexed me, especially if it was indeed the tallest structure in Chicago at the time. Unfortunately Father Lane in this case was no help. In his entry on the current cathedral which replaced old Holy Name, he only devotes one sentence to the lost church.

Another book I had on my shelves, Constructing Chicago, by Daniel Bluestone, devotes an entire detailed chapter to the construction of pre-fire churches in Chicago, but was also of no help regarding the specifics of the tower at old Holy Name.  

I also managed to find an old souvenir book on my shelves, published in 1949 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Holy Name parish. I got the book at the cathedral at the re-opening ceremony after the church was closed because of damage due to a fire in its roof, I think they were giving copies of the book away just to clean house. Anyway, that book contains a very detailed history of the city of Chicago, told of course from a very Catholic point of view. Turns out the very first cathedral of Chicago was actually the magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in Baltimore, designed by Benjamin Latrobe in 1821. Back in frontier days when Chicago was just a backwater settlement, the territory covered by the archdiocese of Baltimore extended all the way to the Mississippi River. The Chicago diocese was founded in 1843. This book didn't go into great detail about the church building either, but it did give a detailed account of the parishioners who donated the money to build it and how much they gave. It also provided an eye-witness account of its destruction which describes the steeple catching fire, then collapsing onto the roof of the church, setting it on fire. That account was my first evidence that the spire actually existed.

Then I remembered a photographic panorama of Chicago made from the tower of the old Court House Building in the center of town. The panorama was published in the book Chicago, Growth of a Metropolis by Harold B, Mayer and Richard C. Wade. In the section of the panorama pointing northeast, three towers are clearly visible. One is the Water Tower, which had yet to receive its distinctive cupola, the tower of St. James Episcopal Cathedral, which also survived the fire and the subsequent 146 years, and low and behold, the base of the tower of Holy Name Church, looking very much like it did in the second photograph, with no spire. Although the photo does not show the towers clearly as they are at least one mile from the camera, it does appear there is work taking place, probably the construction of the third stage of the tower. As the Water Tower was built in 1869, the date of this photograph has to be between 1869 and 1871. Since the city at the time was filled with many 200 ft spires, the assertion that Holy Name was the tallest building in Chicago since 1854, has to be incorrect.

I asked myself, was there ever a tower? True, there was the account of the burning tower crashing onto the roof of the doomed church, but that was a scene repeated over and over again during those dreadful two days of the fire. It occurred to me that perhaps the eye-witness, in all the stress of a huge city burning before his eyes, could have mistakenly been recounting the story of the destruction of another church.

I was prepared to leave the question open until I decided to trudge through the tedious prose of the souvenir book. Reading through the histories of a succession of Chicago bishops with delicate constitutions who met their maker many years before their time, I discovered that in 1863, under the episcopate of one of those unfortunate men, Bishop James Duggan, the pastor of Holy Name, Father Joseph P. Roles:
...undertook with the permission of Bishop Duggan to add to the interior decorations which others had left incomplete. He installed the main altar and two side chapels with their screens, the altar railing and the pulpit, all in hand carved walnut. He also started to build the steeple which was originally planned. This was still in progress when the Church of the Holy Name was burned to the ground in 1871.
So there you have it. My guess is that the process of adding segments to the tower began in 1863 and continued, probably sporadically since those were war years, at least through 1869 or 1870, when work on the steeple above its supporting tower began. The first photograph was probably made just before 1863 and the second, sometime not long after 1865. From the information I have, at the time of the fire, the steeple may or may not have reached its planned 240 foot height, but the account of the destruction of the church mentioned above is most likely true.

Given all that, the Church of the Holy Name could not have been the tallest building in Chicago before 1869, and given that the steeple was not completed at the time of its destruction, its status as tallest building in Chicago at any time is doubtful.

Coming across that information the other day was a little bit of a letdown, I had anticipated doing some more legwork tracking down the story of the phantom tower of the Church of the Holy Name, and learning more about the history of the city along the way. As with many research projects, the journey is more satisfying than the destination. There's no real joy in debunking the notion that the Church of the Holy Name once had the distinction of being the tallest building in Chicago. Had it not been for the Great Fire, it very well may have been, for a little while anyway.

I don't know why but trivial as it may be, knowing that fact makes me a little sad.

The good news is if the spirit moves me, I can now embark on a project to discover the actual tallest buildings in Chicago before the Great Fire.


If I ever get the time.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Last Schnitzel

For many years on this blog I have sung the praises of my favorite restaurant in the world, Karl Ratzsch in Milwaukee. It wasn't necessarily my favorite cuisine, although the food was always extremely good, in my biased opinion. You see, my father was from Czechoslovakia and my surrogate grandfather was from Germany, and together they introduced me to the delights of roast duck, liver dumpling soup, red cabbage, wiener schnitzel and other Central European delicacies. They took me to dozens of Czech and German eateries in Chicago and Milwaukee, including Karl Ratzsch, which was, without question, the best of them all.

The decor at Ratzsch, as most of the restaurants of its type, was a bit on the wonky side. Prominently displayed there was a painting of Mrs. Ratzsch (I presume), resplendent in a jacket with a fur collar. In the portrait, she imperiously glares at the viewer with a steely expression, looking as if she could have been the wicked mother of the Claude Rains character in Hitchcock's Notorious. Then there was the framed magazine ad for Blatz beer, featuring the king of kitsch, Liberace, holding up a glass of suds. The copy of the ad read: "It's Milwaukee's favorite beer, I'm from Milwaukee I ought to know."


The split-timber barrel-vaulted ceiling, reminiscent of Bavarian architecture, the year-round Christmas decorations, the white table linens, wood paneling, dirndl clad waitresses, and alcove stage where at dinnertime, musicians would play Strauss waltzes and other light classical fare, evoked a timelessness that defied contemporary styles of taste, and relevance. There was certainly nothing hip or trendy about the place, after all, it had been around for 113 years.

That is, until this week.

Here's the photograph that brokenhearted Karl Ratzsch fans discovered, the few of us left that is, after it was posted last Sunday on the restaurant's Facebook page:


I first saw the notice Monday morning on my way to work. When I received the news, my heart was filled with both sadness and resignation. As I re-posted the notice on my own feed, I remarked that I had been anticipating this sad news for at least thirty years.

The funny thing I noticed as the years went by was that the older I got, the more it became obvious that (with the exception of my wife and kids) I was still always the youngest person in the restaurant. As the hair color of the typical patron turned gray, then blue, the more convinced I was that my favorite restaurant on the planet's days were numbered.

A year ago, I was encouraged as there was a serious attempt to allow Karl Ratzsch to survive for at least another generation. Thomas Hauck, a well regarded local chef bought the restaurant from the previous owners, former employees who themselves bought the place from the Ratzsch family in 2003. Hauck closed the restaurant down for three months to remodel, removing some of the tired, old decor, including the table cloths and the kitschy artwork, and updated the menu, inventing creative new dishes inspired by German cuisine. Unfortunately as the New York Times reported the other day, "it was a hard sell." The old timers balked at the changes while the younger crowd just didn't care.

Hauck's noble attempt to save the Milwaukee institution sadly failed.

The last schnitzel was served and the final stein of lager was raised last Saturday night. Then, Hauck closed the doors to Karl Ratzsch presumably forever, without any warning.

The comments on the Ratzsch Facebook page ranged from sorrow to abject anger, much of it directed at Hauck. Without mentioning the new owner by name, this woman speaks for much of the latter group, the emphasis is hers:
I am sickened that Karl Ratzsch's is shutting down. How dare you let this iconic restaurant go under!!!! There are people who have many pleasant memories at your restaurant and have gone to you restaurant as a long, family tradition! I don't know WHO made this decision to close Karl Ratzsch's, but I can tell you, IT WAS A BIG MISTAKE!!! Thank God Maders is still operating! John Ernst Cafe was bad enough but Karl Ratzsch's??? People came to eat there when they visit Milwaukee!!! Shame on whoever made the decision to close. I am very upset about this.
No kidding.

It's hard to argue with her point that institutions such as Ratzsch play a vital role in their cities' economies. Personally I've made the ninety mile trek up to Milwaukee several times for the sole purpose of dining at Karl Ratzsch. While there, my family and I went on to spend money at other local establishments, This letter proves I am not alone. There is also the less tangible but equally damaging psychological effect that the ending of a 113 year old tradition has on a city and its residents. It is not exaggerating in the least to say that with the closing of Karl Ratzsch, part of the identity of Milwaukee has been lost. It is a void that can never be filled.

That having been said, what the writer of the comment and so many others fail to realize is that, beloved local tradition or not, restaurants, retailers and other businesses catering to the general public, are owned and operated by private individuals who must put a considerable amount of time and risk their own capital into businesses just to keep them afloat, let alone make a profit. As you can see in the photograph above, made during Thanksgiving weekend in 2015, a time when the restaurant should have been hopping, there are only a handful of diners. If all the fans of Karl Ratzsch, myself included, had put more of our money where our mouths were and supported the restaurant better, it might have lived to see another day.

Above, I mentioned the many Central European restaurants my dad and grandpa took me to as a child. Let's see, there was Old Prague and Moravia on Cermak Road in Cicero, Little Czechoslovakia, on 26th Street, Cafe Bohemia in the West Loop, William Tell on North Avenue, The Golden Ox on Clybourn, The Black Forest, and Held's Brown Bear on Clark Street, Schwaben Stube, and Gluntz's on Lincoln Avenue, Matt Igler (Home of the Singing Waiters) on Melrose, just off Lincoln, and Zum Deutschen Eck on Southport, just to name a few. I spent many happy hours in all of them. They're all gone. The Berghoff in the Loop is a mere shadow of its former self and just a couple weeks ago, the Chicago Brauhaus in Lincoln Square, one of the last remaining German restaurants in Chicago, announced it will close its doors soon.

In both Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities with very strong Germanic identities, it is easier to find Ethiopian food than German food. It's probably not too hard to figure out why.

The fact is that for the last several decades, restaurants serving heaping helpings of carbohydrate-laden food, where you have to be helped out of your seat after a meal, have lost their popularity. What can I say, people are more health and weight conscious these days. Even for food lovers who don't obsess over everything they put into their mouths for health reasons, the trend is to discover new and, for them anyway, unusual cuisines, rather than paying top dollar for the tried and true, simple, old fashioned comfort food, their parents and grandparents ate.

Diners are a fickle crowd and the restaurant business is particularly tough. I heard the other day that the five year survival rate for a new restaurant is ridiculously low, somewhere in the single digits. Given that, 113 years in any business is a remarkable accomplishment. Those of us who loved Karl Ratzsch should thank our lucky stars that its owners and employees over those last lean years, who committed themselves to keeping the restaurant open despite all the odds and heartbreak, deserve our commendation and eternal gratitude.

The memory of all the wonderful meals and Gem├╝tlichkeit I experienced at my favorite restaurant in the world, with the people whom I loved the most in my life, will stay with me as long as I live.

Vielen herzlichen Dank to you all. You will be missed.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Put Me In Coach

There are lots of songs intrinsically tied to the game of baseball.

Legend has it that the tradition of playing the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games began on September 6, 1918, during the first game of the World Series right here in Chicago. The National League Champs the Cubs, were playing the Red Sox in Comiskey Park rather than Wrigley Field because of the greater capacity of the home of the Cubs' crosstown rival the White Sox. Turned out they didn't need those extra seats as just under 20,000 fans showed up, the lowest turnout for the annual fall classic for as long as anybody could remember. The country was at war and there was a general consensus that the ballplayers were shirking their duty by not doing their part for the war effort. Nevertheless, the baseball season was shortened by about thirty games so that the players who were committed to the armed services could report for duty.

Unannounced during the seventh inning stretch, the band on hand broke into the strains of the Star Spangled Banner, which would not become the country's official national anthem for another thirteen years. Of course those were the days before public address systems so it took a little while before everyone in the ballpark recognized the tune the band was playing. By the time they got to the "rockets red glare", just about everyone in the ballpark was doffing their caps and singing along. As the band wrapped up the song, there was a huge ovation from the stands. (In case you're wondering, the Red Sox won that game on a brilliant shut-out from their young pitcher, Babe Ruth. The Red Sox won that World Series four games to two. They would not win another one for 86 years).

So impressive was the patriotic fervor that moment generated at Comiskey Park, theater impresario Harry Frazee who moonlighted as the owner of the Red Sox, "borrowed" the idea for his own ballpark as the series shifted to Boston. The only difference was in Boston, they played the song at the beginning of the game. The tradition of playing the National Anthem at every ballpark before every game didn't begin in earnest until World War II.

The late-great Comiskey Park, c. 1959, where no fewer than two long-standing traditions of singing songs at baseball games began.
Another tradition of playing a particular song at a particular moment during a ballgame also began in Comiskey Park when White Sox announcer Harry Caray who frequently bantered with fans within earshot of his broadcast booth at the old ballpark, started leading those fans in a cheerful, beer induced rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, during the seventh inning stretch. Bill Veeck went to his grave insisting that when he bought the team in 1976, he asked Caray to sing the song over the ballpark's PA system so everyone could hear, but Caray refused. So one day the puckish Veeck, unbeknownst to Caray, hooked him up to the system anyway and a tradition was born. Hard to believe that Caray would have shied away from the extra attention but it's a good story and I'm sticking to it.

There is probably not a single American who does not know all the words to Take Me Out to the Ballgame  or to be more exact, the words of the refrain, which is heard at the seventh inning stretch at virtually every ballgame coast to coast. The lesser known verses tell the story of a young lady named Katie Casey. Here's her story:
Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:

Refrain : Take me out to the ballgame...

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:
Refrain
The story of the song goes something like this: Jack Norworth was a 28 year old Tin Pan Alley composer who was ever on the prowl for inspirations for new songs. One day he found his inspiration on a subway billboard. The billboard read simply: "Baseball Today - Polo Grounds". He scribbled the lyrics to the song you see above on a napkin and delivered them to his partner Albert von Tilzer who promptly put the words to music. Norworth gave his song to his wife, a singer on the Vaudeville circuit. It became an instant hit when Edward Meeker recorded the song, in fact, Take me out to the Ballgame was top of the charts for the year 1908. (That year their home town Giants lost the NL pennant to the Cubs largely on account of a baserunning mistake made at the Polo Grounds, by their rookie first baseman Fred Merkle which has gone down in history as Merkle's Boner. The Cubs won the World Series that year. It would be 108 years until they would win another).

It turned out that neither Norworth nor von Tilzer had ever attended a ballgame when they wrote the game's unofficial anthem.  

The same can't be said for John Fogerty, the former leader of the band Creedence Clearwater Revivalwho wrote what is perhaps the alternate unofficial anthem of baseball. Fogerty who grew up in California in the late forties and fifties didn't have a home town major league team to root for as a child, so he adopted the New York Yankees. That team's two great centerfielders, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were his personal heroes. Describing the inspiration of the song's title, he told the New York Times in a 2010 interview:
Basically, I was reconnecting with that very special feeling I had about center field as a kid. People didn’t know what it meant, but it was important to me. It took me a while to remember about center field and how I felt about it, but once it came into my mind, I thought: ‘Oh, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want to say.'
The song's title of course is Centerfield, and you are bound to hear it in one form or another, either before, during, or after any professional ballgame.

It's a catchy song, well suited to put people into a cheerful mood before or during a game. While the incessant, rhythmic hand-clapping in its refrain can be a little grating after numerous listenings,  Fogerty's lyrics manage to cover all the bases (so to speak) of our national pastime, especially the child-like exuberance that anybody who has ever played, dreamed of playing, or just intently watched the game has experienced in his or her life, most especially on days like today, opening day:

 

Practically every line of the song has special relevance for me, the father of a son, currently a high school ballplayer who is mad about the game. For better or worse, he got that love from his old man.

Here are some examples:
Well, a-beat the drum and hold the phone
The sun came out today...
My son's team's season hasn't gotten off to an auspicious start this year as the sun in fact has not come out on game days. In fact as of today, about ten games have been rained out, with the outlook not good for this week.
Well, I spent some time in the Mudville Nine
Watching it from the bench...
The Mudville Nine is the home team featured in the poem Casey at the Bat, which I often read to my son when he was a small child. Unfortunately today, he can well relate to watching the game from the bench, which leads to the following plea:
Oh, put me in coach, I'm ready to play today Put me in coach, I'm ready to play today Look at me, I can be, centerfield
Yes indeed, my son plays centerfield.

And finally, the last beautiful verse is one that anybody who has ever cared about the game can relate to:
Got a beat-up glove, a home-made bat
And a brand new pair of shoes
You know I think it's time to give this game a ride
Just to hit the ball, and touch 'em all
A moment in the sun
It's a-gone and you can tell that one good-bye.
Then there are the references to some of the great centerfielders of all time, Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, and of course, Joe DiMaggio. In the wonderful accompanying video, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snyder, Henry Aaron, (as a Milwaukee Brave) and Stan Musial (an occasional centerfielder) are also featured.

There's even a pointed reference to the late Chuck Berry, lifting a line from one of his songs:
A-roundin' third and headed for home
It's a brown-eyed handsome man...
Which is followed by a Berryesque guitar riff.

Fogerty has said the image in his mind when he sang about the "Brown eyed handsome man" was none other than Jackie Robinson.

Every human emotion can be found in the game of baseball, usually magnified ten times. It's a game designed to break your heart as A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote. But not today. It's all hope and optimism on Opening Day.

As we saw last year, anything can happen in baseball, heck, the Chicago Cubs could even win the World Series.

On this day, there is no better song to play than the alternate/unofficial anthem of baseball, John Fogerty's Centerfield, because its sums up the game to a tee, except for the sad, melancholy stuff. That will come later.

Unless you consider the official National Anthem of the country AND the game of baseball, whose unofficial last words every red blooded American knows are the happiest words in the English language. No they're not "the land of the free and the home of the brave", they come just after that.

The words are "play ball".


Friday, March 31, 2017

Pictures of the Month

Chicago River at Belmont Avenue, March 4

Chicago River at Belmont Avenue, March 4

Edgewater, March 22

Former Studebaker showroom, Edgewater, March 22

Edgewater, March 22

Casa Bonita, March 31

Camera, with images from this month in shop, please stay tuned for more, hopefully in one week...

Who Owns the Universe?

The other rite of spring: earlier this month, Preservation Chicago released its annual list of the seven most endangered buildings in Chicago. According to Ward Miller, the executive director of the advocacy group, the list is released every year in early March, to coincide with the anniversary the founding of the city, which in Ward's words: "...is a significant time because these buildings tie to the city’s history."

One of the seven items on this year's list is not a building at all, but Chicago's 20th century public sculpture. All of it, with the exception of the iconic Picasso Sculpture in Daley Plaza, surprisingly is not protected by landmark status. I say surprisingly because one of the bullet points civic boosters (including Miller) like to use in defense of their argument that Chicago is a "world class city" is indeed this city's vast treasure trove of public sculpture.

As the entry on public sculpture on Preservation Chicago's list of threatened works points out, we have already lost a good number of significant works of public art including a Henry Moore sculpture that once stood in the lobby of Three First National Bank Plaza. That sculpture was sold at auction last year, presumably being removed forever from public view. Some notable works have been compromised such as the Harry Bertoia kinetic sculpture in AON Plaza, which was broken up and reassembled in greatly diminished form when the plaza was reconfigured in 1994. Other important works are in desperate shape, most notably Marc Chagall's mosaic sculpture, The Four Seasons, which has been severely damaged by the natural elements it represents.

Since the list was released, in barely the blink of an eye, one of the pieces mentioned, Universe, by Alexander Calder, which has stood in the lobby of the former Sears Tower for over forty years. began to be dismantled, and is now headed toward an unknown future.

Universe, by Alexander Calder, which at this writing,
is being removed from the lobby of Willis (formerly Sears) Tower.
This photograph was made in 2009, shortly after the name change of the building.

This whimsical mechanized mobile, consists of geometric shapes representing the sun, the moon and the stars, as well as organic elements from terra firma. Each piece is meant to be in constant motion with the elements moving independently, meaning that theoretically, the objects are never in exactly the same relationship to each other, just as the objects in the universe, (get it?). Unfortunately, quite often the motors used to animate the piece weren't turned on consistently so the entire point of the sculpture was lost on the tens of thousands of visitors who passed by it every day. 

The Calder sculpture was considered by many to be the one saving grace of the lobby of the behemoth building in the west Loop, which despite several attempts at re-design, remains desperately cold and uninspiring. The latest attempt to make Sears/Willis Tower meet the ground in a kinder, gentler manner, (as well as providing extra retail and other revenue-generating space), was announced to the public earlier this year. The design presented by the building's new owner, The Blackstone Group, an investment firm based in New York City, will feature an entirely separate structure that will wrap around the first four stories of the tower, doing away with the current wind-swept plaza whose level base gracelessly encounters the street grade as it rises to the level of the bridges crossing the Chicago River one block west. This is how the entrance to Sears Tower looks today:

The Wacker Drive entrance to Sears/Willis Tower as it looks today from Adams Street.
The barrier wall, part of the original 1974 design, the awkward barrel-vaulted entrance, stuck on in 1985,
and the globe which appeared in 2010, will soon be be counted, along with Alexander Calder's Universe,
among the artifacts of Lost Chicago.
A rendering of the new entrance can be found here in Blair Kamin's Chicago Tribune piece on the new structure.. Careful observers at the public announcement of the new design were quick to notice that nowhere in the new plan did there seem to be any provision for the Calder. Mayor Rahm Emanuel who attended the presentation, remained mum when asked about plans for the sculpture. Ironically, Emanuel proclaimed 2017, the "Year of Public Art" in Chicago.

At this point it may be useful to ask this question: what exactly is public art? Obvious examples are the aforementioned Daley Center Picasso, and Chicago's other Calder, The Flamingo, which not coincidentally was unveiled on the same day in 1974 as Universe.  Both The Flamingo and the Picasso are owned by the public, and they sit atop public space on public land.

Here are Preservation Chicago's recommendations for Chicago's public art:

Preservation Chicago believes that these works of art should be protected and always on public display. Additionally, these works of art are contextual and were designed to be viewed in situ, so to the extent possible, should remain in their original environment. The loss of any of these art pieces is tragic, and we suggest that these public and private works of art, with public access, and on open plazas and semi-public spaces, be considered for thematic Chicago Landmark Designation along with their plazas and open spaces, to guarantee that they will always be here for the public good. 

Fair enough. It gets tricky however when you deal with a privately owned work of art that sits on or inside private property, but is still accessible to the general public, which is the case with Calder's Universe. Should a work of art be like a building owned by a private entity, whose owners have the right (assuming landmark protections do not apply), to do whatever they please with it? 

The answer to that question is not as cut and dried as you might expect. Most folks I assume would believe that, as a matter of principle, the owner of a work of art has every right to display it or not. Heck, even the Art Institute took down the much beloved stained glass windows of Marc Chagall for a number of years (because the director at the time didn't like them), much to the consternation of many of the museum's patrons. When they finally returned on display, the windows ended up stuck in a remote corner of the museum rather their former place of prominence, thereby losing much of their context.

So what about a privately owned site-specific work of art such as Universe? Preservation Chicago argues about the importance of the context of specific works of art, but what happens to the art when the owner of a building decides to modify the space where the art resides? From the renderings of the new entrance to Sears/Willis Tower, it appears that the new space does not even provide the ample clearance necessary to display the piece let alone the original context for which the piece was intended.

Logic would seem to rule in favor of the owners who would face an unreasonable burden to insure that they would need to work around the requirements of existing works of art, whenever they perform what they deem to be necessary alterations to their buildings.

On the other hand, in the seventies and eighties, it was common practice for the city to offer zoning and tax breaks, as well as other perks to encourage developers to create open spaces populated with works of art. Given that, it would seem that the owners of these buildings would have some sort of obligation to the public to maintain those works of art.

Now suppose the original owners, the beneficiaries of those perks. are long gone. Are owners a few generations removed, obligated to maintain their art, and its context, into perpetuity?

Another case brought up by the Preservation Chicago piece is the Jean Dubuffet sculpture called "Monument with Standing Beast", outside of the James R, Thompson Center in the Loop. Like the Picasso and The Flamingo, the Dubuffet sculpture is publicly owned and sits on public land. Unfortunately the government is considering selling the building and the property upon which it stands. Would the new owners be obligated to preserve this piece in situ? Logic would tell us probably not. If the Thompson Center is demolished, (a distinct and unfortunate possibility), that sculpture would have lost its context anyway.

Even Calder's Flamingo is considered endangered, as the Federal Government who operates the plaza where the sculpture resides, is considering consolidating all of their operations into one of the three buildings on the site and selling off the plaza to private concerns. Arguably no piece of public art in Chicago is more tightly connected to its context than the bright red organic curves of that Calder work which perfectly compliments the rigid black and white geometry of the Mies van der Rohe Federal Center. Its loss would be a devastating blow to the city.

So where does that leave us?

Clearly there is a conflict between the "public good" and private property rights. Even our strapped-for-cash government seems to be unmoved by the question of public art. I'm sorry but I don't have a clear answer to this complicated matter.

Even if we wanted to, we probably can't pass a law to insure that all of our works of public art, whether they be publicly or privately owned, be maintained and preserved in the context in which they were intended.

Short of that, it would seem that the best solution is to provide every incentive to the owners of Chicago's tremendous collection of public art, including the government at all levels, to look at the big picture. If Chicago is to be a world class city (whatever that means), then it must lead the way culturally as well as economically.

It seems that when we led the nation in encouraging the creation of public art in our city forty years ago, we got it, but somewhere between then and now, we lost our way.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Living and Dying by Symbols

Picture in your mind the American Flag, a latin cross, Hitler, the Statue of Liberty, single moms in Detroit, the US Constitution, Robert Mapplethorpe and Big Bird. What do these disparate objects and people have in common? They're all powerful symbols whose images have been evoked by one or both sides in the debate over the current administration. As a picture is worth at least a thousand words, symbols affect us in visceral, and simplistic ways that reams of text never could. A picture of Donald Trump sporting a Hitler mustache is far more immediate than a thoughtful treatise on how the acts and methods of his administration, bring to mind the political situation in Germany in the 1930s.

Conjuring up an image with words is just as effective. Responding to the logic of cutting all funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the president's budget director Mick Mulvaney created some memorable imagery with this:
Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?
Pundits were quick to respond with vivid images of their own as this headline from the Washington Post attests:

Trump’s budget director understands that the poor prefer jet fighters to Big Bird


Both sides use symbolism to suit their own purposes, Think of Gold Star family Khzir and Ghazala Khan addressing the Democratic National Convention last August, standing in front of the official US Army portrait of their son Hunayun, who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq while protecting the lives of those in his charge. The Khans symbolized not only the diversity of the US, but especially the sacrifice of many of the immigrant groups disparaged by Donald Trump and his supporters.

For his part, Trump, in his many decades in the public eye did not project an image of patriotism and certainly never implied he believed in anything, other than himself. Yet during the last presidential campaign, he wrapped himself in the American flag so often you'd have thought he was auditioning for the lead role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. And it's likely that, with the possible exception of only his most steadfast supporters, most Americans saw right through the ruse of his "finding religion" during the campaign. The joke was that for his inauguration, Trump would use two bibles, one that belonged to Abraham Lincoln, and the other, the Trump family bible, still in its original shrinkwrap. 

Perhaps the most successful symbol that Trump used to his advantage in his ascendancy to the presidency, was himself, who in the role as the "brilliant dealmaker-businessman", removed from the stagnation and corruption of politics as usual in Washington, was in a better position than anyone else to "fix" all the problems we face as a nation. Like his new found Christianity, rumors of his business acumen were greatly exaggerated. Yet tens of millions of Americans bought into that ruse, being more impressed by his ostentatious display of wealth and his name plastered on buildings all over the world, than his numerous bankruptcies, the lawsuits brought against him for fraud and other less than noble acts, and legions of former business partners and contractors once under his employ, who were stiffed by him. As the writer Fran Leibowitz quipped last fall: "Trump is a poor person's idea of a rich person."

In his new budget released last week, Trump and his staff have created a new and powerful symbol that may very well lead to their undoing, at least in the minds of a great many of his supporters. In his budget, Trump either eviscerated or flat out executed many governmental organizations that are close to the hearts of his opposition. Those organizations are responsible for funding many worthwhile, some (including me) would say essential activities such as the arts, the humanities, public broadcasting, scientific research, the list goes on and on. Also on the chopping block is the EPA which is responsible for making sure our water is safe to drink and our air is safe to breathe. In fact everything in this president's budget is being cut with the exception of the military, and funds to maintain the president and first lady's elaborate lifestyle. Even the State Department is facing drastic cuts, this administration's unequivocal announcement to the world that diplomacy in the Trump presidency is taking a back seat to saber rattling.

But no, none of these cuts I suspect will move any Trump supporters away from him. Nor will his well established relationship with Russia, his aversion to telling the truth to the American people, his insatiable appetite for making unfounded accusations against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, his utter contempt of the rule of law regarding his presidency, or his failed immigration bans. Heck even his repeal/replacement of Obamacare probably won't be felt by the majority of his supporters (who most likely will be the Americans hardest hit by their idol's new health plan), until after Trump is gone from office.

No, the symbolic monster that Trump's administration has unwittingly created is in the words of the web site Market Watch:
the elimination of the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant, which helps fund programs including Meals on Wheels, which deliver food (and human interaction) to elderly, disabled and poor recipients.
You could hear the collective groan all over the country: "He's cutting Meals on Wheels? Are you f-ing kidding me???"

It's important to point out here that Meals on Wheels and other essential services to our less fortunate fellow citizens, won't be wiped out altogether by these budget cuts. In explaining the cuts, the administration is claiming that they're going after...
...wasteful programs, duplicative programs, programs that simply don’t work, and a lot of those are in HUD,
Again in the words of words of Mulvaney in classic bureaucratese:
We’ve spent a lot of money on Housing and Urban Development over the last decades without a lot to show for it.
Now there may conceivably be some sense to this action; that people served by these programs may in fact be better served by a less top-down approach, but Mulvaney didn't make any case for that. Remember the power of symbolism, we're talking about taking away money spent to help poor, elderly people. Meanwhile the president and his wife continue to live their lavish lifestyle at the taxpayer's expense. We may be comparing apples to oranges here, but given the contrast between the Trumps and the vast majority of Americans, Mulvaney's words that there wasn't a lot to show for Meals on Wheels, other than providing meals and companionship for poor elderly people, may go down in history as one of the most clueless, arrogant, and insensitive remarks coming from a public figure since Marie Antoinette allegedly (but not likely) uttered the words: "let them eat cake."

Donald Trump has been riding a tremendous wave of good luck insofar as his ascendency to the presidency. In his campaign, every miscue, every idiotic comment, every unflattering revelation about his past, things that would or should have doomed any other candidacy, seemed only to embolden him, to make him stronger. Since he's been president, far bigger issues have come up and he so far has weathered the storm. But at this moment, exactly two months into his presidency, he has a lower approval rate than any president at this point in his administration.

His good luck can't go on forever. If the big stuff can't bring him down, perhaps it will be small acts of human kindness and generosity that he seems oblivious to that will. He and his supporters may relish the role of the defiant leader who goes to extraordinary lengths, bucking the establishment, political correctness, and even common sense, in order to fulfill his campaign promises to his supporters to make the country great again.

But hardly anyone will tolerate a piddly-shit miser denying our most vulnerable citizens food and companionship.

He may liken himself to Andrew Jackson, but symbolically he's looking more and more like Old Man Potter.

And nobody likes him.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

It may be legal, but is it right?

Our laws are not created equally. Some laws on the books are deeply rooted in our moral and ethical principles. Others exist for the protection of the public, while others still, exist for merely practical purposes. Some laws embody all three principals while others, only one or two.

Sometimes, one of those principles, contradicts another. This past February 19th, we marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, where two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the Secretary of War, the authority to establish...
...military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.
The result of this order was the rounding up, forced relocation, and incarceration of tens of thousands of Americans, the majority of them US citizens, who traced their ancestry to the nations who were at war with US the time, namely, Germany, Italy, and Japan. While many German and Italian Americans were rounded up and incarcerated for the duration of the war, the vast majority of Americans who were affected by this order, were of Japanese ancestry.

Despite the fact that there was little or no question of their loyalty to the United States, for the stated purpose of national security, the entire west coast was declared off limits to Japanese Americans, which happened to be where most of them lived at the time. Persons with as little as 1/16th Japanese ancestry were rounded up, had their property confiscated, and were forced to move to inland government relocation (concentration) camps located in remote portions of Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado Utah, Arizona,  and Arkansas. There, roughly 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent would remain under lock and key until Roosevelt suspended his executive order late in 1944.

Japanese American Grocery, Oakland, California, 1942.
Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
That same year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Executive Order 9066. In their ruling in the case known as Korematsu v. United States, the Court declared that as we were at war at the time, the president, whose power being conferred by Congress, indeed had the authority to "demand that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily." As it was not integral to the specific case presented, the court punted on the issue of the legality of the incarceration of 100,000 plus Japanese Americans without due process, on top of their relocation.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is truly a dark moment in US civil rights history. That fact was acknowledged years later as subsequent presidents rescinded the order (Gerald Ford), created committees to investigate the matter (Jimmy Carter), signed a piece of legislation, known as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which authorized reparations payments to surviving internees, (Ronald Reagan), and actually presented payments and a formal apology (George H.W. Bush) to the survivors.

The shameful treatment of Americans of Japanese heritage, while it may at the time have been viewed as a necessary evil for the security of the homeland for two and one half years, turned out to have been a failure on all counts. From a practical and strategic standpoint, the displacement and imprisonment of over one hundred thousand people took up a massive amount of resources that could have been effectively used in the war effort. There is little or no evidence that Japanese Americans were any less patriotic than any of their fellow countrymen, or posed any threat to national security, which made the action utterly pointless.

Of course, both those arguments pail in comparison to the collapse of American moral and ethical principles that resulted in the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

I bring this up not to imply that the current administration's dealings with immigrants compares in its magnitude of transgressions to this tragic moment in American history, but only to illustrate that the laws our government makes, do not always reflect our moral values.

With that in mind, I question why opponents to the current president's first and second travel bans are arguing against them strictly on legal grounds. I understand that the fate of act two of his travel ban is ultimately in the hands of the courts, who themselves can only rule based upon the constitution and legal precedent. From my very limited understanding of the law, the president can legally impose restrictions upon certain groups of people for a limited period of time. In regards to the ban, Donald Trump did himself no favors during the campaign when he proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States which in itself, is patently illegal. Those words have worked against him as his proposed ban of travelers from originally seven, now six predominantly Muslim nations, inevitably comes down the question of whether the ban is in fact a ban on people of a particular religious creed. The president insists the ban is not a religious ban, but he is constantly betrayed by his own words from the recent past.o's

I have no idea how the courts will rule on the new "and improved" ban, they could very well allow it on legal grounds, as would be their prerogative should they find no constitutional reason to rule against it.

But there are much deeper questions involved than legal ones. As I see it, there are no moral imperatives for immigration laws, they exist solely for practical reasons and to a lesser extent, public safely. Therefore the implementation and enforcement of such laws should be based upon honestly questioning their efficacy in achieving the goals set for them, a serious assessment regarding their costs vs. benefits, and most importantly, a heartfelt consideration of the moral implications of the actions. No law should be enforced simply for its own sake, and no action should be taken, just because it can be.

So to answer the issues I just presented one by one, no, I don't believe the travel ban currently on the books will make us safer. I firmly believe it will almost certainly alienate an ever growing number of the world's Muslims whose assistance we need to help us in the efforts to defeat groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, and who. regardless of statements to the contrary, will see the motivation of the order of the president to be a ban on Muslims. I can't imagine a greater recruitment tool for terrorist groups than Donald Trump. Singlehandedly he is doing all their hard work for them.

Secondly, I see the extremely broad scope of this ban to be the equivalent of performing an appendectomy with a chain saw. True, you may remove the offending organ, but you will also do tremendous damage to the rest of the body. Affected by this ban will be countless individuals who perform vital services to this country, such as doctors who serve in rural areas where native born MDs refuse to serve, as well as teachers, researchers, scientists and other essential professionals, not to mention tourists from all nations who are realizing that the United States is not the welcoming place it once was, and have already altered their travel plans.

Most important of all is the moral issue of refusing entry of refugees who are only hoping for a chance to live their lives in peace. These people have already gone through a rigorous vetting process in order to enter this country. I have no problem if the vetting process needs to be a little more rigorous as long as we can protect the safety of these people. But we do not want to repeat another shameful episode from World War II, the refusal of Jewish refugees from Germany who were ultimately sent back home to their deaths in the concentration camps of the Third Reich.

As I mentioned in my last post, the administrations before this one were very conscious and pro-active regarding the varied issues regarding immigration. While unfortunate and even tragic occurrences have taken place in this country at the hands of people not from this country, with the exception of the events of September 11, 2001, none of them come close to what could be considered a national emergency, or a crisis that requires a drastic response. Despite what the president wants us to believe, home grown terrorism, criminal behavior, and general hooliganism are more prevalent issues today in the United States than "bad hombres" coming from abroad.

If we have learned anything from the 9/11 terrorists, it is that people intent on doing harm to the Unites States of America are smart, and very resourceful. Strongly motivated and resourceful adversaries will not be stopped by closing our borders to immigrants, they always will find ways to get in. To stop them we need help from our allies, especially those in the Muslim world who themselves are the greatest victims of the Islamic terrorists. The current president's decrees are nothing more than misguided attempts at a show of strength, directed at his base as proof that he is fulfilling campaign promises. Trump's saber rattling antics will do nothing to make us safer. On the contrary, the ill will generated from them will only intensify anti-American sentiments around the world and will serve as a launching pad for the recruitment efforts of terrorist groups.

Military leaders have made this perfectly clear but our president, who during the campaign, claimed "he knew more about stopping ISIS than the generals", apparently is not listening.  Teddy Roosevelt famously used the phrase "speak softly and carry a big stick", to describe his philosophy of foreign policy. It would appear that Donald Trump's philosophy is this: Bloviate as loud as possible and carry a limp biscuit. He is like a chess player who thinks you win the game by knocking over all the pieces.

I strongly believe that this president's draconian efforts to curtail illegal immigration, deport undocumented residents of long standing, prohibit travel into this country for people from specific countries, and severely limit the inflow of refugees from war torn nations, will do nothing to protect the safety of Americans. Rather, they are counterproductive, and have the very real potential of causing grave damage to this country. I believe that the costs, both in currency and far more important, in human lives, health, prosperity, not to mention our moral credibility, far outweigh the miniscule benefits.

His efforts may in the end may be ruled legal, but no way in hell are they right. 

Immigration Man

The core argument over immigration goes something like this:
Statement: This is a nation of immigrants. Remember, all of us, either we, or our ancestors, came from someplace else. 
Response: We're not against immigrants, as long as they are here legally.
In theory, that response makes perfect sense; this is a country of ample, but limited resources. Simply put, we do not have enough resources to accommodate everyone who wants to immigrate to the United States. Therefore, government makes laws regulating the number of people we allow into this country every year. And if we make those laws, it is incumbent upon us to enforce them, After all, it makes no sense to force people to jump through hoops and other obstacles to get into this country legally, while looking the other way for those who don't.

Unfortunately like most issues, reality is different from theory. The reality is that there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States at the moment. Approximately two thirds of them have been living here for ten years or longer. As a simply practical matter, the amount of effort and resources it would take to deport all those people would be staggering. Even more daunting is the ethical issue. Most of these people work, pay taxes, and contribute in other important ways to the communities in which they live. Many of them have children who were born in this country making them US citizens. Mass deportations of established residents would mean uprooting and separating many of these families, causing them and their communities tremendous hardship.

Ah you say but those people willingly came here knowing the risks of not playing by the rules; their suffering is not the fault of the US government, but their own. While there is some truth to this, the reality is that the US government has in fact rightly or wrongly looked the other way when illegal immigrants have proven beneficial to American industry and the economy. If you're all gung-ho about stricter immigration control, ask yourself this question: how would you feel about paying ten dollars for a head of lettuce, or for that matter, a similar exponential price increase for any product manufactured in the United States.

In other words, it's a complicated issue.

We wouldn't be talking about this at all, were it not for the current president who has put immigration at the top of his agenda. Last week he gave a speech to the American people before a joint session of Congress. As part of his "dog and pony show",  de rigueur for such proceedings, he dragged out no less than three relatives of people who were killed by illegal immigrants. What could be a better symbol of the "American carnage" he described at his inauguration, than law-breaking foreigners invading this country and killing our sons, daughters, wives and husbands? It's a tailor made issue for an ambitious politician, eliciting support by inciting fear and anger amongst would be constituents by creating an enemy that, even better, doesn't vote.

Not to diminish the pain and suffering of the victims' relatives, but again, the reality of the situation does not live up to the president's hyperbole. Statistics show time and again that immigrants, legal and otherwise, are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Which only makes sense when you think about it, most people move to this country in order to better their lives. Most of them truly want to be here, therefore are less likely to jeopardize their status, or blow their cover, by getting into trouble.

That is not to say that of those 11 million undocumented people, there aren't exceptions. As supporters of the current president love to point out for reasons only they understand. under the Obama administration, more people were deported from this country than under any previous administration. Most of those were apprehended either in close proximity to the US/Mexico border as they attempted to cross, or were convicted of crimes. In fact right now, there is a negative flow of immigrants between Mexico and the United States, as more Mexicans are returning home than entering the US. It might seem reasonable looking at those statistics to believe that the US government has indeed taken the problems of illegal immigration seriously all along, and that as far as stemming the tide of alien criminals coming into the country taking away opportunities from home-grown criminals, its efforts are working.

Yet in his infinite wisdom, our current president is not convinced, or at least wants the American people to not be convinced. In the words of one of his executive orders, many immigrants continue to "present a significant threat to national security and public safety”.

Therefore according to him. we still need to build a great wall (paid for by Mexico), intensify the rounding up and deportation of undocumented residents, impose a draconian travel ban on people from specific countries, and perhaps most cruel of all, severely limit into this country, the number of refugees fleeing countries where their lives are in jeopardy.

Now you may be reading this and thinking: "man this guy is completely out of touch. He has no idea what it's like to lose someone to a person who shouldn't be in this country." Well actually I do. Two years ago, my wife's cousin, the father of two boys, exactly the same ages as my children, was killed in a head on collision. The driver of the other car was drunk. He was pulled over by a state police officer for driving the wrong way on an interstate highway. He took off as the trooper approached his vehicle. When he hit my wife's cousin's car, he was reportedly traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour. My wife's cousin was killed instantly and his wife was critically injured. Thankfully she survived, leaving her alone to care for her two fatherless children. 

Over and over again I've thought if only this undocumented, criminal jackass had been deported before he had the opportunity to commit homicide, a tragedy would have been averted and my wife's cousin would be alive today.

I'm guessing that had the authorities known what this guy was about to do, action could have, or at least should have been taken. Unfortunately, crystal balls are not very effective, and the drunk, homicidal driver, who may or may not have committed any other crimes in his life, slipped through the cracks. Three of his victims, the young widowed mother and my kids' cousins, could themselves have been guests of the president in the House of Representatives last week. The man who killed her husband and their father is a poster child for the anti-illegal-immigrant hysteria that has taken over this country.

Yes it's true, illegal aliens have killed American citizens. It's also true that other illegal aliens have done some pretty wonderful things during their stay in this country, no doubt they've even saved some lives. Had the good people been deported, who knows what would have been the outcome for the recipients of their good deeds. That's human beings for you, for every large group of them, you can be sure to find a few bad apples along with a few exceptionable ones, and a whole bunch of them who just like of the rest of us, are trying to get by, minding their own business.

One thing is certain, undocumented residents who have performed acts of charity, kindness, or heroism, will never be invited into the chambers of the House of Representatives during a presidential speech, at least not under this president's watch.

To be continued here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Photographs of the Month



Skylight, Art Institute of Chicago, February 1

Oak Street Beach, February 4

Wabash Avenue Skyline, February 6


North Dearborn Street, February 15

The Art Institute of Chicago, February 17

Cleaners, Granville Avenue, February 17

Devon Avenue, February 17


North LaSalle Street, February 18

South Loop, February 19

Alley, South Loop, February 19

Board of Trade, AT&T Buildings, February 19

Mural, South Wabash Avenue, February 19

Wabash Avenue, February 19

Belmont Avenue CTA Red Line Station, February 22

CTA Howard Street Station, February 23

Fullerton Avenue Storefront, February 26

Washington Street, February 26
Today is the eight anniversary of this blog. Fittingly, my first post was a photograph taken of one of my favorite spots in Chicago, Wolf Point.

It was a spot I used to bring my son when he was a child and in love with trains. There, tracks from two major commuter railroad lines and a CTA elevated line traversed the spot at the fork of the river where the city's first development occurred.

Most of those tracks are covered up now, no doubt a great relief to the residents of the new apartment buildings that have one of the best views of Chicago. But for me and perhaps my 16 year old son, something very special is gone for good. Such is the life of a big city.

594 posts later, and one more series of photographs of Chicago. Who knows what will have changed eight years from now. Hopefully your loyal blogger will still be around this space and you and I can find out together.

Thanks to all my readers, loyal and otherwise, for your generous support and comments.