Monday, March 30, 2009


Two Killdeers and a Red-tailed Hawk? (at a distance) spotted 3:30 PM, Sunday March 29 at "Mount Trashmore", Robert E. James Park, Oakton and Dodge Streets, Evanston.

I told my son last week in the midst of some very mild weather that we'd be sledding again this year and he didn't believe me.

Guess what we did yesterday?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Endangered species?

Actually I'd put this more into the category of "you mean it's not dead yet?"

The neighborhood drug store.

While Rexall was a national chain, the stores were owned and operated independently.

Augusta and Western, Sunday March 15, 2009.

Good health to all from Rexall!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Nowhere, Illinois

I have to admit having been puzzled for years at the outcry against the proposal to re-locate the Chicago Children's Museum to what is currently the Daley Bicentennial Plaza at the north end of Grant Park.

Having spent a great deal of time there over the past 20 odd years I can say that DBP is certainly not one of the loveliest parks in the city. I was also curious at the claims of the folks who live around the park about keeping Grant Park "forever open, clear and free", since most of the recreational activities currently there block essential views of the lake and the skyline and they are certainly not free.

But upon further consideration, the blathering of the pro-museum crowd, especially that of Mayor Daley made even less sense. At the height of the furor, during the ribbon cutting at a new housing development on the south side, at an event that I attended, the mayor accused the residents who lived around DBP who opposed the museum of being racists.

Daley elsewhere dubbed Frank Gehry's serpentine BP Bridge which connects Millennium Park to DBP as the "Bridge to Nowhere", ironic since the place he called nowhere is named in honor of his father.

This week I've been reading through Lynn Becker's comments on the subject in his excellent blog ArchitectureChicago PLUS. His posts about why the museum should not go there made me entirely re-think my position on the subject. You can read some of his views here.

Reading Becker made me realize this: That the people living around the park deserve to be heard on issues concerning their neighborhood. And yes it is indeed a neighborhood, albeit a vertical one.

Some critics say the neighbors are selfish because they believe that DBP is their own private park. This is nonsense. If the folks living around Humboldt or Garfield Park or any other public park in the city were to express concerns about development in their neighborhood, no one in their right mind would claim they were being selfish.

Living downtown does not exclude one from being able to make a case for your community. It certainly doesn't merit the lack of transparency from city officials and least of all the hurling of convenient racial epithets. The opponents of re-locating the Children's Museum to DBP are concerned that the development of the museum would greatly increase the volume of traffic in DBP. This is a valid concern.

While Millennium Park is by all accounts a rousing success insofar as bringing people downtown, does this necessarily mean that thronging masses need to spread out all over Grant Park? Does the fact that DCP lacks the attractions of its neighbor to the west make it inferior? Most importantly, if a park does not attract millions of visitors per year, does that make it a failure? I would answer a resolute no to all three questions.

Millennuim Park's success notwithstanding, it is not a park at all but a playground. It is a collection of attractions. In that respect it is no different from Navy Pier, where the Children's Museum currently resides. It is the antithesis of the urban park, an essential space conceived to be the "lungs of the city", a place where city dwellers could go to free themselves of the everyday stresses and strains of city life.

The genius of Grant Park is the fact that one can in a few steps go from the heart of the commercial city to the relative peace and tranquility of open park land. All this while never losing the urban experience as the backdrop of the city is ever present. That peace is broken only a few times a year when major public events are held in the park such as parades and the annual Taste of Chicago, when those who know better avoid the area like the plague. But it is the relative absence of people rather than the thronging masses that make the park such a great space, the ability to remove oneself from the city without ever leaving it.

That is what Daley Bicentennial Plaza with all its faults has going for it. The joke is what people do after they cross the BP Bridge is turn around and walk back. Well I don't see that as a bad thing. For the handful who remain east of Millennium, the rewards may be nothing more than this, relief from the madness, exactly what parks are meant to do.

In a few years Bicentennial Plaza will need to be ripped up in order to replace the sub strata that separates the park from the parking garage below. The architecture critic for the Tribune, Blair Kamin suggests that two design possibilities be presented, one which includes the Children's Museum and one which does not. On that I agree, since given the mayor's tenacious advocacy, the eventual construction of the Children's Museum for better or worse, is virtually a fait accompli. A rethinking of the mediocre design of DCP would be a welcome change. Where we disagree is his assertion that the main problem with DCP is that it is "underutilized."

He also argues for greater access to the lake from DCP. Again I disagree. While I vigorously support the re-opening of Queen's Landing, the crosswalk that leads from Buckingham Fountain to the lake, I don't think we need to lead people by the hand to the lake everywhere along the lakefront. The lake is alluring enough on its own and those so inclined will always find a way to get there. The uninitiated will simply head back to the attractions of Millennium Park, back to where they belong.

That underutilization that Blair Kamin refers to is precicely what DCB, and the lakefront need in my opinion. Please let's not add more attractions to a park that already has more than enough of them. I think any new design for Daley Bicentennial Plaza should not try to re-invent the place, the changes should be kept to a minimum. Let's not kill it by over design.

Goodness knows we have enough of that already.

The Evening Commute

Beautiful, brisk evening. Leisurely ride home as the family was up in Wisconsin. I tooled through Daley Plaza contemplating the possible Children's Museum, (more on that later) then slowly up the lakefront into a stiff northerly. Stopped the bike when I got to the Jarvis Bird Sanctuary at Addison. While I could hear a couple of calls that I couldn't identify, the only wildlife I actually saw was a racoon and a couple of drunks. With the leaves still off the trees, the din of traffic from LSD was still pretty loud even at the east end of the santuary. But the setting sun reflected off the pond that soon will be inhabited by wood ducks more than made up for it.

It's a nice time of year, cold snap after the brief warm up after a long winter makes you realize how much you appreciate the almost empty park and bike path.

The Evening Commute

Sign of the times? The 5:50 Metra North Line out of OTC was ominously empty Thursday evening. I ran into someone I know who said it was Spring Break, but I'm not convinced.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Spotted a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers this evening, 5:40pm, March 25,2009, Lake Michigan at Chicago Ave.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Buildings and memories

They put a parking lot on a piece of land, where a supermarket used to stand. Before that they put up a bowling alley, on the site that used to be the local Pally... Come Dancing -- The Kinks

If there is one consistent in the urban landscape, it's that nothing is consistent.

We Chicagoans love to complain about change. Sears Tower changing its name, the Berghoff closing then reopening with a new agenda, Marshall Field's becoming Macy's.

Hey I never forgave Field's since they got rid of their toy store on the fourth floor years ago!

I'm currently reading a compendium of writings about the natural aspects of the Chicago region. One can mark every change here with a certain amount of regret, going all the way back to a time when this area was unfit for human habitation, but teaming with life of the non-human variety.

Once a city stops changing, it stops being a city and becomes either a museum or a theme park.

I read a post the other day on another blog about Medina Temple, the wonderfully wacky former home of the Shriners on Chicago's near north side.

The blogger noted "the plethora of Islamic and Middle Eastern ornament" and boasted for what it's worth, that it is "considered one of the nation's finest examples of a Middle Eastern-style Shirine temple."

(Another example of Chicago, the city of big distinctions.)

To me Medina Temple will forever evoke images of guys wearing fezzes and shoes with the toes curled up tooling around on motorized flying carpets, but that's just me.

Back in the late seventies I attended a recital there by Luciano Pavarotti. He was originally scheduled to perform at Orchestra Hall but there was a problem with the hall so the recital was moved to Medina Temple. In addition to having a beautiful interior, the auditorium had magnificent acoustics, so much so that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded there on occasion.

The concert was an incredible experience for me in many ways, I was just beginning my love affair with opera, was a huge Pavarotti fan who at that time which was the height of his career, and hadn't set foot in Medina Temple since my parents took me to the circus there when I was a small child.

I wanted to share this experience in the comment section of the blog. But the blogger took my comments to be an indictment of Bloomingdale's, (who bought the building in 2000 and converted it into a store), which certainly wasn't my intent.

In brief, Medina Temple which did not have landmark status, was put up for sale by the Shriners. There was concern among preservationists that it was in danger of being demolished. Bloomingdale's purchased the building, preserved the exterior, restored the distinctive onion domes, and gutted the interior to make room for its home furnishing store.

The building did receive landmark status after the purchase and its conversion, in 2001.

This brought up a couple questions in my mind.

The first is that a building is not just bricks and mortar, ornament and style. The wonderful thing about buildings, especially ones that have been around for a while, is the life that goes on, in and about them. They evoke indelible memories in the people that experience them. That of course is what makes the difference between a house and a home. Architecture critics can go on and on for hours about the former, but can't come close to addressing the latter, unless of course they have their own experiences of a place.

The other question is what happens to a building's significance when its function has been altered? In some cases there is no question that the building's function has little effect. I can't imagine anyone arguing that Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott building on State Street has been diminished now that it no longer functions as a department store. It is still one of the two great jewels of State Street, along with the Reliance Building, whose original function has also changed.

I'm not altogether sure that the same holds true of Medinah Temple. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that the facade still exists, it contributes a sense of life and whimsy that is sadly lacking in virtually all contemporary architecture. But like any building designed for public gathering, so much of that building's meaning is tied to its function.

Imagine heaven forbid, the Cubs leaving Wrigley Field. What would be the point of keeping that building if it no longer functioned as a ballpark?

The same holds true for a place of worship. Once a sacred space becomes secular, all bets are off. This ties in to the discussion of the wonderful St. Boniface Church in West Town whose future is seriously in doubt.

Once the function of these buildings has been removed, they become well, facades.

Buildings themselves are not living things but they do have lives of their own and sometimes those lives are limited.

I read something this weekend that touched me very much, it went something like this:

To be human you have to realize three things.

First that all mortal creatures are special.

Second, to take them into your hearts and cherish them.

Third, when the time comes, to let them go.

The evening commute

The usual calm of the evening Metra out of Ogilvie Transportation Center was broken with the sound of a bickering couple walking through our car. "You banged into my bag!" said the woman, "I did not" said the man. A quick look settled the question, these two were definitely not together.

The woman's voice raised a few decibels; "YOU TOUCHED MY BAG!".

"YOU'RE A LIAR!!!" said the man.

Then the woman continued walking to the next car while the man remained on ours.

Everyone else on the car breathed a sigh of relief. My seat mate and I gave each other a brief look of recognition and humor. I could come up with nothing better than the old reliable "Always something!"

She gave a little snicker, then we went on our way minding our own business.


A Cooper's Hawk spotted at approximately 6:00pm Sunday, March 22 at Jarvis and Bell.

Looked just like this.

It may have been the same bird that we saw a couple of weeks ago which we thought was a Perigrine Falcon.

This guy landed in a tree maybe 15 feet right above me and gave me ample time to check him out.
I've got to get better at my identification of raptors!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Icon, con you?

With the selling of the naming rights to Sears Tower last week, there has been lots of talk recently about Chicago icons.

While I've blathered on and on about how undeserving I think Sears Tower is to be considered Chicago's premier icon, I've been considering what would be truly Chicago's most treasured icon.

So I went to where any inquiring mind would go to answer such a question.

I Googled "Chicago icon."
My answer was a little unexpected.

The number one item on Google's list linked to the site of a guy who seems to post images of graphic designs (not his own) that he likes. This page had images of the Chicago skyline, the kind of images you'd find on souvenirs that you would buy at Walgreen's.

Since I'm looking to refine my list to individual icons, I didn't count that one.

The number two icon item on Google's list was much more useful. It linked to a Flicker page with a photograph of "Chicago Icon" Ronnie Woo Woo, the guy who dresses up in a Cubs uniform and yells "Cubs Woo! Cubs Woo!"

Number three was a Chicago tourist site that I didn't get, or count.

Number four was Richard J. Daley, who could argue with that?

Number five, Sears/Willis Tower, of course it's been in the news a lot lately as has number eight, Holy Name Cathedral.

So without any further ado here is the list (after editing out entries that featured lists of icons) of the top ten Chicago icons according to Google for 5:00PM Friday, March 20, 2009:
  1. Ronnie Woo Woo
  2. Richard J. Daley
  3. Sears/Willis Tower
  4. The John Hancock Building
  5. Studs Terkel
  6. Holy Name Cathedral
  7. The Wrigley Company
  8. Jean Baptiste Point DuSable
  9. Trump Tower, that should rub a few people the wrong way!
  10. Chicken George, a fixture on Maxwell Street
Pretty good list. I'd place Ronnie Woo Woo above Sears Tower too.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Remedy for Global Warming: Cities yes, Suburbs, no

Imagine your child having to ride a school bus two blocks to school because there is no safe way for her to walk there.

In the words of Tevye the Milkman: "Sounds crazy, no?"

An insightful article from Jon Hilkevitch in the Tribune earlier this month chronicles the absurdity of the design of new suburban communities that make little or no accommodations for transportation other than the motor vehicle.

As for the havoc this is causing to the environment, here are a some interesting stats from the article:
  • "Transportation accounts for two-thirds of all the oil consumed in the U.S. and one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA"
  • "The number of vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. is doubling every generation, according to the Federal Highway Administration."
Meaning that the stringent emission controls on automobiles these days are offset by the increase in the amount of miles driven by Americans.

In other words, we're polluting now as much or more than ever.

The sad fact is that while the detriments of automobiles vs. the benefits of alternative modes of transportation are well known and appreciated throughout society, we continue to design our communities around the private automobile.

The solution some say, are new technologies that make cars more fuel efficient with cleaner burning engines. But in a telling quote from the article, “It’s not what car you drive, but how you do not drive a car”

And where is it still possible in the United States to lead a normal life without driving a car? I can think of only a handful of places, and they're all big cities whose basic layout and infrastructure dates back at least 100 years. In cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, public transportation is much more practical than the absurd hassles involved with car ownership.

In other older cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia, it's more of a tossup with both adequate public transportation, and plenty of amenities for drivers.

That's about it. virtually everywhere else in this country, driving is not seen as a choice but a necessity.

Now if we could convince our fellow Chicagoans to make the choice to scale back their driving, we'll be on the right track.

More to follow...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sunday afternoon in the park

This past Sunday was a beautiful spring-like day, sunny, 60's with a pleasant little breeze. I took the kids to one of our favorite city parks. I won't mention which park but will say only that it was not downtown, for reasons that will become apparent later.

Anyway, the park has undergone recent restoration of its lagoons, bringing them back closer to their original 90 year old design while providing a habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Now the first nice day after a long, hard winter is not a good time to judge the condition of any park, everything outside pretty much looks like crap. But what was truly disheartening was the vast amount of garbage strewn throughout the park, in the lawns, in the flower beds, in the lagoons, even right next to the garbage cans. It was obvious that much of the litter had been there awhile as it had become embedded in the dirt and mud, and half submerged in the water.

The piece de resistance was a hypodermic needle that my son found and brought to me. Of course there were no trash cans in sight so as I'm pushing my daughter in her stroller and walking with my son, I'm holding on to this needle, feeling not a little conspicuous! Finally I found an empty beer can on the ground and put the syringe inside. Not that carrying a beer can in the park while pushing a stroller was exactly inconspicuous, but it was better than the alternative. Finally when we got to the playground I found an overflowing garbage can.

This in not meant to be an indictment of the city or the Park District, although the very next day in Grant Park I saw Park District employees hard at work picking up litter.

Nor is it an indictment of the administration of this particular park. They are not responsible for the slovenly behavior of some park (ab)users. I certainly understand budget constraints and lack of manpower. But there are still people on staff who might once in a while take it upon themselves to pick up some of the trash, even if it's not technically their job. And there certainly could have been more trash cans and the overflowing ones emptied.

I think that all of us, park employees and users alike could do a lot better.

Not that the slobs, junkies and vandals would be moved by this, they're probably not reading this blog anyway.

But there were hundreds of people in the park enjoying the day, despite the trash. If everyone of us had taken it upon ourselves to pick up just one piece of garbage and place it in a trash can, it would have gone a long way to make the park a better place.

Everyone talks about the great architecture of Chicago. The parks are part of that legacy, in fact they are some of our greatest treasures. This is our home, this is where our children play, where they grow up.

Let's take our parks back, if need be one piece of garbage at a time.

Boorish behavior

On this blog I plan to point out foibles, follies, and everyday irksome behavior that I encounter in public places around the city. With that in mind I give you today an example of public behavior that I find bothersome at the least, rude, obnoxious and downright nasty at worst. This happened the other day at Trader Joe's. The perpetrator was none other than yours truly.

I was standing in line waiting at the checkout counter and my cellphone rang. Now I had been trying to reach my wife for some time and needed to talk to her so I answered. During the course of the conversation it was my turn to check out and while the checker was scanning in my items I was busy chatting away on the phone. I continued to chat during the transaction, during the bagging of the groceries and only hung up just as I was getting my receipt.

Now this kind of thing happens thousands of times everyday. My guess is that most employees that deal with the general public are used to this behavior and don't think for a moment about it.

But really aren't we saying; "we've got more important things to do than to interact with you, never mind me, just go ahead and do your job!"

I felt like a heel and apologized. The woman said; "well it happens sometimes." She felt it too.

I hate cellphones.

P.S. After my wife read this she said; "No wonder you were so short with me over the phone!"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Child care, Chicago, c. 1920

St. Patrick's day always brings memories of my grandmother and her sister, my great Aunt Gertrude Hickey (nee Houlihan).

Aunt Gert died in 2001, just after celebrating her 101st birthday. She was a pistol, without a doubt one of the most memorable people I've ever known. A whirlwind of tales came out of our every visit, one never knew what was coming but she never disappointed. She also never told the same story twice unless you asked her. Gertrude was more with it than people half or even a quarter her age.

Beth reminded me this morning of our favorite Gertrude story, this one has perhaps a touch of the blarney, but it could just be true.

Seems that back in 1920's Chicago, South Side, if a couple with a baby wanted to go out on the town and needed a babysitter, what they'd do is this:

Put the baby on the front porch along with a bottle of beer and an opener. The first passerby to arrive at the scene would find the beer, help him or herself to it, then feel compelled to watch the baby until the parents came home.

Seems reasonable to me.

God bless ya Gert!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Contrary to the spirit of my previous post, I'm wearing green today, are you?

A tip of the hat to my Irish brethren.

Here's another.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The de-mall-ition of State St.

Thinking about Chicago St. Patrick's Days of yore made me think about State Street and the former State Street Mall, that failed 70s attempt to attract shoppers back to "that great street".

In case you don't remember, the Loop experienced a serious decline in retail business during the sixties and seventies. The causes were many, not the least of which was the construction of suburban shopping malls. With the "if you can't beat 'em join em" spirit, city planners and officials joined cities all over the country and set into motion what turned out to be a well intentioned flop that not only failed to stop the hemorrhaging , but at least to most critics, exacerbated it.

The removal of the Mall in 1996 is credited with bringing life back to the Loop. In a recent article, the Boston Globe uses this as justification for returning automobile traffic back to Downtown Crossing, the pedestrian mall that closed off Washington Street to traffic in Downtown Boston.

Although I agree that getting rid of the mall of State Street was a good thing, I would probe a little deeper before rushing to judgment in removing these things elsewhere. Here are my recollections of the SSM:

First of all, having been constructed during the nadir of architecture in the US, the 1970s, the State Street Mall was terribly designed, implemented and constructed. The sidewalk was made of flagstones that were never properly laid giving it an undulating effect. Friends referred to it as the State Street Wide Sidewalk because little seemed to have changed, other than having replaced a perfectly good sidewalk with a crappy one.

Secondly, only private vehicles were banned, busses and municipal vehicles still used State Street. Unlike Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis where one, maybe two buses drove through every minute, here there was a continuous flow of them.

While the wider sidewalks reduced the density of pedestrian traffic, the narrower street increased the vehicular density. Ironically the overall effect was more vehicles and fewer pedestrians.
As the devil is in the details, they replaced distinctive vintage 50s metal streamlined subway entrances with awkward vintage 70s ones complete with plastic bubble tops. The whole thing just looked bad.

During the lifetime of the SSM, Sear's, Goldblatts, Montgomery Wards, Wieboldt's, Bond's, Baskin's and other stores all closed up shop on State Street. So did theaters and other smaller businesses.

The area became desolate especially at night, and people assumed (wrongly) that the Loop had a particularly high crime rate.

Leaving the question, had the mall not been built, would things have been different?

I don't think so. I believe that the trend away from downtown was inevitable given the growing dependence on the automobile. For basic shopping, why drive downtown, pay for parking and schlepp around in the elements when you could go to the burbs, park for free, and do all your shopping under one roof?

That was the logic of the time pure and simple. And it still is.

The mistake I believe was that the planners thought urban downtowns could compete at the same game as the suburban shopping malls, which of course was impossible. Once they realized that the city offered an experience that the cookie cutter malls couldn't, they got back on the right track.

But getting back to the State Street Mall and its failings; in retrospect I don't think it was such a bad thing. While North Michigan Avenue just a few blocks away was undergoing a renaissance at the time, the city could have easily turned its back on State Street in the Loop.

It didn't.

Reducing the use of private automobiles and encouraging public transit is a good thing. It just wasn't realized very well on the SSM.

What could have happened was a major overhaul in the design and infrastructure of the Loop as happened in Downtown Milwaukee. There they built a full scale indoor shopping mall called the Grand Avenue. They turned Wisconsin Avenue, the equivalent of State Street, inside out, putting all of the storefronts inside, away from the street. Parking was easily accessible if not free. The thing was a success when it was built in the 80s but today it has become tired and faded. Consequently no storefronts remain on Wisconsin Ave. and there is little or no life remaining on what was once a vibrant street.

At least Chicago's (pardon the expression) half-ass solution enabled the city to return State Street back into a street, if not to its former glory, yet anyway.

Still the return of the automobile did not prevent Carson Pirie Scott from closing its historic flagship store on State Street a couple of years ago.

In Boston people are split over the decision to open up Washington Street. Filene's is gone, business is down, some blame it on the mall and think returning the automobile will bring back business.

Here in Chicago, much of the development in the Loop has been residential not retail. Michigan Avenue not State Street remains Chicago's premier retail thoroughfare. Cities all across the country are experiencing similar issues with their downtowns, walking malls or not.

From my experience, Chicago's Loop is better off than most downtowns across the US.

But I don't believe that returning private cars to State Street is the reason.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Erin go bah humbug

For as long as I can remember I've been a St. Paddy's Day Scrooge. It probably began when my grandmother made me wear an enormous "Kiss me I'm Irish" button back in third grade.

I have to admit having attended many St. Patrick's Day Parades back in the day. My first and most memorable was in 1976, Richard J. Daley's last one. Actually got a picture or two of Hizzoner, you can tell by his bright red face somewhere way off in the crowd.

It was also one of the last St. Paddy's Day parades on State Street, before they closed it off to build the State Street Mall.

There was something to all the hoopla and tradition to the Downtown parade, the playing of "When Mayor Daley leads the Parade Down State Street", the green river, the show of political force. It was the Chicago version of May Day in Red Square.

It probably still is except I never go anymore. There's something lacking in parades on Columbus Drive, although I understand the reasons for having them there. And of course the obilgatory displays of public drunkenness, exacerbated by the parade now being held on the weekend, gets a little tiresome.

Oh well maybe I should just lighten up and pour myself a Guinness. Except that I've given up drinking for Lent.

Ah now we're getting somewhere!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The good news...

...about all this name change business; with nothing sacred anymore, not even the names given to commercial buildings by their developers, the name of Trump Tower will eventually change. I give it about ten years.

Then maybe people here will like it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

City of Big Distinctions

Years ago I wrote this piece about how we Chicagoans love to boast about our firsts, our biggest, tallest and greatests in the world.

It's all coming to the surface again with the renaming of Sears Tower to Willis Tower. Frankly I'm a little surprised since buildings get renamed all the time without much notice. I didn't hear a peep when the Standard Oil Building became the Amoco and later the AON Building.

Or when the Associates Center (aka the Diamond Building at Michigan and Randolph) became the Stone Container Building and later the Smurfit-Stone Building.


As Cary Grant said to his mother while in a drunken stupor in Hitchcock's masterpiece "North by Northwest", "no mother I didn't believe it either!"

But this Sears Tower name change seems to have really rubbed people the wrong way. Maybe it's because of all the recent changes that have de-Chicagoized some of our most cherished institutions.

Marshall Field's becoming Macy's is the prime example. The Field name of course has been synonymous with Chicago for well over 100 years just as the Macy's name has been with New York. Having a New York institution replace a Chicago institution was more than most Chicagoans could stand, despite the fact that both stores for years had been owned by companies outside of their respective home towns.

The Sears name also has also been synonymous with Chicago ever since Richard Sears moved his one man jewelry business here from Minneapolis in 1887. The rest of course is history, the company quickly became one of the giant mail order retailers in the country to have been based in Chicago. At one time all across America the arrival of the Sears catalog was anticipated with as much gusto as birthdays and Christmas.

But much has changed over the years, the mail order business all but disappeared and while Sears department stores have stuck around, they are certainly not a fixture in American life as they once were. The company left Sears Tower for its new digs in suburban Hoffman Eastates in 1992 leaving only the name.

The building was built in 1973 to be the the tallest building in the world. It kept that distinction until 1998. But sheer height alone does not make a building good and no one has ever accused Sears Tower as being particularly interesting, let alone beautiful.

Given its size it is a rather unremarkable building without style or grace, plunked down on a sizable block site in the west Loop. It doesn't have a graceful profile like the great art deco towers, doesn't have a facade that plays gracefully with light as the AON Building, and it doesn't strike an audacious pose like it's SOM cousin, the John Hancock Building.

Its most objectionable feature in my opinion is the way it meets the street. There is no attempt to unify the monster building with its surroundings. The design of the entrance was so unsuccessful that it was reworked several times. Barriers had to be installed about 10 feet into the ledges on the base because pedestrians not paying attention could find themselves perilously high above the ground as the ledges that start even with the sidewalk on the Wacker Drive side end up about 20 feet above the ground at Franklin Street where the street grade (but not the ledge) has descended from the river.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Sears Tower's icon status in Chicago is based solely on the fact that it was once the world's tallest building. Now that the distinction has been lost, as far as I'm concerned they can call it whatever they like. There are hundreds, no thousands of better buildings in the city.

If you do need to cling to some kind of height distinction though, rest easy for as far as I know, Sears/Willis Tower still has the highest bathrooms in the world.

But here's something that should cause real concern about another Chicago institution. I just learned today that in some Chicago parks, 16 inch softball is is being gradually replaced by 12 inch with gloves.

This is truly disconcerting news.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

From the morning commute

Wabash Avenue from the Madison and Wabash station, 8:50am Thursday, March 12, 2009

Willis Tower

Somehow I just can't get worked up about the name change. In case you missed it, Sears Tower is getting its name changed to Willis Tower, after the British Insurance company that has bought the building.

It was the tallest building in the world for many years and for that reason alone has been a Chicago icon since it was built in 1973.

Personally I've always considered it to be a very unimpressive building, vastly inferior to its fellow members in the Chicago 1000 ft. plus club, the John Hancock and the AON (formerly the Amoco, and before that Standard Oil) Buildings, and now the new Trump Tower.

My guess is that people around here will keep on calling it the Sears Tower anyway.

No big deal.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ornithology, March 11, 2009

Leaving for my son's First Communion class this evening we saw a Peregrine Falcon(?) briefly perched on top of our building. I thought at first it might have been a Cooper's Hawk but my boy said it looked like a falcon, which I had shown him roosting at the Uptown last year.

We saw it a few minutes later swooping and darting between houses across from school and judging from its flight I think his call may have been right, he usually is.

On the way home from the L, I saw a flock of robins including a few very pregnant females.

Today's commute

Had to get down to Hyde Park this morning. I got off at Randolph and Wabash to wait for the Green Line. It was a crystal clear morning and I discovered that this station not only provided the best view of the new Trump Tower but also one of the best of the entire Wabash Avenue streetscape.

Interesting ride down to Garfield Boulevard one that I don't take often. Reverse commute, the train was practically empty. Still some of the most consistently beautiful housing stock in the city, what's left of it anyway, is to be found in the Near South Side.

There is new development that can be seen from the L including one set of row houses that are inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's in The Gap, the neighborhood just east of IIT.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The morning commute...

Purple Line from Howard Street. I was engrossed in my book, a wonderful anthology called "Of Prairie, Woods & Water, Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing", edited by Joel Greenburg. While reading about exploring the prairie landscape, trudging through swamps, and communing with Indians, I heard this beep beep beep in my ear. I look up and immediately the woman standing on the train above me quits texting and apologizes. I told her it was ok but she quit anyway. Then after about 30 seconds, for some reason feeling guilty about being a spoiled sport, I said again, "really, it's ok!"

Then the incessant beeping started all over again.

Not to complain however, it certainly wasn't as bad as being eaten alive by the mosquitos that I was reading about!

Ornithology, March 10, 2009

Heard the pecking of my first Downy Woodpecker of the season. Fargo between Damen and Winchester, 8:00AM.

St. Boniface, again...

As a practicing Catholic and someone who is passionate about Chicago history and architecture, I am torn over the fate of this church. On the one hand I believe that the loss of a treasure like this would be a terrible blow to the neighborhood, to the city, and mostly to the people who have called St. Boniface their spiritual home.

On the other hand, I truly believe that the Chicago Archdiocese does not take the closing of parishes and the demolition of churches lightly. The fact is that empty pews on Sundays are the rule rather than the exception in most churches across the city. The chronic shortage of priests is another serious problem. It is not uncommon to find a priest in Chicago saying mass in three different parishes on a given Sunday.

These days it is a constant struggle to keep a church open and functioning. If the Archdiocese operated on purely bottom line principles as has been suggested, the number of Catholic churches in Chicago would certainly be a small fraction of what it is today.

The example of Old St. Pat's Church Downtown was brought up elsewhere as a church once down to a handful of parishioners now on of our most vibrant parishes. One big difference, the population of the neighborhood of Old St. Pat's went overnight from virtually zero to several thousand with the construction of Presidential Towers. Another, the nearest Catholic church to St. Pat's stood at least a mile away.

St. Boniface in contrast sits in an established neighborhood that is saturated with churches. Standing in Eckhart Park across the street from St. Boniface, one can see church spires in all directions, three of them no more than two or three blocks away. At the turn of the last century, approximately 100,000 practicing Catholics lived in the community now referred to as West Town. I don't have the number living there today but one can assume that the number is significantly smaller.

Another example presented was that of Rome. Several churches there are lovingly preserved and kept open but have sparse attendance at best. This is true but of course the bishop of Rome is none other than the Pope. I think it's safe to say that he has more resources at hand and even more clout in his city than our archbishop.

My point in all this is not to justify tearing down St. Boniface. On the contrary, St. Boniface ever since I visited it in the early 80s has been one of my very favorite churches in the city. Nothing would please me more than to see it preserved, restored and preferably returned to function as a house of worship.

But I don't think the burden can lie squarely on the shoulders of the Archdiocese, especially in these terrible economic times. Their line, as it has been since Vatican II is that the Church's chief mission is to minister to people's needs, not to preserve buildings.

I would have to agree with that, to a point anyway. If the Church is choosing a "cold real estate decision" over their "historic responsibilities", well the cold reality is that the Church like the rest of us has to pay its bills.

I think that those of us who care about preserving Chicago's history, should seek out every possible means of saving St. Boniface, and other churches in the same situation. This will take hard work, planning, and prayers, but mostly it will take money. The city of Chicago can help to a certain extent but also it would take a private entity, a conservancy perhaps to set in motion the process of saving some of our most cherished buildings.

One final thought, at the risk of sounding like my old man, if all the folks who have expressed so much concern about losing St. Boniface actually attended the church of their choice on a regular basis, maybe we would not be having this discussion.

Just a suggestion!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Visiting St. Boniface

St. Boniface from the flooded baseball field of Eckhart Park, 5:00pm Sunday, March 8, 2009.

The 90 day waiting period after the demolition permit was filed expired two days ago.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

St. Boniface...

Yesterday, March 6th, marked the end of the 90 waiting period after the application for a demolition permit was filed by the Archdiocese of Chicago in order to demolish St. Boniface Church in West Town.

The church was closed in 1990 and since then has been a point of contention between the neighborhood and preservation communities and the Archdiocese. Designed at the turn of the last century by the foremost architect of the Chicago Catholic Church, Henry Schlacks, St. Boniface has been a landmark in the community, standing as a poignant backdrop to Eckhart Park at the intersection of Noble and Chestnut streets. The Romanesque Revival building is a work of wonderful proportion and exquisite craftsmanship reflecting the working class German community that built it. Its asymmetrical towers are a fixture in the near northwest side skyline, one of the pentateuch of great churches visible from the 2 mile stretch of the Kennedy expressway between Armitage and Chicago Avenues.

There have been numerous attempts in the past 18 years to find new uses for the building, including the possibility of its being taken over by the Orthodox Coptic Rite, but all have proven either impractical or unacceptable to the Archdiocese.

Unfortunately since its closing, the building has suffered from the ravages of time and neglect and today faces so many building code violations that it has been deemed to be a severe liability. The Archdiocese filed the demolition permit last December.

That a church of this significance and beauty should meet such a fate is truly a lamentable situation. The preservation community is correct in doing everything possible to save the building. However I think that much of the severe criticism I have read that has been leveled at the Archdiocese has been unwarranted.

Foremost in the criticism is the Archdiocese's greed in wanting to sell the property to the highest bidder, presumably to a developer who would build condominiums, rather than preserving a historic building.

The fact is that there are more church buildings in Chicago than the Church can reasonably accommodate. It is not unusual in Chicago to find five or six Catholic churches in an area of one square mile or less. This is a testament to the number of immigrants coming to the city from Europe a century ago, with each distinct ethnic group desiring a church solely dedicated to itself. The neighborhood where St. Boniface stands is such a case.

The predominately Irish, German, and Polish immigrants who built these churches eventually left the neighborhood, and the need for churches catering to their individual needs diminished.

Declining church membership obviously has taken quite a toll as well. It is very difficult to sustain a parish both financially and spiritually whose membership consists only of a handful of families. This was the case with many parishes in Chicago. During his tenure as archbishop, Joseph Cardinal Bernadin was forced with the heartbreaking decision of consolidating neighboring parishes, and closing churches, including St. Boniface.

Clearly, financial matters weighed heavily in the decision. This is simply a fact of life in which none of us is immune, not even the Church.

But "greed" is an unnecessarily harsh and inappropriate criticism in this case. The Catholic Church sees its mission first and foremost to serve the spiritual and physical needs of the people. This includes its major role in providing food and shelter for the poor of the city.

It is very difficult, especially in this difficult economic climate to for the Church to justify spending money on buildings rather than people.

Still there is some hope at this eleventh hour that some solution other than demolition will occur. There are rumors afloat that the city may present a land swap option, offering the Archdiocese a parcel of land in exchange for the St. Boniface site, pursue landmark status for the shuttered building, and work to convert it to an alternate use. Although the landmarking of churches is not permissible because of the separation of Church and State, this does not apply here because St. Boniface has not been an active church for almost 20 years.

I truly understand the pain of the community, especially those whose lives are tied to St. Boniface. It is a remarkable, historic and beautiful building whose loss would be profound.

But as with most preservation issues, this is complicated, and thoughtless accusations and lack of understanding will do nothing to prevent its loss.

Friday, March 6, 2009

From today's commute...

5:45pm, Friday March 6, 2009
What a difference a day makes.

Another Loop hardware store bites the dust...

The Ace Hardware at 310 W. Adams is closing (or moving to 2 already existing locations, depending on how you look at it) . The upshot is that one of the few remaining true hardware stores in the Loop will be gone at the end of the month. Curious at a time when the Loop is moving away from commercial and toward residential development that it cannot support basic everyday retail businesses that are essential to neighborhoods, like hardware and grocery stores.

The building in which the hardware store is located, the 300 West Adams building is a lovely mid-twenties terra cotta Gothic revival skyscraper. It has recently been sold and its new owners are applying for landmark status, apparently in order to benefit from property tax incentives. It is currently being restored and other storefront businesses of the building are also moving out implying that the management has not renewed any of the leases.

Directly across Adams Street from Sears Tower, the building is a welcome break from the steel and glass canyon of Franklin Street. It was designed by Jens J. Jensen, not to be confused with the great landscape architect Jens Jensen.

I'm not sure if the building meets the criteria for landmark designation but if were up to me, I'd probably landmark every building in the Loop built before 1960!

Ornithology, March 6, 2009

Heard but not seen; my first red-winged blackbird of the season, today at Diversey Harbor.

Saw my first robin a couple of weeks ago.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The other Chicago...

Chicago, Israel. Good to know our gangster past lives.

From the morning commute...

The Lakefront at Fullerton Avenue, 8:45am Thursday March 5, 2009.
The snow and ice should all be gone by tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The urban experience in film...

A huge gap in my film going experience has been the work of Buster Keaton. I've been a Chaplin fan for longer than I care to admit but Buster was just off my radar. Until this past week that is when the family saw Keaton's 1928 film The Cameraman. In addition to being a highly entertaining movie made by one of the true geniuses of cinema, it contains some great location work in New York City.

Here a somewhat long clip that is one of my favorite sequences in the film. It includes Buster running through live traffic up Broadway I believe, giving a terrific idea of what the city looked like in the late 1920s. I think the shot of the policeman is actually Los Angeles but I'm not sure.

Note the set of his apartment building where he runs up and down several flights of stairs waiting for a call from his sweetheart, played by Marceline Day.

The Cameraman also features this magical scene of Buster shot in what was at the time a brand new Yankee Stadium.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

As seen during my evening commute...

Millennium Park, 5:20pm

Morton Salt, 5:55pm

Casa Bonita, 6:30pm

Something I noticed for the first time today...

8:45 Tuesday March 3, 2009

Drop the Burris issue...

State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias was on the radio this morning urging the state to carry out a general election to replace Senator Roland Burris. When asked if he would back the election even if it would cost the financially strapped state over 50 million dollars, Giannoulias stuck to his guns claiming; "we need to put some integrity back in the process."

And guess who he thinks is the right guy for the job?

Why himself of course.

Now I'm in favor of integrity in politicians as much as the next guy. I'm also in favor of free public transportation, peace, love and understanding and all that, but I don't expect to see any of those things in my lifetime.

Show me a politician who wouldn't do just about anything short of stabbing his own mother in the back to get votes and I'll show you a losing politician. Which is why of course Carolyn Kennedy dropped out of the running for her own Senate appointment. She just couldn't stomach the crap she'd have to put up with trying to win an election. Few of us could.

As far as the integritometer rating on Burris, compared with his new colleagues in the Senate, my suspicion is he'd come in somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Giannoulias for his part said he's done a terrific job as Treasurer, a curious claim given the current state of the state. Of course the Treasurer can't be held personally liable for the financial troubles of the state. But anyone who has a connection with the train wreck that is Illinois State government these days has to be held suspect. Especially the guy who holds the purse strings.

While he may have an in at the White House as the president's go to guy on the basketball court, I think Alexi had better keep a low profile or else he and his party will have a day of reckoning at the polls if a general election is held any time soon. In this climate a Democrat in Illinois has about as much chance of winning statewide as Blago has any chance of getting elected to ... well anything.

And God knows that the state and federal governments have more pressing matters right now than replacing our current senator.

So let's stick with Burris to keep the seat warm in Washington and in two years the voters will throw the bum out.

And elect another one.

And the verdict please...

Starbucks had their people out this morning in the Loop handing out samples of their new instant coffee.

Well I tried it and have to say without reservation that it was the best instant coffee I've ever had.

Best instant coffee, isn't that sort of like claiming the title of world's tallest midget?

Skyline Ranking...

Chicagoans have always boasted that we have a glorious skyline. Now we've been justified, at least by which tracks the construction of buildings all over the world.

The site has made a list of the 100 most impressive skylines of the world as ranked by what they call their "visual impact".

Chicago is number 5 on the list, behind Seoul, Singapore, NYC and Hong Kong.

But wait, the list "is drawn entirely from statistics" in the Emporis database, based on a formula where each building in its respective city is "assigned points based on its floor count".

In other words the more big buildings you have, the higher the rank.

What I did find surprising in all this is that out of the top 10 cities in the list, Chicago is by far the smallest both in area and population, implying that more people are living and working vertically here than anywhere else in the world.

I wouldn't have guessed that.

As for the most beautiful skyline, something this list never presumed to take into account, for my money I'd pick Prague, which didn't make the top 100.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Today's commute...

Riding the L home tonight with two kids in tow (no stroller) during rush hour, at least three people offered me their seat. Later another dad, also with two small children, one in stroller, was immediately offered a seat too.

Thank you Purple Line riders from the both of us.

There was a ranter on the car. At first you couldn't tell if he was talking on the phone but he kept repeating "had a dream and the foot came off cleanly", so we all knew.

Ranters bring out the solidarity of all the other commuters.

People on the street count...

Drove in today with Beth and the kids this morning. Our 8 year old took it upon himself to count all the people he saw out walking.

From Rogers Park to Downtown the total count was 203. I thought he'd maybe make it to 100.

Not bad for a blustery day.

Endangered species?

The roof mounted sign I mean, not necessarily the YMCA!

Once they were a common sight around town, especially on top of the buildings that line south Michigan Avenue. Contemporary aesthetics and "good taste" seem to have sent these things headed toward the dustbin of history, but to me what better symbols of the urban experience than the classic neon sign ontop of a skyscraper?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Paul Harvey and Studs

Death makes strange bedfellows and the deaths last week of three Chicago broadcasting giants, (four if you include James Ward), beg the comparison between Norm Van Lier, Johnny Red Kerr and Paul Harvey.

But to me the really interesting comparison, one brought up this morning on Rick Kogan's wonderful Sunday Papers radio show is between Paul Harvey and Studs Terkel who died a couple of months ago.

You couldn't find two personalities who were farther apart in politics, style and personality.

Yet both Studs and Harvey represent holdouts of the generation that was honed out of the hard times of the Depression and World War II. Studs told the story of the average American and Paul Harvey spoke to directly to that person. Both men wore their integrity on their sleeves, steadfastly refusing to change their bedrock philosophies or personal styles in the face of public opinion or fashion. In the end, Studs and Paul Harvey were un-apologetic anachronisms, men of great hope and passion, telling their stories in times of cynicism and ennui.

Their powerful and distinctive voices will be missed at a time when we need them the most.


Damn Google. I thought I had just coined a word but with a quick check, nothing is ever new under the sun. Houstonization has been around for at least 30 years. I could come up with another but it's a good word and I'll stick with it.

Many years ago I visited Houston on business and with some time on my hands decided to walk around to check out the place. Being used to Chicago-like cities, I was drawn to the big towers of Downtown, thinking that was where all the action was.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Making the trek which was no small effort in itself, it was about a five mile walk in a city designed for cars not pedestrians. Finally I found myself in the midst of gleaming new buildings designed by some of the biggest names in architecture that oil money could buy. They looked great on paper, in renderings and in photographs. They were impressive to admire from a distance.

But a city is not simply a collection of buildings like a museum is a collection of paintings. A city is a living, breathing thing, warts and all. There was nothing out of place, everything was tidy and tasteful. In the middle of the week at lunchtime on a beautiful November day, there was barely a soul to be found outside, something I found amazing in a city with a population of over one million. As far as I was concerned, all the life was sapped out of downtown Houston.

There was "no there there" to quote Gertrude Stein, absolutely nothing to contribute to a sense of place. I could have been standing in Downtown Dallas, Denver or L.A., which is essence of the term Houstonization.

Flash forward 25 years and looking at where the Loop may be headed, I'm hoping that no one will replace the term Houstonization with Chicagoization.

Downtown Chicago in Transition...

Just been thumbing through the book Downtown Chicago in Transition by Eric Bronsky and Neal Samors.

It is loaded with fantastic archival pictures of the Loop from the 1870s to the present, including several then and now comparisons which are always compelling to me.

My first impression at looking at the book is how my memories don't begin to add up to what an amazing place the Loop once was. Every day when I walk through the Loop I am reminded about how much we have lost. But the richness and exuberance of the place that comes through in these beautifully reproduced photographs takes the sense of loss to a whole new level.

Of course we all mourn the passing of great architectural treasures, many of which don't make it to the pages of this book. This may be a strength rather than a weakness since so much space elsewhere is devoted to the subject. Rather this book at a quick glace focues on the vernacular, the ephemeral, idiosyncratic bits and pieces that contribute to the sense of place of any city. And of course lots and lots of people populate the pictures reminding us how alive and vital the Loop was and remains, albeit to a lesser extent,today.

From a cursory look, the authors don't dwell on nostalgia but are eager to look forward with the understanding, as the title of the book suggests, that transition is indeed the nature of the game in any vibrant city.

The text consists of memories of Chicagoans, many are descendants of some of the most powerful movers and shakers in town.

I look forward to reading their accounts and will share them in future posts.

Please check out my own compilation of memories of the city here.