Saturday, May 30, 2009


A Black-crowned Night-Heron, 11:30am, Saturday May 30, Indian Boundary Park.

Re-thinking urban streets

Good Magazine has published the winners of its "Design a Livable Street" contest. The concept was to start with a photo of a street scene, presumably in the contestant's own area, and present improvements using PhotoShop that would make the street more user-friendly. In other words pedestrian friendly, not car friendly.

This is quite timely as New York has just closed portions of Times and Herald Squares off to vehicular traffic.

While I'm a big advocate of foot, two wheeled and public transportation over the four wheeled motorized variety, I'm a bit skeptical of re-designing urban streets that have served the purpose of balancing the transportation needs of all of the above quite well for in most cases over a century.

The suburban street scene is quite another story of course.

The obvious example in Chicago is the failed State Street Mall which was mercifully returned to a traditional street in the 90's. You can read more about it in an earlier post here.

The conceptual problem with the SSM beyond its design flaws, was that the reduction of the width of the street (which increased traffic density even though private vehicles were prohibited), combined with widened sidewalks reduced the over-all density of foot traffic on the street. While at the outset, the number of pedestrians on State Street remained consistent, the lower density gave the perception that the area was in decline. City centers thrive on density. That decline became a self-fulfilling prophesy as what was once the commercial heart of the city became a virtual a ghost town.

But getting back to the contest, the entrants included in their designs, bike lanes, crosswalks, streetcars, the removal of billboards, and best of all, lots of attractive people enjoying their stroll through the once bleak city-scape. (Clicking on an entry brings the viewer to an interactive before and after view). No one seems to be going to work or engaged in otherwise unpleasant activities. All the unpleasantness has been PhotoShopped out.

The scenes presented by the contestants all seemed fine enough if not a little boring. There was a particular sameness in all of the entries. All hints of sense of place also seemed edited out.

For example, billboards to me are not particularly offensive, they add color and life to the streetscape.

And while I love the idea of bringing back streetcars, their efficacy as an eco-friendly, cost effective transportation alternative is debatable.

Strangely enough given the fact that the bicycle is my primary means of transportation, I save my biggest reservation for bike lanes. Setting aside specific lanes for bicycles gives motorists the idea that bike traffic should be limited to those lanes and that cyclists should stay off streets with no bike lanes. It has always been my contention that we cyclists are better off with fewer concessions from government. If we ask for fewer concessions, then fewer concessions are demanded of us, or so the argument goes.

If I am skeptical of all this, it is because of all the well meaning, grand visions of city planning that I've seen over my years. What works well on paper and in images does not always translate to real life. To me what is fascinating about cities is the way they come together through happenstance, the flow of everyday life that plays out on the streets. Big plans don't always save room for small details where most of the life of cities resides. Momentous and far reaching as the Burnham Plan was, I think we are better off that much of the Plan was never realized.

Still I applaud the efforts, I may take a stab at reconstructing a Chicago street. Up where I live, Western Avenue between Howard and Touhy needs some work. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On the bubble...

Well it's been a terrific season and the Blackhawks deserve all the credit in the world for getting this far in the playoffs. At this writing they are scoreless awaiting the start of the third period, down three games to one in the Western Conference Finals against the Red Wings.

The goalies , Osgood and Huet are playing out of their minds.

I will endeavor to help them along as best as I can.

Well here goes:
  • Cleary scores for the Wings at 6:08, 1-0 Detroit.
  • Patrick Kane ties it up with 7 minutes left in the third.
  • We're going to overtime!
  • It's all over, Helm scores for the Wings at 3:58 in overtime. Detroit wins the series 4-1.
Thanks for a great season Blackhawks!!!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Seen on the ride home...

Native American imagery in Uptown, Broadway and Wilson, Friday May 22, 5:30 PM.


Every time I blog while the Blackhawks have been playing in these playoffs, it's been lucky for them. Now they're in the Conference Finals playing the dreaded Red Wings at the U.C. down 2 games to 0. They've blown a 3-0 lead now it's tied at 3 with 5:30 left in the 3rd period.

One can only hope...

OK folks, I'm taking credit for this one, maybe they'll give me an assist, Patrick Sharp from Matt Walker and Cam Barker scores at 1:52 of overtime, Blackhawks win 4-3!

They're back in the series.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kiddieland closing

All things must pass and Kiddieland in Melrose Park, the last of the privately owned amusement parks in the Chicago area will close at the end of the year.

It is a sad day indeed as this marks not only the end of an era, but the end of yet another unique place that set this part of the world apart from everywhere else.

Nest year when they replace Kiddieland with a Target, Walmart or whatever, the vast suburban wasteland of strip malls that begins at the Fox River in St. Charles, will extend almost un-broken all the way to River Road in Melrose Park, a stretch of about 25 miles.

It's hard to blame the owners for not turning down the big pay day after 80 plus years of running a place that provided simple entertainment for families with small children. Those of us who spent time there can thank them for the happy times in their little amusement park.

I'm sad to say that we never brought our kids there. No good reason. I suppose that I thought it would always be there, despite all the news to the contrary. Maybe it was just a little too out of the way. We just never made it.

Perhaps this year, although it might just be too sad.

My family moved to Oak Park in 1968 and I went to Kiddieland only occasionally. It really paled in comparison to Riverview but after the great park closed in 1967 Kiddieland was the only amusement park around unless the folks were willing to drive to the distant 'burbs to Adventureland or Santa's Village. Neither place I remember very well save for the ads they would have every week on the back pages of the TV guides in the Sunday papers.

The last time I was at Kiddieland was probably 35 years ago when you just paid for the rides which were maybe 25 cents each. My favorite was the bumper cars. At first they scared me but eventually I grew used to them and began to ram the other cars with relish. They had a little roller coaster called the Little Dipper which couldn't have been more appropriately named. While I was never a big roller coaster fan, this one I could easily handle.

That and the arcade where they had speedball where you rolled a ball up a ramp and got points which added up to prizes, depending on where the ball landed...

Like I said, simple fun for little kids.

The best part now that I think about it was, is still the wonderful sign announcing the place, two little kids swinging around a maypole with block letters spelling out "Kiddieland".

I imagine someone will buy the sign, maybe it will end up at a historical museum somewhere.

There was once a roller rink nearby which I've heard is long gone. Also a drive in theater, even longer gone.

Too bad.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Congratulations Blackhawks!

The Hawks just won the NHL Western Conference semi-finals beating the Vancouver Canucks in a barn burner, 7-5 at the United Center.

Patrick Kane led the team with a hat trick in a game that changed leads four times.

They will go on to face the winner of the Detroit-Anaheim series in the Conference finals, first time they've been there since 1995.

They didn't even need my help urging them along with the blog!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Saving Mies

Having spent four years at The Illinois Institute of Technology, I must say that I have very mixed feelings about the work of Mies van der Rohe and specifically the IIT campus. I was originally drawn there by the dreams of Modernism and the radical design of the campus. But honestly, like choosing a good friend as a roommate, living with Mies is not the same as visiting him every once in a while.

Sometimes in my cynical, philistine moments I find myself saying: "tear down the whole campus", Crown Hall (where I spent most of my time) included.

But to hate Mies is really to hate all the inferior architecture that his work inspired. Go to the Federal Building complex down town and look at Mies' care and attention to proportion and detail, then walk a block east to the Modernist tower (currently occupied by Bank of America) at the south-east corner of State and Adams. This building is an obvious send-up to Mies, but only in the most superficial of ways.

In his proper context, Mies van der Rohe deserves his place in the pantheon of architects.

Edward Lifson continues to make a powerful and impassioned case for the preservation of a little corner of the IIT campus, a tiny building that would garner little attention save for its esteemed author.

Together with Lynn Becker's series of articles opposing the imminent demise of the Michael Reese Hospital campus, the case for historic preservation of less than easily lovable buildings is brought to the forefront.

Unfortunately at this moment anyway, both seem to be lost causes.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

History repeats?

Last week at this time I found myself blogging about the Blackhawks during their playoff game with the Canucks. As I was writing the Hawks scored three consecutive goals coming back from a 2-0 deficit to eventually win the game 6-3.

They followed with a disappointing performance in Chicago on Monday and a brilliant come from behind overtime victory Thursday.

At this writing they are back in Vancouver, and the series and game are currently both tied at 2.

Here we go again, Dave Bolland scores with 5:05 left in the third period to break the tie.

Go Hawks.

Post-script: Martin Havlat scores an empty netter, 4-2 Hawks with 1:02 left to play.

Post-post-script: Hawks win 4-2, and lead the series 3-2. Back to Chicago on Monday.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Barn swallows, 8:40am Tuesday May 5, 2009, Lakefront at Randolph St.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Congratulations Bulls

While the Blackhawks were about to win Game Two of their series against the Canucks, the Bulls finished up their best of seven series against the Boston Celtics, losing game seven, 109-99.

Like the Blackhawks, this was the Bulls' first appearance in the playoffs in several years. Unlike the Hawks however, they faced the defending champions, and playing way over their heads made this one of the best series in recent memories, sending four of the seven games into overtime.

While the term "wait 'till next year" in Chicago is a cruel joke, Bulls' fans can hold their heads high.

I love this time of year!

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Heard but not seen, Blue Jays, Oakley and Pratt, Friday, May 1, 2009.