Thursday, July 30, 2009


A Common Tern, 8:30am, Thursday, July 30, 2009, Belmont Harbor.

Also seen on my bike ride this morning, two men aboard a double scull on the lake between Diversey and Fullerton. They made it look SO easy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Speaking of trees...

Here is a magnificent specimen, a Bur Oak, Quercus macrocarpa, on the northeast side of Chicago along the north branch of the Chicago River. This is an urban tree only by virtue of its residing in the city. Judging from its size, this wasn't always so as it certainly predates the City of Chicago by a few (human) generations at least.

I have photographed it in all the seasons and you can see a spring and winter version of it if you go to NoMI restaurant in the Park Hyatt Hotel on North Michigan Avenue.


American Kestrel. 8:15PM July 29, Jarvis and Claremont.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A tree grows in Brooklyn, and the Bronx

It should come as no surprise that trees are beneficial to the urban environment. They control temperature extremes by providing shade in the summer and blocking wind in the winter. They buffer sound. One healthy adult tree releases as much oxygen into the atmosphere in one year as ten adult humans remove. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and other toxins in the atmosphere. The list goes on and on.

Trees bring a sense of well being to a community. Research has shown that in otherwise comparable urban neighborhoods, crime rates in neighborhoods with trees tend to be lower than their treeless counterparts.

These are only the practical points. The emotional, spiritual and aesthetic benefits of trees are as countless as the number of leaves on every tree in every city in the world.

It's curious then that trees are probably taken for granted more than any other feature of our cities. Most city folks only notice trees when they disappear, when they have to rake leaves, or when a tree falls on their car.

The significance of the city tree is not lost on artists. Betty Smith wrote the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in the early forties. It tells the story of growing up in poverty in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The tree of the title is the Tree of Heaven, itself an immigrant of sorts, imported from Asia. This is very hardy species, a tenacious survivor, beginning life as a weed in back lots and alleys, but ultimately growing into a lovely shade tree if permitted or ignored. A fitting metaphor for the immigrant experience.

Pictured above is the Camperdown Elm, the most famous tree in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. It was planted 1872. By the mid sixties the tree, a cultivated variety, was terribly decayed and the cost of saving it seemed insurmountable. The poet Marianne Moore came to its defense and composed a poem for it which was published in the New Yorker. The Friends of Prospect Park eventually raised the funds to save the magnificent tree. Here is a wonderful tour of the trees of Prospect Park, compiled in part by M.M. Graff perhaps the greatest advocate of New York City's parks. Moore's poem can be found at the beginning of the tour. There certainly will be trees that have not survived the 40 years since the tour was compiled, but it a is a lovely and informative read just the same. Ms. Graff died in 2007 aged 97, and here is the obituary from the NY Times of this remarkable woman.

There is currently a wonderful public art project in New York City that brings attention to the urban tree, putting it into its proper context within the neighborhood. The name of the project is The Tree Museum and it can be found along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The project is the brainchild of Katie Holden who won a competition sponsored by the Bronx Museum to commemorate the centennial of the Concourse this year.

The Tree Museum singles out 100 specific trees of 24 different species along the Concourse. Adjacent to each selected tree is a sign which identifies the tree giving its common name in English and Spanish, its scientific name, and an identification number. The viewer then is asked to dial a telephone number (718-408-2501), and add the id number when prompted for an extension. On the other end will be a recording, each one unique, featuring "the boulevard's stories and the intimate lives of the trees as told by current and former residents; from beekeepers to rappers, historians to gardeners, school kids to politicians."

Featured among the recordings are the voices of my oldest friend, New York City historian Francis Morrone, giving a history of the Concourse, architect Daniel Liebeskind, recalling his teenage years along the Concourse, Lurry Boyd, a community gardener, and Dart Westphal, a preservationist who was involved in the creation of a green space built around a threatened cottonwood tree at the northern tip of the Concourse. There is even a recording of Coquis, a variety of Puerto Rican tree frog.

The trees represent a who's who of urban tree species from the noble London Planetree, a hybrid of the Sycamore family whose leaf is the symbol of New York City's Department of Parks, to the lowly Ailanthus (aka Tree of Heaven or Skunk Tree), the eponymous tree of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

An outstanding book on the subject of trees in the city is The Urban Tree Book, An Uncommon Field Guide for City and Town, by Arthur Plotnik, coincidentally a native of the Bronx. While this book serves well for the identification of species, its real strengths lie in Mr. Plotkin's ability to tell a story, this one conveying lovingly the history and lore of each of the 200 odd species of trees found in the book.

It's a great read as well as an excellent resource.

So feel free to hug a tree!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty years ago today

Forty years from now, senior citizens all over the world will remember exactly where they were the moment they learned of the death of Michael Jackson. Every generation has its defining moments. Mass media have made those moments instantaneously shared experiences.

For Americans of my parents' generation, their defining moment was December 7th, 1941.

I'm not certain if the 1950s produced events of that magnitude but the 1960s more than made up for that. Ask anyone who was alive at the time what they were doing at 12:30pm on November 22nd, 1963. More than likely they'll be able to tell you. I was in kindergarten. I remember learning the terrible news, probably from Walter Cronkite in that clip that has been played over and over again this weekend, as he took off those big horned rimmed glasses and told us that the president was dead.

There were many defining moments in that turbulent decade, most were bad news.

Except for one.

So where were you on July 20, 1969?

President Kennedy had set the bar awfully high in 1961 when he made the commitment to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. I find it funny that he had to add the part about bringing him home safely, as if there were an alternative!

As a boy growing up in the 1960s, much of my childhood was defined by the space program. I don’t remember America's first foray into manned space flight, the Mercury Program. Most of what I know about that comes from the movie "The Right Stuff". But I do remember very fondly Gemini, which was the second stage leading up to the Apollo Program which would ultimately accomplish Kennedy's goal.

I was not interested in science fiction. As far as I was concerned, who needed Star Trek with Captain Kirk running around in his Spandex jammies cavorting with intergalactic beauties when we had real life heroes who truly went where no man had ever gone before. These were real men and later, women whose very existence depended on the skills and tireless work of countless scientists, engineers and technicians as they sat on top of what were essentially gigantic sticks of dynamite.

Every launch brought with it great excitement and anticipation. Huge chunks of air time were devoted to each mission. Every mission tested out new techniques and procedures, each bringing us a step closer to the moon. The commentators would sit at their special sets interviewing experts like Werner von Braun proving once and for all that "our Germans are better than the their (the Soviets’) Germans", one of my favorite lines from "The Right Stuff".

Those were the days before computer graphics and the reporters used plastic models to explain what was going on which no doubt spiked the sales of model spacecraft.

We children were encouraged to study hard because all the astronauts were all straight A students, or so we were told.

In one of the greatest marketing gimmicks of all time, the commercials told us that the astronauts drank a powdered orange drink called Tang on their missions. Guess what I drank for breakfast?

Of course not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the space program. Those were really heady times indeed. The summer of 1967 known as the “Summer of Love”, wasn’t.

In reality, violence and human rights issues were tearing the country apart. The Vietnam War was escalating and becoming increasingly unpopular. Cities across the country were ablaze from race riots. That was also the year of the Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

As bad as 1967 was, 1968 was worse. In January, the Tet Offensive began. This was the turning point of the war when it became increasingly apparent that our involvement in Southeast Asia was futile, Walter Cronkite told us as much. Lyndon Johnson heard the message and knew he had lost the support of Middle America. He announced to the nation that he would not seek a second term as president. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated and any hope for racial unity in America was shattered for years to come. The riots that ensued all across the country made the riots the year before look like child's play. The west and south sides of Chicago burned. Mayor Richard J. Daley issued his infamous "shoot to kill" order. The riots would forever change the fabric of Chicago and other cities as many who could afford to move, including my own family, made the exodus to the apparent safety of the suburbs. The term "inner city" became synonymous for poverty, crime, and above all, danger.

Late in the summer more riots took place in Chicago as protesters from all over the country came here during the Democratic National Convention. When several of his correspondents on the convention floor were roughed up by security, the normally even tempered Cronkite said: "I can't wait to get the damn hell out of this city".

On a personal note, at the time of the Convention, as we were moving into our new house in suburban Oak Park, my proudly Czech father came down the stairs with tears in his eyes to tell us that the Russians had just invaded Czechoslovakia.

In the midst of all this turmoil, getting to the moon must have seemed trivial indeed. But not to me. On Christmas Day 1968, the day when the furnace to our new house went out forcing us to huddle in the kitchen for heat, we watched one of the most amazing television events of all time. It was that day when the astronauts from Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders (OK I had to look up his name), made their historical transmission while orbiting the moon. They were the first humans to leave the earth's orbit and head into outer space. It was the most memorable Christmas of my life.

It would be seven months until the landing on the moon. During that time, Richard Nixon became president. In his inaugural address he said: "the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker." One month later he approved the bombing of Cambodia. The "Chicago Eight" were indicted for their role in the riots during the Democratic Convention. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire. And there would be two more Apollo missions to test the lunar module, the ship that would eventually touch down on the moon’s surface.

On July 16, Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Kennedy carrying three astronauts, Michael Collins, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Three days later they entered lunar orbit. The next day Armstrong and Aldrin would enter the lunar module for the descent to the surface of the moon while Collins remained in the Command Module, orbiting while his fellow astronauts would walk on the moon.

The landing would be the most hair raising part of the journey. In what seemed to be an eternity from earth, the astronauts had to depend on their wits and piloting skills as the planned landing site turned out to be a boulder strewn field. As the gauge showed a perilously low amount of fuel, Armstrong and Aldrin had to "wing" it, and landed with little breathing room. The first words from the surface of the moon were Aldrin's who was reporting technical data to Mission Control and Armstrong. Then the crew's wordsmith Armstrong uttered his second most famous line: "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed." Even today I can't think of these words without getting goosebumps. If you saw all the coverage of Walter Cronkite over the weekend, the clip where he looks downright giddy was right at this moment.

It would take another eternity for the two to actually leave the craft and walk on the moon.
As I recall, finally around 11pm a fuzzy black and white image from a camera mounted outside the lunar module showed a moving figure, Armstrong of course. It took a while to figure out what was what. The audio quality wasn't much better. Armstrong's famous if grammatically incorrect first words as he set foot on the moon sounded to me like this:

"Shhhhhhhhhhh eksh wa sma ste for mahyn shhhhhhhh wa giun lee fr mahynkye blipblipshhhhhhh"

But it finally happened and it was wonderful with Armstrong and Aldrin hopping and bopping on the moon for a couple of hours. I walked outside to look at the moon and part of me had a hard time believing it was true. They planted an American flag which had to be starched stiff because on the moon there is no wind to unfurl it. I can’t remember if I stayed up for the whole thing because it was very late.

The heroes came home and ignominiously had to stay in quarantine in a glorified Airstream trailer for several weeks in case of exposure to pathogens from the moon. Then came the tickertape and the adulation. The fascination lasted for a while. I remember standing in line for now what seems like hours to view a moon rock on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Then it was over. Life went on, crazy as ever. Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after he drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha's Vineyard, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. The Woodstock Rock festival took place on a farm in Upstate New York. The Days of Rage riots took place in October in Chicago. The Beatles recorded their last album, Abbey Road.

NASA sent six more missions to the moon. The public's interest in Apollo 12 was marginal at best. The ill fated Apollo 13 brought interest back for a while but the final three successful trips to the moon were almost anticlimactic.

While there has been an almost continuous presence in space since, nothing has fueled the public's imagination like the race to the moon.

The space program seems frivolous to many Americans. Why spend money in space when there are so many problems here is the sentiment. Even scientists questioned the validity of a manned space program when you can get much more bang for the buck by sending robots into space.

Admittedly, the quest to the moon was our government's answer to the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War and in the early sixties the Soviets were significantly ahead of us in the space race. Putting a man on the moon was the obvious goal. Once that was achieved, what was left?

Sending men to the moon is the greatest technological achievement in the history of mankind. Nothing we have done since has come close. It has been the standard by which all failed achievements have been compared.

"If we can put a man on the moon why can't we ..."

The assumption is if we put our energy into solving all the serious problems in the world as we did sending a man to the moon, we'd really be getting somewhere.

While the space program gave us the belief that we can do anything, the 40 years since we landed on the moon have proven otherwise.

Space program advocates site the numerous benefits from space exploration. Most involve all the technological advances developed by NASA that have improved life in many ways.

While there is no question that we have benefited tremendously from our technological advances, the reality of course is that technology cannot solve all our problems.

I think one of the most profound things that the trip to the moon gave us was a photograph. Actually several photographs. For the first time we saw our planet exactly as that, a small, fragile, finite world floating in a see of nothingness. We haven’t seen our planet the same since. We once thought of the earth as a bountiful place with infinite resources. Today, at least the reasonable among us we see this beautiful planet as our home. I don't think that it was coincidence that the environmental movement gained tremendous steam after we saw those photographs. The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan said: "We went to explore the Moon, and in fact discovered the Earth".

It was an audacious dream in 1961 to send a man to the moon. The technological hurdles and human danger that had to be overcome were tremendous. The tragic fire that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in 1967, as well as the Challenger and Columbia disasters much later are testaments to the risks that we never quite appreciated.

Given that, we seem to no longer pursue audacious dreams. I think that we are caught up in the cost/benefit ratios that big corporations have employed for years, much to our detriment. We don’t reward innovation and risk taking as we once did. He may be a curious person to quote in the context of the space program but I think we could do well to heed Daniel Burnham’s most famous quote in it’s entirety:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big. “

In the end I have to say I feel tremendously privileged to have been around in 1969, old enough to understand perfectly what was going on, but not old enough to have been at all cynical about the moon landing. It was one brief, shining moment in history when we really felt that anything was possible.

In the photographs above:

Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on the surface of the moon, taken by Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969.

The photograph of planet earth showing the continents of Africa, Antarctica and the Arabian Peninsula was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Big Willie

It's official, Sears Tower is now the Willis Tower.

Or to paraphrase Yogi Berra, "It ain't over 'till the mayor cuts the ribbon." That happened today as Hizzoner officially blessed the name change at the unveiling of the new nameplate in the building's lobby. The Tribune article can be found here.

Way too many money quotes to point out but here's my favorite, from Joseph Plumeri, CEO of Willis Group Holding, the company that bought the naming rights:

" have to make a decision between sentimentality and the reality of what puts food on your table...there's no food on the table called 'tradition steak.'"

Ok then.

Needless to say, scads of locals are upset by the name change. They bemoan the idea of local institutions selling their names to the highest bidder.

Which is interesting when you think of possibly Chicago's most beloved institution, Wrigley Field. It was originally known as Weeghman Park. It became Wrigley Field in 1926 after it and the team were bought by William Wrigley, who just so happened to own a little chewing gum company, you may have heard of it.

Of course Sears wasn't exactly a ma and pa operation when they built the building. They moved out of there for cheaper digs in the 'burbs years ago so I can't exactly see what all the fuss is about.

The fact is, people will always call the thing Sears Tower anyway. At least those of us old enough to remember back when...

On another note, the Sox are in town on Friday. Maybe after I do some shopping at Fields, I'll hop on a Lake/Dan Ryan L down to Comiskey Park and catch the game.

I hear they serve a great tradition steak sandwich down there.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My 100th post

Bring on the champagne!

And add a little Mozart, Furtwangler and Cesare Siepi.


Ring-billed Gulls on The Spearman by Ivan Mestrovic. Michigan and Congress, 9:00am Wednesday July 15.

The horse especially seems none too pleased.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Cathedral

We attended mass at the Auditorium of the Holy Name today. As most know by now, Holy Name Cathedral, the mother church of the Archdiocese of Chicago, suffered a from a string of bad luck over the last two years. Last year, pieces of the ceiling came crashing down early one morning. Fortunately no one was under them. The incident forced the parish to close the 134 year old church for several months for the restoration of the magnificent ceiling, unquestionably the most important architectural feature of the building. Services were held in the auditorium next door.

After many delays the cathedral was re-opened for a limited mass schedule last fall. Then this past February, a fire in the loft area in the north transept again forced the closing of the cathedral. Amid the terrible news, a near miracle occurred. Had it not been for the heroic actions of the Chicago Fire Department, the entire church may have been destroyed as this was a tremendously stubborn fire.

Pastor Dan Mayall assured parishioners and visitors alike today that the cathedral will open, "more magnificent than ever" in three weeks. Much yet needs to be done as the Pastor pointed out. As construction cleanup continues, the pews need to be put back into place as does the west rose window. From our own impromptu inspection, so do some of the massive doors. But I've been involved in a few construction projects over the years and have been amazed at how much can be accomplished as a deadline approaches.

After mass they were selling copies of commemorative books cerebrating the 100 and 150 year anniversaries of the parish, published in 1949 and 1999 respectively. I picked up a copy of the older book as it had a detailed history of the parish and archdiocese as well as several photographs of the church before its massive renovation in 1969. The photographs are a revealing document of the thoughtless desecration of Roman Catholic churches during the period following the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. In the name of liturgical reform, Holy Name was gutted, and the high altar was removed and replaced by a simple granite slab. As for the sacred artwork, all of the statuary, the paintings and stained glass were replaced with contemporary work which reflected the period. Only the ceiling and a few architectural details were spared. Today while the exterior is firmly set in the 19th Century, the interior screams 1960s and seems much more dated than the original which from the photographs anyway, seemed to have a timeless quality.

Yet I've grown quite fond of the interior as I have attended mass at Holy Name many times in the last 35 years, never having known the original. There is a simple elegance which I have come to appreciate. The light transmitted through the geometric stained glass windows is especially graceful and compelling. My feelings for the architecture are no doubt influenced by many fond memories such as the exceptional music programming, and by some truly great priests, especially Joseph Cardinal Bernadin and Father Bob McLaughlin, both unfortunately no longer with us. Probably most significant is the fact that this was the place where I rediscovered my faith, so many years ago.

Personally I look forward to the reopening of the cathedral, to the sounds of the massive Flentrop organ in the choir loft and the smaller Casavant antiphonal organ in the sanctuary. I look forward to the sights and smells of the incense wafting heavenward and hearing the magnificent choir singing the kind of music that evokes the sacred and eternal. And I look forward to that magnificent light.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Another side of the Burnham Plan

When we think of the Burnham Plan we think of what it bought to the urban environment, the City Beautiful movement, Michigan Avenue and the lakefront, practically everything we value in this city as good and true. We don't think of suburban sprawl and all the destructive elements that were brought about by the rise of the automobile. Yet Burnham was a great advocate of the automobile as an invention that brought liberation to the "multitudes of people who formerly were condemned to pass their entire time in the city."

In the latest post of The Urbanophile, Aaron M. Renn writes about the machine that Burnham saw as beneficial to development of the urban landscape and how we are coping now for better and worse with those ideas.

A must read.

Norm Pellegrini

Another voice from my life is gone. And what a voice it was.

Norman Pellegrini was program director until 1996, and an on-air voice until his death last week, on Chicago's only remaining classical music station, WFMT. He was affiliated with the station for my entire life, plus a few years.

John von Rhein's obit in the Tribune can be found here. Lynn Becker has a fitting tribute to him here to which I have added a comment.

Finally, here is WFMT's tribute.

A great loss.


Got to get them straight as I've been lost in the morass that is known as Facebook for the last few days.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


From the late Showmen's League Building.