Sunday, August 9, 2009

A magnificent drive

As anyone who has visited Chicago in recent years has discovered, automobile traffic has become a nightmare. It's not unusual to find oneself in a traffic jam at any hour, day or night. Sometimes weekends are the worst, especially during summer when festivities may occur every few blocks or so. Such was the case this weekend with the Lollapalooza music festival downtown, the Bud Billiken Parade on the south side, a couple of White Sox games, a Bears public workout at Soldier Field, and countless parades and neighborhood festivals. Such is the life of a vital city.

This afternoon we decided to brave the traffic and visit the Hyde Park Art Center, basically at the other end of the city from where we live. The Center was terrific, if you're there in the next couple of weeks be sure to check out a wonderful site specific piece by my friend Glenn Wexler in one of the stairwells. We met up with some friends at a kids' art workshop, then had the best gelato and espresso in town at Istria Café, adjacent to the Center.

Then came the question of getting home. I convinced my hot and tired family that the best way was to avoid going through the Loop in favor of unquestionably the best drive in the city, the Boulevard System. I have lots of experience with the boulevards as I spent several years documenting them and the parks (with very few exceptions, the most significant in the city) that they connect.

Contrary to popular belief, the ring (actually a horseshoe) of tree lined boulevards that connect Jackson, Washington, Sherman, Gage and McKinley Parks on the South Side, and Douglas, Garfield and Humboldt Parks on the West Side, was not the result of the Burnham Plan. In fact the system predates the plan by several decades, most of it was planned and realized well before the Great Fire of 1871. The boulevards originally surrounded the city limits and were speculative developments designed to encourage people to move out to what were at the time the suburbs. Magnificent homes, apartment buildings, public sculpture, and places of education and worship were built along the boulevards. They became among the most fashionable addresses in the city.

Today many of the boulevards run through the most challenged neighborhoods of the city. The drive is at times hit and miss as many of the buildings that once graced the system are long gone, replaced either with ramshackle vernacular structures or worse, vacant lots. Yet very many magnificent buildings survive. With a little creativity one can imagine what was there, and even better, what could be. It is encouraging to see bits and pieces of new development even in the most difficult areas.

I have to say that in the eight or so years since I wrapped up the Park/Boulevard Project, there have been a number of improvements, along with a few setbacks. The city does seem to be committed to the boulevards, to a greater extent I think than is realized by the general public. The landscape architecture of Jens Jensen , Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons among others has gained new appreciation. Their work is beginning to be returned to its former glory after many years of neglect. Unfortunately not all the users of the parks share this apprecation and continue to carry on their slovenly ways. The same can be said of the parkways along the boulevards which are looking better than they have in years, save for the bad behavior of a handful of people.

Given all that, Chicago's parks and boulevards are urban treasures that need to be taken care of, by and for us, and for future generations.

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