Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Legacy and the Olympics

As I begin to write this there are two days until the International Olympic Committee makes its choice for the host city of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. For the first time in my life I live in a city that is in contention to host the Games and like most people in this town, I am filled with excitement, and not a little ambivalence.

Putting myself on the line I'll go on record right now and say that Madrid is not going to be the one as the 2012 Olympics will be in London and the I.O.C. is loathe to have consecutive Games on the same continent. The same will probably be the problem for Tokyo as the 2008 games were in Beijing and the I.O.C. likes to spread the wealth around, at least among four continents so far. My money, if I had any right now, would be on Rio as the Games have never taken place in South America. And what Games they would be! But Rio has its problems too so it looks like Chicago and Rio are running neck and neck. We'll know in less than 48 hours.

I'm sure there are detractors in every city that tries to get the Olympics and Chicago certainly is no exception. The criticisms run from the mundane, (it would tie up traffic for two weeks), to doubts about whether we can really pull it off and at what cost.

I stated my support a few months ago on this blog for the effort to bring the Olympics to Chicago and I stand by that. There are good reasons not to bring the Games here, most notably the vast expense and the possible loss or alteration of significant buildings and parks. I believe however that there are simply more good reasons in favor. In the long run, and it may in fact be the VERY long run, the benefits will simply outweigh the costs.

Many of the criticisms center around Mayor Richard M. Daley. While the mayor enjoys success at the polls that no one, not even his father had, he has become the symbol for all that is wrong with city government. Admittedly Daley has exercised heavy handed authoritarian rule over the city, the most outrageous example being the destruction of Meigs Field by sending bulldozers to tear up the runway in the middle of the night. Ultimately however the mayor proved to be right on that issue, the city benefits far more by having park land along the lakefront than an airport used primarily by private planes. Charges of corruption coming out of the mayor's office (but not the mayor himself), and other misguided adventures, most recently the bungled out-sourcing of city controlled revenue sources like the Skyway and parking meters have certainly tarnished the mayor's administration.

So it's no small wonder that the mayor's almost single minded effort to pursue the Games, has appeared to many to be "Ritchie's folly". Bringing the Olympics to Chicago is really the mayor's attempt to secure his legacy, or so the argument goes.

Well what politician is not concerned about his legacy? Any public figure's legacy is indelibly tied to his or her successes and failures. If Mayor Daley leaves the city in better shape than he found it, then his legacy will be intact. And who but the most cynical among us would have a problem with that?

His vision may not be to everyone's liking but no one for a minute has ever questioned Mayor Daley's love of his city. Almost to a fault the mayor has been Chicago's greatest civic booster, never afraid to put his city in the same league with the great cities of the world.

Personally I have to admit that I cringe whenever I hear the term "world class city". It seems like a meaningless, hype-filled expression spouted by provincial bumpkins with a serious inferiority complex. But our mayor truly believes in Chicago, the world class city. And he is banking on the possibility that he may be right.

Look at the competition. Madrid with over a millennium of history, is the capital of the Spanish speaking world, a center of culture, government, and commerce. Consider Tokyo, one of the great metropolises of the world, a "command center" of the world's economy. And of course there is Rio de Janeiro, unquestionably one of the most beautiful and glamorous cities in the world. While it unquestionably applies to all three, I strongly suspect that "world class city" is seldom uttered in those cities, in whatever form it takes in Portuguese, Spanish, or Japanese.

In Chicago we rightfully extol the physical beauty our lakefront and our architecture. We are the transportation hub of the United States. The Chicago's Board of Trade and Mercantile Exchange are strong engines in our nation's economy. Many of our cultural institutions are second to none. Yet to this day traveling around the world, the first thing people say when you tell them you're from Chicago is "Gangsters!, rat a tat tat!, Al Capone!"

A local talk radio host recently asked the question, "Have you ever visited a city because they at one time hosted the Olympics?" Of course the question was pointed and everyone who called in answered no. A more reasonable question would have been, "has your image of a particular city changed because they hosted the Olympics?"

I would have to say that with the exception of Atlanta, and Athens, two cities I had already visited, I learned a great deal about all the cities that have hosted the Games in my lifetime. While Sydney, Barcelona, Seoul, Turin and Sarajevo to name a few were already on my map, my image of those places was definitely shaped by the Olympics. Not to mention the cities that I probably would have never heard of had it not been for the Olympics: Albertville and Grenoble, France, Nagano and Sapporo, Japan, Innsbruck, Austria, even Lake Placid, New York.

The Olympics have replaced World's Fairs as the single greatest showcase for a city to the rest of the world. Billions of people will be tuned in to the Games and it seems to be a no brainer that the value of that kind of publicity as far as developing international awareness, would be far greater than the simple expense of putting on the Games.

Mayor Daley understands this as do the Governor, the President, the First Lady and an entire slew of public and private figures who are in Copenhagen right now to lobby the effort.

Here at home nay sayers are dialing up their rhetoric in these final hours before the decision. Maybe their disdain comes from the fact that they don't care much for the Olympics themselves or that the boundaries their world end at the Indiana and Wisconsin borders. The bean counters and small thinkers among us have been the loudest in their criticisms and no doubt we'll be hearing a great deal from them after the decision is made around noon Chicago time on Friday, regardless of the outcome. "Now we're in for it!" they'll say if we get the Games, or "Well we sure wasted a bunch of money trying to get this thing" if we don't.

As far as I'm concerned, this has been a win/win situation for the city. Regardless of the outcome, Chicago has benefited from this endeavor in terms of exposure and securing its place on the world's stage. Perhaps, as an article I sited in an earlier post suggested, any city that bids for the Olympics benefits greatly, even more so if it is not the ultimate winner.

Like everyone else in this city, I eagerly await the news on Friday morning. Deep down I really hope we win, I think it would be a terrific experience and opportunity, especially for my children and their peers all over the city.

Chicago is a proud city with many mottos, "The City of Big Shoulders" and "The I Will City" are two of them.

As far as I know, "No, thank you" is not.

Win or lose I can summarize my feeling in four words:

Good job Mr. Mayor.

Friday, September 11, 2009


New York, Washington, Shanksville, PA, Afghanistan, Iraq, and all the innocent lives that have been lost as a result of a barbaric act committed eight years ago today.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


"You know what the fellow said, in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Harry Lime - The Third Man

The famous line written and delivered by Orson Welles* in Carol Reed's film The Third Man could be considered to be the ultimate cynic's view of the world, especially coming from a character who is using the argument to justify his ghastly crimes. Yet in a broader sense there is a germ of truth to it given that conflict and suffering define the human experience in ways that peace and contentment do not.

Consider the fact that the Divine Comedy of Dante is popularly referred to as Dante's Inferno, not Dante's Paradiso, even though the story deals with both Heaven and Hell, not to mention Purgatory.

Nothing captures the imagination more than misery.

This is true of the urban experience. Cities contain both the best and the worst of humanity, the great cities only more so. This goes all the way back to Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world, part of the cradle of civilization, center of art, law and science. But Babylon still has bad connotations to this day implying the degenerate behavior found in big cities.

The great cities of the world all have had their share of decadence, heartbreak and misery.

Of all the cities that I have visited, none has had to overcome more of all three in the course of one human lifetime than Berlin. What is remarkable about Berlin is that while its rebirths have been wildly successful, the city has done very little to obfuscate its troubled to say the least, past. Everything is out in the open for all to see, scars (especially the scars) and all. And Berlin is all the better for it.

If you say that you were in Berlin at some point in your life you would have to specify exactly when, as there have been so many Berlins over the past century.

Those lucky enough to have been there in the 1920s and early 30s experienced a magnificent city during its golden age. Berlin was the center of cutting edge painting, literature, architecture, film, science, design, music, philosophy and education, just to name a few.

Harry Lime's comment certainly holds true for this period as much of the fervent creativity was born out of war and the sense of desperation Germany faced with enormous reparations owed to the victors of World War I. Staggering inflation wiped out the savings of most Germans. There was a kind of "let's face the music and dance" atmosphere that swept over the city at that time.

The music ended in 1933 when Hitler came to power. The cosmopolitan, irreverent, and slightly decadent Berliners were never very supportive of the Nazis. But their city was Germany's capital and it became the center of the storm during the one of the most horrible periods in human history, an enduring symbol for the most abominable regime the world has ever known.

Where pre-1933 Berlin will be remembered for the Bauhaus, Einstein, German Expressionism, Threepenny Opera and Marlene Dietrich, pre-war Berlin will always be remembered for Nazi Rallies, the Reichstag fire, book burnings, and Kristallnacht. During that time the talented but morally bankrupt Albert Speer was as Hitler's hand chosen architect, busy making no little plans of his own, redesigning a Berlin that was intended to be the imperial capital city of the Third Reich. "Take a good look, " Albert Einstein said to his wife as they left the old Berlin for good in 1932, "you'll never see it again."

Speer's imperial city never took shape as his plans were forever shelved when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Beginning that year the look of Berlin would change drastically as impenetrable bunkers were built throughout the city in anticipation of war. It's look would forever change a few years later.

The British began areal bombing as early as 1940, but Berlin remained more or less intact until late 1943 when the Battle of Berlin began. The Americans got into the act in February, 1944, and the Russians helped finish the work starting in January, 1945.

The bombing continued until April, 1945 when the Red Army marched into the city. All in all, somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 civilians died in Berlin as a result of the bombing, a small amount compared to other bombed cities, due in large part to the bunkers. But the city was reduced to rubble. The death toll brought upon the world by the mass murderers who took their lives in their bunkers near the Brandenburg Gate will never be known, but estimates range between 50 and 70 million.

The spoils of war were split between the Allied powers as Germany was divided into four parts, English, French, American and Soviet. Berlin was situated, in the middle of the Russian sector, but since it was the capital and most important city, it too was split in four. Eventually the split became two as cold war tensions arose between the Soviet Union and the West. The part of Berlin not under Soviet hegemony became an island in the midst of Soviet controlled East Germany. Disputes with the West led the Soviets to blockade what became known as West Berlin. The western allied powers organized an airlift to supply the material needs of West Berliners. The Berlin Airlift was to last three years, from 1946 to 1949.

Remarkably through the tension, West and East Berlin remained one city with free access from one end to the other. This uneasy co-existence lasted through the fifties as over three million East Germans emigrated to the West through Berlin. To stop the hemorrhage, the East Germans constructed the infamous Berlin Wall that encircled West Berlin in 1961. Watchtowers with armed soldiers ensured that escape attempts would be met with deadly force. Between August 13, 1961 and November 9, 1989, 171 persons were shot while trying to cross the Wall.

This period marked two notable visits from U.S. presidents. John F, Kennedy visited Berlin on June 26, 1963 where he delivered his beloved show of solidarity.*

Ronald Reagan on June 12,1987 standing before the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate directly addressed his Soviet counterpart when he said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Two years later, Mr. Gorbachev did exactly that.

The reasons for the Fall of the Soviet Union are numerous and will be debated forever but on November 9, 1989, the extant East German government announced that its citizens could freely visit West Germany. Thousands took the opportunity to chip away at the wall as a shameful period in history came to an abrupt end.

What followed was a period of tremendous exuberance on both sides as two cities became one again. Germany officially reunited on October 3, 1990.

The exuberance did not last long. The forty four year period of division between the two cities was profound. East Berliners flooded into West, looking for opportunities that never existed for them. Economically the Easterners were far behind their counterparts and the German government was forced to create some kind of equilibrium, work that goes on to this day. Not long after the wall came down, chants of "put it back up" could be heard all over town, at least under people's breath.

That of course did not happen. What did happen was a tremendous construction boom. Tower cranes sprouted up like weeds all over the former East Berlin, especially in the formidable area once occupied by the Wall where complete desolation was replaced by new buildings, parks and boulevards.

Today Berlin is back to its prominence as one of Europe's cultural meccas. It is also the capital of Germany once again.

My father and I were both in Berlin. He spent much of the war there as a conscripted laborer from occupied Czechoslovakia. I was there in 1993 four years after the Wall came down. We were in two entirely different cities.

I had very personal reasons for visiting beyond being a tourist. All through my childhood my father made me very much aware of the war and its aftermath when the Soviet Union dominated Central and Eastern Europe. Going to the city where my father spent a formative part of his life was a pilgrimage of sorts.

The first thing I did in Berlin was go for a long walk. The walk I took would not have been possible four years earlier as my route would take me through the Brandenburg Gate from West to East Berlin.

Everything that I passed along the way held tremendous historical significance.
  • The Tiergarten, the enormous park in Central Berlin that was stripped barren during the war as the trees were used for firewood.
  • Strasse des 17 Juni, the grand boulevard through the Tiergarten, named after an uprising of East Germans on that date in 1953.
  • Siegessaule, the winged victory monument standing atop a massive column, an iconic symbol of Berlin.
  • The Russian World War II Memorial, which strangely enough is in West Berlin.
  • The Reichstag, the former and now current home of the German government whose burning was significant in the events that led to the rise to power of the Nazis.
  • The Brandenburg Gate, the last remaining entrance gate into the old city which ironically was closed when the Wall was built around it.
  • Fragments of the Wall itself.
  • Hitler's bunker.
  • Unter den Linden, Berlin's most famous street named after the trees that line it. Along UdL are some of Berlin's most important pre-war buildings, many of them by the city's preeminent early 19th Century architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
  • Humboldt University whose alumni and faculty list reads like a who's who of German philosophy, political thought and science.
  • Museum Island, one of the world's greatest collection of cultural institutions.
  • Alexanderplatz, the great public square, once along with with Potsdamer Platz was one of the great nightlife centers of the city. Today it is the home of the Fernsheturm, the giant TV tower, pride of the East Germans as it is the tallest structure in all of Berlin.
All this during only my first two hours in Berlin!

In crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin through the Brandenberg Gate it becomes immediately apparent that the area directly east of the Gate, along Unter den Linden is the heart of the city. The area west of the Gate was once the suburbs. As a parochial comparison, think of a wall built along North Avenue in Chicago that would prevent anyone living north of it from access to the Loop. A mere inconvenience when you consider the real tragedy of the wall, the permanent separation of families and loved ones.

My most vivid memory of Berlin was a visit to the lovely neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin. The neighborhood was traditionally working class and bohemian is atmosphere. As it was slightly off the beaten path it didn't get much attention from the Nazis, even the bombers left it pretty much in tact. I stumbled upon the Jewish cemetery. The caretaker and I were the only people in the cemetery. He provided me with a Kippah to cover my head. It was a cold and clear December morning, the only day during my trip when the sun shone, but it barely cleared the tops of the surrounding buildings. I walked in this sacred space among the earthly remains of the people who belonged to a culture that was destroyed after their departure from this earth. Being among the inhabitants of a magnificent city in a magnificent time made me forget for a moment about the abject terror that their descendants experienced. I was filled with a sense of peace that had escaped me during the rest of my trip.

Upon my return my father was anxious to hear what Berlin had become. He asked me two questions:

"Did you go to Potsdamer Platz?"

Potsdamer Platz back in the day (along with Alexanderplatz) was the commercial heart of the city and the center of nightlife, sort of like Herald Square and Times Square combined. It was probably the busiest intersection in Europe, the birthplace of the electric traffic light, or so it is said. My father was very candid late in his life about his time in Berlin. He was a young man in his early twenties living in a city where most of the young men were off at the front. You can fill in the blanks from there. Clearly he spent a lot of time at Potsdamer Platz. Life goes on, even during a world war.

Potzdamer Platz was hit particularly hard by the bombing due to its location in the vicinity of the Reich Chancellery and other government buildings. Unfortunately, after the war its location happened to be right on the border of the English, American and Soviet sections of town. When the Wall was built most of Potsdamer Platz was smack dab in the middle of the no man's land between both sides of the Wall. Literally nothing was there for 45 years. There is a particularly moving scene in Wim Winders' poetic film Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) where an old man in a dream like state wanders around the site of Potsdamer Platz where he recounts memories of his lost youth, "Where is Potsdamer Platz, it used to be here" he says. The man could have been my father.

When I was there the area was fenced off and tower cranes were abundant. Plans for the future were mapped out on the construction site. Today P.Platz is once again a happening place although from what I read and see in photographs, has not yet returned to its former glory.

"Did you see Anhalter Bahnhof?"

My father left Berlin as he put it, "on the last train out of the city." From the way he told it I always pictured a scene right out of Casablanca where my father as Rick waits in vain for his Ilsa as the train pulls out of the station. I don't know if there ever was an Ilsa in my father's case, my guess is there were many of them. Anyway the station where he hopped the last train was Anhalter Bahnhof, the tracks of which led him back home to Czechoslovakia.

Which is precisely why the station doesn't exist anymore. the headhouse of the grand station was in West Berlin and the tracks led to all points east, rending the station pointless. It stood as a hulking ruin until 1960 when it was demolished. The entrance portico of the once proud station survived and was preserved as a reminder of the Berliners, mostly Jewish, who embarked on their last journey, to
the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

I stuck up a conversation with a gentleman who was walking his dog (a pitbull named Trudi) in front of ruins of the station. He told me a little bit of the history of the area, pointing out in particular the bunker near the site. "They've been trying to get rid of it for years, " he told me "but to do it they would have to blow it up and if they did that, they would take with it the rest of the neighborhood!"

Unbeknownst to me at the time was the fact that this was the very bunker that protected my father during the air raids. After my return home he recalled a time when a woman began singing Stille Nacht and was soon joined by the entire group of people huddled together for safety as the bombs fell one Christmas Eve.

Here is a scene from Himmel über Berlin that shows the ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof and what I believe is that bunker:

How do I begin to describe my feelings about Berlin? I must say that I have never felt such ambivalence for a place, loving it and hating it at the same time. Berlin is a city of exuberance and of ghosts, a progressive city that can never escape its past.

Reminders of the past are everywhere, be they monuments, photographs of the city before the war displayed in storefronts, plaques that describe terrible events, museums entirely dedicated to atrocities, architectural ruins that were preserved as reminders, or physical damage that was simply never repaired.

Yet the past flows together with a thriving, very much alive city that remains cutting edge in so many ways. That is the allure of Berlin. It's not an overtly beautiful city like Paris, or Prague. To find the beauty you need to dig beneath the surface and look in unexpected places. Through it all it remains a city of life that triumphs over tragedy, of good that transcends evil. The beauty of Berlin lies in the faces of the children of many cultures living in neighborhoods like Prenzlauerberg and Kreutzberg. And it lives in the fervent hope that the future will be better than the past. There is a spirit and vitality in Berlin like no place else.

Nelson Algren wrote: "Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovlier lovlies, but never a lovely so real."

Of course he wrote that about Chicago. Add a broken arm and a black eye and you could say the same for Berlin.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Another anniversary

Since 1969 was a such an eventful year, I've been mentioning some notable 40th anniversaries on this blog. Now we await another September 11th coming up, difficult to believe, the eighth anniversary of another day that will live in infamy.

But today, September 3, 2009, is the anniversary of an event that overshadows the rest, the tragedy of unspeakable proportions that has in some way effected every man woman and child on the face of the earth, both at the time and for all the years since.

After the invasion of Poland two days earlier, seventy years ago today England and France declared war on Germany, officially marking the beginning of World War II.

It's surprising how little attention this anniversary is getting, at least on this side of the big pond. It was brought to my attention over the BBC on Tuesday, the anniversary of the invasion, the day officially recognized as the beginning of the war. There was a ceremony in Gdansk, Poland attended by the leaders of the principal nations involved, Poland, Germany and Russia among others. For some reason President Obama did not attend which I think is a shame. We Americans need to be shaken from our historical amnesia, and the president's involvement in this solemn ceremony could have done some good toward that end.

Unfortunately the people of the generation that experienced the war directly are quickly leaving us, at a rate of around 2,000 per day I'm told. Soon all the information from that terrible time in history will be second hand at best. My baby boom generation which has been so preoccupied with its own relatively privileged childhood needs to pick up the slack. Our parents lived through some of the most trying times in history, great depression and war, and hopefully we will be able to pass their stories on to future generations.

Almost everyone I grew up with had fathers who saw action of some kind during the war. I had a friend as a young child whose dad was Austrian and fought in the German Army. My best friend's father landed in Normandy the day after D-Day, not knowing at the time that his kid brother was killed there the day before. Another dear friend's father was in the U.S. Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor aboard a destroyer on December 7, 1941. Another's dad fought with the Polish Resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

My mother's brother was a bombardier aboard an American B-24. His plane was shot down over Rumania. My uncle, one of only two survivors, was captured by the Germans and served as a prisoner of war.

My father, from occupied Czechoslovakia, was a forced laborer working in Berlin. He lived there until the end of the war. And the father of my colleague at work was an American B-17 pilot who flew several missions over Germany including Berlin, his plane dropping bombs over my dad during the day as the British bombers dropped them at night.

Sadly, all these men are gone, entrusting their legacies to their children, and hopefully their grandchildren, and beyond.

In that vein I would like to spend the next few weeks, this time of dreadful anniversaries, addressing how we preserve this legacy in our lives and in our cities.

My first stop will be Berlin.

Post script: In honor of Father's Day, 2011, the names of all the fathers I mentioned above can be found here.