Friday, October 16, 2009

We made the List!

Chicago may have lost its bid to host the 2016 Olympics but we do have one thing going for us.

We have a building on Travel and Leisure magazine's list of the "The World's Ugliest Buildings."

Mayor Daley could not be reached for comment.

Spanning the globe from Pyongyang to Portland to well, Chicago, it's a strange list in my opinion. Lists such as these are always completely subjective and ten people could put together ten entirely different lists.

It seems that the major criterion to make this particular list is that the architects simply tried too hard. What is also bizarre, also in my opinion of course, is if you go on to look at their list of the "World's Coolest Buildings" you may find it difficult distinguishing to which list a given building belonged. Although I didn't take a complete survey, from a cursory view I noticed that buildings by Frank Gehry made both lists.

I suppose that's what separates great architects from lesser ones.

So of all of Chicago's ugly buildings, which one distinguished itself enough to make this esteemed list?

Why the Harold Washington Library.

Congratulations to one and all, a fine tribute to our city!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Look and Leave

I spent lunchtime one day last week at two exhibitions that deal with the urban experience in two very different forms.

The first featured the work of photographer Jane Fulton Alt who documented New Orleans after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

Alt, also clinical social worker, was on volunteer service working with other health care professionals accompanying the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward returning to view what was left of their homes for the first time, three months after the disaster. The effort was dubbed "look and leave" because the area was in no way inhabitable at the time. In her statement Alt writes of the effect on her, both emotionally and physically. So moved was she by the experience that she felt the need for others to see the ravages of one of the worst natural disasters in this nation's history. Thus began the project.

Alt's formally composed, large format digital prints are unpopulated, traces of life are depicted archeologically, in bits and pieces, personal momentos left behind, signs painted by triage workers indicating what was to be found inside a flooded home, a recently built church intact save for the fact that its steeple had toppled into the street. Covering everything is a whitish silt that settled after the flood waters receeded, dried and cracked in the sun, forming a ghostly patina. In a particularly moving picture, the interior of a home with fresh footprints in the cracked silt bears testimony to the length of time it had been deserted.

Most of the photographs were made in the Lower Ninth. Two exceptions are of New Orleans icons at both ends of the spectrum, one, a picture of the facade of the now notorious Superdome where thousands of flood victims sought refuge. The other is an atmospheric image of St. Louis Cathedral behind Clark Mills' famous equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson shrouded in a dense fog. The latter image might at first appear to be a promotional shot for a tourist brochure, except for the smashed lamp post in the foreground.

There is no such subtlety in the photographs of the Lower Ninth.

The depth of the devastation is so numbing that coming to the exhibit with a blank slate, a viewer might be overwhelmed by the banality of the destruction portrayed in the pictures.

Of course one would have to have lived under a rock for the past five years not to have some idea of the dreadful toll that Katrina took in the Gulf region, and especially in New Orleans.

To bring home the point the exhibit includes a soundtrack of New Orleans music, a slide show of photographs of the people of New Orleans, and ample didactic text of Alt's, describing her work. I don't normally like over abundant text and gallery soundtracks. I feel that the pictures should speak for themselves and that music is a too easy a venue for swaying the emotions of the viewer. But in this case the music and the text are necessary in that they ground the work as they evoke a sense of place to anyone who has ever known what it means "to miss New Orleans."

In her statement, Jane Fulton Alt notes that the visits of many of the people to their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward were both their first and their last.

I once had a conversation with a New Orlinean who told me that all's back to normal in his hometown. If I were to visit he continued, I'd never know anything ever happened.

I knew exactly what he meant. The French Quarter, the Garden District, all the restaurants, shops, and music venues are up and running and your casual visitor might not notice anything wrong. But in another account I heard what was a different truth. You may not see it in the physical city, downtown that is, but you see it in the eyes of the people who wait on you. New Orleans will never be the same.

A book of this work has been published. It is named after the effort Alt participated in which inspired the project, Look and Leave. It is available in the Cultural Center bookshop.

While Alt's photographs are an elegy for a lost city, the exhibit across the street at the Chicago Tourism Center was a full steam ahead look at the possibilities of the future. It was called Big, Bold, Visionary, Chicago Considers the Next Century. Unfortunately the show came down this week but it contunues to live online here.

I will discuss this exhibit in a later post. Please stay tuned.

His first opera

I took my son to the opera last night, Tosca at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It was my first opera too, same company, same building, 33 years ago. Theo was adamant that his first opera be the same as mine so there we were. We sat in the very last row of the upper balcony which was just fine because he could stand up to see better and it didn't bother anyone.

He was by far the youngest person in the audience. At eight, he is in fact the minimum age for admittance. There was some trepidation among a few of our neighbors way up there but that was relieved when they realized he was not going to be fidgety, at least not more than the average adult in the audience.

I'm not sure if his experience had the same impact as mine did so long ago, I was ten years older, by myself, buying a turnback ticket a half hour before the sold out performance. I was also in the midst of an obsession which would last several years. His obsession for opera was set aside this summer when he fell in love with baseball. Yet he maintained, at least for our sake, his enthusiasm, and seemed to have a good time. At the very least he got to be out on the town with the big folks way past his bedtime on a school night.

As for me, I got to pass down something to my son that has been an important part of my life. Not to take too much credit but I think I'm also doing my part to help insure that opera will be around at least for another generation.

Of course this would not have been possible had we not lived in a city that supported culture. I always felt lucky to be exposed to so many different experiences that a big city afforded and I'm glad that my children will have the same opportunities. While it's not always easy to bring up kids in the big city, the rewards are many.

It was a night that neither of us will forget for a very long time.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The urban experience on film...

In the twilight of the golden age of American city, the movie On the Town gave us this spirited and ambitious tour of 1949 Manhattan plus a side trip to the Statue of Liberty, in just over three minutes! The three mugs are Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munchin. The lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Leonard Bernstein, and the film was directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen.

Incidentally, the lyrics from the original musical stage play are more appropriate coming out of the mouths of sailors on a one day leave; "New York, New York, a hell of a town."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Post mortem

The dark "L" flag flying high in the rain above the scoreboard at Wrigley Field yesterday afternoon said it all. It had been a bad day for Chicago. What bagan as a sunny day filled with hope and promise, at least for half of Chicago's citizens, ended prematurely around 11:00 am when IOC president Jacques Rogge declared that "Chicago will NOT host the 2016 Olympic Games". As then as if on cue, it began to rain.

It was tough given the fact that Chicago had been eliminated in the first round of voting. But Rogge's very words were particularly brutal, couldn't he at least have said, in Miss America style: "And the third runner up is... CHICAGO!!!"

Now it's time for analysis and finger pointing. We were too arrogant, the president didn't do enough, or the president did too much, or the mayor was just, well he was just being himself.

The fact is, the selection of Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Games was simply in the cards. All they had to do was convince the IOC that they could deal with their own staggering crime problem, which by comparison makes Chicago look like Mayberry. Obviously they succeeded. As for the early exit, I've read accounts that since Chicago was the odds on favorite, the early votes that may have gone here went to Tokyo and Madrid as sympathy votes. There was simply no way either of those cities would have been selected. It seems that from the outset we didn't have much of a chance either.

I predicted correctly two days ago that in the case of defeat, the critics would say that the money spent trying to get the Games was wasted, that it should have been spent on the schools or other worthwhile goals, not by trying to get some silly games in order to fulfill the mayor's legacy. Well I agree that fixing the schools is definitely more worthwhile than the Olympics. And I don't think anyone, including the mayor, would disagree.

In fact I bet you that if the mayor had a genie that granted him only one of two specific wishes, either getting the Olympics, or having a first class school system where every child enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools would get a decent education, graduate from high school, then go on to lead a healthy and productive life, that he would choose the latter in the blink of an eye.

Imagine what a legacy that would be!

The problem is there are no genies. As difficult as getting the Olympics proved to be, fixing the problem of education in the city is infinitely more difficult. It is not a problem that can be fixed simply by throwing money at it, as some would believe.

Many have pointed to two tragedies in the past week, one on the south side and one on the north side, where teenagers were attacked by mobs of kids and beaten, one to death, the other, just to the brink. The mayor should have been at home dealing with these problems they say. Personally I don't blame the mayor or the schools for that matter, for the homicidal behavior of some of our city's children.

Nor do I blame him for the deep financial morass that Chicago, the State of Illinois, the United States, and the rest of the world are in at the moment.

The truth is that a mayor simply cannot fix all the problems of a city by himself. Many things have to change before poor education, poverty, crime, in that order, are fixed.

The vision of our mayor, and many others in this city is that opportunity is the key to begin to heal our city's problems. The Olympic bid was an effort to bring opportunity to this city. The failure to bring home the Games was in the end, not at all a failure in the big picture. I truly believe that we cannot continue being a great city without looking forward, and without being connected to the rest of the world. This bid, regardless of the outcome was a step in the right direction. It showed the rest of the world that we are willing to do the things necessary to bring us in step with world, and not to just to rest on our laurels, on our great architecture and beautiful lakefront.

I applaud the hard work and dedication that went into this effort. Today is a new day and we have lots of work to do. We can handle this setback because we Chicagoans have had lots of them. Just look at our sports teams for starters.

Some folks think that following sports is a big waste of time. But any Chicago sports fan can tell you that this endeavor prepares one for many of the hardships of life.

So in the end, on the day after our defeat in Copenhagen, I as a Chicagoan can proudly say, "Wait 'till next year!"