Sunday, February 27, 2011

Which side are you on?

I just filled out an online poll asking whether I support Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Having gone on the record before the current controversy up there, I've already expressed dismay about Walker and his handling of federal funds going toward the development of high speed rail. It should then come as no surprise that I do not support Gov. Walker.

The poll also asked if I supported labor unions, if I think they're too powerful, and if I thought that workers in the public sector should be paid the same as their private sector counterparts. Honestly I'm a little more on the fence with these issues. Yes I think that the right to bargain collectively is a good idea, although I don't have it where I work. Unions served a very important purpose back in the days of the robber barons, and quarter an hour wages for back breaking, life threatening work. We've come a long way since that time, we now have the five day work week, the minimum wage, the ability to get disability payments if we are injured at work, pensions for when we retire, laws that protect our health and our rights on the job and many other benefits that we working stiffs would not have were it not for the unions. I'll be the first to say that we all owe a tremendous debt to the men and women who fought and sometimes died for the right of workers to unite.

Indeed the unions did a good job for all of us, American workers for a time were higher paid and better taken care of then their counterparts anywhere in the world. Of course all good things must come to an end and American companies simply could not compete by paying the relatively high wages and benefits that the unions demanded. American companies were excoriated when they moved their plants overseas or across the border to Mexico where they could pay the same worker a fraction of what they had to pay an American worker.

There in a nutshell is the divide between the right and the left regarding business and labor. In short, does a company's responsibility lie with making a profit, or with taking care of its employees? I can't tell you how many Facebook links I've received to the labor song "Which Side are You On?", or the number of people who have changed their profile picture to the fist raised in solidarity with the public workers of Wisconsin. I also have a few FB friends who have expressed in less dramatic fashion, tacit support for the the governor.

The company in question up in Wisconsin is the government, and profit may not be the rallying cry for the right, but solvency is. Governor Walker claims that the state is well on its way toward bankruptcy and drastic measures must be taken to keep the state afloat. On the left, folks say that Wisconsin is not in the dire state that the governor claims. It is in fact in way better fiscal shape than Illinois for example. They say that the governor is using his ploy to break the unions to gain attention and support from right wing circles and his fat cat friends.

Personally I find the governor's grand standing to be deplorable. Clearly he is trying to make a name for himself. I think it would have been much more effective and responsible for him to go to the unions and negotiate with them first, asking for concessions wherever necessary. If they said no, then it would be perfectly reasonable for him to go to the public and say: "Look, these are tough economic times and we all must sacrifice. I've tried to negotiate with the unions in good faith but they are unwilling to budge."

Instead he tries to push through a law taking away the unions' right to bargain on anything except salary. Now this is a man who posed in a political ad wearing boxing gloves. Clearly he knew his actions would create the resentment, protests, and media circus that we've seen for the past two weeks. The name Scott Walker is now known throughout the world. Congratulations Guv, you got what you wanted.

On the other hand, I come from Chicago, perhaps the ultimate union town, a place known for excesses such as exhibitors at trade shows not being allowed to plug a cord into an electrical outlet without paying a union electrician fifty bucks for the privilege. I've witnessed first hand the devastating loss of industries and the livelihoods they provided because of the greed of both the companies AND the unions. I've seen the well paid union teachers at my son's school vote overwhelmingly against adding ten minutes to their five and three quarter hour work day so the kids could have one recess break. And two years after no pay raise for myself, each year the expenses go up in our building as we are forced by union rules to give our janitor, who is better paid than I am, who will not lift a finger to do anything that is not explicitly in his job description as well as several things that are, a significant raise.

Clearly we all must sacrifice to get through these tough times. Perhaps what's going on now in Wisconsin is just the tip of the iceberg, as these issues likely will be surfacing soon, at a state legislature near you.

Hopefully it will be handled elsewhere better than it is in Madison right now.

Here are two excellent articles that illustrate my conundrum, making good points for both sides, this one against the governor and this one, chastising the unions.

So which side am I on?

I think I'll just sit this one out.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Some thoughts on the election

In a couple of months we will have a new mayor, there is no doubt whatever about that. It looks like the days of having a Mayor Daley on the fifth floor of City Hall are gone for good. Richard M. Daley has a son but as far as I know he has not shown much interest in carrying on the family business. Many folks around town find that alone cause for celebration, the end of the Daley dynasty.

Well I for one am not jumping up and down about Mayor Daley stepping down. True his legacy has been mixed, at times he has acted more like a king than an elected official. Daley forged the City Council into a rubber stamp silencing virtually all of his adversaries. His failures, missteps and arrogance are well noted: scandal in the administration, the all or nothing attempt to bring the Olympics to Chicago, the parking meter fiasco, the failed attempt to bully Loop residents into digging up Grant Park for a Children's museum, the midnight raid on Meigs Field.

In the name of reform, the critics say, we need a mayor who is independent in order to free this city from the evil bondage of corruption, machine style politics and patronage. Richard M. Daley some critics say was every bit the old school politician as his old man. It is true that Ritchie ultimately eclipsed his legendary father Richard J. Daley, in longevity in office, and some would say in influence.

Mayor Daley the Elder was a builder, The University of Illinois Chicago Campus, O'Hare International Airport, and the system of expressways that tore up communities were all built during his administration. The face of the Loop also changed under Richard J. Daley, for better or worse. All these projects created tremendous growth and opportunity in the city. The new motto of Chicago became "The City that Works." That period was also one of the most devastating eras for the city in terms of violence, mistrust, and the irrevocable loss of valued icons and institutions.

Mayor Daley the Younger was also a builder. Anyone addressing his legacy certainly has to put Millennium Park at or near the top of the list. Despite its shortcomings, MP has to be considered an unqualified success in terms of attracting people back into the Loop. Some might site MP as an example of City Hall's concern for downtown over the rest of the city. But anyone who has ventured into parks all over the city as I have, can attest to the fact that tremendous energy and resources have been devoted to them as well. The neighborhood parks of Chicago have not been in as good a shape in decades. The current Mayor Daley has been an outspoken advocate of environmental concerns; green building, tree planting, alternative means of commuting, including by bicycle, and of course the aforementioned destruction of Meigs Field in favor of a public park, to name just a few examples.

Chicago today is also better off in another respect, it is not as racially divided as it once was. True we're not all holding hands together harmonizing; "I'd like to teach the world to sing." But the election Tuesday proved that the racial polarization that began under his father's administration and came to a full boil under Harold Washington's, has at least taken a sabbatical.

Some see this as troubling. Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell began her post-election column this way:

"Carol Moseley Braun’s stunning defeat signals the end of the black political empowerment movement in Chicago."

Now it is certainly true that white politicians in Chicago used, manipulated, and took for granted the African American vote for decades. That came to an end when Harold Washington was elected Chicago's first black mayor in 1983. The number of voters from the black community who turned out in that election was unprecedented. Washington himself was a product of the Democratic Machine, but he went against it when he ran for mayor and was punished during his first term by the City Council. His opposition in the Council consisted of 29 aldermen, all white. The remaining 21 members of the Council were mostly black. What became known as the "Vrdolyak 29" after their de facto leader, Ed Vrdolyak, the alderman of the southeast side's 10th Ward, voted down every piece of legislation put forward by Washington. Clearly little was accomplished in those four years. In the next election, Washington gained a small majority in the Council. The 29 became the 25 and were forced to compromise. For a while, things seemed to calm down a bit.

Harold Washington could have been a great mayor if given the chance. Unfortunately he died shortly into his second administration. In his wake, the Council erupted again in shameless fashion, pushing through the nomination of Eugene Sawyer, a Washington supporter but also a product of the Machine who never really rocked the boat. Sawyer was a good man but not cut out for mayor. Ritchie Daley easily defeated him in the following general election in 1989.

It could be said that Daley picked up where Washington and Sawyer left off in beginning to heal the city of its racial wounds.

Mayor Daley's prowess as a builder was not limited to bricks and mortar, he was a builder of coalitions. Both Daleys knew how to gain support of ethnic voting blocks. Daley the Elder knew that large concentrations of one particular group could be beneficial, as long as you threw a few crumbs their way right before election time. Eventually, people wised up and this tactic no longer worked, especially for his successors. During and following the first Daley administration, Chicago was plagued by racial enmity. Richard M. Daley in contrast to his father understood that in his era, in order to be mayor, he would need to distribute the wealth throughout the entire city. To that end, Daley since the beginning of his administration, surrounded himself with members of ethnic minorities (other than his own) in top level city positions. City Hall for all its faults has been responsive to the needs of the entire city in ways that it never was.

I see this as a tremendous good coming out of the Daley administration. The candidate who was selected as "the black consensus candidate" in this election, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, clearly was not qualified for the job. African American voters saw through her and voted against her in overwhelming numbers, proving once and for all that this particular community can think for itself. It no longer can be led by sheep to the polls, either by the machine or by race alone.

Oh yes, there was a candidate who won the election, Rahm Emanuel. To say that he received a mandate from the voters would be a gross understatement. In an election consisting of six candidates, he received 56 percent of the vote, a staggering landslide. True, there was a disappointing turnout for the election, but in my book anyway, the voices of people who choose not to vote are irrelevant. Emanuel had the most money to spend, and had the greatest name recognition with the possible exception of Moseley Braun. Given that, Emanuel did not win all the wards. In the traditional old machine predominantly white wards he came in second to Gary Chico who was supported by alderman Ed (the other Ed in the era of "Council Wars") Burke, and the heads of some of the big unions in town. Where Emanuel came up big, very big, was in the black wards. I haven't done the numbers but I think it's safe to say that Emanuel could not have won without the black vote. You can do your own analysis by checking out the results ward by ward here. Mary Mitchell in her followup column here explains why Emanuel did so well in this part of the city.

Rahm Emanuel has a few other connections.

There are those who do not believe that political "insiders" make good public officials. In debates you seldom hear one candidate these days claiming to be more of an insider than the opponent. While Emanuel had stints in the corporate world, I'm not sure if it could be possible for him to be more of an insider. He was a top adviser to President Clinton. As a congressman without much seniority, he managed to become the fourth highest ranking member of the House of Representatives. His previous job of course was Chief of Staff to President Obama. Frankly I don't see having a mayor with such credentials, especially one having the ear of the sitting president, as being such a bad thing.

Other critics say that Emanuel is brash, ruthless, and obnoxiously ambitious. And he is rich to boot. Well I am none of those things. I wouldn't vote for myself for mayor either. Frankly voting for mayor is not like voting for your spouse, your best friend, or your parish priest. It's not even like voting for president. A mayor is more like a CEO, someone who is responsible for a multi billion dollar entity. A mayor has to know how to get things done, big things and little things. He or she has to know how to delegate, when to point the finger and when to take the heat.

And a mayor has to have a vision for his city. Both Mayors Daley had a vision for Chicago. Richard J. Daley never used the word Chicago without prefacing it with the words, "The Great City of." Richard M. Daley liked to use the term "world class city." As much as I hate that term it illustrated the fact that he believed his city was right up there with the likes of New York, Rio, Paris, London, Madrid, and Tokyo. His faith was so great that he staked his reputation on the bid for the Olympics. As I said before in this space, I fully supported the bid, and never have I seen the loss of the Olympics as a loss for the city, not in the slightest.

I feel that Rahm Emanuel has a similar belief in this city. Unlike two of his opponents, Miguel del Valle and Gary Chico, both of whom may been good mayors, Emanuel's vision for the city not only includes life at the street and community level, but also the big picture. We are living in extremely difficult economic times. The city and the state are almost bankrupt. This is but one of the issues that the new mayor has to face. He also has to look beyond the current fiscal morass to the future, to what this city will be for our children and our grandchildren. In Mary Mitchell's article noted above, she quotes Emanuel as saying:

“I saw too many kids on those [el] platforms with not a thing in their eyes. That is the only thing about this job that gives me pause about my abilities...

“It is not the budget. I’ll work through that. But can you in some way touch these kids in a way that they feel they have got a shot at something? I always knew what I was running for, [but] when I saw those kids, I knew I made the right decision to run for mayor.’’

I've heard him throw out the words "world class city" as well and in the debates he alone among the other candidates said this: "Chicago is a great city."

That's why I voted for him.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

You don't know what you've got 'till it's gone...

... are the words of the wonderful Joni Mitchell song "Big Yellow Taxi." And ain't it the truth? Quite honestly I never gave much thought to this storefront until Blair Kamin and later Lynn Becker wrote about its imminent demise. I have passed this store literally thousands of times in my life, never thinking of it as anything special, just another women's shoe store.

Well shame on me. Granted this storefront dating back to the late 1940s on State Street has seen better days. Like all architecture of the period, it has to be kept in ship shape condition to retain its luster, the steel has to be polished, the glass regularly cleaned and all minor imperfections corrected. Here the coup d'gras has to be the metal spikes placed to prevent pigeons from roosting on top of the display windows.

Still it doesn't take much imagination to see this store as the gem it once was, the work of the estimable firm of Holabird, Root & Burgee, one of the finest examples of Modernist storefront architecture in the city. Unfortunately its current owners see the elegant undulating surfaces that reflect the Chicago skyline, and the ample entrance, display area as wasted space. They plan to correct this "problem" by bringing the entrance up to the property line, creating more workable space inside the store, enabling them to divide the space in two, clearly an astute business decision.

But what a loss to the city.

Friday, February 18, 2011

You win some and then...

The day after the optimistic news of Target's plans to set up shop in the old Carson, Pirie, Scott store on State Street, came the terrible news of the bookstore chain Borders going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The headline of the Tribune article about Borders said the chain would close half of its Chicago area stores. Checking the list of closures however, it appears they plan to close 100 percent of the stores that my family and I frequent on a regular basis. As I mentioned in my previous post about Carson's, I spent a lot of my life wandering around department stores but never spent much money in them. Bookstores are another story. I've spent countless hours browsing, and seldom have I left a bookshop without money changing hands.

The Borders store where my family and I have spent the most time is about ten minutes from home, in downtown Evanston. It has been a fixture of our lives for as long as our children have. We have many happy memories of that store. Countless children's books that mark the passing of time in Theo and Rose's young lives were purchased there, not to mention the books and magazines that illustrate my wife's and my passions over the last ten years. Saddest of all will be the loss for the people who work there, for the most part folks who care deeply about their work, and passed along their love of books to their customers. I wish them all the best in their future endeavors.

That store was the main draw for us to the town of Evanston, but not the only one. Evanston has a vibrant downtown and we consider ourselves fortunate to live so close. Besides, there is a Barnes and Noble about a block away so our lives in that respect will probably not change much as a result of the store's closing.

The same can't be said about the Borders store on Lincoln Avenue near Devon. More happy memories there as well as we found ourselves spending a lot of time in that shop if we happened to be coming up Lincoln or from points west of our home. There is no other reason for us to visit the otherwise uninspired Lincoln Village shopping center, so that chapter of our life is closed.

A little farther afield, there was the Northbrook store that we'd sometimes drop into if we were in the vicinity. I bought my copy of "The Sibley Guide to Birds" in that shop.

Once in a while on the way home from work, I'd stop in the Borders in the old Goldblatt's building in Uptown. That closing is perhaps the saddest of all to me as its presence signaled one spark of life in a shopping district of faded glory.

Then there are the two Borders closing on the south side of Chicago, the store in Hyde Park, a neighborhood that does not have a scarcity of book shops, and the store in Beverly, a neighborhood that does.

There are those who feel little sympathy for stores owned by a corporation they feel has engaged in predatory tactics. As mentioned above, Borders set up shop in Evanston very close to an existing Barnes and Noble, a comparable store. In the neighborhood of Lakeview on the north side, not only did they open up across the street from another B & N, but also down the block from an older, local independent chain store, Barbara's Bookstore. Barbara's could not compete with the two mega stores and closed that shop as they did also in Oak Park after Borders opened up in the old Marshall Field Building on Lake Street, one block from another long, established Barbara's.

That Oak Park Borders will remain open for now, but the Lakeview store is a goner.

The bookseller that is most associated with Chicago was Kroch's and Brentano's. At one time they dominated the scene, having stores in all the major shopping centers in the area and at least three in the Loop alone. Their closing in 1995 left an enormous void, leaving the Loop for a time with no quality booksellers. Borders opened up their State Street store about five years later to fill the void. Barnes and Noble followed suit shortly thereafter in the South Loop. The State Street store will be the one remaining Borders in Chicago proper.

Unlike their retail counterparts in other areas, the big chain booksellers didn't offer discounted merchandise in a no frills atmosphere. If anything, they went in the other direction, creating customer friendly environments that invited visitors to stick around and browse to their heart's content. Service was also a priority. The vast resources of a Borders or a Barnes and Noble insured that you could almost always get what you wanted, if they didn't have it on the shelves, they could get it for you asap. I dare say that some of these stores even surpassed the independents in many respects. There were a few big, discount book chains that resembled Walmarts more than traditional bookstores, but they didn't survive for long.

Still it is appealing to root for the Davids against the Goliaths. Independent booksellers have been going out of business at an alarming rate over the past thirty years. But the same can be said for independent retail merchants of all varieties. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that for years, children, in this country anyway, have been encouraged to study hard, go to college and go for the golden ring, usually meaning getting into a profession. Few kids today I imagine dream of opening up or running a retail store when they grow up. The work is simply too hard, not glamorous enough, fraught with too much risk, for too little in return. The people who do open stores usually have passions for what they are selling, which is probably why today you'll find more independent booksellers than say, butcher shops or dry goods stores.*

The biggest culprit in Book Wars and the decline of the traditional bookstore of course is the computer. If they do it right, buyers can purchase books on-line for a fraction of what they pay at a brick and mortar store. To add insult to injury, some people use the generous comfort of the traditional bookstore to select what they want then go home and order the book from Amazon. I must admit to having done this myself a couple of times. Speaking of Amazon, they've also brought us the e-book which is wreaking havoc with the publishing industry and promises to do a lot more wreaking in the future. There is speculation that part of Borders' problems is that they did not address the e-book phenomenon as Barnes and Noble has.

So is the bankruptcy of Borders the death knell of the brick and mortar bookstore? Quite honestly I don't think so. I think back to the days when movie theaters urged their customers to "fight pay TV." They understood way back in the 60s that the day was coming when people would be able to access movies from the privacy of their own homes. Once that happened they figured, no one would go out to the movies. Of course that day did come and movie theaters closed at an appalling rate all over the country. But they didn't all close. People still feel the need to get out of the house and commune with other people. The collective experience of seeing a movie in public is a much different experience than watching a movie at home.

Shopping in public is a similar experience. For me as I suspect for countless others, there is no shopping experience that matches the joy of spending time in a bookstore. The presence of a bookshop is a sign that all's not lost in a neighborhood. As books are an essential part of my life, every bookshop that closes represents a little death for me. I know I'm not alone in this sentiment. The fact that Borders is not going away completely is cause for guarded optimism.

I wish them well along with their competitors, independent and otherwise.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The new face of State Street

In lavishing praise upon the big box chain Target for their plan to open a store in Louis Sullivan's masterpiece, the former Carson Pirie Scott Building on State Street, Mayor Daley in his typical "there you have it" fashion said this:

"State Street's not just State Street,....It's Michigan Avenue, it's Wabash, it's Dearborn, it's Wacker, it's Clark, it's Roosevelt Road. It's all of it. It's not -- it has to be more than just one street, and that's what it is. I mean, everything's connected."

Now I'm not entirely sure exactly what he was getting at, but one point I'm able to gather is that he feels State Street is no longer the State Street it once was.

The Huffington Post in their story about the new Target posted an on-line poll asking their readers the following:

How do you feel about Target moving in?

Great! More convenience, low prices, what could be wrong?

Terrible. Another giant corporation draining the character from our city.

I didn't vote because I could have easily chosen both options.

Those of us long time Chicagoans still think of State Street as special, the heart and center of our city, the street of (among other things) grand department stores, perhaps the greatest concentration of them anywhere in the world. We once proudly boasted that the intersection of State and Madison Streets, the location of the Carson's Building, was the busiest intersection in the world. Back in the day, State Street was definitely NOT Roosevelt Road, Wacker Drive, Michigan Avenue, or any other street in Chicago or anywhere else. State Street was State Street, period.

As for the building, it was the pinnacle of the career of Louis Sullivan. It was also The Master's swan song as never again would he see a commission as grand as this. Two magnificent curtain walls flanking a beautiful rounded bay and a highly ornate but not over the top arcade express all that Sullivan and the Chicago School of Architecture stood for. It is arguably the greatest building in Chicago.

Target on the other hand, is the epitome of automobile culture, of one stop, no frills, in and especially out convenience shopping. It symbolizes the suburban shopping strip, the vast wasteland located in Anywhere, USA. And it symbolizes a culture that cares only about corporate image and the bottom line, little if any at all for local history or culture.

I should know. Hardly a week goes by when I am not to be found at the local Target. As for the experience of shopping there, well I'll just say I simply cannot afford to pay for a pleasant shopping experience, so I shop at Target. In other words, I'm just as much to blame for this sad state of affairs as anybody else.

We have to face the fact that the State Street of our childhood is gone and is not coming back because the era of the department store is also history. Like me, most people love to wander around them and reminisce about the great department stores, but they prefer to spend their hard earned cash in the places where it goes the farthest. Volume is the name of the game and the big boxers have turned low overhead, sophisticated distribution models, and marketing into an art form. No company without their vast resources can possibly compete with them.

Which is precisely why I'll be buying my milk, toothpaste and paper towels at the new Target on State Street when it opens sometime next year. It will be convenient for me as it is smack dab between work and the train. I won't have to drive to the one in our neighborhood so often.

The building, now officially called the Sullivan Building, has undergone a massive restoration which began in 2006, ironically the same year that Carson's (as it is known in Chicago) announced it was leaving. Most noticeable is the reconstruction of the original cornice, the collumnade and the facade of the top floor. Save for one temporarily boarded up window, never in my life, and probably not since it was built at the turn of the last century, has the building looked so good. It has also been empty for the past five years. As we saw in the case of Block 37 a couple of blocks away, the city believes that something, anything in fact is better than vacant space in the heart of the Loop. Having spent some time in the new behemoth development (I can't bring myself to call it a building) that occupies the entire Block 37, I would have to say, well, maybe something could be said for nothing.

That's not to say I think that the Sullivan Building should remain vacant, not in the least. I think that if designed properly, the new store that the company in a departure from their traditional business model is billing as an "urban Target", will be a welcome addition to the Loop. These days after all, the Loop is a heavily residential neighborhood. I've often asked myself: "where do all those people shop?"

That said, while it will serve those of us who are already there, it's hard to imagine that a Target store would be a big draw to bring people into the Loop. Ideally I think it would have been better to have something a little more special, a destination, say like what Marshall Field's used to be. On the other hand it could have been much worse, it could have been a Walmart.

My biggest fear like everyone's, is that in their zeal for corporate identity, the Target folks will destroy the character of the building. Goodness knows the company has splattered their unavoidable logo everywhere possible, as Edward Lifson pointed out a few years ago on his blog. One only needs to look two blocks to the north to see what happened to the aforementioned late, great Marshall Field's store. While the company that bought it (ironically from the Target company), had the sense to leave the Field nameplates in front of the building, they have done everything possible in the name of corporate identity to destroy the character of the old Chicago institution by removing practically every vestige of the Field's legacy.

Now it's true that as a department store, Carson's was no Field's, neither as a store nor as an icon. Frankly I don't know many people who even miss it. It's also true that Sullivan designed the building to be a retail store, not an art museum, a school or anything else. It is entirely appropriate that it should continue to function as such. But the building is special and I would urge the brass at Target and their designers to downplay their "image" as much as possible, and let the design of the great building take center stage. They now have in their possession of one of our city's crown jewels, let's hope they don't mess it up.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

As cold as Helsinki

Chicago is known for its terrible weather which is a distinction that may or not be deserved. Minneapolis winters are far colder for much longer, lake effect snow is much more an issue on the other side of the Great Lakes, and I can name dozens of American cities that are far more unpleasant in the summer. It's true that we get both extremes but anyone who's been to places in the Midwest that don't have the benefit of the tempering effects of a large body of water like Lake Michigan, would scoff at our claims of both summer and winter misery.

We wear our weather as a badge of distinction here in the Windy City, so aptly named for our rhetorical bluster as well as the gusts that come off the lake. When we do get hit with extremes, we like to tell the world about it. Those images of the stuck cars on Lake Shore Drive prompted messages of concern from friends from all over the globe. This week the snow was followed by extreme cold.

For me it's not really cold until I see condensation coming off the river. On days like yesterday and the day before I break out the parka that I bought for my trip to St. Petersburg, Russia several years ago. During that trip I had a brief stopover in Helsinki. I am reminded of that cold but charming city by this post, which lists the temperature there as -10C, which if my calculations are correct is a tad warmer than what we experienced this week.

Not bad considering they're only a few degrees south of the Artic Circle, more bragging rights for us I reckon.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

That once great street...

Here are links to a couple of articles about the pending destruction of yet another splendid storefront on State Street. What is about to be lost is a beautiful example of 1940's modernism, the entrance to Baker's Shoes which has recently closed this location and will re-open in what the developers hope to be a "new and up-to date" storefront. Lynn Becker's post includes a rendering of the new design which is inoffensive but certainly has none of the elegance or flair of the current storefront. The developers, Thor Equities, also own the Palmer House on the same block. Their recent renovation of the storied State Street hotel has indicated that they have turned their back on what was once Chicago's premier street, reducing the grand entrance on State to a service entrance, and a bland one at that.

Becker says:

"You don't build brand equity for State Street by making it a generic could-be-anywhere. You do it by building on its unique, historic qualities to set it apart and give people a reason to want to take a pass on the local strip mall to go there."

This seems to be a losing battle, especially on State Street as I remarked earlier here in a piece about the unfortunate demise of the splendid banking floor of the (less than splendid) Home Federal/Bank of America Building just to the south.

Chicago Tribune architecture Blair Kamin in his post carefully explains the motives behind the renovations and goes on to point out their short-sightedness.

Becker's post: "Killing State Streets character, one storefront at a time", couldn't be more aptly titled. Although State Street has arguably two of the finest extant examples of the Chicago School of Architecture, the Carson Pirie Department Store and the Reliance Building, it once boasted several magnificent buildings of varying styles that today are either long gone or were remodeled beyond recognition. Becker's post has a few photographs of other great, lost Modernist designs on State Street. Be sure also to check out his link to an archive of photographs of the Loop from the forties and fifties.

See the pictures and weep.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Snow happens II

Someone just asked me how I handled the snow storm last week. I thought about it for about a second and said: "Actually it was pretty great." First of all I got two unexpected days off of work which enabled me to spend some much needed time with my family, including my son's tenth birthday. Secondly I got to participate in a minor public works project, namely the shoveling of our alley where snow drifts made the automobiles on our block perfectly immobile for about 48 hours.

In his homily on Sunday, our pastor Father Jim pointed out that adversity can bring out the best in people. He noted that during the two snowbound days in our neighborhood, the rectory phone, normally busy with requests for help of one kind or other, barely rung. Instead he saw people helping others, whether it was digging sidewalks and cars out of the snow, bringing food to the shut-in elderly, or whatever they could. It was indeed an amazing time for anyone who chose to leave the security of their homes and commune with their neighbors those two days. The streets were filled with people who had a common problem, were determined to overcome it, and were more than willing to help each other, even perfect strangers. This was especially apparent during the worst of the storm when people who lived on Lake Shore Drive opened up their homes to the folks who were stranded while trying to drive through the storm.

It's times like these that make a neighborhood or even an entire city a true community. I was convinced that our car would remain snowbound at least through the weekend when our alderman reported that the over-burdened snow plow drivers would not get to the alleys until Sunday at the earliest. On Thursday as I was about to walk to the grocery store, I came across some neighbors who were taking the task upon themselves. I went back to get my shovel and started to help. What began as a project to clear a path for two cars, ended up as a project to rescue all the cars in the alley. So inspired were we that not only did we clear a passage through the street, but we also dug out all the cars that were buried in the snow drifts. In the process I even learned the names of some of the neighbors whom I have known for years. As my car would still probably be stuck in the alley today were it not for those good folks, I took it as karma that I should continue the work started by them and dug out the cars of some of my neighbors that were parked on another street. While my muscles ached a little that evening, I haven't felt as good, both physically and spiritually in a long time.

My experience no doubt was common throughout the city.

Then came Friday and many folks by and large went back to being their usual self-centered selves. Father Jim pointed out his experience of drivers jockeying for position on Western Avenue as they navigated the narrowed roadway instead of taking turns in an orderly fashion. I noticed pedestrians barreling full speed ahead when only the day before they would wait for oncoming walkers to clear sections of sidewalk shoveled so only one person could pass. Today, the operator of the L train I was on had to tell boarding passengers to do what they should already know, that is to wait for other passengers to exit the train before entering. Also today, my wife spotted someone claiming dibs on a parking space, the inescapable Chicago tradition of using folding chairs to mark the space presumably shoveled out by the dibs claimer. In this case there was a twist, this Mr. Dibs included a sign explicitly warning that any person who should remove the markers and park in the space faced serious damage to their car. Of course any true Chicagoan already knows that chairs (or other expendable household items) in a parking space in winter already implies such vandalism.

In other words, life has returned to normal.

But for two wonderful days in February, life as we know it was suspended. People were nice to each other.

It was better than Christmas.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Snow happens

As we continue to dig ourselves out of the third worst snow storm in Chicago's history, newsprint, the internet and the air waves are all filled with rants about the city's mishandling of the situation. At the center of the controversy is the incident where hundreds of people were stranded for hours in their vehicles on Lake Shore Drive as the thoroughfare came to a standstill after multiple wrecks blocked the road.

The snow piled up rapidly and in a matter of minutes the stopped cars became stuck, rendering them useless. Not to mention the frigid 70 mph winds coming directly off of the lake that created a truly hazardous condition for the members of the CPD and the CFD who eventually came to the rescue.

There are many tales of people living along the route bringing food and offering shelter to the stranded drivers, and others of the heroism of the rescue workers and hospital staffs who tended to the victims, but those stories took a backseat to the whining and finger pointing about inadequate preparation, and implementation of emergency procedures. First and foremost the naysayers say, the city should have closed Lake Shore Drive before the problem happened.

Perhaps. There is certainly no doubt that when this situation happens again as it certainly will, those who have control over such things will be very sensitive about what happened during the Great Blizzard of 2011 (Snowmageddon as it has been dubbed), and close the Drive pre-maturely which will no doubt bring criticism for strangling traffic by cutting off a major artery. The decision not to close LSD earlier ultimately proved to be the wrong one. It was a judgment call, the type of decision not unlike that of a baseball manager who chooses to walk a good hitter instead of pitching to him. If the next batter up hits into a double play, the manager is a genius, if he hits a home run, the fans demand the manager's head. Taking the metaphor to its logical conclusion, in the case of Lake Shore Drive, the next batter hit a grand slam.

Now I'll be the first to say that I was safe and sound at home by the time those folks were stuck in their cars, so I'm in no position to knock them. However, like the rest of the city I had been aware for at least three days that a storm of epic proportions was headed our way. Here is a link to an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune the day before the storm. It's predictions turned out to be right on, off only in its underestimation of the force of the gusts coming off the lake.

Admittedly I dismissed the reports as bluster. I thought it was over-reacting when my employer suggested we all go home three hours early and take the next day off, even before the first snow flake fell. As our group had work we needed to finish, we stayed almost the full day. By the time we left the snow was coming down pretty hard and the Loop, at what would have normally been the heart of rush hour, was deserted. My prediction of "five inches at the most" would prove to be way off. When I got off the train nearly an hour later it became evident that this was a very serious blizzard. Mind you this was a full two hours before all the trouble on Lake Shore Drive and in those two hours the intensity of the storm only grew worse.

In all honesty I would say that the city did a magnificent job of assessing the situation and passing along the suggestion in no uncertain terms that people should go home before the tempest began. That action prevented a major catastrophe.

Yet for some reason, nearly 500 people chose to ignore the advice and paid dearly for it. Of course many of them no doubt had jobs that forced them to work into the evening hours. But I would guess that few of them did not have an alternative to driving that day. True, taking public transportation might have been an inconvenience for some of them but not anywhere close to what came to pass.

A Facebook friend posted the following:

You really know something about entitlement and self-pity when you hear the call-in whining of these idiots who ignored all warnings and got on Lake Shore Drive two hours into whiteout and then... surprise!... found themselves trapped without anyone (ANYONE!?! Shocking!) helicoptering in to rescue them.

Strong words to be sure but not off the mark. A commenter to the post noted that in his state of Arizona, when people get in trouble doing things they are warned not to, they must pay for their rescue. As far as I know, the city came to the rescue of the stranded "victims" not to mention their cars, all at the taxpayers' expense. My favorite comment to the post was this:

They see their vehicles as security, comfort, and empowerment. Love seeing Nature teach lessons.

Truer words could not have been said.