Thursday, December 20, 2012

So long Uncle Milt

After this evening, another bastion of intelligent discourse will be gone from commercial radio as Extension 720, the two hour talk program on Chicago's WGN Radio will sign off for good. The show's host, Milton Rosenberg, whose day job was professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has been on the air for the past 39 years. I've listened off and on for the past 30 or so.

The topics of his programs ranged from history and the fine arts, to esoteric branches of science, to politics, and to more popular subjects such as sports, cinema and food. Regardless of the topic, the level of conversation was maintained at a very high level and his guests ranged from the high and mighty to the mere brilliant. Divergent points of view were presented as well, however in recent years as Rosenberg grew more and more politically conservative, ("a liberal mugged on the way to reality" he was fond of saying about himself), his shows reflected that bias.

In 2008 Rosenberg had a well publicized feud with the Obama campaign when he planned to interview conservative writer Stanley Kurtz about Obama's alleged connection to Weather Underground terrorist and fellow Hyde Parker William Ayers. Obama has always claimed to have had only a peripheral connection to Ayers and the campaign felt the interview was part of a smear campaign against their man. They waged a call in campaign trying to halt the interview which Rosenberg and his supporters viewed as a blatant attack on their freedom of speech. To this day Rosenberg makes no attempt to disguise his contempt for the president.

In a way that only made him more endearing to his listeners, myself included, as like your kind but cantankerous old uncle, you'd love him despite his ramblings. I often found myself so infuriated with his program that I'd shut it off ( as I did just this week) only to tune in the next night, hoping the subject would not be politics.

Besides the loss of a brilliant radio host who brought a welcome relief to the dregs of typical radio conversation, I will miss the voice of a respected elder. As a person who is older than our current president (not by much mind you), it's becoming more and more difficult for me to find that voice, the airwaves being filled to the brim with gen-Xers and younger folks these days. When Milt Rosenberg talks about seminal subjects such as World War II, the Depression, and the urban scene of the past century, he speaks from the first person point of view.

I will deeply miss that.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The solution

Last Friday the unthinkable happened. While mass killings in public places are nothing new, the massacre in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and its victims, mostly children in their first grade class and teachers, have taken this horrific trend to a new low. The question of what kind of sickness would lead a person to commit such an atrocity has been first and foremost on my mind since Friday. And yes I question the wisdom of easy access of weapons capable of deadly precision on such a scale. Anger and rage over our inability to keep these weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of dangerous private citizens have dominated the airwaves and social media.

Predictably, people who advocate gun rights have been chastising the other side for their rants. How dare they take advantage of tragedy to lobby for their agenda.  The possession of guns they say is our constitutional right, and if we start banning assault weapons intended solely for the purpose of quickly disposing large numbers of human beings, they're afraid that in the words of one gun advocate this weekend: "Once you draw the line, where do you stop?"

Now admittedly I don't have much of a desire or need to own a gun. Even though I live in a big city with a murder rate to match, even though its not unusual to hear gunshots outside our window, AND even though I've been the victim of more crimes than I care to remember, I still don't feel that I or my family would be safer if we owned a gun. On the contrary, I think a gun inside our home would be asking for trouble. But what do I know? People on the other side are clamoring to get more guns in the hands of people, not fewer. Proving I'm open minded, here is something I stumbled across the other day, written by someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to mine:

Like clockwork, before the gun smoke had dissipated from the elementary school in Connecticut, all the gun control people posted, tweeted and blathered on and on about how we need to change this country's gun laws to prevent crazies from going on rampages. Don't they realize that guns don't kill people, people kill people? Don't they know that taking guns away from honest, law abiding citzens means the only people who'll have guns will be the criminals?

No, the solution to the problem of all the shootings isn 't to take our guns away from us. On the contrary it's to make sure that all honest, law abiding citizens have at least one gun, to protect themselves, other honest, law abiding citizens, and our way of life.

Just think about it, why did that guy up in Connecticut walk into a school to do his shooting? Because he knew no one was packing heat at the school. It was easy pickings. If I were in charge, I'd pass a law requiring all teachers in the classroom to carry on their person, a loaded firearm. That way the teachers instead of huddling in the corner trying to protect their students, could stand with their heads held high, and when the perp walks into the classroom, pop him right between the eyes.

Now you might think it would be dangerous to have a loaded gun in the classroom. Well I'd give teachers classes on how to handle firearms. But what about the children you might say; what if the teacher was having a bad day, something snapped, and he or she used it on one of the students? Well all I'll say is this: have you seen kids today? They have no respect, they don't listen to their elders, they misbehave, they do things that kids in my day would never have dreamt of doing. I'll tell you one thing, you'll find a whole lot more respect coming from those little hooligans after you point your piece at them and say: "I'd like you to meet my little friend." Now eventually some of the little thugs might catch on that you don't mean business after all, you wouldn't dream in a million years to actually use the gun on them. That's why my plan would have the teachers learn how to shoot to maim, not to kill. Better to inflict a leg wound than have a kid who doesn't take you seriously.

It turned out that the Connecticut shooter lived with his mother who was a gun collector, and all the guns he used on his killing spree were registered in her name. She was in fact his first victim. That was her first, and I guess last mistake. All those guns in the house aren't going to amount to a hill of beans if you don't have one loaded and ready. If that poor woman had been on the ball, she'd have had a gun loaded, cocked and at hand. That way when her son came into the room to kill her, she'd have been ready for him, and plugged him before he had the chance to take her life and the life of all those kids.

After all, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Well at least I agree with the last sentence. The rest of that piece was clearly written by a disturbed individual. I should know, I wrote it last Saturday, the day after the massacre. Yes the irony was intended, but not at all with tongue in cheek. It was written out of unchecked anger over the direction this country is going. It's true I made it up but with the exception of the part about the woman shooting her son, those words reflect actual words I've heard over the past few months from people in the gun crowd. Allow me to go over them one by one.

It's true that guns don't kill by themselves, but it's a heck of a lot easier to kill twenty seven people in a few minutes with an assault rifle than a knife, or a bow and arrow. Saying only criminals would have guns if guns were illegal implies that guns are only dangerous in the hands of criminals. That's a huge leap of faith blown to pieces by the events of last Friday. All the guns used in the massacre were legally obtained; the mother who owned the arsenal, and her son the mass murderer, were at least until Friday morning, both law abiding citizens. There is simply a clear and present danger to the public in the manufacture and distribution of firearms, especially high powered, assault weapons, intended solely for the purpose of killing lots of people in a short period of time.

To answer the question of where do you draw the line if you ban the sale of these weapons, I have a simple answer: common sense.

The reasons most people bring up for private ownership of guns are hunting and self protection. Now I've known lots of hunters but never met one who used an assault rifle to bag a deer or whatever. As for protection, well a hand gun, conventional rifle or shot gun should be quite sufficient for most personal protection needs, unless of course an entire division of the Waffen-SS, al Qaida, the bogeymen or any other enemy that we can conjure up in our imagination comes knocking at the door.

Common sense allows us to limit certain forms of speech without anyone objecting. You cannot write harmful lies, defaming someone's character legally. You cannot lie while under oath in a courtroom. You cannot yell fire in a crowded theater. If common sense can limit certain forms of speech, our most basic and sacred right, why can't common sense limit the kind of deadly firearms we're able to obtain?

Certainly with all the bright legal minds in this country, a clear distinction can be made between weapons one can reasonably use for hunting and self protection, and weapons of mass destruction. The Second Amendment is not going anywhere, we will always have the right to bear arms as guaranteed by our Constitution, even though the Founding Fathers' true intent, as stated explicitly in the first clause of the amendment, is conveniently overlooked by the vast majority of gun advocates.

I'm not blind to the inexorable fact that banning assault weapons alone will not prevent such tragedies. A person who wants to do something badly enough will always find a way. But the very least we can do as a society is to not make it painfully easy for a person with such an intent to procure the weapons to wipe out dozens of innocent men, women and children in a matter of minutes.

At the exact moment of the massacre in Connecticut, I was sitting in my children's school attending a holiday assembly. Ever since the tragedy in Newtown, the faces and voices of those little children keep going through my head. I can't stop hearing them singing their hearts out, and seeing the determined faces of their teachers who work so diligently, day in, day out, giving so much of their lives to those kids, our future. Then in a perpetual nightmare, I see a deranged killer shooting his way into their school, silencing all those voices forever.

Children should feel safe at school. Human shield should not be part of a teacher's job description. Unfortunately those days are gone for good. I heard one legislator say this morning that mass killings such as the one in Newtown, once rare occurrences, are quickly becoming the "new normal." We are more than likely to see more and more of these attrocities taking place in the not too distant future. Both of my children, including a kindergartner, have gone through the terrifying experience of a lockdown drill at school. I grew up during the sixties through some pretty heady times, but I saw nothing as terrifying as some of the things my children have seen in their young lives.

I don't pretend to have the solution to this rash of mass murders. We live in a society that is continually turning inward; we prefer texting to face to face contact, our children are playing video games, usually violent ones, rather than going outside to play with their friends. We've lost respect in all our institutions and become a society of self centered, cynical individuals, losing much sense of hope or community. The list goes on and on, and unfortunately they're mostly problems we cannot solve through legislation. Then we have the issue of mental illness, its stigma, and the difficulties of dealing with it, let alone treating it, again issues that are very difficult if not impossible to solve through legislation.

Then there are the guns, the one piece of the puzzle than can be legislated. If only rational minds on both sides could come together and work out a reasonable compromise. A law aimed at keeping weapons out of the hands of sociopathic individuals by banning assault rifles will not be the solution to these devastating tragedies, but it will be the start.

Liberty does not come without a price. What the gun advocates who oppose a ban on assault rifles are saying in not so many words is this: our freedom to possess these weapons of mass destruction is worth the cost of the lives of the children and teachers lost Friday in Connecticut, as well as the lives of those most certainly to come including possibly, God forbid, my own children, or even yours.

And you wonder why so many people are sick and tired and mad as hell?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


My own mortality is not something I dwell over very often but today's date, December 12, 2012, gave me something to ponder.  I realized that never again would I experience a date with three identical numbers, day, month and year, as the next occurrence will be on January 1, 2101. Unless drastic technological breakthroughs regarding human longevity take place soon, most likely I won't live to be 143. Honestly, I'm OK with that. My son might make it, as he'd be right on the eve of his centennial. My daughter might have a better chance as she'd be a sprightly 94. If my wife and I are ever blessed with grandchildren, they might have a good chance of seeing 01-01-01.

I had another jolt of mortality thrust in my face this evening. In my plethora of transportation choices, this evening I chose to treat myself to a ride on the commuter train. It's a longer walk than taking the L but the ride is much nicer and quicker, besides, it was a lovely evening for a long walk. Anyway I got to the station with a few minutes to spare and there was a choir of eight year olds singing "Little Drummer Boy" which made me very happy. The happiness was short lived as I discovered there were massive delays in the service. In the words of the railway, there was a "trespasser fatality" on our line. In other words, someone stepped in front of a speeding train.  Now lots of thoughts go through one's head hearing something like that, I always think first of the poor engineer who is entirely helpless to prevent the tragedy. Then I think of the people who are forced to witness the event. And yes, I think of personal convenience. "Couldn't that person have been a little more considerate and at least taken his or her life at a time other than rush hour?"

I made the decision to backtrack and take the L after all, as no one knew for sure when the trains would start running. The L ride was miserable, people jammed cheek to jowl in every car. There was a near altercation on the platform as a young man chased down a middle aged woman who happened to bump into him. "Are you fucking serious?" was her response. Happy holidays to the both of you I thought. When I finally got off the L and passed the commuter train tracks, there was a train stopped. It had to have been standing there, full of passengers for at least two hours.

Anyway, when my uncomfortable commute was over I couldn't help but think about the poor soul whose life ended this evening as it turned out, at the very station where I would have gotten off that train. I got home and hugged my wife and children extra hard. It was kind of like that scene at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life" when Jimmy Stewart returns from his brush with non-existence and realizes his own miserable life isn't so bad after all.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Radiant City is Alive and Well

Not so long ago we decided there was something terribly wrong with the way we built our cities. They were overcrowded, had too much traffic congestion, too much noise, and this was contributing to crime, disease and a host of other social problems. Planners and architects set out to change all that, conceiving what they imagined to be the city of the future.

In that vein, two of the most famous architects of the last century took divergent paths to create their own concepts of that city of the future. Although neither vision was fully implemented, the impact of the vision of these two architects, combined with the explosion of technological development in the last one hundred years plus, drastically altered our cities and the way we live.

Frank Lloyd Wright hated cities. He called his idea for the utopian city of the future Broadacre City, not a city as we know it at all, but a strictly planned community where every family is alloted exactly on acre to call its own. The personal transportation device, automobiles at first, then ideally personal aircraft in the future, would be the primary means of transportation. If this sounds familiar (except the part about the personal aircraft), well it has all the trappings of suburbia as we know it today. Frank Lloyd Wright did not invent the concept of suburbs; he saw the movement away from big cities as inevitable as in fact much of it was going on during his life. Where his plan and reality diverge is in the design and administration of these communities. He distrusted big money and politicians, instead, his communities would be administered by designers and architects. Not surprisingly, in the real world the moneyed interests and the politicians won out, and it's unlikely that Mr. Wright would approve of the lifeless, ugly, banal version of his dream, known today simply as suburban sprawl.

Some of Wright's inspiration came directly as a reaction against ideas for the city of the future that came out of Europe, specifically from Swiss born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the architect famously known as Le Corbusier. Le Courbusier was deeply troubled by the living conditions of the big city poor. His solution simplistically put, was to knock down much of old city housing and replace it with soaring mixed-income, multi-unit apartment buildings. These buildings would be separated by green, open space where everyone, poor and rich alike would have access. All vehicular traffic would be segregated into either above or below ground highways. He would label his utopia, Radiant City. As with Wright, some of what Le Corbusier envisioned became reality. Large sections of cities were cleared to make way for these massive buildings including the entire neighborhood of the West End of Boston which I wrote about in an earlier post. There, a thriving historic working class neighborhood was deemed slum land by the city. It was leveled, and replaced by Corbusian housing, and there it stands today, a successful if rather uninspired, upper middle class housing project.

The fate of the Boston West End project is vastly different from that of very similar housing projects in cities all across the United States, intended to house not urban professionals, but the urban poor. When the big housing projects were first built in the fifties and sixties, they were seen as a welcome relief to the old tenement slum buildings they replaced. They had strict standards for admission and waiting lines to get in. Soon enough however, the rules and regulations became lax and many of the buildings were taken over by gangs of thugs who terrorized the residents who felt imprisoned in their own homes. The projects were so vast and dangerous that even police and other emergency personnel were hesitant to enter them. In much of America, the dream of a Radiant City had become a nightmare.

The first Radiant City to go was Pruitt-Igoe, a vast project built in the mid-fifties in the north end of St. Louis. It was blown up in the early seventies having been around less than twenty years. It took a couple more decades here in Chicago, but eventually all of the major Corbusian housing projects for the poor: the Robert Taylor Homes, and Stateway Gardens on the south side, the Horner Homes, and an agglomeration of projects known collectively as ABLA on the west side, and most famously, the Cabrini Green Homes on the near north side, have been relegated to quote a former president, to "the dustbin of history."

Just as it is unfair to blame Frank Lloyd Wright for suburban sprawl, it is unfair to blame Le Corbusier directly for the failure of large public housing projects. Unlike his vision to create mixed income housing, the American version of public housing was intended, not with entirely good intentions, to exclusively house the poor. By doing this, their ultimate effect was to segregate the poor, cutting people off from the rest of the city and society, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

There are in fact, mixed and upper income projects in Chicago that have proven successful including Prairie Shores on the near south side, and Sandburg Village on the near north.

Successful or not, building massive blocks of flats in row upon row of identical buildings in the style of Le Corbusier has been stigmatized and is no longer in fashion, in this country anyway.

But the Radiant City is alive and well in China where new cities have sprung up in some of the strangest, most inhospitable of places, built in a style very reminiscent of the plans of the late Swiss architect. The cities are purely speculative, built with the hope that one day they will be filled with citizens in a booming economy. The fact that these sites sit mostly empty as ghost cities is a fascinating story in its own right and has been dealt with in many places. Just google "Chinese ghost cities" to see what I mean. The bottom line it appears is that the endeavor is either a boondoggle for wealthy Chinese businessmen and corrupt government officials to build a place to hide their money, or a very shrewd, far sighted plan by the Chinese government to prepare itself for the staggering population shift from rural-agrarian to urban that will likely take place imminently in that enormous country. We'll surely find the answer to that question in the near future but today these "cities" sit virtually empty on sites where no one in their wildest dreams would have built a city in the past.

Which is par for the course with most cities built from scratch. Washington D.C. was built on the flood plain of the Potomac River between the already settled cities of Georgetown, MD  and Alexandria, VA. The reasons for building there were political rather than practical, as anyone who has been to our nation's capital in the summer can attest. An even more extreme example is St. Petersburg, the scratch built one time capital city of Russia, built to satisfy Peter the Great's desire to build a great navy for his enormous but for all intents and purposes land-locked country. St. Petersburg was so remote and desperately cold that the hardships suffered by the builders of that great city prepared them and their ancestors for the brutal hardships they would endure during the subsequent three centuries.

Most cities don't begin on the drawing board, they evolve over time, starting out as small settlements, then growing as the local economy will allow. Sensible people don't settle in places with harsh economic and natural climates, it takes a government to make such big and outrageous plans. Enter China, still a totalitarian government with apparently most of the money in the world. Without having to worry about market forces (yet) or the fickle nature of public opinion, the commissars in charge have free reign to build whatever they want, wherever, and in whichever style they want.

It's interesting to see what style of architecture the Chinese officials have chosen to fill their cities. Why is the building style rejected by most of the Western World appealing to the powers that be in China? Maybe it's because multiple high rise units are the most practical means to house the largest number of people. Maybe it is the easiest way to control masses of people, remember that Paris during the 19th Century was reworked first and foremost to eliminate the hiding places of insurrectionists. Or maybe it's because this style of architecture with columns of identical buildings standing like soldiers at attention, evokes grandeur and power, at least in architectural renderings or in photographs of the buildings without people present, which these days are not hard to come by.

Could it be possible that the Radiant City is ideally suited to totalitarianism?

In any case, these real life Sim-Cities beg the question, who on earth would want to move into a ready made city with absolutely no history?

In two words: not me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Things change

Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design
Like a river, a great city is constantly flowing, changing its course at will, never standing still. When you live in a city, change becomes a routine part of life, a new business opens, another one closes, neighborhoods slowly crumble while others gradually revive. Sometimes, when an important building is threatened as is with the case of the former Prentice Hospital in Chicago, change becomes a hot button issue on both sides. But that's the exception not the rule, generally we accept change and move on; like our children, most changes take place right under our nose and we barely notice them.

Of course if you don't see a child every day, those changes become profound. It's our kids' grandparents custom to tell them how much they've grown since the last time they saw them, even if it was only a week ago.

A reminder of the now distant past in the Third Ward
We just took our annual birthday trip up to Milwaukee and overall I'd say the city looks like it's doing just fine. Admittedly, we tend to visit the same old haunts so I can't report on the city as a whole. "The "Historic Third Ward" just south of Downtown seems to be booming. Centered around MIAD (the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design), the old warehouse and manufacturing district is flush with art galleries, boutiques and upscale restaurants. The lack of available parking spaces attest to its success.

Here I'll give a shout out to my friends Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman, collaborative artists who have a wonderful show of their new work, a project called Natural History, which is currently on view at the Portrait Society Gallery in the Third Ward.

Recent riverfront construction in the Third Ward
Downtown Milwaukee, the main drag anyway, Wisconsin Avenue, had its life sapped away with the construction of the Grand Avenue, an indoor shopping mall which was built back in the eighties. I haven't been inside that mall in probably twenty years so I can't comment on it, but the outside is as dead as ever. Which is a shame, the death of the once vibrant street life in the heart of town is an enduring testimony of the fallacy of building such places. We here in Chicago can thank our lucky stars that our lame attempt to build a downtown mall back in the day was easily reversible, and is now but a distant memory.

A couple of years ago I wrote a small post about Milwaukee and listed several of my favorite this and thats in the world found in that city. Sadly, one of them is gone. There was a little restaurant on the East Side, catty corner from the Oriental Theater called Palermo Villa. They served what I and my family considered to be the best pizza we'd ever had and was the traditional final stop on our visits up there. Our heart sank as we walked by the empty storefront last Saturday, it had been closed since July.

Another of my wife's longtime favorite restaurants, a little hole in the wall Middle Eastern place called Abu's was gone, as was another longtime haunt in the Third Ward.

On a brighter note, another of our favorite stops, Boswell Book Company on Downer Street (yes it's really called Downer Street but it doesn't live up to its name), is alive and well, testimony that the independent book store is not quite dead yet. As you may recall from this earlier post, the shop used to be part of a small chain of Milwaukee book shops that went out of business. This one was kept alive by former employees of the old Harry Schwartz chain and retains its depth of selection and charm.

Another business in Milwaukee that's bucking the trend of the national chains is Alterra Coffee. They now have several shops in Milwuakee, the most beautiful of which is in an abandoned water pumping station on the lake shore. In all honesty, this company in every way blows the competition out of the water; unlike most other cities, you are hard pressed to find a Starbucks or other big name coffee chain in Milwaukee, there's no point.

Simply put, Milwaukee in so many ways is unlike every other city. Could there be any better reason to love the place?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Meet me between Thomas and Vivekananda

Chicago may not be the most logical place in the world. For starters, the river flows backwards. Then we have two baseball teams in town; last season one of them battled another team for the worst record in the major leagues and you couldn't keep people away. The other team was involved in a legitimate pennant race and they had to lower ticket prices just to get warm bodies in the seats. Most important of all, even though we're a city with many great assets, we're known around the world for our gangsters and corrupt politicians.

One thing however that is completely logical about this city is its street numbering system. Based on the Cartesian grid, addresses are numbered according to points on the grid, meaning that if you were looking for an address, say 1200 North, you would know that what you're looking for is twelve blocks north of Madison Street, Chicago's north/south divide. If you know your east west coordinates, say 2400 West, you'd know that you were exactly twenty four blocks, or three miles west of State, the dividing line between east and west. Since the vast majority of Chicago streets run in the same direction as the grid, if you told a Chicagoan you were looking for something in the vicinity 1200 North and 2400 West, he or she most likely would know that your destination is somewhere around the intersection of Division Street and Western Avenue. It's even easier on the South Side where all the east/west streets have numbers for names, the numbers corresponding to the grid. 22nd Street for example, is twenty two blocks south of Madison. Even more logic: unlike other cities, a street at a particular coordinate on the grid will keep the same name even if it does not continue uninterrupted through the city. The residential streets way up north in my neighborhood of Rogers Park: Claremont, Oakley and Bell, the streets just east of Western Avenue, have counterparts with the same names all the way down in my cousin's neighborhood of Beverly, more than twenty miles to the south.

Simply put, if you can't find your way around Chicago, you probably couldn't find your way around anywhere.

Recently however, that logic has been put to the test with the introduction of honorary street names. All over town you can find street signs that were placed in honor of someone of distinction who either lived or worked in the area, or did something important in that place.  If you've been around town a bit, you learn to ignore the brown signs displaying the honorary names which are meaningless, navigationally speaking that is. Unfortunately, visitors see the brown signs which look like legitimate street signs, and mistakenly think they are the real names of the streets. Hence out of town visitors to the Art Institute mistakenly think the famous Chicago landmark is on Swami Vivekananda Way, rather than the actual street with the less resonant name, Michigan Avenue. To make matters more confusing, one block to the south, the Swami gives way to Theodore Thomas, a tribute to the first conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

With the exception of the Loop, the majority of honorary street signs in Chicago pay tribute to people who are not well known. An example I'm intimately familiar with: Honore Street between Division and Thomas (the actual street name, not the one honoring the conductor) is named Rose Gabellini Street after a beloved teacher who taught for many years at the elementary school at that location.

This morning I decided to map my route through the Loop from the train station to work by means of the brown signs. I must admit I had to look up two of the names, (and learned a few things in the process), when I got home. My journey took me past (David) Ben-Gurion Way (honoring the first Prime Minister of Israel), Chicago Region for the Weitzman Institute of Science Way (here is a link to their web site), Eugene Heytow Way (honoring a local businessman and entrepreneur ), Newton Minow Way (honoring a former chairman of the FCC), Palmer House Hilton Way (in tribute to the landmark hotel), to the aforementioned Swami Vivekananda Way.

In 1893 the Hindu monk Vivekananda gave a famous address advocating religious tolerance to the Parliament of the World's Religions at their conference which took place during the World's Columbian Exposition, in the building that would become The Art Institute.

As you can imagine, to the initiated, the brown commemorative street signs provide a unique insight into this city's history.

To the uninitiated, the signs are more or less a nuisance.

I just discovered the history of dedicating sections of streets in Chicago to particular individuals; it came courtesy of the WBEZ Chicago History Today blog, written by John R. Schmidt.

It turns out that columnist Mike Royko proposed re-naming a small section of the street where the late author Nelson Algren lived. Much to Royko's surprise, Mayor Jane Byrne agreed and before too long, workmen were replacing signs that said "Evergreen Avenue" with signs that read "Algren Street." The neighbors, many of whom were Polish folks who didn't care much for Algren or his work,  (they felt he portrayed them in a bad light in his novels), vehemently objected to the change, citing issues ranging from safety to the expense of having to change official addresses. City Hall listened, the Algren signs came down and shortly thereafter the honorary street program began.

Today there are an estimated 1,000 honorary street signs in Chicago, elightening, confusing and irritating folks at the same time.

Friday, November 16, 2012


What do Pyongyang and Chicago have in common?

Both cities have buildings that made HuffPost Travel's "Ugliest Buildings in the World" list. I'll give you a second to guess which Chicago building made the list. I knew the answer before the question, had it been the other way around, I would have guessed wrong.

The North Korean capital's entry in the list is the Ryugyong Hotel, a multi-pyramidal shaped hulk that has been under construction for the past twenty years. Having seen pictures of Pyonyang, I suppose any building there could have made this list, except the editors point out that being merely stultifying doesn't cut it, you have to work really hard at ugly to be included.

Anyway, if you guessed Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center as I probably would have, sorry. The building that put Chicago on the map of ugliness is Hammond, Beeby and Babka's Harold Washington Library.

Since I spend a good deal of time in that building, and remember when its construction in the early nineties was cause for great celebration given the fact that we hadn't had a main branch of the public library for well over a decade, I give it a pass.

Still I have to admit, the over the top eclectic pile in the South Loop is in my opinion a pretty ugly building. Here's the assessment from the article:
Neoclassical references collide with a glass-and-steel Mannerist roof; throw in some red brick, granite, and aluminum—and a bad sense of scale—and you’ve got way too much architecture class for one day.
In case you're interested, here's a link to the list, check it out if you dare.

By the way, if you think Bud Goldberg's old Prentice Hospital is ugly, take a look at the post and maybe you'll see the light.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Our president

Last night a Facebook friend posted the question: "What's the first election you can remember?" This guy is in his twenties as are most of his friends, and the typical response went all the way back to Bush/Clinton, 1992. I didn't respond to his query because given my age compared to the age of the responders, I might as well have said I can remember Abraham Lincoln's last election. In truth the first election I remember, though not in great detail, was the 1964 election between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. In other words, I've been around a long time and can remember a lot of presidential elections. Without a doubt, the one this year has been by far the most contentious election in my life.

When folks tell me that more hatred is directed toward Barack Obama than any other president, I try to downplay it, pointing to events such as the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton and the broad dislike, even hatred of George W. Bush from the Left. But Clinton and Bush earned most of the vitriol aimed in their direction all on their own. While some people find President Obama's politics, his methods, even his personality objectionable, I can't for the life of me figure out why he is hated so much by a such a large sector of society. At least I don't want to admit what I think might be the reason.

Walking past a public school on my way to work this morning, I passed several children who were having an animated conversation about last night's election. Clearly some of them had not stayed up past 10pm and were asking their friends: "Did Obama win Ohio?" Interest in such details of an election coming from kids who couldn't be more than ten or eleven was inspiring. I couldn't help being moved by the fact that those children were all African American. In fact during several encounters with black people today I noticed a definite sense of enthusiasm. The exuberance over the president's winning the State of Ohio and consequently the election was contagious. In the world in which I live, Barack Obama is very popular.

In other parts of the country, he obviously is not.

Clearly we live in a divided nation, and much of it has to do with race. It's a nasty issue that doesn't get  discussed much in polite society. A co-chair of the Romney campaign, former New Hampshire governor and Chief of Staff to the first President Bush, John Sununu touched on the subject briefly during a TV interview when he suggested that General Colin Powell's endorcement of Obama was racially motivated. He said: "I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him." In a more reasonable, non racially-charged society, that comment probably would have gone unnoticed. But it went viral here because between the lines, some people read Sununu as saying: "If it's OK for black people to support one of their own, why can't we white people do the same?"

After I encountered the enthusiastic kids this morning, the thought did cross my mind about how I'd feel if the tables were turned and I walked past a group of fist pumping, high fiving white folks, hollering and whooping it up because Mitt Romney won the election. I'd probably dismiss them as a bunch of yahoos.

In this year's presidential election, about 59 percent of the white vote went to Romney and the pundits are using that figure to comment how racially divided we are. But about 93 percent of the black vote went to Obama and there was hardly a peep. Is this a double standard?

In one word, no.

The ancestors of most African American people lived in this country long before the ancestors of most European Americans, including my own. Needless to say, most of them did not come here of their own free will. Black soldiers fought and died for this country in every war, often in disproportionate numbers. When they had the opportunity to, which was not until quite recently in some cases, African Americans could be counted on to consistently vote for white candidates. Black voters had been taken for granted for so long by white politicians that no one saw coming the tremendous ground swell of support for black candidates such as the late Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago. Still it is a mistake to assume that African American people always vote as one block for candidates of their own race. The last mayoral election in Chicago was decided by the black vote in favor of Rahm Emanuel, despite the fact that on the ballot there was an extremely well known black candidate.

The fact is, in the past four years, the Republican Party has bent over backwards to alienate black voters:
  • The issue of requiring voter ids in some states harken back to the days of the poll tax where poor people, many of whom were black, were prohibited from voting simply because they could not afford to. The tremendous turnout in many of those states in this election where people stood for hours in line to cast a ballot, proved that people would not be denied the right to vote. 
  • The new campaign laws which eliminated spending limits, made the office of president available to the highest bidder. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the Democrats and Obama outplayed them at their own game by raising more money, an obscene amount, than any campaign in history.
  • While the office of president should command the highest respect, opponents of Barack Obama have gone to tremendous lengths to disrespect both the man and the office. Instead of doing their jobs and governing, some Republicans in Congress openly vowed at the outset of his presidency that their number one goal was to make Obama a one term president. From ridiculous demands of proof of citizenship, to a governor pointing her finger in his face, to a congressman calling him a liar during a speech, to the unbelievable intransigence in Congress over every bit of legislative minutiae, Republicans have shown over and over again that they will stop at nothing in order to gain control of the government. 
In short, every plausible reason for black folks (and folks of many other shades including white), to vote for Mitt Romney, was overshadowed by the enormous baggage of poor choices made by the candidate and his party. Instead of venting their anger at the results of this past election, Republicans need only look in the mirror.

It's not going to get any better for the GOP. This country is moving in a new direction demographically, and being the white people's party is simply not going to cut it anymore. As someone who has voted "Democrat" for most of his life, you might think I'd be thrilled at the prospect of the demise of the Republican Party. I'm not. As an American I believe deeply in the two party system, in a meaningful rational dialog, and being forced to make a choice between two credible candidates come election time.

In this election I didn't feel there was a choice. Four years ago I knew President Obama was in for a rough ride and given the state of the economy, I was skeptical about his prospects of being re-elected in 2012. Yet I believe he's done a reasonably good job in office, attempting at least to fulfill the campaign promises he made four years ago. My most profound experience of the effects of his presidency came this summer while driving up to Wisconsin with my family. As we passed the massive Chrysler plant in Belvedere, Illinois, I noticed the employee parking lot was filled with cars, far more of them than I had seen in years. As my wife pointed out, had it not been for this administration, that lot, and hundreds like it around the country today would be empty.

That said, we're still in deep financial trouble and I'm not entirely convinced that the policies of this administration will lead us out of the morass. I would have desperately liked to have been challenged by a candidate from the other side who presented a clear, consistent alternative vision for the future of this country. Unfortunately Governor Romney did not. His statements during the campaign were all over the place, made more out of convenience rather than conviction. The only conviction of the governor's I could detect, was his desire to be president. Perhaps the delicate balance of trying to please a very disparate constituency was too much for him, but in my opinion, the governor was simply not a credible candidate.

Obviously a lot of people disagree, most of them belonging to the same race and gender as me. Unemployment, the deficit, the debt, the bad economy and a plethora of other issues are all legitimate concerns and most of the people who voted for Governor Romney believed his ideas to address those issues were better than Obama's.

Some people however, I have no idea how many, don't feel that Barack Obama truly represents them and voted for Romney simply because of the color of his skin. I know this to be true because I personally know some of them. Unsavory as it may be, that is their right.

All I can say is this: I'm glad the election is over.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Deja vu all over again

It was interesting to see deposed alderman Burton Natarus testifying at the Landmarks Commission hearing that decided the fate of Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital building. Natarus, the Yogi Berra of Chicago politicians, (which is really saying something given the quality of oratory in that esteemed group), said the following about the building:
This is not a good piece of architecture...We have a Yiddish word for what it is, farshimmelt.
I must admit not having known what farshimmelt means, but I do know that seldom does a person use a Yiddish word to describe something favorably. From the site I found this:
This term is used to describe a confused state of mind, disorientation, or feeblemindedness.
Now that's one man's opinion and I have to respect it for what it's worth. Lot's of people think the building is shall I say, less than appealing, certainly not worthy of the fuss to save it, given that Northwestern Memorial Hospital plans to use the site for a facility that will not only produce medical research that will save countless lives but will also bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue into our fair city. At least that's what they say.

An even more colorful term I've heard to describe the building is "butt ugly." Fair enough, everyone's entitled to his own opinion.

But I do have to disagree with all due respect of course, to the former alderman's assessment of old Prentice as "confused, disoriented, and feebleminded". The building in fact is everything BUT those things. It was one of the most sensible, well thought out buildings ever built in this city. Goldberg's "bed tower", the cluster of cylinders, containing hospital rooms. around a central core which contained the nurses' stations, was a brilliant, ground breaking design; the architect's sensibilities putting patient care at the forefront of his efforts gained him worldwide acclaim.

Uninformed as they were, Natarus's were probably the most honest words spewed during yesterday's meeting. The Commission went to great lengths to present Prentice as a building that met more than the minimum number of requirements necessary for landmark status. Their report waxed eloquently about the significance of Goldberg's building, presenting it favorably in the context of other major works of international architecture inluding Le Corusier's sublime Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronhamp, France, Frank Lloyd Wright's Gugenheim Museum and Eero Sarrinen's TWA Flight Center, both in New York City, among others. Then the commission voted to adopt
the Preliminary Summary and make a preliminary landmark recommendation concerning the Building in accordance with Sect. 2-120-630 of the Municipal Code.
The vote was unanimous, the Commission would recommend landmark status for the building. Fantastic. But wait, there's more:

The commission then presented a report from the Department of Housing and Economic Development for the City of Chicago which congratulated the Commission for its careful and professional work in recommending the landmark status but added: heck, the building is in the way of Northwestern's plans so it should go, landmark or not.

The Commission apparently was so moved by the report and no doubt by Mayor Emanuel's OpEd piece in the Tribune this week in favor of the demolition, that it voted 6 to 1 to rescind the recommendation they made just minutes earlier.

Heads in the room must have been spinning quicker than pardon the expression, lager turns to piss.

The Landmarks Committee in effect declared that the work they allegedly do for the city is irrelevant. What after all is the point of declaring a building a landmark, then refusing to protect it? Spineless is too kind a description of their actions yesterday. Unless of course this was all part of the plan, which turns out to be the case. In his blog Lee Bay posted the agenda one day before the meeting took place. The events of the following day followed the script line by line.

It turns out the fate of Prentice at the hands of the Landmarks Committee was a fait accompli, it had no chance. The meeting in the words of Christina Morris of the National Trust for Historical Preservation was a farce. Jonathan Fine, the executive director of Preservation Chicago said this:
We asked for a day in court, instead we got a show trial.
Much more distressing than the refusal to protect the Bertrand Goldberg building is the ease in which the commission gave in to the forces behind its destruction. What they're saying is that no matter how important a building may be, there can always be a legitimate cause that trumps protecting a building. In one fell swoop they did away with decades of hard work of preservationists and concerned citizens who feel that the city's architecture matters. It is a terrible precedent that may very well have dire consequences for every significant building in this city. Suppose Roosevelt University campaigns to demolish the Auditorium Building because it cannot effectively teach its students (tomorrow's leaders) in the "out of date" landmark? What if the forces driving the La Salle Street Financial District insist on their need to expand onto the site of the Rookery Building and propose to demolish it to build a state of the art "world class" trading center? What if somebody discovers oil underneath the Wrigley Building?

Those admittedly far fetched scenarios would potentially result in windfall profits for the city, but at what cost? Northwestern Memorial Hospital paints a very attractive picture of what they would do with the site in terms of benefits to the city. I have no quarrel with that. But I have a serious problem accepting their assertion that all their plans, the money made for the city, the jobs created and the lives saved would vanish if they don't get their way and turn old Prentice to dust. The truth is that patch of ground upon which Prentice stands represents a tiny fraction of the property owned by the hospital in their Streeterville campus, much of which is currently unoccupied. There are lots of very talented architects and designers in town who could create a solution that would satisfy everybody's needs, the hospital's and the preservationists' alike.

So why is the hospital so intransigent?  I don't have an answer but looking around at the brand spanking new hospital buildings on the campus all bearing the names of wealthy donors, I have a sneaking suspicion. I have a little experience with big institutions and know that people like to put their names on big spiffy and above all new projects. Turning old Prentice into an office or teaching facility would be very feasible, but not very sexy. Could the morass over old Prentice be really be about ego, power, money, control and prestige, rather than jobs and lives? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

The mayor in his Tribune OpEd piece acknowledged Bertrand Goldberg as an important architect whose buildings are worth preserving. Then he added that we have other Goldberg buildings in town so losing this one won't be so bad. As I pointed out last week, the exact thing could have been said about the Garrick and Old Stock Exchange Buildings, two Louis Sullivan masterpieces that were lost decades ago. It would be difficult to find any reasonable person in town today who would support the demolition of those buildings so long ago.

So in fifty years what will they be saying about us? My guess is they will say this:

"Didn't those people learn anything?"

Monday, October 29, 2012

Throw in a little pixie dust

One of my favorite movie lines of all time comes toward the end of the John Ford Western: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the story, as legend had it, the eponymous "man" of the film's title was the beloved Senator Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart). Years before he was challenged to a gun duel by the notorious outlaw and town menace Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). At the appointed hour, the vastly out-matched Stoddard fired his gun and the gunslinger Valance fell dead, much to Stoddard's surprise. As he and the audience would find out later, the real killer of Valance was Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who was hiding across the street in the dark. He shot Valance for the sake of the woman both he and Stoddard loved, but that's another story. Anyway, neither Doniphon nor Stoddard ever let on to anybody else about the true identity of Valance's killer. Stoddard went on to great success and got the girl, all based upon his being the "man who shot Liberty Valance." Doniphon, brokenhearted, slipped off into obscurity. Late in life the guilt-ridden Stoddard, in an interview with a newspaperman, fessed up to the true story.

At the end of the interview the newspaperman burned up his notes telling Stoddard:
This is the West sir, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Imagine a reporter today being spoon fed a scoop like that and letting it go up in smoke.

Despite the fact that nine out of ten Americans according to a 2011 Gallup poll, claim to believe in a God of whose existence they presumably have no rational proof, we seem to have an insatiable thirst for proof of everything else. No stone goes unturned to get the "real story", no matter how many people get hurt in the process. Hope, acceptance and faith (except apparently in God), seem to be rare commodities these days, at least in this country.

We live in a fabulous late twenties apartment building on the north side of Chicago. For the past two years our building has been one of the several hundred buildings featured in a wonderful event called "Open House Chicago", sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It has been my privilege to have been one of the tour guides for the building. As you can imagine, a big old building like ours has lots of stories, many of them involving sprits of former residents haunting the building.

Now I can't say truthfully whether I believe in ghosts or not, all I'll say is I have no proof they do not exist. Besides, I like a good ghost story as much as the next guy. Our building's engineer told us the story of a teenager, Johnny Gidwitz (I'm making up the name), who many years ago drowned in our swimming pool after hitting his head on the ceiling while trying to show off on the diving board for his friends. According to our engineer, his spirit has been hanging around the pool area since. Again, I don't know as I've haven't seen hide nor hair of him.

Our neighbor, one of my fellow tour guides who herself has no time for such foolishness, told me that on one of her tours, while walking though the pool area one of her guests asked her completely out of the blue: "Are there any ghosts in this building?" "Why?" our neighbor asked. "Because I can sense one right now", said the woman.

I'm presuming it was Johnny Gidwitz but of course, I can't prove it.

The story gets more interesting. On my first tour this year, a gentleman told me he grew up in the neighborhood and one day back in the fifties, his sister and her friend snuck into the building and went for a dip in the pool. The two girls entered the shallow end and eventually worked their way into the deep end. Unfortunately neither girl could swim and both found themselves in a state of panic, struggling for their lives. All of a sudden the girls felt themselves being grabbed by the backs of their swimsuits,  pulled out of the water, and placed on the edge of the pool. Standing in front of them was an enormous man with a shaved head, dressed in a white tee shirt.  The man they said bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Clean. He asked if they were OK then calmly walked away. The girls ran home and told the girl's mother the story. She immediately went over to our building to thank the man who had just saved the girls' lives. She found several people from the building and asked them about the man who looked like Mr. Clean. To a person including the building's engineer at the time, no one had any clue who the man was, as no one fitting that very distinctive description either lived or worked in the building. To this day his identity remains a mystery.

From the gleam in the storyteller's eye I could tell where he was going: "So you think he was an angel?" I asked the man. He shrugged his shoulders and said sheepishly: "Well you never know."

That story was too good to pass up and I told it, along with the story of Johnny Gidwidtz to the rest of my tour groups that day. Perhaps because I didn't have just the right the gleam in my eye when I told the story, nobody bit as I did. "Hmmm... maybe he was an outside contractor or a guest" they'd say or, "maybe he was someone who snuck into the building himself."

Probably. Those are perfectly reasonable, plausible explanations.

But I think I'll just go with the legend.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Climbing off the fence

We've been through this before.

In 1960, protestors showed up at the the Garrick Theater in Chicago's Loop to challenge its imminent destruction. Although the building was granted landmark status, its owners felt the site could be put to more profitable use as a parking garage. So they applied for a demolition permit and after a court battle, got their way. In reality, few people cared about saving the great Louis Sullivan building that had seen better days and in the subsequent years, dozens of other important Chicago buildings were lost, with barely a peep from the general public. A few more protestors showed up in 1972 at the corner of LaSalle and Washington as the scaffolding marking its doom consumed the old Stock Exchange Building, another Sullivan gem, perhaps his finest. The relative few who expressed their concern and outrage over the destruction of our architectural heritage were voices crying out in a desert of indifference; the fact is, hardly anyone noticed those buildings back then, let alone cared about them. To the general public, they were just grimy old buildings that had outlived their usefulness.

Then something terrible happened during the destruction of the Stock Exchange Building. The de facto leader of the small band of brothers and sisters who fought for the buildings was killed as he was trying to salvage fragments from inside the old Sullivan building as it collapsed around him. His name was Richard Nickel, and his life's work was documenting the entire body of work of Louis Sullivan as it disappeared before his eyes.

In the end, Nickel's tragic death and the loss of the Garrick and Stock Exchange Buildings, galvanized Chicago's architectural preservation community. After the Stock Exchange Building came down, people in this city woke up and realized that architecture did in fact matter. Today, Chicagoans, the haughty and meek alike boast about their city's architecture and the city's official boosters use it as a selling point to lure potential residents and visitors.

Chicago is best known for its innovative commercial buildings from the turn of the last century whose form clearly expresses their structure, a style that slavishly adhered to Louis Sullivan's famous dictum: "form ever follows function." Much of "Modern" architecture in the fifties and sixties, especially the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his followers, can trace its roots back to the architects of "Chicago School." It would be heresy today to suggest knocking down any of these buildings.

But Chicago is an architecturally diverse city and unfortunately, the buildings that don't trace their roots back to Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, John Root, William Holabird and Martin Roche, are fair game.

The former Prentice Women's Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg,
awaiting its uncertain fate, October 20,  2012
One of this city's important architects who marched to the beat of his own drummer was Bertrand Goldberg whose work broke free of the constraints of the traditional Chicago style box. Goldberg's most famous works are the iconic corn cob towers of Marina City which typify his work, radiating around a central core, from the inside out rather than outside in. His egalitarian spirit let him to be a radical pioneer in the design of space, which in turn out of necessity led him to be an innovator in materials, predominantly reinforced concrete. His other residential works in Chicago run the gamut from the Astor Tower in the city's tony Gold Coast, to the Raymond Hilliard Homes on the near south side, Goldberg's attempt to humanize low income housing.

Goldberg, like his predecessors Frank Lloyd Wright and the French architect and planner Le Corbusier, was a utopian. He believed that architecture could be re-invented in order to change society for the betterment of people's lives. River City, built on the former approach to the long gone Grand Central railway station, was Goldberg's scaled down dream of building a city within a city, a mixed use complex of homes, shops, venues for entertainment and more.

Bud Goldberg applied his concepts of radial space in other areas, especially buildings devoted to health-care. Prentice Women's Hospital of 1975 was a ground breaking approach to hospital design. In the words of Michael Kimmelman, the architectural critic for the New York Times, Prentice:
...translated new ideas about hospital “villages” of care into unobstructed floors around a central nurses’ station.
The hand responsible for the design of Prentice is unmistakable; four cylindrical concrete towers containing the patients' rooms are bundled clover-like around a central core. The towers with their signature elliptical porthole windows, death defyingly cantilever over a more conventional steel and glass base which housed the hospital's other functions. It was a bold design for the era, stunningly different from anything else at the time, except other Goldberg buildings.

Northwestern University which owns Prentice, built a new women's hospital, closed the old one and plans to demolish it to make way for a research facility.

Again we're faced with the aspect of losing another architectural landmark, an important building that may have outlived its original intent, but could easily be adapted for any number of uses. Apparently however, not the use that Northwestern has in mind. The institution vehemently opposes any proposal to retrofit the thirty seven year old building to fit into their plans, including an 11th hour submission from the distinguished Chicago architect Jeanne Gang who, (at the suggestion of Michael Kimmelman) has proposed to build a tower above Goldberg's building.

Earlier in this space I stated the opinion that Prentice was no slam dunk for landmark status. But I have since come around to believe that the destruction of Prentice would be a tremendous loss, possibly rivaling that of the Garrick. Why the change of heart? Well I've listened to both sides of the argument and frankly, it's the "let's demolish Prentice" argument that has swayed me the most, negatively of course.

Ample land surrounding Prentice and its environs
Take the university hospital and their disingenuous campaign to convince the public that preservationists are hijacking the creation of thousands of new jobs, millions of dollars of revenue into the city and life saving treatments, all to save an old building. The truth is the hospital has no immediate plans to build the new facility; it wants to level the Goldberg building and leave the site empty until the time when and if ground is broken for the new building. In other words, Northwestern wants to replace a perfectly good building with a vacant lot. If you've visited the neighborhood in which old Prentice resides, you know that it is filled with many empty lots. I'd compare it to the East Berlin I visited just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the way, since there are all those empty lots in the the vicinity, most of which owned by Northwestern, why is it not possible to build their research facility somewhere else, directly across the street for example?

Even more compelling are the voices of people whom I know to be passionate about all things Chicago and its history, including its architecture. They are unmoved by the proposed demolition saying things such as: "We have other examples of Bertrand Goldberg architecture in town that are not in any danger of coming down." Or: "The building's only thirty odd years old, it hasn't been around long enough to have earned the distinction of being a landmark." Or this catch-all phrase: "We need to be more concerned about people than buildings."

I'll give you that Goldberg's Prentice is not an eminently lovable building; it's too old to be modern and too new to be charming. It hasn't aged all that well and it's been partially altered so the arches that lead dramatically up to its towers have been obscured by the extension of the glass and steel base.

It dawned on me this morning as I listened to more arguments in favor of demolishing Prentice, that those same arguments were leveled in favor of demolishing some of Chicago's greatest buildings forty and fifty years ago. The Garrick and Stock Exchange were not the only Sullivan buildings in town when they came down. They hadn't aged very well either, were disrespectfully altered, not maintained properly, and covered with a patina of grime. Mostly they seemed irrelevant, memories of a bygone era for which we had little use. Like Prentice today, there was a contingent of folks back then who thought the old Sullivan buildings were eyesores. The comment I heard this morning: "let's tear it down and put up something new" has a familiar ring to it. Yet many of the folks who don't care about the fate of Prentice would no doubt look upon the loss of those earlier buildings as nothing less than wanton destruction.

Despite years of neglect, old Prentice still has
 a dramatic presence in the Streeterville neighborhood
The handful of buildings that survived the dark era of wholesale destruction of our architectural legacy, have been lovingly restored and in some cases today are as beautiful as the day they were built, in some cases even more. It breaks my heart to think how much greater this city would be if some of the buildings we destroyed over the course of about fifteen years, had been allowed to stand, restored to their original splendor.

No I don't believe we should save everything. A city that does not build and grow, dies. Not all old buildings are great or even good for that matter; not everything deserves landmark status. Nor are all new buildings bad, (I'm old enough to still consider old Prentice a new building). In general, we have a bad taste in our mouths about the seventies, especially its architecture and design. Much of that derision is unfortunately deserved, virtually all of the great buildings lost during that time were replaced by unadulterated crap.

Prentice is an important perhaps even great building that was designed by an architect who cut through all that crap. Bertrand Goldberg was an innovator, an experimenter committed to the idea that through the practice of his art and craft, he could benefit humanity. Although many of his utopian ideas have long been discounted (as have Le Corbusier's and Wright's), we can't blame him for trying. Plus he built some pretty wonderful buildings to boot, and Prentice may very well be one of his best.

Let's keep it around until we can begin to appreciate it again, just as we appreciate Sullivan today in ways we could not comprehend fifty years ago.

Do I believe the philistines are knocking at the door? Hardly. Just the short sighted and the indifferent, a much more formidable adversary.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Debates

Obama - 1
Romney - 1

The rubber match will take place next Monday. Stay tuned.
In other news:

Tigers - 3
Yankees - 0

Giants - 1
Cardinals - 1

I love this time of year, the nip of fall in the air, the leaves crunching underfoot, football, hockey, (the AHL at least), and the World Series. Yes I even love the quadrennial election season, up to a point.

But I don't love the debates. My feeling is this: we're electing our president, not the captain of our debate club. Yes, the debates give us all an idea how each of the candidates perform under scrutiny and pressure. And they make for terrific water cooler conversation. I suppose those points alone are valid reasons to keep them around.

Still, ever since the televised Kennedy/Nixon debates in 1960, presidential debates have been about appearance, performance and strategy, more than about ideas and substance.

Mitt Romney clearly won the first debate because he was well rehearsed and he appeared likable and comfortable. In contrast, the president looked tired and irritable, as if he had just spent the last four years of his life being President of the United States. It appeared his strategy was to be congenial and inoffensive. Every time it was his turn to speak he reminded me of Chicago White Sox sluggers Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn who every time they were up at the end of this season, down by a few runs, came to bat with the bases loaded, nobody out, and either struck out or hit into a double play. They like Obama might have driven in a lone run, but it was far less than expected of them.

Obama supporters were aghast and anyone who's been paying attention knew that tonight he would come out spirited and take the offensive, which is precisely what he did. Romney on the other hand kept going over the same rehearsed points he used during the first debate and came out flat, uninspired, and on the defensive. Neither candidate answered the questions presented them by the chosen individuals from the New York town hall audience, they just used the questions as spring boards to go off on their own tangents. No surprise there.

The best part came toward the beginning when the two men who were free to walk around the stage, came uncomfortably within striking distance. My son said it looked as if they were about to drop the gloves and start a good hockey brawl. Now that would have been something to see.

If you find it trite to compare the campaign to sporting events, well all I can say is you must not be watching.

Tonight I made the conscious decision to watch the debate rather than the Yankees-Tigers playoff game.

Given the relative quality of the performances of the two events, I'm not sure I made the right choice.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Corner

The mere mention of the intersections "35th and Shields" or "Clark and Addison" to any true Chicagoan, will induce at the very least a smile of recognition. In the same fashion, to the people of Michigan, who in my experience identify themselves much more with their home state than do the people of Illinois, the words "the corner of Michigan and Trumbull" have the same kind of magic. So intrinsically tied are the intersection and what stood there in the minds of the people of Michigan, that the building that occupied the site for nearly 100 years bore the nickname: "The Corner"

The building and that corner in the neighborhood of Corktown, not far from downtown Detroit, in the words of one person: "brought more people together... in the State of Michigan" than any other.

The building was Tiger Stadium, for 87 years the home of the Detroit Tigers.

There's something about an old ballpark that evokes the kind of reverence that few other buildings could. Even the site of a long lost baseball field as I pointed out a few posts ago, has the kind of emotional pull that could be matched only by sites of a famous battlefields, or perhaps one's first kiss.

Here's a beautiful aerial view of Tiger Stadium I pulled off the web as it looked in happier days, perhaps in the eighties:

No one could accuse Tiger Stadium as having been particularly beautiful, let alone architecturally significant. Yet the significance of buildings is based upon so much more than that. I was never inside the ballpark but from every report I ever heard or read, it was one of the best ballparks ever in the major leagues to watch or play the game. Consistently it was rated among the top five ballparks in which big leaguers preferred to play. Its most distinctive feature was the upper deck that hung over the playing field providing a uniquely intimate experience for fans. Not to mention the history of the game of baseball, and occasionally football, written inside the walls of the joint. Consider this:
  • Babe Ruth hit his 700th home run there on July 13th, 1934.
  • Thirteen years earlier the Babe hit a home run to dead center field, the ball clearing the bleachers (single deck at the time) and landing on the fly across the street from the ballpark. The spot where it landed would be just beyond the right edge of the above photograph. It is considered one of if not the longest home run ever hit during a major league game.
  • Due to the debilitating disease named after him, Lou Gehrig benched himself there in May 2, 1939 which would end his streak of 2,130 consecutive games. That would be the last game of his storied career.
  • Hall of famers who called Tiger Stadium their primary place of business included Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline and George Kell, among many others.
  • Tiger Stadium, originally Navin, later Briggs Field, was the second ballpark built on the site at Michigan and Trumbull. It opened on exactly the same day as Fenway Park in Boston, April 12, 1912. 
  • That site hosted nine World Series, the Tigers won four of them, all in the second stadium.
  • In the 1971 All Star game, in a blast that rivaled Babe Ruth's 1921 homer, Reggie Jackson hit a home run that hit the light transformer above the right field roof.
  • On September 27,1999, Tiger journeyman catcher Robert Fick hit a rooftop grand slam off of Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeff Montgomery, marking the 11,111th home run at Tiger Stadium, and the ballpark's final home run, final run, and final hit.
In the year 2000 the Tigers moved out of their old home for a beautiful new stadium downtown. For almost ten years the venerable old park remained, crumbling as a result of benign neglect, while its fate rested in the hands of the City of Detroit, and a number of groups who hoped to save it in some form. Despite being virtually bankrupt, the city pumped four million dollars into keeping the abandoned Tiger Stadium standing. They reached the breaking point in 2008 and finally made an ultimatum with the preservation groups, telling them to either come up with the money, or the landmark would come down. From the photograph below you can see the results.

Here's how the site looks today, from an image grabbed off GoogleMaps:

Despite being declared a State of Michigan Historic Site in 1975 and residing on the list of the National Resister of Historic Places, since 1989, Tiger Stadium was demolished partially in 2008 when there was still hope that a diminished plan to save the original part of the stadium surrounding the infield could still be worked out. When that fell through, the coup de grace was delivered the following year. Here is a link to a sequence of heartbreaking photographs of the demolition. As you can see, the demolition crew was careful not to destroy the actual playing field. Also remaining is the flag pole that stood in center field, in play no less, one of the endearing idiosyncrasies of the ballpark.

Now that the stadium is gone, believe it or not there is yet another bone of contention between the city and some folks who want to preserve what's left of the field. The city government wants to develop the site for commercial purposes, most likely a Walmart, and have fenced off the nine and one half acre site. Meanwhile a group of wildcat preservationists is defying the city, trespassing on city property and passionately taking care of the field with the intent of using it for of all things, playing baseball. Here is a link to a lovely little film posted on the Detroit Free Press site about these folks.

Here is an NPR story about the group known unofficially as the "Navin Field Grounds Crew" and the reaction from City Hall who is giving the folks a tough time, no doubt relating to liability issues. In a quote of classic bureaucratese,  a city official made this incredible remark about the site: cannot be a space for playing baseball. That space is not meant for that.
As a preservation issue, an abandoned stadium is a tough sell. There are few adaptive reuse opportunities for such buildings. With seating capacities well into the tens of thousands, their use as a venue for events that would draw a tiny percentage of that would be ridiculous. They take up a lot of space that could in most cases, be put to more productive use, and it simply costs a fortune to maintain them. The most important thing in my mind as a proponent of preservation, is that once you remove every practical function from a building, what's the point? True there is the historical and sentimental value of keeping an old building as an old friend. But in reality, buildings like people, have life spans. If a building no longer has any purposeful use, it's like having your old friend lying in the hospital on life support, technically alive but clinically dead. Unfortunately Detroit is filled with many such buildings, one of whom, the Michigan Central Station, can be seen in the background of a few shots of the video linked above. That building has stood abandoned since 1988 and continues to await its fate. Until something is done in either direction, it will remain Detroit's most spectacular ruin.

As far as Tiger Stadium is concerned, sorry as I am to say this, I don't have a quarrel with the decision to knock it down. In its ten year period of disintegration, it served as a constant reminder to all who saw it of the decrepitude of the neighborhood. In my opinion, without any hope of funds to restore it properly, it's better that it was allowed to die a natural death.

With the building gone, a new opportunity has arisen for the community. The field is still there, pretty much as it was when Robert Fick hit his grand slam in September, 1999. The site should by all means be made accessible to the public. The folks featured in the film and NPR piece are a dedicated group, who should be given the opportunity to bring the site back to life. I have no doubt that with a little help from the city, (mostly by leaving them alone), the state and yes the Tigers organization and other private groups, that empty lot at Michigan and Trumbull might be turned into a public park where visitors could walk the ground trodden by so many baseball legends of the past. By itself, such a park may not generate much revenue for the city. But considering all the people around the country who are passionate about baseball, done right, that park could draw folks from all over who would chomp at the bit to swing a bat in the batter's boxes where every American League batter between 1901 and 1999 did the same, or pitch a ball from the very mound, or catch a fly ball from the very spot where...

As they are divisional rivals of my team the White Sox, I was never a Tiger fan. Still I have many fond memories of my cross country trips to New York, passing through Detroit radio air space where I would always look forward to hearing the late, great Ernie Harwell calling games from his beloved Tiger Stadium.

Here are his final words from the last Tiger game ever played at "The Corner":
The tradition built here shall endure along with the permanence of the Olde English D. But tonight we must say good-bye. Farewell, old friend Tiger Stadium. We will remember.
If they built a park at Michigan Avenue and Trumbull Street that preserved the old field, I would certainly consider taking a trip to Detroit with my son. We'd go to The Corner and maybe join in on a pickup game there on that hallowed spot. Then perhaps we'd take in a Tigers game at Comerica Park, or a Red Wings game at Joe Louis Arena depending on the time of year. We'd buy some souvenirs, have dinner and maybe spend the night. Then the next day we'd check out Belle Isle, the DIA and some of the other sights of that long neglected city. Heck maybe we'd even stop in the new Walmart built somewhere in old Corktown and buy some stuff. I'm sure lots of others would do exactly the same.

As for the idea of building a Walmart on the site of old Tiger Stadium, all I can say to city officials is this: go to Google Maps, type in "Michigan and Trumbull, Detroit", click on "Satellite View" and try to find another empty spot in the vicinity where you could build it.

It won't be hard.

The point is that contrary to Daniel Burnham's famous quote, not all the great ideas are big ones; some great ideas start out small and grow bigger and bigger.

This may very well be one of them.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Local hero

From New City, here is an insightful and much deserved article by Harrison Smith on Chicago's official cultural historian, Tim Samuelson.

I'll just shut up and let you read it for yourself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Claremont Cottages

We came upon these lovely little Queen Anne style cottages on the near southwest side of Chicago the other day. I knew about their existence after I stumbled upon another, larger group of similar homes in the neighborhood of Oakland known as the Berkeley Cottages. What I didn't realize at the time, as you can see if you read the post, is that these cottages on the 1300 blocks of South Heath, Claremont and Oakley Avenues, not only still stand, but for the most part, are well maintained. Mea culpa. This group is probably an extension of the development known as the Claremont Cottages, a couple of blocks to the north, on the other side of Ogden Avenue.

Here is the Landmarks Illinois page devoted to this development which dates from 1884, which it attributes to the Chicago architect Normand S. Patton. Due to the unmistakable similarity between this Claremont group and the Berkeley Cottages designed by Cicero Hine two years later, it is very likely that Hine had a hand in the design of this earlier group as he worked as a draughtsman in Patton's office at the time of their construction.

Lynn Becker wrote about these homes back in 2010. You can find his post here.

Incidentally, one of the Berkeley Cottages just sold for over 300K, not too bad for a house in one of Chicago's more challenged neighborhoods during a bad economy. You can see interior photographs and read about it here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

You win a few, you lose a few...

That's usually the best those of us concerned with preserving our urban architectural legacy can hope for these days. Here is a story in the blog Vanishing St. Louis that bemoans the removal of a structure that once supported the rooftop sign that graced the Fox Theater in the Midtown section of St. Louis.

The theater was one of several grand movie palaces built during the height of the "Roaring Twenties", the frenetic period just before the bottom fell out during the Stock Market Crash of October, 1929. The Fox Film Corporation (which merged with the 20th Century Film Corporation in 1935) built several of these theaters featuring their films as well as live stage performances throughout the United States during that brief period. Of these, the most notable were built in Brooklyn, San Francisco (both demolished), Atlanta, and the grandest of them all, the 5,000 plus seat Fox Theater in Detroit, whose interior was virtually replicated one year later in St. Louis. The history of the surviving theaters mirrors that of the Chicago Theater in this city's Loop, that is to say: phenomenal success, followed by a long period of decline, and most recently, revival as venues for live performances.

The St. Louis Fox Theater just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its reopening. It now hosts performances of touring Broadway shows and concerts, and its restoration seems to have proved to be an unqualified success.

One part of the building that did not survive was the enormous neon sign that was built at the same time as the theater. As you can see from the postcard reproduced here, the sign comprised a major portion of the building's front elevation. The individual letters were removed many years ago but the structure that held them up survived until this month, when it was removed for safety reasons as well as providing access to the roof for repairs.

I suspect that few folks cared or even noticed the removal of the structure which to some may have seemed unsightly. The official web site of the theater mentions its removal matter of factly.

But Paul Hohmann, the author of the Vanishing St. Louis blog questions the structure's removal saying:
Just because a building element is not made of brick or terra cotta, does that mean it is not worthy of significance?
I have to agree. Although the sign may have been gone for a long time, its supporting structure even without the distinctive finials at the tips of its posts, beautifully reflected the building's eccentric shape. Like rooftop water tanks and other pieces of urban infrastructure that once peppered skylines all across this country, these structures spoke of a bygone era of the American city and provided a fertile subject for artists and urban archeologists. Also like the water tanks that once defined the urban American landscape, these rooftop signs and their hardware are rapidly disappearing before our eyes.

Preservation efforts should focus on more than just the facades of significant buildings. Signs like this one, while garish to some, announced a building's presence to the world and once formed an important part of a city's skyline. This particular sign was part of the original design of the building and however unlikely, its restoration would have completed the return of the Fox Theater of St. Louis to its former glory. Unfortunately with the structure's removal, that restoration is now all but hopeless.

For all the reasonable, practical grounds to remove the structure, I too am sorry it's gone.

Friday, September 21, 2012

In their footsteps

Call me a geek but there are few things more spine tingling to me than standing on the spot of a momentous historic event. On the top step leading up to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC there is a plaque that reads: "I Have a Dream." This was the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his most famous speech to the world and the throngs assembled on the Washington Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. I've mentioned before that I can't imagine the experience of the gargantuan new Martin Luther King Memorial not too far away could possibly match the experience of being on that spot in front of this country's most hallowed memorial, literally standing in Dr. King's footsteps.

As our nation's capital, Washington has seen more than its share of famous and infamous speeches. One site has seen more than any other: the steps leading to the East Portico of the Capitol Building, the traditional site of presidential inaugurations. It was there in 1865, when Abraham Lincoln, seeking to heal the wounds of the deadliest conflict in our nation's history, delivered perhaps his and this country's greatest speech. On those same steps in 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first address as president to the American people, reassuring them during the dark, early days of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy stood there in 1961 inspiring a nation and the world toward a greater good.

Those same steps also saw the solemnest of processions as the bodies of Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy and several others (but not Roosevelt's) were carried over them as they were brought to lie in state inside the Capitol Rotunda.

The U.S. Capitol steps
Walking up those thirty four steps, standing in front of our most important building upon one of the most significant spots in this nation's history, was always a highlight during my trips to Washington. Unfortunately since 9/11, unless you have special credentials or are willing to take the chance of dodging security, you can't walk up those stairs or enter the Capitol Building from the East Portico anymore, one of the sad reminders of our troubled time.

My own city of Chicago has quite a few spots of distinction, some of them marking events of national and even worldwide significance. Chicago was a particularly important city for two of the presidents mentioned above:

As a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln argued many cases here. In perhaps his most important case, in 1857 he represented the interests that built a railroad bridge that spanned the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. That bridge was the first to cross the Great River. Its construction was contentious as riverboat companies argued that bridges posed an impediment to the navigation of the river. Their true concern was the inevitable fact that railroads would one day put them out of business. Just days after the Rock Island bridge opened, the steamboat, Effie Afton crashed into one of the bridge's piers, caught fire, and destroyed much of the bridge along with it. In the ensuing lawsuit, the defendants represented by Lincoln, hinted the boat intentionally rammed the bridge. Much more of course was at stake than awarding damages to the boat owners, and Lincoln argued that the very progress of the nation would be impeded if bridges were not allowed to span navigable waters. The case was dismissed as a result of a hung jury, which ended up a victory for the railroad interests and ultimately for Chicago as the tracks coming off the Rock Island bridge led directly here, making this city the rail hub of the United States. Meanwhile the glory days of old St. Louis whose fortunes were tied to the riverboats, would soon be behind it.

That case, Hurd vs. Rock Island Bridge Company, was argued in the Circuit Court of the United States for Northern Illinois which at the time met in the ramshackle Salon (later less than affectionately known as the Saloon) Building which stood at the southeast corner of Clark and Lake. The courts would later move into their new digs, the combined Court House and City Hall Building, designed by John van Osdel. After his assassination, Lincoln's body laid in state in that building (now the site of the Chicago City Hall/Cook County Building) during his long final journey home to Springfield. The Courthouse building was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A fragment of that building stands today in front of the old Academy of Science Building at Clark Street and Armitage.

In 1960, Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon while campaigning for president, squared off in the first ever series of televised debates, the first of which took place in Chicago at the CBS studio at 630 North McClurg Court. In that debate, Nixon who had been ill, refused makeup and appeared disheveled and uncomfortable, while a well rested and made up Kennedy appeared confident and prepared. The majority of people who listened to the debate on the radio chose Nixon as the winner but those who saw it on TV overwhelmingly picked Kennedy. Historians credit that moment, a victory of style over substance, as a turning point in American politics. Chicago played a pivotal role in the final result of that election as its voters (some of them allegedly casting their votes from beyond the grave), gave Kennedy victory in Illinois which was the state that put him over the top in a very close election. The building where the debate took place, a former horse stable, was torn down in 2009 and its site remains one of the many vacant lots in the Streeterville neighborhood.

As far as I know, there are no historical markers commemorating these events, the places and events have simply been absorbed into the flow of life in the city, like drops of water in a river.

The Haymarket Memorial by Mary Brogger, unveiled in 2004.
One site in Chicago was commemorated, un-commemorated, then re-commemorated. It is the site of an event that would set in motion one of the most dramatic periods in Chicago history, the labor riot in the former Haymarket district just west of the Loop. Eight police officers were killed on the fateful evening of May 4th, 1886, as were many protesters. For years a statue of a police officer, his right arm raised as if to say either: "stop thief" or "hello compadre" stood at the site. For years that monument was the victim of poor placement, vehicular accidents or protesters who saw the police more as instigators of the riot rather than victims. Poor Officer Friendly had been moved, run into, defaced and blown up so many times that he was eventually relocated to the safety of Police Headquarters where he remains today. The site of the riot, Desplaines Street between Lake and Randolph Streets remained unmarked and virtually unnoticed for decades because of the contrasting sensitivities involved. Eventually the Police seeing themselves as a part of the labor movement, lightened up about building a new monument that seemed to express the event from a more complete perspective. My first experience of the site was during a tour led by Chicago's official cultural historian Tim Samuelson, who reenacted the throwing of the bomb that set off the riot by tossing a muffin onto the empty street. That could be the explanation why to this day, whenever I think of the Haymarket Riot, I get hungry.

There are loads of historical markers around Chicago commemorating events, people, or inventions. Inside the Fire Academy on Canal and DeKoven Streets,  you can find a plaque marking the spot of the O'Leary barn where the Great Fire began on October 7th, 1871. Almost five miles to the north at Fullerton and Lakeview Avenues is another marker commemorating the northern boundary of the fire where it died out two days later. The haunts of important Chicagoans of the past are popular locations of markers. During our regular walks from our old home to Humbolt Park, my son and I would pass a marker in front of a CHA housing project pointing out the site where once stood the home of Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz.

Many years ago viewing a plaque on a building in the Loop made me aware of something I had always taken for granted, Standard Time. Before the age of railroads, unless you were a sailor and navigated using Greenwich Mean Time, you set your clock by the sun. Consequently, high noon in Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City all came at different times, and no one was any the worse for wear. It was the railroads and their necessity of accurate timetables that led to the invention of a system where time was measured consistently everywhere. Within a given zone, twenty four of them encompassing the globe, the time would be the same. The United States (the contiguous 48 states) was so large it required four different time zones. The system of standard time that we use today was adopted you guessed it, right here in Chicago on October 11, 1883 inside the Great Pacific Hotel which stood on Jackson Street between Clark and LaSalle Streets.

On the campus of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park sits by far the most sublime monument above the most sobering spot in Chicago. It is the 1967 Henry Moore sculpture titled Nuclear Energy. It stands above the site where the world's first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place, marking the birth of the Atomic Age.

The other day my son and I visited a site that stands in marked contrast to any of the others above.
It could hardly be considered having any worldwide significance. In fact it can be argued that this place is not significant at all unless you measure its significance by the hours of enjoyment with a little misery thrown in, shared by countless Chicagoans.

The site now is a parking lot on the South Side at the northeast intersection of 35th Street and Shields Avenue. If that location alone doesn't give itself away, you may as well stop reading now as you likely won't care that this was once the location of beautiful Comiskey Park, for eighty years the home of the Chicago White Sox.

All that's left of the once great baseball palace across the street from the team's not so new baseball palace (named after a cell phone company) is a marble slab in the pentagonal shape of home plate inlaid into the pavement right on the spot so they say, of the original, along with two batter's boxes placed on either side. Foul lines extending the length of the long lost field are painted on the pavement so motorists can tell whether they are parked in fair or foul territory.

Babe Ruth in action at Comiskey Park, 1929.  The catcher is Moe Berg,
perhaps one of the most interesting men to have ever played the game. 
My boy walked into the left handed batter's box and said: "Just imagine, Babe Ruth stood here." Through all the trepidations over the past eleven years about my parenting skills, I realized that I had done at least one thing right.

Tongue tied and blown away by his unsolicited remark, I tried to add to the list of great left handed American League batters who stood on that spot, but all I could come up with at the moment was Ted Williams.

The names have been coming to me all week: Gehrig, Maris, Berra...

One of my cherished memories of the old ballpark came sometime in the early eighties, when the Yankees were in town. The White Sox were struggling to hold on to a lead late in the game when the Yankees loaded the bases with Reggie Jackson at the plate as pinch hitter. In comes White Sox reliever Kevin Hickey. Prior to coming up with the Sox, Hickey who grew up walking distance from Comiskey Park, was a star Chicago 16" softball center fielder with an incredible arm. In 1978 during an open tryout for the big league team, Hickey got a contract and made his big league debut in 1981. In a scene that could have been scripted for a bad tele-drama, with everyone in the house on their feet, the neighborhood boy came in and saved the day by striking out the future Hall of Fame slugger, standing in the very spot where my son stood the other day.

Of course not all the great American League lefties were Yankees; the guy who would take Ted Williams' place in left field at Fenway Park, Carl Yastrzemski, the last person to hit for the Triple Crown, also stood in that batter's box. His replacement, Jim Rice batted from the other side of the plate. Since my son didn't stand in the right handed batter's box that day, Rice and all the other great righties are a subject for another day.

The irascible Tiger, Ty Cobb, one of a handful of ballplayers who could legitimately challenge the Bambino for the title of "best ever", batted from that box when he was in Chicago for all but five years of his career.

The great Cool Papa Bell of whom Satchel Paige said: "was so fast he could flip the switch in the bedroom and be in bed before the lights went out", like Mickey Mantle, batted from both sides of that plate. He played ball before the Major Leagues became integrated but would play in Comiskey Park at least once every year during the annual Negro League All Star Game.

I still remember one of the greatest hitters of my time, Rod Carew, or "RRRRRod CaRewwwww" as Harry Caray used to call him, batting from that box as a Twin and later a California Angel, my heart sinking every time he came up to bat.

Oh yes, there were a few good White Sox players to bat from the left side: Larry Doby, the first African American to play in the American League batted from that left handed batter's box. Doby broke in with the Indians but was a member of the 1959 Sox team that won the American League pennant. He also had the distinction of being the second African American manager of a big league team, which happened to be the White Sox. A couple other members of that '59 "Go Go" White Sox team, Ted Kluszewski with his bulging biceps, and the great second baseman, Nellie Fox were lefties as well, as was one my all time favorite Sox players and the team's current first base coach, Harold Baines.

But I save the best for last. Without question the greatest player to ever wear a White Sox uniform, the man whose style Babe Ruth emulated, and whose name and image would hang prominently in the hallowed shrine to baseball in Cooperstown, NY had it not been for his involvement from the fringes of the greatest scandal to ever rock baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson batted from that box.

I get shivers just thinking about it.

My boy and I did what any American father and son would do given the chance to be in such a place, we played catch. Since a few hours before there had been a game across the street and were still cars lingering in the parking lot, we were prevented from tossing the ball around home plate. Still I paced off approximately 60 feet six inches, the distance from home plate to the pitcher's rubber, and stood where White Sox greats Ted Lyons, Early Wynn, Billy Pierce and all the other great and not so great American League pitchers between 1910 and 1990 applied their craft, while my son crouched behind home plate, the workplace of Moe Berg, Sherm Lollar and my other favorite ballplayer, Carlton Fisk, who contrary to fans of that other Sox team back east, will to me always be a member of the White Sox.

We then went out to left field where we played catch in earnest. He stood where Ron Kittle, another Chicago area boy and one of the handful of players to hit a home run over the roof of old Comiskey Park tentatively played his position in the early eighties. I stood in short left, where the great shortstops Luke Appling (who rumor has it, once lived in our building), and Luis Aparicio might have fielded a popup or two. On one toss my boy threw the ball at least ten feet wide of me. The ball rolled all the way from left field to deep right field where Harold Baines in his prime might have scooped it up, and thrown out a batter trying foolishly to turn a double into a triple.

The Last Game at Comiskey Park
 Photograph by Tom Harney
There are so many memories from that particular square block patch of land; if you close your eyes, you can almost hear the crack of the bat, the screaming fans, Bill Veeck's exploding scoreboard, and Nancy Faust playing Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye on the organ. If you squint you might be able to picture Armour Square Park just north of the old ballpark framed through the distinctive arches that were cut out of the left field facade. And with a little imagination, your mind's eye can conjure up all those larger than life players of the past, the legends still in their prime, warming up on that beautiful green diamond shaped field in Charles Comiskey's baseball palace on the South Side of Chicago.

My son, every bit the 21st Century boy, totally got it. I can't say this experience was as thrilling for him as it was for me, or that it even came close to walking around the field of the current ballpark across the street before a game this year and standing beside some genuine big leaguers. But for about one half hour on a beautiful late summer afternoon, for the two of us that parking lot became our own field of dreams.



Here is a site devoted to the Effie Afton incident, and here is a nice history of old Comiskey Park.

Here is a site with some tremendous historic photographs of the old ballpark.

The following is an incomplete list of players who hit home runs that cleared the roof of Comiskey Park:
  • Babe Ruth
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Jimmy Foxx
  • Hank Greenberg
  • Ted Williams
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Bill Skowron
  • Elston Howard
  • Eddie Robinson
  • Minnie Minoso
  • Dave Nicholson
  • Harmon Killebrew
  • Dick Allen
  • Ron Kittle
  • Carlton Fisk
  • Greg Luzinski
Finally, here is the incredible story of Kevin Hickey's life, unfortunately as told in his Sun Times obituary from earlier this  year.