Tuesday, February 28, 2012

3 x 300

I wrote my first post on this blog three years ago today. By coincidence (well not exactly), this is my 300th post. The original idea for the blog was to focus entirely on Chicago, in fact I created one using a different publisher and called it: "In and About Chicago." After about a month I took the easy way out and decided not to limit myself to Chicago AND move to Blogger which was much less hassle to use. I violated two rules of blogging right there, first by my choice of publisher and then by not limiting myself to a small niche. I'll be the first to admit, "the urban experience" is a pretty broad subject.

On the other hand, had I stuck to my original plan, I would have become frustrated and bored and today would not be celebrating the blog's third anniversary.

To celebrate the anniversary here's a list with links to ten of my favorite posts:
  • 2009, the year I began writing this blog, was a year of big anniversaries, the seventieth anniversary of the start of World War II, the fortieth of Woodstock and Chappaquiddick, the twentieth of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution. I touched upon all of those in various posts, but one particular anniversary stood out in my mind as a day I'll never forget, July 20, 1969.
  • I love people who are contrarians, those who aren't afraid to look a naked emperor in the eye and say: "...now wait a minute." I found two articles in one day that did just that with some of the most sacred cows of Chicago architecture. The problem was, I got a little carried away when one of the articles hit a little too close to home.
  • Two of my favorite posts that fit into the "beyond" category of the blog are this post about Berlin...
  • And this one on London.
  • The attempt to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago was full of controversy but here I supported it whole heartedly
  • Since this is my blog, I reserve the right to write about whatever I choose. Besides, sports is very much a part of the urban experience, isn't it?
  • Working on a photograph of the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire inspired me to devote a post to that event.
  • It is a privilege and honor to write tributes to people whom you admire. It's better to write them while they're still alive but we don't always get that chance. One of these posts was for a man whom I knew well as a great friend and mentor...
  • The other was for a man whom I admired from a distance.
  • Finally, my favorite post was inspired by my own son and his discovery of Frank Lloyd Wright.
My third egregious violation of the hallowed commandments of blogging as my wife often points out, is my failure to keep things brief.

Mea culpa. 

I'm an amateur writer in the truest sense, I do it because I love it. A museum curator once told me that he did his work for about three or four people in the world, he didn't care much what the general public thought. I don't quite feel that way about the latter but definitely the former. The three or four of you for whom this blog is written, well, you know who you are.

As for the rest of you, please bear with me and thank you so much for your continued support. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

The magnificent South Side

Martin Ryerson Home on Drexel Boulevard, Kenwood
Outside of the Loop, Chicago for its size and diversity is somewhat predictable. When you think about this city, a few architectural paradigms come to mind, its neighborhoods are filled with designs that were replicated by the tens of thousands. Essentially a handful of architectural styles give Chicago its distinctive look from one corner to the other. A person could be dropped at random from the air into pretty much any neighborhood and know he's in Chicago just by the types of buildings all around him.

There's the typical Chicago two or three flat.  Occasionally they are doubled up, two of them placed side by side separated by a common hallway. Built out of brick or stone, these apartment buildings with their shotgun plans, are the backbone of residential Chicago. Their post-WWII counterparts adorn the neighborhoods on the city's extremities. On a larger scale we have the multi unit apartment building, many of whom have a central courtyard, built by the thousands during the first part of the twentieth century. As for single family dwellings, the quintessential gable roofed, frame sided Chicago cottage was built to provide an affordable home for middle and working class Chicagoans in the nineteenth century. That design was replaced in the next century by the one story brick bungalow as the preeminent style of basic home design. So common are they that the term "bungalow belt" is synonymous with middle class Chicago. Houses for the more affluent may have been slightly more varied, but still followed established archetypes, Italianate, Queen Anne and Romanesque inspired styles in the nineteenth century and derivatives of the Prairie Style in the twentieth were the most common. The variety of styles in commercial buildings in most of Chicago, is also fairly limited.

I have a recurring dream where I discover a neighborhood in Chicago that I've never seen before, in fact never even knew existed. The undefined neighborhood is remarkably similar from dream to dream; it's a big commercial district of faded glory. In that sense it's not entirely different from so many of Chicago's mini downtowns that have all fallen upon hard times, Uptown, on the North Side, Garfield Park on the West Side, or Roseland on the South Side to name a few. Yet my dream city doesn't look like Chicago at all, the buildings don't resemble typical Chicago buildings, they're much grander in scale, and all the storefronts are occupied. Despite having seen better days, there is frenetic activity on the streets both day and night and yes, all the neon signs still work.

Granted I haven't visited every inch of the real Chicago, but I know it pretty well. So when I wake up and slowly come to terms that I've just returned from a city that exists only in my imagination, I'm a little disappointed.

Yet as well as I know Chicago, there are still undiscovered treasures, places that don't exactly fit the mold. Encountering them is like a dream come true to me. This happened the other day as I was driving home from a photographic shoot on the South Side. I chose a meandering route that took me through  some of the residential neighborhoods of Kenwood, Oakland, and Douglas. Generally speaking, I know these neighborhoods well, but as I discovered, not nearly well enough.

Former home of Gustavus Swift
All three communities were at one time suburbs of Chicago, and their architecture reflects that fact. The community of Kenwood, just north of Hyde Park, features some of the grandest homes in the city, in the 19th Century it was refered to in some circles as the "Lake Forest of the South Side." A century ago its residents included the likes of meatpacker Gutavus Swift and Sears chairman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. The homes of the two giants of industry and commerce sit catty corner from one another at 49th and Ellis. Swift's back door neighbor was lumber magnate Martin Ryerson. More recently Kenwood has been the home of Muhammad Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, former U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi, and the Obama Family.

Among the architectural highlights of South Kenwood are two adjacent homes by a young Frank Lloyd Wright, "bootleg" homes that he designed under the radar, while he was still under the employ of Adler and Sullivan.

Early FLW; George W. Blossom House, left, and  Warren McArthur House

Blossom House coach house and garage
The style of the two houses built in the same year, 1892, as you can see could not be more different. The homes show the young architect cutting his teeth by experimenting with traditional styles and forms, the restrained, elegant Palladian of the Blossom House, contrasts sharply with the rustic barn-like Gambrel roof of the McArthur House. It's almost as if the audacious Wright purposely created them to be stylistically divergent just to show off his versatility. Go around to the back of the Blossom House and you'll see a much more familiar Wright building, a full-fledged Prairie Style design, the coach house/garage which was built 15 years later in 1907 when Wright was at the height of his powers, the same time as the construction of Robie House, about a mile away.

In 1889, Hyde Park Township, which included Kenwood and Oakland to the north, became absorbed into the City of Chicago. The World's Columbian Exposition was held in 1893. With that great world's fair came the construction of the Elevated which connected the area to the Loop, and with that came a boom in population and new construction.

Along with Gutavus Swift, many others associated with the Union Stock Yards lived in Kenwood and its adjacent communities. In fact, much of the prosperity of the area was a direct result of the meat packing industry. As the yards grew, so did their effect on the community. Any Chicagoan old enough to remember the Stock Yards can testify to the foul smell that was a permanent feature of its environs. Given the tendency for a prevailing  wind blowing from the west, Kenwood only a few miles east, was more often than not, directly down wind from the yards. Eventually the "smell of money" became less alluring and with it, the attractiveness of the neighborhoods. While the area of the great Kenwood mansions between 51st and 47th Streets has remained fairly stable, the neighborhoods to the north have been in a constant state of change essentially for the past 120 years.

Many of Kenwood's north/south streets dead end at 47th Street which is the dividing line between North and South Kenwood. Comparing that border to the Berlin Wall may be a bit of a reach but the difference between Kenwood north and south of 47th Street is dramatic. At that point, the grand mansions give way to duplexes and row houses as you can see from the photograph below.  

As I mentioned, most of the area has been in flux for quite a while, but no period of change was more dramatic than the decade after World War II. Refugees from the war moved in to North Kenwood by the score. Single family homes were sub-divided into apartments. During the fifties, the neighborhood's population shifted again, from 85 percent white to 85 percent black. With the help of the notorious Chicago practice of red-lining, funds for the rehabilitation of property in the area dried up and many of the buildings fell into disrepair and were destroyed. Lake Park Avenue was one of the most exclusive streets in the neighborhood. Louis Sullivan built his home (long gone) on that street, yet today you have to use your imagination, using the small handful of extant buildings to imagine what the street looked like. Large public housing projects (also now gone), virtually identical to those of the notorious Robert Taylor Homes replaced the elegant town houses. The same fate did not befall Berkeley Street one block to the west which boasts an amazing collection of mid to late nineteenth century duplexes, row houses and single family homes.

According to the AIA Guide to Chicago, the "fashionableness" of Kenwood and Oakland went into decline as they became absorbed into the City of Chicago in 1889. These days you wouldn't guess that the block of Berkeley between 44th and 45th Streets, developed in the 1890s with its splendid multicolored stone facades, was an indication of the downturn of the neighborhood. But at the time, the locals considered it to be an affront to the community. Responding to the influx of people into the neighborhood, the developer of the block sought and gained the right to widen the alley between Lake Park and Ellis, thereby creating the street that would bear his name. If you're at all familiar with dramas set around the turn of the last century such as Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, or the current BBC television series Downton Abbey, you can understand the resistance to such change. According to Glen Holt and Dominick Pacyga in their book: Chicago: A Historical Guide to the Neighborhoods: the Loop and the South Side, this is how a long time Kenwood resident, sounding like the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, described the street:

...row on row of queer little houses with the windows cut into corners of the house and weird looking facades in the front. He (Berkeley) knew only one plan for a house, and they were all turned out of the same mold like a pan of biscuits; one could find dozens of houses that he built scatered throughout the community.

With the exception of a vacant lot here and there, reminding one of missing teeth, the block is in very good condition, especially given the economic troubles of the community. By today's standards it's a little difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. Putting oneself in the position of a Kenwoodite of the 1890s on the other hand, this block was the bellwether of the drastic changes to come, the  shift from the tranquility of massive houses and expansive yards of suburbia, to the density of the city. To what our eyes appears to be an example of elegant city living, 100 years ago was practically an example of urban blight. Our old time Kenwood observer was right, stone fronted row houses and duplexes much like these were and continue to be a familiar sight all over this part of town.

A couple of blocks to the north in the neighborhood of Oakland, there is a development of homes designed by Cicero Hine in the 1880s, known as the Berkeley Cottages. Twenty six of these cottages remain on Berkeley and Lake Park Avenue. Hine's cottages built in an eccentric, Queen Anne style, are unlike anything else found in this city, with the exception of a couple of other of Hine's developments in Chicago that no longer exist. Our unfortunate plane jumper might have a rough time identifying his whereabouts if he were to land on this lovely block.

Farther north is the community of Douglas, named after Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator who unsuccessfully opposed Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. Douglas was also a land speculator who bought up 70 acres of lakefront property, subdivided it and created among other things, two neighborhoods that surrounded parks. One of those neighborhoods still exists, the elegant "gated" community of Groveland Park, the entrance to which is pictured on the left. 
Douglas's impressive tomb is a fixture of the South Side lakefront at 35th Street on the site of his home. His larger than life bronze likeness stands atop a ninety-six foot column. The monument rivals the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. Across 35th Street from the tomb stands a bona fide relic of the Civil War, the Soldier's Home, now the Cardinal Meyer (pastoral care) Center. It was designed by one of this city's most prominent early architects, W.W. Boyington of Water Tower fame. Nearby was the site of the notorious Camp Douglas which served in part as a prison for Confederate soldiers during the War. Up to 23 percent of its prisoners died while in captivity at the camp.

Douglas, Oakland and Kenwood, all comprise parts of the neighborhood known as Bronzeville, the heart and soul of African American Chicago. The great migration of blacks to Chicago began around the time of the First World War. For many reasons including the virulent racism of the inhabitants of this city, African American people were forced to settle in the already transitioning neighborhoods of the South Side. In its heyday in the 1940s, Bronzeville was a city within a city, rivaled only by Harlem as the great center of black culture in America. Times and transition have taken their toll in much of the area, the once magnificent turn of the 20th Century housing stock as been depleted and some areas appear as devastated as portions of a bombed out city. Yet there is a great deal of life and revitalization going on, entire neighborhoods are springing up in areas where there once was little or no hope.

The following pictures document part of the death and rebirth of parts of what is in my opinion one of the most fascinating parts of Chicago:

Ignored and neglected for decades, the South Side communities of Douglas, Oakland and North Kenwood are coming back. The era of building dumping grounds for the poor in the form of massive housing projects has passed, and mixed income housing is popping up all over the city. I believe this is a good thing. Developers are starting to notice the handful of older buildings and as you can see above, they are taking cues from the past. 

The fact is these neighborhoods are some of most significant in the city in terms of their architecture and history. They contain some of the finest residenses in Chicago, connected by streets, parks and boulevards designed by the estimable team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Not to mention that these communities are conveniently located and readily accessible to public transportation, it seems a no-brainer that the near South Side will one day return to its former glory.

Now my dream is to be around to see it happen.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ready or not...

...here it comes. At long last the much rumored Target at Carson's is starting to make its presence felt in the landmark Louis Sullivan building on State Street.

Let's all hold our breath.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

This evening's commute

Two boys on the L platform smiled and pointed across to the opposite platform where four figures in their unmistakable wide brimmed hats were dashing toward the overpass. Before I knew it, the four Amish boys got on my train. Teenagers being teenagers, these four, contrary to the stereotypical image of their people, were as rowdy as any group of teens. Even in a city as diverse as this, where people of all cultures in all manner of appearance and attire pop in and out with anyone batting an eye, these guys stood out, they may as well have been aliens from another planet. They rode the train for one stop then got off.

As soon as they left the train, I dozed off, only to be awakened by the sound of small objects hitting the train. I thought it was beginning to hail. Looking outside, I saw two children, a boy and a girl standing on the platform, throwing stones at our train. I shrugged my shoulders at them as if to say: "really?" They mimicked my gesture, laughed, then threw more stones in my direction.

I didn't go back to sleep.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Turn of the 20th century Chicago maps

I just discovered a web site called; Big Map Blog which features some fantastic 100 plus year old maps of Chicago.

Here's one with the Elevated lines of Chicago c. 1908.

Here is the Loop business district of 1898. Make sure you zoom in to see the fantastic renderings of the buildings, especially the late great buildings of the Chicago School of Architecture that barely any of us ever knew in person, especially Burnham and Root's Masonic Temple at State and Randolph Streets.

I could get lost in these views, maybe I will.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Surf city

Early morning insomnia inspired me to do a little surfing, catching up on some of my go to sites:

Woody Allen gave us Paris in the 1920s. Now courtesy of Dave and his blog Pleasant Family Shopping, we have a glimpse into another city in a Golden Age of sorts; 1950s Los Angeles.

The gateway to North Michigan Avenue is guarded by two of Chicago's most iconic buildings, Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. Lynn Becker gives us two depressing posts about the fate of the companies that built those buildings, here and here.

Last month I linked to an article on the New York based writer Fran Lebowitz where among other things, she decries the damage done to our country by the paranoia following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. From Robert Powers' blog A Chicago Sojourn; here is a perfect example.

In that article, Powers mentions the architect/planner Daniel Burnham. On a more positive note, here is a loving tribute to Burnham from Gregory Jenkins' wonderful site; Chicago Architecture in the Loop.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Yet another loss

Photographing on the far South Side of Chicago the other day, I heard the report of a building collapse not too far away. In my younger days I would have made a beeline for the incident, especially equipped with my camera gear. Today, a bit older, wiser, and perhaps a little lazier, I avoided the area as the radio reports suggested I do.

I had a picture in my mind's eye about the building. I imagined it being your typical Chicago two or three story brick storefront, abandoned and boarded up like thousands of others in this city. Four passersby were injured in the accident and thankfully I believe they are all on the road to recovery. Reports later said that that the city had issued an immediate demolition order to prevent further injury. As these things go, I forgot about the incident until this morning when I saw this post from Lee Bay's excellent Chicago architecture blog.

It turns out the building was not your typical brick storefront but a very fine example of Chicago's dwindling collection of lavish terra cotta commercial buildings. It had indeed been abandoned for years and as you can see from a photograph on Lee Bay's post, proof of the neglect (and the inevitability of nature taking over when people let go), there was a small tree growing on the roof.

It also turns out that the building was on Preservation Chicago's orange list of endangered buildings.

Now it is off the list.

You might ask who was the deadbeat landlord who allowed such a beautiful building to get to that condition? It was the none other than the City of Chicago. The city took over the building, hoping to find a buyer about ten years ago in an attempt to revitalize the area. There were no takers and you see the result.

The building was at 79th and Halsted, a once flourishing intersection in the neighborhood of Auburn-Gresham. I wrote about that neighborhood a couple times on this blog, once about the renegade priest Father Michael Pflager, the pastor of St. Sabina Parish. Another post was about St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Church, known to its parishioners as Little Flower. That church closed and the building was purchased by another congregation and is now the Greater Mount Hebron Baptist Church.

As I pointed out in that post, the neighborhood which is predominantly African American, is also by and large middle class, struggling to be sure in this economy, but far from destitute.

We can point our fingers all we want but this unfortunate incident is just another example of the reality of once vibrant commercial streets all over the city. I wish I had a practical suggestion about how to change that, let alone a solution, but alas I don't.

If I did I'd run for mayor, or better still, king.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Time travel

Walking to the train the other night, I was thinking about how much I'd love to step into a time machine and visit State Street in its heyday, if only for a few hours. By sheer coincidence, when I got home, my wife suggested we watch Woody Allen's latest movie, the time travel fantasy; Midnight in Paris.

In case you don't know the premise, it's about an American named Gil who falls in love with Paris while on a trip with his fiance and her rich, staunchly Republican parents. He's a Hollywood screenwriter who would gladly give up his big salary to move into a garret in Montmartre and write novels. His dream falls on the deaf ears of his pathologically insensitive girlfriend. As she is wined and dined by her folks and by an insufferable professor with whom she openly has a crush, our hero wanders the streets of the city, losing himself in its charms. One night, at the stroke of midnight, a vintage Peugeot pulls up and out come some drunken revelers who beckon him to join them. The car turns out to be a time machine that takes him to a place he's always wanted to visit, Cafe Society of 1920s Paris. Two of his fellow passengers in the car turn out to be Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In fact the entire populaion of his destination is made up of a who's who of celebrities who set foot in Paris in the 1920s, Piccaso, Matisse, Cole Parter, Josephine Baker, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, just to name a few. Gil gets a few pointers on his craft from Ernest Hemingway, who refuses to read the novel the time traveller is working on, but suggests he take it to his friend Gertrude Stein for some ideas. I have to admit I had some difficulty with the fact that nowhere in this fantasy does Gil meet the likes of ordinary Parisians like Jacques LePlombier, but what the heck, it's Woody Allen's fantasy, not mine.

Anyway, the real star of the movie is Paris, the contemporary city that perhaps more than any other can equally serve as the setting for a movie set in the present, the 1920s, or the Belle Époch of the 1890s, a period the film briefly visits. Time hasn't exactly stood still in Paris, not by a long shot, yet there is a timelessness to that city, a seamlessness between the past and the present that I never experienced anywhere else. Paris is Paris, what more can one say, it's just as lovely as it appears in the photographs and paintings, perhaps the most photogenic city in the world.

Yet where London and New York are cities of endless variety, Paris is a city of almost stultifying regularity. I can think of no better illustration than the opening sequences of two Woody Allen movies. Midnight in Paris opens with a series of shots of the city accompanied by a song played the great Sydney Bechet. You can view it here. Lovely isn't it? Clearly Allen loves Paris madly.

Compare it to his love letter to New York City, the opening sequence of the film Manhattan, (in my opinion Woody Allen's one truly great movie). In Manhattan, Allen's voiceover as well as the images, reveal conflicting feelings about his hometown. I think it's one of the most beautiful opening sequences in all of film, in less than four minutes he does a masterful job describing the urban experience in all its flavors, from awe and wonder to the tawdry and decadent. By contrast, in the opening of Midnight... , every shot is more beautiful than the the one that came before it. If there is a darker side to Paris, we don't see it.

This is not the Paris of Sydney Carton or Jean Valjean. Of course that's not Woody Allen's fault, their city is long gone, destroyed by the mother of all urban renewal projects, Georges-Eugéne Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. Much of the Paris we know today, the boulevards and traffic circles, the railway stations, the Bois du Bologne, the Opera, are a result of Baron Haussmann's plan which itself was a great influence on Daniel Burnham's plan of Chicago of 1911. Had the Burnham Plan been fully realized, Chicago today would look a great deal like Paris.

But I digress. Haussmann was commissioned by Napoleon III to rebuild Paris. Ostensibly it was an attempt to modernize the city by introducing new technologies such as the railroad, improve the flow of traffic, and ridding the city of filth, disease and poverty. The old meandering streets from Medieval times and the ancient, dilapidated apartment buildings were replaced by modern buildings and systematically planned boulevards. In that vein the project was not unlike the urban renewal projects that took place in the United States during the mid twentieth century. Another, less publicized goal of the project was to improve the security of the government. The great boulevards served as conduits to facilitate the mobilization of troops in the event of insurrection, (an ever present threat at the time), and also reduced the number of hiding places for the insurrectionists. The effort accomplished all its goals, the old city was gone and with it went the filth and disease. Haussmann's plan solved the problem of poverty in Paris by replacing existing housing with middle and upper income level housing, thereby dispatching the less fortunate to the outskirts of town where they remain to this day. Depending on which side you are on, Haussmann either saved Paris, or destroyed it. An idea of what was lost can be had from checking out the work of photographer Charles Marville who was commissioned to document the soon to be lost city.

What cannot be denied is that Hausmann's genius triumphs, given that 150 years after the execution of his plan, Paris remains a charmingly beautiful city and, despite the notorious French bureaucracy, the old contraption still runs splendidly after all these years.

My first experience of Paris was in 1993, when I had the great fortune of being able to take my half sister Eva, an artist who lived her entire life in Czechoslovakia, for her first visit. Like Gil, she dreamed of Paris, but for obvious reasons, was never able to go. We wasted no time, after getting off the train from Prague at the Gare de l'Est, our first visit was the Louvre. You enter the museum through the contemporary I.M. Pei Pyramid then descend into an underground passage which takes you into the museum proper. Nothing prepares you for the jolt you receive when you emerge from the passageway and find yourself in a cavernous gallery filled with paintings by David, Ingres, Girodet and a slew of other great French masters, each painting about the size of a mid-sized room, hung salon style, covering the entire four walls of the gallery. Laying her eyes upon the room, my sister broke out in tears. Her dream had finally come true. I'll keep that moment with me the rest of my life.

Eva, right, with our friend Sabrina
My own dream would come true later that day when we visited heart of Paris, the Île de la Cité. For years I had an interest in Gothic architecture and yearned to visit the cathedrals of Europe, especially the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which I had known at least theoretically, inside and out. But I did not know as well the jewel of Sainte-Chapelle, the high gothic chapel built for the palace of King Louis IX (Saint Louis) in the thirteenth century to house some of the most precious relics of Christiandom. The chapel proper sits in the middle of a complex of government buildings and the view of the exterior has been obscured in recent times (by Parisian standards) by those buildings. Since it's government property, you must pass through stringent security, no doubt much worse today than when we visited. But like entering the Louvre, the inauspicious start makes the payoff all the better. You enter Sainte Chapelle through the lower chapel which is devoted to the Virgin. Openings for small stained glass windows made possible by low vaulted ceilings held up with finely crafted columns, make for a space which defines the very character of Gothic architecture. Impressive as it is, the lower chapel doesn't come close to preparing you for what's to come. A blast of multicolored light awaits you as you ascend the narrow stairway that leads to the upper chapel. Here the stained glass windows extend from a few feet off the floor, up nearly five stories to the ceiling, and are divided by only the narrowest of columns. A magnificent rose window adorns the west wall. Opposite is the apse with its high altar also held up with only minimal support. The space is etherial, it's almost as if the whole thing were supported by angel dust, which for all we know, it very well could be. One of my distinct memories of the chapel was standing near the stairway and listening to the gasps of the visitors as they saw it for the first time. It was as if those folks, myself included, were catching their first glimpse of heaven.

When Eva visited Chicago about 25 years ago, she had a few surprises. One day she asked me with a straight face: "Where are all the gangsters?" There are no such surprises in Paris, you can find every stereotypical image imaginable, from a boy sitting on the back of his mom's bike carrying a baguette, to the guy wearing a beret, smoking a cigarette, and playing the concertina on the banks of the Seine. One of my most humorous moments was attending an organ recital in the cathedral and in between music by Poulenc and Olivier Messiaen the organist played, I'm not kidding, variations on the theme of the song Alouette.

Paris may be predictable, but that doesn't mean it doesn't wildly surpass your expectations. No photograph or description can capture its true beauty. For that reason I didn't take pictures inside Sainte Chapelle, there was simply no point. As you might expect, there's no better city on earth to fall in love, I did that at least twice during my first visit. Years later, my wife (whom I hadn't yet met before my first trip, in case you were wondering) and I had a very romantic few days there, sans kids. Any other place in the world it would sound trite to say: "this is a city where you fall in love with life." But not Paris, every cliché you've heard about the place is true, and with a vengence.

One needn't step into a time machine like Gil to visit the past, it's all around you, not preserved as a museum, like it is in Florence, but as much a part of life as the Parisian air or the wine they drink. You can dine at the same establishments that Hemingway and Picasso did in the 1920s, even the ones that Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec did in the 1890s. The servers, yes they're still predominantly men, wear the same uniform they did back then, and you still call them "boy" (garçon). And yes they still dance the cancan at the Moulin Rouge, although mostly just for tourists these days. In Paris you can worship in the same church where people worshiped over 1,000 years ago (the locals don't do much of that either), and the most impressive structure in town is still M. Eiffel's 120 year old Tower.

If you are searching for the soul of the city, short of going and seeing it for yourself, read Balzac, Zola and Hugo. For a more rounded cinematic experience than Woody Allen's postcard version, you have many choices. Since to me Paris will always be in black and white and set in the sixties, a good place to start would be with the French New Wave directors. Breathless, by Godard and the wonderful The 400 Blows by Truffaut are two classic films from that remarkably fruitful period. If you're looking for a more contemporary take on the city, by all means see the 2006 film Paris Je t'aime, an anthology of 18 five minute films each by a different director and each set in a different arrondisssement around town.

There may be other cities I prefer, still I can't help but think what a poorer place our world would be without Paris. In a famous scene from an old movie, Rick Blaine says to his beloved Ilsa as she is about to board a plane with her husband, leaving him and Casablanca behind for good:

"We'll always have Paris."

Thank God for that.

Another conspiracy theory put to rest...

Here's a misleading article that appears in today's Huffington Post titled Creeps and Weirdos: The Auto Industry Agenda for Keeping You on Four Wheels

The article was picked up by Nation of Change, a left leaning political organization who has without my permission added me to their mailing list. In other words they're spamming me. Anyway, the article starts out by mentioning a guy in LA who doesn't himself drive but parks his bike in his rented parking space. His building's management wrote and told him the spot's for cars only and to cease and desist with parking the bike in said space. To me that seems a trifle silly, but there probably exists a reasonable, amicable solution for both parties, not something worth basing an article on in a national publication.

Then the article brings up two print ads for GM that appeared in college papers at one time or other. One ad consists of a photograph of a bus whose destination sign reads "Creeps and Weirdos" with an inset reading "Luckily there's an alternative" and goes on to describe reasonable rates for purchasing a Chevy Cavalier. The other ad features a photograph of a guy on a bike shielding his face from an attractive woman in a car. The ad implies the sly smile on her face means she's smirking at him for riding a bike and not driving. The copy reads: "Reality Sucks, luckily the GM College Discount Doesn't", then adds details about buying a car and a pickup for low rates.

The Huff Post article excoriates GM for trying to use "shame" to manipulate consumers away from using means of transportation other than the automobile. It goes on to list all the obvious reasons why we should shun our cars in favor of those very alternative means such as bikes and public transportation.

Fair enough, I've been saying exactly the same things about alternative transportation on this blog for nearly three years. What the Huff Post article does not mention is that both ads, the bus one which appeared in Vancouver six years ago, and the bike one which appeared more recently in a few college rags in the US, were both roundly criticized by readers and the plug was pulled on both of them almost as soon as they first appeared.

Now I'm as much of an advocate of riding bikes and taking public transportation as the next guy, but frankly I don't take these ads at all seriously, nor am I offended by them in the least. To me they're just cheeky ads that are trying their best to get folks' attention and get them to buy their product. That's what advertising is all about.

After all, all's fair in love, war and advertising, and if people are dumb enough to let an ad convince them that they should get off their bikes and into a car, well shame on them.

All I can say is let the buyer beware and let's lighten up for gosh sake.