Saturday, March 31, 2012

On good guys and bad guys

This is very difficult for me to write as it involves the death of a child. Having two children of my own, there is no subject closer to my heart. In a perfect world, no child would ever die before his or her parents.

Let me say at the outset that the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Florida last month was an unspeakable tragedy. I grieve along with Trayvon's parents who have been dealt the cruelest blow any person can experience.

Trayvon, in case you don't know, was shot and killed while walking through a gated community in Sanford, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. The man who unquestionably shot him is George Zimmerman, 28, a resident of the community and a volunteer neighborhood watch patroller. There are conflicting reports but this much is undisputed: Zimmerman felt that Trayvon, whom he did not know, was behaving suspiciously. Zimmerman followed the teenager, there was an encounter, and Zimmerman shot the boy who was unarmed.

The police interrogated Zimmerman but did not hold him as they felt there was not enough evidence that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense as defined by Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.

The reaction to the tragedy has been viral in the month since it happened. There has been severe criticism of the Sanford Police for not arresting Zimmerman, as well as the Florida Law which seems to have introduced an open season on human beings. Specifically, the feeling is there is a double standard in our judicial system regarding both the protection, and the prosecution of minorities. In this case, Martin, who was African American, was a young man unfairly targeted (because of his race) and murdered by Zimmerman. For his part Zimmerman, who is also a member of a minority, was allowed to go free, literally getting away with murder.

I feel that much of the reaction to Trayvon's killing has been justified. It brings to light many of the problems that unfortunately still exist in our society, namely violence, racism, injustice, and the disenfranchisement of certain segments of society. Moreover, the almost universal sorrow, anger and frustration over the tragedy shows me that our society hasn't completely given up on the ideals of fairness and compassion for all. It has even brought together if only briefly, such disparate figures as Barack Obama and Rick Santorum.

Yet a great deal of the public's reaction deeply troubles me.

When I originally sat down to write this post a week ago, I wrote this:

From all the media accounts I've read to date, I have come to the opinion that the the actions of George Zimmerman, were reckless, foolish and perhaps criminal. I find it puzzling that the police did not at the very least take him into custody, instead taking his word at face value that he acted in self defense. 

The problem lies in the first few words of that statement. All I had to go on, all anyone in the public has to go on, are media accounts. The court of public opinion is condemning Zimmerman based on the stuff they see on TV, read in the papers or social media, and hearsay. Furthermore, as more accounts of the tragedy have surfaced, a more nuanced picture of the story has developed. Unconfirmed witness reports of Trayvon before the shooting, on top of Zimmerman and beating him, do not jibe with the original reports that Trayvon was simply an innocent bystander. Reports, also disputed, of Zimmerman's broken nose and bruises on the back of his head when he was at the police station, and still others that some of the police sought to arrest Zimmerman the night of the killing, shed new light on the actions on the department.

None of that takes away the fact that Zimmerman was armed and Martin was not. Or that Zimmerman seems to have gone well above and beyond the scope of his duties, especially in ignoring a 911 operator's admonition to not follow Trayvon. Right now, knowing what I know, I still can't come up with a scenario where I feel the shooting could have been justified.

More importantly however, regardless of my opinion, it's not my job to be the judge and jury of George Zimmerman. Imperfect as it is, that's the job of our justice system. As we speak, that's exactly what it is doing in Florida, gathering evidence which will be presented before a grand jury who will decide if there is enough for an indictment of Zimmerman. If he is indicted, he will have his day in court and held accountable for his actions before a jury of his peers who will decide his fate.

That is not enough for some protesters, including Trayvon's parents who in the name of justice for their son, demand the immediate arrest and conviction of Zimmerman. The Black Panther Party has offered a $10,000 bounty for the "citizen's arrest of George Zimmerman." Tweets posting Zimmerman's (incorrect) address, were forwarded on Twitter by the film director Spike Lee, causing great peril to the people living at the address. Meanwhile Zimmerman and his family are hiding for their lives.

Politically incorrect as it may sound, these actions come mighty close to lynch mob mentality. They undermine any meaningful discourse on the subject.

Trayvon's story on the surface is very compelling, filled with right and wrong, good guys and bad guys. It could have come off the pen of Harper Lee or any number of authors who have dealt with the tragic story of race in this country. Small wonder why so many public figures have come out and taken a stand against the perceived injustice of it all. Yet the reality is not as simple as we might have hoped. The grim truth is that Trayvon's murder is not simply a case of a paranoid vigilante, profiling and murdering an innocent victim, and a racist police force turning a blind eye on the death of a minority child, but a tragic result of decades of stupid, senseless violence in our society. We can blame all sorts of causes for the violence; guns, poverty, racism, violent movies, video games and TV, the lack of respect for human life and dignity, the breakdown of the family, heck maybe even the people who commit the crimes themselves. Innocent people are murdered every day in this city and around the country at an alarming rate. As I write this, the news of yet another shooting (one killed, five injured) in Chicago is just coming across the radio. Yet where is the righteous indignation over all those victims and their families?

Justice for Trayvon Martin will not come with George Zimmerman's arrest or possible conviction. Justice will come only when we as a society, all of us, learn to love, care and respect one another, and by God, figure out how to stop all the killing.

Then and only then will Trayvon's death, and all the rhetoric that surrounds it, have any meaning.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Where's Richard Nickel when we need him?

If you love architecture, cities, and above all, terra cotta, these images from Robert Powers' Chicago Sojourn blog are heartbreaking. They're from what remained of a building on the South Side that collapsed earlier this year. I wrote about the building in a previous post.

Were Richard Nickel alive, he'd probably be out there risking life and limb to save pieces of that ornament now residing in a landfill.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Ornithology: Bald Eagles in Chicago

Who woulda thunk it, our national symbol, the most treasured and once endangered species of bird nesting right here in Chicago? A pair of birds of the species Haliaeetus leucocephalus have been causing a bit of a stir as their presence has forced the mayor to scuttle plans to build a police shooting range along the banks of the Calumet River on the city's far southeast side. Rahm Emanuel in an uncharacteristic display of effusiveness, said that the birds' presence in the city is not an inconvenience, but a cause to celebrate.

It makes one wonder what other animal would create such a fuss. The tenuous survival of the Spotted Owl caused the controversial disruption of the logging industry in parts of the Pacific Northwest. Of course there the survival of an entire species was at stake, here in the case of these majestic raptors who are no longer endangered, it's more an issue of bragging rights. Would the city have changed its plans if say a pair of beavers set up their home downstream from the shooting range? Of course not.

Still I agree with the mayor, it is a cause to celebrate the fact that a species of animal (whether it be our national symbol or not), that once was in a very precarious state, can now be found raising its family within the limits of our fair city.

For its part, the bald eagle is a very opportunistic bird. Contrary to their noble image, they are scavengers, a large part of their diet is in fact road kill. They are also not above committing grand larceny. My friend Jack Jaffe once told me about an experience he had while fly fishing in Montana. He saw an osprey dive head first into the stream and come up with a prized trout. As the bird gained altitude it was harassed by a much larger bald eagle. Flying for its life the osprey dropped the fish in mid-air. The eagle then swooped down and caught its pilfered dinner before it hit the water, suggesting there is perhaps more to the eagle as our national symbol than meets the eye.

Incidentally, in Australia the national symbol of course is the kangaroo. It is, so they say, second only to the Statue of Liberty as most recognizable national symbol in the world. There however they eat their national symbol and shoot them when they are deemed pests by ranchers. Who knows what we would do to our national symbol if it were as plentiful as the lowly pigeon. Or what if, as Benjamin Franklin suggested, the wild turkey (given the eagle's less than stellar reputation) had become our national bird. Would we be feasting on bald eagle every Thanksgiving?

A few years ago while waiting with my son for a train to arrive in our neighborhood, I spotted a bird soaring high above at what I guessed to be at least 500 ft. It held its wings board stiff and at that altitude, being able to see it at all meant it was clearly a very large bird. My son didn't believe my initial assessment that it was an eagle. Neither did a few of my friends who knew something about birds. But today I'm starting to think I may have been right.

Mama (right) and Papa Eagle, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
Eagle Jr.
I can't describe my feelings when I made my first confirmed sighting of bald eagles in the wild down at Starved Rock a few years ago. The pair of adults and their much larger juvenile offspring were unmistakable as they flew to and from their perches across the wide Illinois River. You can see the adults in the less than National Geographic quality photo above. Their baby is in the photo on the left. Seeing them in person thrilled me beyond words.

As for these Chicago birds and their new family, well it's a good news, bad news proposition. Wild animals settling in urban areas are usually signs of their diminishing natural habitat. Credit that to unbridled suburban sprawl. In order to survive they have to adapt and learn to live with humans. As you can imagine, bald eagles are well suited for that. All I can say to these new urban dwellers is this:

Welcome to Chicago. Survive and prosper.

Eclectic Melbourne

Elizabeth Street between Collins and Little Collins Streets, Melbourne
Going through the volumes of pictures I shot in Melbourne last week, I pieced together this composite of my favorite block in the Central Business District. Here you can see how diverse styles from Second Empire and Italianate to Modern and Moderne happily coexist together, a common thread in this part of town. The dark building at the center of the photograph is one of the entrances to the Block Arcade, one of many such passageways for which the city is famous. This elegant arcade contrasts with shall I say the slightly more downscale businesses on the street, a theme which is repeated throughout the CBD west of Swanston Street, creating a fascinating urban fabric.

I plan on boring you with more pictures from my trip for the next few weeks.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The future of Navy Pier

Blair Kamin today writes about the selection of the firm chosen to make plans for the revitalization of Navy Pier, Chicago's number one tourist attraction. It would appear from the drawings submitted by a team led by landscape architect James Corner, that there are no earth shattering plans to alter the Pier, just subtly improving what's already there. In other words, keep the good, throw out the bad, something I suggested almost exactly one year ago.

The authority that controls the Pier is not obligated to go with any particular design but the selection of this team is a sign that they are on the right track.

Corner and his team are responsible for the design of New York's High Line, the successful park built from the converted remains of elevated railway rights of way in Lower Manhattan. Coincidentally, plans were just unveiled for a similar venture on Chicago's West Side called for now at least, the Bloomingdale Trail. I know this stretch of rail lines well as I grew up less than a block from it in Humboldt Park.

More good news indeed.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Our man Down Under

MELBOURNE - I always thought it would be cool to start off a post with a far off byline, and now I am. The magic of technology not only makes this blog possible but also enables me to contribute posts from halfway around the world. You'll have to pardon my childlike enthusiasm for a bit as this is my first endeavor at making the web, world wide.

Of all the places in the world I've longed to visit, I must admit that Australia was never high on my list. Not that I haven't been charmed by the carefree nature of the Aussie personality, it's just that the culture never seemed exotic enough to warrant traveling half way around the globe. In other words, not enough bang for the buck. However, given the chance to come here on someone else's dime (quite a few of them actually), I jumped at the chance.

Turns out, things are pretty exotic here after all. For starters, they drive on the left side of the road. Yes they do that in London too but at least there they have the decency to warn pedestrians at every crossing to look to the right. Here even pedestrians walk on the left side, that's how you can easily distinguish them from the out-of-towners. As everyone knows, water drains in the opposite direction, I checked, it goes down clockwise. Now I'll have to check which way it drains back home to prove it. Below the equator you see different stars but I couldn't prove that as much to my chagrin it's been cloudy every night. I have seen birds that I could never see back home, species such as the Welcome Swallow and the magpie-lark. Haven't seen a kookaburra yet but hope to.* They do speak English here but I can't quite make out all the localisms, especially when they're talking about their biggest pastime, footy.

Apart from all that, it's not hard to feel at home in a city that was voted one of the most livable on the planet. I don't have a hard time understanding why this is so, there is an ease about the way this city goes about its business that I find lacking in other comparable cities. Melbourne is a British Colonial city, that much is evident in its great variety of Victorian era architecture. Yet as time went on, and architectural styles came and went, Melbourne freely adopted them without any self-consciousness or apology. Here you find great examples of Art-Nouveau, Chicago Commercial Style, Art-Deco, the International Style, as well as a wide range of contemporary buildings with no discernible style at all. Having to come up with a term, the best I can think of would be whacked out. All these buildings happily exist together, complementing rather than competing with one another.

One of the most distinctive features of Melbourne's Central Business District is its system of arcades which provide short cuts between the major streets as well as great spaces for shopping or eating. Some of the arcades date from the Victorian era and are as refined and elegant as you would expect. Others are rough hewn, graffiti filled alleys that have been converted to retail thoroughfares. The amazing thing is that these two very different spaces interact with each other, connecting seamlessly. This combining of the tawny and the tawdry is the theme of Melbourne's CBD and it works brilliantly, I've never seen anything quite like it.

The best example of this mixture sits, a few meters from where I am sitting right now, in the very heart of the city where Melbourne's main street, Swanston Street, meets the Yarra River. Here you'll find on one corner Melbourne's most famous building, the High Victorian Flinders Street Station, on another the beautiful Anglican St. Paul's Cathedral, on another, where I am right now, a seedy patch of souvenir shops and internet cafes, and lastly, Melbourne's new public square, Federation Plaza, barely ten years old. I was here on a late Sunday afternoon, when I heard the sound of hucksters in front of the cheap shops competing with the sounds of street performers in Fed Square, which were all but drowned out by the clanging of the bells of the cathedral.

My most memorable out of many experiences in this remarkable city.

I have so much more to tell you but that will have to wait as I go explore.


*Since writing this I did indeed see the Southern Cross for the first time (as it's not visible from the northern hemisphere), a kookaburra, and got to do that most Australian of activities, commune with wallabies and kangaroos.