Monday, July 30, 2012

Noble bird

A clever ad campaign is currently being waged on an L car near you. Like many ads these days, if you're not paying close attention, you may get sucked into it without realizing what it's trying to sell you. Because I've enjoyed reading these ads during some idle time on the train, I'll put in a plug for the product they're selling, Amstel Light beer. The name of the campaign is "Savor Complexity" and the ads feature stories containing fascinating facts about common, heretofore under-appreciated stuff such as the stop light, burgers, dartboards and ping pong. I guess the comparison they're trying to make between these random objects and their beer is this: Amstel Light may taste like water, but that water has a very interesting (and complex) story.

Anyway the story that really caught my attention and inspired this post, is Amstel Light's tribute to the pigeon.

As an on again, off again birder, I understand the joy at seeing a species of bird for the first time, adding one more check to my "life list." However to most birders, a bird that one day is a splendid discovery, will become tiresome if you see it often enough. I remember going on a Audubon Society sponsored bird walk around a lovely nature preserve near our home. Some novice birders were thrilled at their first sighting of a beautiful black bird with red bands on its wings. The leader sighed, shook his head and said a little mockingly: "Man, that's just a Red Winged Blackbird." You can imagine then where the city pigeon fits on the hierarchy of your average birder. Of course, that's not the birds' fault, or problem.

Pigeons come from the same family as doves: Columbidae. Most people think of doves as lovely things to behold, the white one is known all over the world as a symbol of peace and love. Pigeons don't get that kind of respect. You may ask then, what's the difference between a pigeon and a dove. Well nothing actually, the two names are interchangeable, there is no scientific distinction between birds that are called pigeons and birds that are called doves. In fact, the official common name for your typical city pigeon is Rock Dove. Its scientific classification is Columba livia.

Many people however classify pigeons as flying rats, or Fugiens mures if you prefer. Here is a web site devoted to the cause of pigeon haters. This would be their anthem.

Whether you call them pigeons, rock doves, or winged rats, the birds do have some traits people find offensive. They're slobs for starters, roosting communally on poop strewn ledges, their nests are loosely thrown together collections of anything they can find, not the tightly woven architectural wonders that many other birds build. They don't seem to mind sharing their living quarters with the corpses of their fallen comrades either. 

It's true that pigeons share some traits with rats. Their populations are intrinsically tied to those of human beings, and both are indelibly associated with the city. Rats and pigeons have been domesticated for thousands of years and as such, they have contributed much to our own species. In the wild however, people consider pigeons and rats to be pests. Both Columba livia and Rattus norvegicus are resilient, opportunistic species perfectly willing to adapt and as a result are tenacious survivors. 

Here the comparison ends.

Pigeons came to be city dwellers because people brought them here, as pets or working animals. The pigeon population that exists in virtually every city on the planet, consists of descendants of these domesticated birds that either were released by, or escaped from their owners. You can tell city pigeons are feral animals because of the variation of plumage, a result of selective breeding. The pigeon pictured above for example, is a variant of the familiar bird found in nature whose body is made up of mostly light gray feathers with dark stripes on the wings. The plumage of the bird in the picture would not occur in nature without a little outside help.

Rats were brought to cities by humans too, but they came mostly as stowaways.

Pigeons mate for life reproducing prolifically, a pair of breeding birds can potentially produce up to eight offspring a year but...

The reproduction of rats is astronomical. According to Rats: Obeservations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, an excellent book by Robert Sullivan, male and female rats might have sex twenty times a day and ...a dominant male may mate with up to twenty female rats in just six hours." Given the right circumstances, one pair of rats "has the potential of 15,000 descendants in a year."

Unlike their rodent cousins the squirrels, rats will not reduce their birth rate as a means to control their population, rather they will continue to reproduce at a furious rate up to the point where the food supply has been exhausted, then will resort to murder and cannibalism to bring the population down, ensuring the survival of the colony.

Pigeons are strictly diurnal, meaning they are active during the day.

Rats are nocturnal; seeing at rat during the day means that the area is overrun with them. Daytime rats are forced to forage in the light much to their own risk, because the food supply can't support the number of rats in a colony. When that occurs, weaker rats cannot compete with stronger members of the colony feeding at night.

The damage that pigeons cause to human beings is negligible, most of the diseases the birds transmit are not serious and are passed on only through close, very close contact with their droppings. Here's the lowdown from the New York City Department of Health.  

Rats as everyone knows are carriers of deadly disease. Again, quoting from Sullivan, rats...
carry diseases that we know of and they may carry diseases that we do not know of-in just the past century, rats have been responsible for the death of more than ten million people...
That number is small compared to the days of the Black Death in Middle Ages where the disease caused by the Yersenia pestus bacterium transmitted by fleas who hitched rides aboard the backs of rats, took perhaps 100 million human lives, over one third of the populaetion of Europe, over the course of two years. If that were not enough:
Rats generally wreak havoc on food supplies, destroying or contaminating crops and stored foods everywhere, Some estimates suggest that as much as one third of the world's food supply is destroyed by rats. 
The biggest difference I suppose is our feelings about the two animals. Rats are without a doubt, the most universally despised animals on earth. We may call them rats with wings but let's face it, the best word to describe the emotion most of us have toward pigeons is, indifference.

That's where Amstel Light comes in.
I defy you to feel indifferent about pigeons after reading this ad copy:
It was a particularly gruesome battle in WW I when hundreds of US Soldiers were trapped behind enemy lines. But one soldier refused to surrender, he escaped, fleeing through a barrage of bullets. He was shot through the chest. He was blinded in one eye. But he made it back to base 25 miles south. He alerted Division headquarters, and helped save the lives of 194 men that day. His name is Cher Ami of the 99th Infantry division, and he was more than just a soldier, he was a pigeon. So the next time you think pigeons are simple creatures, only good for defecating on the statues of American heroes, REMEMBER: Some pigeons ARE American heros.
The ad goes on to point out that 32 pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal for Animal Bravery. In case you're wondering, only 26 dogs received the same honor, as well as 3 horses and, believe it or not, one cat. The cat's name incidentally was Simon, a ship's cat who despite several injuries to himself, managed to rid his ship of numerous rats, (and bring this post full circle). Here's Simon's story.

Cher Ami predated the Dickin Medal but he too was honored with several medals for his bravery. I don't know what he did with them. Upon his death he was stuffed and you can visit him, what's left of him that is, at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.

I'm not sure if reading Amstel Light's tribute will change the minds of the virulent pigeon haters. They continue to plot and scheme of ways to rid the city of the winged rat. My favorite plan is introducing Peregrine Falcons into cities all over the world. Like pigeons, the native habitat of falcons are regions with steep cliffs where they roost, which are very similar to the tall buildings in a modern city. It's a win win proposition, the city turns out to be the perfect habitat for these magnificent birds who were nearly at the brink of extinction not very long ago. And their favorite food is, you guessed it, pigeon. One would think pigeons would be no match for the fastest animal on the face of the planet. But that would be a mistake, for while falcons can dive at nearly 150 mph, pigeons are strong fliers too, a healthy adult can hold its own with the predator in level flight. Pigeons, having lived with falcons for millennia, have other ways to evade the raptors as you can see in this amazing video:

Pigeon lovers, and there are a few of them out there, needn't worry, the survival of this bird is not in jeopardy. There will never be enough falcons around to effectively control the pigeon population.

How then do we control out of control pigeon populations without doing damage to other animals or ourselves? Well the answer if not the implementation is fairly simple. Just as with rats, limit their food supply by covering up our garbage, and by not feeding them.

The problem its seems is not with the animals; as usual, to quote Charlton Heston: "it's people."

We humans have a strange relationship with animals. The animals we value most are the ones we create, namely our pets. In the wild we value vulnerable animals, especially if they're cute or pretty. It makes us feel good to rescue these not very successful (in the Darwinian sense) species from extinction. It's the successful species, the ones that will survive with or without us, that we're not so crazy about.

Pigeons have been faithful companions of ours for thousands of years. As you just read, they have served us very well without asking much in return. Only recently have we forsaken them, and left to their own devices, they have done pretty well for themselves. As such they are the quintessential urban dwellers.

In a way, they are like us.

That's probably why we dislike them.

I hope this display of pigeon prowess opens your eyes if just a little to one of God's great creations. Like all animals, they are truly amazing, even if their habits are a trifle disgusting. In all honesty, so are ours. In that vein, I'd like to suggest we do something in appreciation for our urban companions.

Maybe we could all take a pigeon out to lunch.

Just make sure he buys.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Down on the farm, part two

A few days ago I wrote that the idea of the farmer as the last bastion of traditional American values such as iindividualism, freedom, and independence is a myth. I said most farmers are beholden to the vagaries of the market, government subsidies and big agribusiness. And who could blame them, even with the help of those outside forces, farming is a rough business; farmers just want to make a buck like the rest of us. On the other hand, there are farmers out there who buck the trend and do in fact live up to those traditional American values, even though they themselves are anything but traditional.

It just so happens that I'm acquainted with one of them, his name is Ken Dunn. One of the nontraditional things about Ken is he's a farmer who lives and works in the middle of a big city, right here in Chicago. Like most people in the profession, Ken grew up on a farm. It was there he discovered the problems of standard farming practices and the spiraling cycle of chemical dependence it created.

After college and a stint in the Peace Corps in Brazil, Ken landed in Chicago in the mid sixties to pursue his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago. It was in this city with all its vacant lots and untapped human potential going to waste on the streets where he had his "aha" moment. His first employees were two derelicts in the neighborhood who everyday would buy a bottle of hooch, drink it on the street then toss the empty in the vacant lot next door to the liquor store. He approached them and asked if they'd be willing to help him collect all the trash in the lot. He'd then sell the haul to a recycler and split the profits with the two. Thus began his life's work promoting sustainability in all its various ramifications, including, you guessed it, turning vacant city lots into vegetable farms, some of whom sell their produce to a handful of the city's most distinguished restaurants. Others provide fruit and vegetables to residents of neighborhoods in the midst of Chicago's highly publicized food deserts.

Ken's organization known simply as Resource Center, has been devoted to in their words: "the economic and educational revitalization of city neighborhoods through recycling, urban gardening, composting, and other programs that reclaim and reuse resources."

Here is a link to their web site.

Ken's the total package, a man who lives and breathes his work every hour of every day. Visiting his two story Hyde Park graystone, I learned that for a fact a few years ago when he told me that in the winter, he's typically up once or twice a night stoking his wood burning stove, fed by recycled oak from old shipping pallets.

From a Chicago Magazine article written by David Zivan in 2004, here in part is Ken Dunn's fascinating story. Its title couldn't be more appropriate: "Somebody Give This Guy a Genius Grant."

I have no doubt that someday, somebody will.

Monday, July 23, 2012

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?

An interesting post with follow up comments in the blog Front Porch Republic talks about the latest official campaign photo of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It's an image of Romney posing in front of a barn prominently adorned with Old Glory. His hair is mussed up, just enough that is, and he's wearing a simple work jacket and blue jeans as if he actually worked on that farm. In the background there's a tractor and a log cabin. The only thing missing from the picture is a pitchfork. The caption reads: “This is a moment that demands we return to our basic values and core principles.” The message is clear; this candidate supports the traditional values of a country rooted in hard work, pulling oneself up from the bootstraps, and a strong sense of independence closely tied to the land.

Romney's portrayal in the photograph of course is, pardon the expression, bullshit. Mitt Romney is no more a farmer than I am. And while he's been very successful at making money on top of the significant amount he inherited, he's about as much of a self made man as he is a farmer.

So what's up with Farmer Mitt?

The idea that traditional American values are to be found in rural rather than urban America goes back to Thomas Jefferson and beyond. But even two centuries ago, the agrarian culture served better as an ideal than an actual way of life. A commenter to the article noted the following quote published in a journal called Southern Cultivator:
Unfortunately for agriculture, its loudest and most conspicuous admirers are constantly lavishing upon it expressions of respect, while, at the same time, they disdain the idea of proving their sincerity by any act whatever. They admire the profession but advise their sons to pursue another.
That was written in 1846 when farmers constituted nearly 70 percent of the American work force. Today they constitute less than 3 percent. The sentiments expressed in that quote should not be at all surprising, farming has always been a difficult way to earn a living. The work is back breaking, the hours are terrible, requiring constant vigilance, and you are at the complete mercy of nature that can wipe out a life's work in a matter of seconds. There are certainly rewards as in any profession, but the numbers speak for themselves.

When you think about it, the romantic image of the American farmer is almost as absurd as Mitt Romney dressed as one. The popular notion of the farmer as the last bastion of American values such as individualism, freedom and independence is a falsehood. For obvious reasons, the agricultural industry is one of the highest subsidized industries in the United States. At one time farmers depended only on nature and their own resourcefulness. Today with market forces and technological innovations changing the business at an astounding rate, American farmers are increasingly beholden to government, the marketplace, and the companies who provide their raw materials. A widely reported example of the latter is the case of the multi-national chemical corporation (you know its name) who provides farmers with seeds genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide it also sells. This company with the help of the best legal advice that money can buy, has in an unprescedented move successfully copyrighted its seed. This means that farmers who cultivate crops using those seeds, can no longer cull seeds from existing plants as farmers have done for millennia. Now they must purchase new seeds every year at planting time. You might say that farmers have the choice to plant seeds purchased from other companies, but the aforementioned corporation with all their legal might, has successfully gone after farmers who culled seeds unknowingly from volunteer plants from the genetically modified seeds that found their way into their fields. Since crops grown from these seeds are found nearly everywhere, the corporation has a virtual stranglehold on the nation's farmers.

The reality of agrarian life is miles from the myth, but we all seem to buy into that myth. That Romney photograph is a compelling image even to a city boy like me. One of the most memorable books read to me as a small child was the familiar story: City Mouse and Country Mouse, the tale of two rodent cousins who visited each others' quite different homes. City Mouse was proud and arrogant while his rural cousin was down to earth and practical. Country Mouse was able to show his cousin the pitfalls and superficiality of the city and eventually won him over to his side. This tale of the different personalities of urban vs. rural folk is as old as Aesop's Fables, and children have been told the story in one form or other for over 2,500 years. The stereotypes have probably been around even longer. A more contemporary version, again something very familiar from my own childhood was the Andy Griffith Show, the story of a small town sheriff and his town. The story line of the sit-com often involved a city slicker passing through the backwater town of Mayberry, NC. Like City Mouse, the visitor would look down on all the bumpkins of the small town, while our hero Andy would disarm him, putting him in his place with sly wit and small town wisdom. The visitor would always leave town a new man.

That character of Sheriff Andy Taylor might be what Mitt Romney is modeling himself upon in his latest incarnation. As the small town, self-effacing sheriff filled to the brim with good old fashioned common sense, he's telling us that he has a better idea than all those city slicker "Washington insiders" currently sitting in the White House. Never mind that Romney is as city slick as any of them.

Maybe Romney is playing the rural card because his opponent, President Obama, is unequivocally associated with a big city: Chicago. This big city carries with it a lot of baggage all over the country. My guess is that during the upcoming election, we'll be hearing a lot about the president's grandmother from Kansas, as well as every time in his life Romney got his fingernails dirty, which I'm guessing was not very often.

One thing is certain, regardless of who wins in November, we won't be hearing much about rural America from either of the two candidates after the election. They'll be scrambling away from there as fast as their feet can carry them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Can't get too worked up about this...

Blair Kamin recently wrote this article about Alderman Brendan Reilly's proposal of an ordinance that would allow the construction of flashing billboards on Michigan Avenue, north of the river. The argument against the proposal is that the introduction of the signs would erode the elegance of the street which continues to be known as "The Magnificent Mile", turning Chicago's premier shopping venue into another Times Square. In the comments section, readers expressed fears that the light emanating from the signs would do everything from cause cancer, to prevent us from seeing the stars in the heart of the city.

Now I haven't read articles in medical journals about the cause/effect relationship between artificial lights and cancer, but it does seem that long term exposure to anything causes cancer, so I wouldn't lose too much sleep about that. As an avid star gazer however, I can definitively say that Michigan Avenue even without the proposed signs, is one of the worst places on earth to view the Big Dipper, let alone the Milky Way or the Andromeda Galaxy. Let's face it, you simply don't go to the heart of a big city to look at stars.

So how would the signs effect the atmosphere of North Michigan Avenue? Well in my humble opinion, not much. The platitudes describing Michigan Avenue: civilized, elegant, and beautiful, once applied to the street both inside and out, but have not for at least forty years. Michigan Avenue did not experience the wanton destruction of great masterpieces of architecture as did State Street. The transformation of the Mag Mile which began arguably with the construction of the John Hancock Building in 1969, brought with it financial success, but came at the price of losing its soul. The physical attribute that once defined Michigan Avenue was its scale which in comparison to its cousin the Loop to the south, was quite modest. The underlying current was that despite being a high rent district, the owners of the properties along Boul Mich did not need to build tall to maximize their profits, they were content to keep the street low key and yes to some extent, elite.

That's not to say there were no tall buildings on the Mag Mile. In order to enter from the south you had to pass as you still do, between the gateway of two of Chicago's premier skyscrapers, the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. Once there, the landscape was punctuated by modestly tall skyscrapers mixed with two and three story buildings. The view to the north terminated at the Water Tower and the Art Deco masterpiece Palmolive Building with its distinctive searchlight, "The Lindy Beacon." The view south was equally stunning as the aforementioned Trib and Wrigley Buildings were the prominent features of the skyline, before they were overshadowed by taller, less significant buildings.

The interiors of bygone Michigan Avenue were more impressive than the exteriors. The greatest of these was Diana Court, the centerpiece of the Michigan Square Building designed by Holabird and Root, the firm who also built the Palmolive Building. David Lowe who wrote the seminal book about lost Chicago titled appropriately enough: Lost Chicago, compared the experience of Diana Court to the great Art Deco ocean liners of the 20s and 30s, specifically the SS Normandie and the SS Ile de France. Diana Court was lost along with the building that housed it to make way for the hideous Marriott Hotel, a building so awful, it was denounced even by its architect, Harry Weese.

Michigan Avenue was always a shopping street but it was once so much more. There were crosscurrents of life that went on there, a mix between the dignified and the bohemian; fancy stores with New York pedigrees like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller coexisted with art studios and galleries whose clientele were not necessarily tourists, nor members of the Fortune 500.

Another word that could have been applied to Michigan Avenue BJH (before John Hancock) is charm.

900 North Michigan Avenue is the name and address of the soaring Kohn Pedersen Fox building that now houses the Four Seasons Hotel, luxury apartments and a shopping mall anchored by Bloomingdale's. The building it replaced, also known by that address, was a twenties era apartment building which epitomized the elegance and charm that once was North Michigan Avenue. That building featured a restaurant that opened in the 1930s with the highly original name of Jacques French Restaurant. While it may not have been particularly authentic, or even (to some tastes anyway) very good, Jacques was one of the lovliest settings for an eatery in Chicago or perhaps anyplace else. Here is a link to a site with postcards featuring the joint. As you can see, there were several rooms at Jacques, including the outdoor courtyard garden which eventually was glassed off and open year round. I remember going there for lunch with my mom and my artist uncle who had just immigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a child, dining in the suave, sophisticated, continental restaurant in the courtyard of that beautiful building with undoubtably the coolest person I had ever met up to that point, was an experience I'll never forget. The building is long gone but apparently Jacques remains at 900 Michigan, undoubtably a shadow of its former self, with the exception of the mediocre food of course.

Nowhere was Michigan Avenue's BJH charm more evident than in a little passageway at Michigan and Ontario Street known as The Italian Court. Described by David Lowe as a "civilized little enclave", The Italian Court was carved out of existing "undistinguished" buildings in the early twenties to create a space for small shops and artist studios. It was the location of the restaurant Le Petit Gourmet, a local institution which was famous for its regularly scheduled poetry readings. The care free atmosphere of the Italian Court resembled Paris's Left Bank and could have easily been used as the setting of the second act of the opera La Boheme. This little bit of civilization was replaced by a truly undistinguished office building in 1969, wiping away any last vestiges of la vie boheme in that part of the city.

North Michigan Avenue was a once respite from the hustle and bustle of the Loop. It's openness connected it spiritually if not physically to Lake Michigan which one could actually taste and smell from the street, if the wind was blowing the right direction.

Today with its own hustle and bustle of continuous pedestrian and vehicular traffic, over sized buildings, and over priced shops, Michigan Avenue is all business. It is one of Chicago's premier tourist destinations, and as such, one of the major cogs in this city's economic engine. It is what State Street used to be, unfortunately without any of the quirkiness of that once great street. It could be argued that without the transformation of Michigan Avenue over the past forty odd years, Chicago today might very well suffer many of the doldrums that affect our sister cities in the Midwest. So it's foolish in a way to lament the changes that beset Boul Mich. How can one argue with success after all?

But we shouldn't fool ourselves; the attributes we'd like to apply to Michigan Avenue north of the Wrigley Building disappeared long ago along with the Italian Court, Diana Court and the old 900 Michigan Avenue Building. What we're left with is something that is not very special at all. It's Chicago's version of the Champs Élysées (without the Arc de Triomphe), Fifth Avenue (without Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building or St. Pat's Cathedral), the Kurfürstendamm (without the hookers), and Regent Street (without the beauty).

In the end, for me it hardly matters if they throw up a few bright signs on the old boulevard. Today the street is all about the money, and they may as well make as much of it as they can.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Another landmark gone

The blog Blueprint: Chicago, notes the passing of another bit of Chicago history, the Santa Fe sign that adorned Daniel Burnham's Railway Exchange (later simply known as the Santa Fe) Building at Michigan and Jackson. The sign harkened back to the days when this city was the transportation hub of the nation, to the days when rails ruled supreme.

When I was a kid, there were six major passenger rail terminals in Downtown Chicago. One Sunday back in the sixties with nothing better to do, my father and I visited them all.

The following are links to images of all six:
After decades of losing money, the private railroad companies ceased operating passenger trains in the late 1960s. The responsibility for carrying on long distance passenger train service in the United States fell on the government's shoulders, marking the beginning of Amtrak. Gone were the days of the great luxury trains, Amtrak would become a bare-bones, few frills operation. Along those lines, Amtrak accomplished what the big time planners including Daniel Burnham never could, consolidate all of Chicago's long distance rail operations into one terminal, Union Station. Northwestern and the LaSalle Street Stations continued to serve commuter trains which would remain operated by private companies for several more years. Dearborn, Illinois Central and Grand Central Stations all were put out of service. Dearborn was converted into a mixed use structure as it remains today, while the other two were demolished in early seventies. Old LaSalle Street and Northwestern Stations lasted into the 80s when they both were replaced by modern skyscrapers. Of all the stations listed above, only the headhouse of Union Station with its magnificent waiting room, remains as it was orginally intended.

Here's a view of the interior of LaSalle Street Station in a scene from one of my all time favorite movies, Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest:

It's interesting given how unremarkable this space is after its 1950s era remodeling, that Hitchcock took the trouble to film on location there rather than using the much more beautiful Union Station, or simply shooting the scene in a studio back in Hollywood. I can think of lots of reasons: the cramped, confining space at LaSalle in comparison to the great open space of New York's Grand Central Terminal where the protagonists boarded their train, contributes to the tension between the two characters, Eve Kendall and Roger Thornhill. Just as likely is that Hitchcock, ever the stickler for detail including continuity, filmed there because LaSalle Street Station was the actual Chicago terminus for the storied New York Central 20th Century Limited, one of the greatest of all passenger trains. Earlier in the film you see Cary Grant walking over the red carpet that led Chicago bound passengers to that very special train on the concourse of Grand Central.

As is the case today, back in the golden era of railroads, there was no such thing as a coast to coast passenger train. If you wanted to travel from New York to California, you would have to switch trains in Chicago. You could have booked a ride on the Broadway Limited, Pennsylvania Railroad's  Pullman equipped luxury train from New York to Union Station, then hopped aboard one of any number of California bound trains out of the same station. But the choice of the fancy people, movie stars and the like, was the 20th Century Limited, where you would disembark as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint did at La Salle Street Station around 9AM, spend some quality time in Chicago, (in the movie the time they spent here would be considered anything but quality), then in the evening hop on over to Dearborn Street Station and climb aboard the great Super Chief, the all Pullman luxury liner owned and operated by the Santa Fe, bound for Los Angeles. 

The railroads spared no expense in making the great trains great, their accommodations were comparable to those of ocean liners and luxury hotels. These trains were designed by the most famous industrial designers of the day. In the late thirties, Henry Dreyfus completely reworked the design of the train sets of the 20th Century Limited including decking out New York Central's Hudson steam locomotives in steamlined cladding. Those trains remain quintessential symbols of Art Deco elegance. Raymond Loewy did much the same for the trains of the Pennsylvania RR. Perhaps the most beautiful of all belonged to the Santa Fe. Sterling McDonald was responsible for designing the interior of the Super Chief, employing Native American motifs and colors. The real signature of Santa Fe trains however was the design of the General Motors Diesel EMD E series locomotives, which live on today in countless model railroad sets. The famous Santa Fe red and silver "Warbonnet" paint scheme was the brainchild of GM artist Leland Knickerbocker.

Here's a photograph from the 1940s by Jack Delano of a Chicago bound Super Chief making a scheduled stop in Albuquerque. At this point in the journey, passengers could disembark and purchase souvenirs made by local Native Americans.

Hauling passengers was never the primary source of revenue for the railroads, passenger service's chief benefit to the railroads was public relations and advertising. Unlike the other great routes mentioned above, Santa Fe continued to operate the Super Chief until the very end of private control of passenger rail in this country. So associated was the name Super Chief with its parent company, that Santa Fe sued Amtrak to prevent it from using the moniker for its replacement Chicago to LA route, feeling that the service aboard the government run railway did not live up to the standards it set during its forty odd years of operation.

There of course are still railroads in this country; their main purpose remains, as it always has been, to haul freight. There are far fewer of them than there once were, all of them have merged into giant corporations. Santa Fe merged with Burlington which years before merged with the Northern Pacific Railway. The name of the current company is not surprisingly an alphabet soup: BNSF. Has quite the ring to it doesn't it?

Amtrak still exists today but is constantly on the verge of decimation if not all out elimination. On the other hand, there is a move afoot to bring this country into the 21st Century by introducing high speed rail service on a large scale. Naturally it is a highly controversial plan fraught with much risk. While I was searching for photographs of the old Chicago Grand Central Station, I found this site which features a proposal to rebuild the glorious old station as a high speed rail hub. After all these years, the site is still unoccupied. I haven't had the time to study the plan carefully but it looks intriguing. I've stated in this space before my support of high speed rail and its importance to the future of this country. This proposal looks backwards and forwards at the same time, something I find quite satisfying.

As for the removal of the Santa Fe sign, well business is business and I suppose it makes little sense to advertise a company that no longer exists. Even though I never got to travel aboard the Super Chief, I did manage to see it depart from Dearborn Street Station a few times. I fondly remember those gorgeous red and silver engines that my beloved Lionels were modeled upon, pulling the train that would soon ride into oblivion. Yes is was comforting to see that sign every day and remembering something that was very special. I wonder when years from now, they remove the sign they're about to put up which will advertise Motorola, if folks will wistfully remember the glorious days of the cell phone.

Somehow I doubt it.